by Cameron J. Anderson
From SEEN Journal XV:1 2015, “Landscape” Issue
Who has measured the waters
in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
The earth is a museum of divine intent.
—Bill McKibben, The End of Nature
Old report cards confirm it: I was an unremarkable high school student. Yes, the hastily completed homework and poor study habits contributed to my lackluster performance, but mostly I was distracted by the impulse to organize, to champion the next cause. The first-ever Earth Day was such an occasion. Somehow, our little group of activists managed to persuade school administrators to swap a full day of classes for a “teach-in” focused on environmental concerns. On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, 1,400 students and teachers filled the gymnasium’s bleachers. Our success was surely aided by the fact that Earth Day was established by U. S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, and our school district was located in his state. In the month that followed our school assembly, this line from a Joni Mitchell song aired on Top 40 radio stations across the land, “They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot.” America’s counterculture was in full bloom.
If the ethics of Earth Day prompted my high school activism, the aesthetics of Earthworks intersected my undergraduate studies. For even as we organized our school assembly and as Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” played on, a year earlier, sculptor Michael Heizer had begun his excavation of Mormon Mesa near Overton, Nevada. When completed in 1970, the pair of desert trenches that comprised his Double Negative would measure 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and 1,500 feet long. A few mystically minded viewers likened the work to ancient Peruvian Nazca Line drawings (c. 500 A.D.). But for America’s flower children who were rising up to protect Mother Earth, it might have seemed that Heizer’s diesel-powered modernist machismo was determined to ravage her. Had Heizer imposed his will on the natural order hoping to imbue the seemingly forsaken territory with meaning? Or was the artist’s entrepreneurial endeavor a mere monument to his own agency? Heizer was 25 at the time.
Land art is not solely brute or raw. To the contrary, it often evidences a spiritual cast or tone. Heizer, for instance, readily acknowledged that his desert site was the kind of “peaceful religious space (that) artists have always tried to put in their work.”(1) And land art installations can be enigmatic, even beautiful. Consider Jeffrey Kosky’s account of his pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Kosky describes his traverse across remote terrain to reach the Jetty, noting abandoned domestic and commercial ventures along the way that are now lost to time. He writes, “Though the aura of the ancient saturates this place, Spiral Jetty is not a wreck. It is weirdly beautiful, strangely moving, and rejuvenating.”(2) Since its completion, also in 1970, the water level on the Great Salt Lake has fluctuated considerably: alternately revealing and concealing the 15-foot wide path that extends for many yards into the water where it turns in on itself like a fiddlehead fern. Having walked Jetty to its end, the quiet center, Kosky reports that, “A calm serenity overtook me in my lostness as I sat and focused on the nothing more before me, letting my mind wander over the empty desert with little to hold my attention.” (3)
WORKING THE LAND
My most meaningful connection to the land predates the high school and college experiences already mentioned. From birth to age ten I lived, along with my parents and five younger siblings, on my grandfather’s farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We shared a white clapboard two-story farmhouse that was perched on a slight rise inside the wide bend of County Road 366. Surrounding it were several hundred acres of fields, forests, and wetlands, with no neighboring farm visible to us in any direction.
My grandfather’s place was located some 100 miles south of Lake Superior and, in this northern climate, spring was a dramatic point of beginning. As the weather warmed, rivulets of water began to flow down the wooded hillsides and beneath the ice that still crusted the fields below. Stands of sugar maples released their sap. The songs of redwinged black birds returned. And the pungent smell of freshly spread manure filled the air.
When the farm’s higher fields were dry enough for cultivation, a first but unwelcome harvest began. That is, the men walked the many acres of arable land to pick the stones and boulders that had been thrust to the surface by the hard winter frost. They heaved these rocks onto a flatbed wagon or coerced the larger ones onto a stone bolt and heaved them again onto rock piles that bordered the field. Then a sequence of planting, cultivation, and harvest commenced: hay, cut and baled; oats, combined and brought into the granary; more hay; then wheat; and last, acres of corn. Deep into autumn, some fields were disked over or plowed under while others were left fallow. A first dusting of snow followed and, inevitably, arctic wind drove in a blizzard that blanketed our world in deep white silence.
On farms of every sort the term “dirt” is invoked again and again. While this word can bear many meanings—mud, grime, dust, grease, or mire—in agrarian settings it mostly refers to soil. Scientists report that “There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water.”(4) Although this admixture of sand, clay, biomass, seeds, larva, and detritus does not contain the breath of life, it surely holds life’s stuff. The land and the broad “scapes” that contain it are alive. Theophilus of Antioch, an early Greek Father of the Church, declares:
God has given to the earth the breath which
feeds it. It is his breath that gives life to
all things. And if he were to withhold his
breath, everything would be annihilated. His
breath vibrates in yours, in your voice. It is
the breath of God that you breathe—and
you are unaware of it.(5)
How prescient then the theological narrative of Genesis where we learn that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (2:7)—and here many note the similarity between the Hebrew words adam (man) and adamah (ground).
FLEEING THE LAND
If the land sustains us, then why are we fleeing from it and at such an alarming rate? The primary reason for this mass migration is economic betterment and access to growing services and technologies. In this regard we are witnessing something weightier than the mere exchange of Carhartt jeans and jackets for apparel from the Gap or Banana Republic. This exodus from the “natural world” to the “built world” places the families, tribes, and nations who inhabit our globe on the horns of an unwitting dilemma. On one hand, it may be a considerable relief to no longer seek sustenance by laboring as famers, hunters, ranchers, miners, or loggers— work that taxes the body and even breaks the will. Those who live on and from the land do enjoy its bounty, but almost without exception they also know its hardship and deprivation. That is, the reality of “thorns and thistles” and the “sweat of one’s face” is ever-present, and delayed gratification— the patient waiting that is so mismatched to contemporary life—is an implied reality.(6) On the other hand, living amid the natural world quickens the imagination and feeds the soul. The mass relocation of primarily rural folk to teeming urban centers signals the exchange of inky dark nights, with stars and planets strewn from horizon to horizon, to dwelling in cities that never sleep. This change is deeper than fashion: it represents the abandonment of older ways of being, local customs, and even sacred rhythms that are inextricably bound to and enfolded by the landscape.
It turns out that acre by acre the land has become a mystery to us. We traverse it in planes, trains, and automobiles, but neither tend it nor hike it. Even those who rightly celebrate such things as the farm-totable movement encounter the land’s sustenance mostly as an abstraction. Save for the witness of writers like John McPhee and Wendell Berry, poets like Mary Oliver and Richard Wilbur, cohorts of scientists, and old school painters and photographers, our landscapes exist unexamined. To the degree that their artful chronicles interest us, we are vicarious participants. But for most moderns, the land is an increasingly alien place. Naturalist Bill McKibben puts it like this: “There’s no such thing as nature anymore—that other world that isn’t business and art and breakfast is not another world, and there is nothing except us alone.”(7) According to historian Aaron Sachs, this dramatic trend fits a larger pattern, “American modernity came to be characterized by a desperate retreat indoors, toward consumerism and specialization.”(8) Perhaps this impending sense of loss is what sent Smithson and Heizer on their desert treks 45 years ago?
Our contemporary sense of disconnection from the land may account for the highly popular reception of Ken Burns’ six-episode PBS special The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009). In it, Burns describes the remarkable vision of men like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, and Horace M. Albright who had the foresight to create National Parks such as Acadia, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. In due course, legislation was passed that would place a philosophical and material hedge around some of the nation’s most impressive landmarks.
The “idea” of America’s national park system represents the embrace of what is sometimes called the Arcadian ideal. Sachs describes the movement like this:
Arcadia [is that] ancient society of solid rural values, of pastoralists who wandered free over a broad countryside of mountain meadows and forest glens, yet who also, somehow, established the kind of stable civic institutions that ennobled Aristotle’s Athens. Arcadia seemed within reach to Americans who paused in the quieter corners of particular landscapes, on the back acres of farms, in parks and gardens, where the atmosphere was restful, where nature and culture seem at peace with each other.(9)
Though primarily an idealization, Arcadian hopes live on in everything from lakeside summer cabins to lush city parks and from wilderness preserves to the tchotchkes that fill the shelves of Birds Unlimited. But as the twentieth century unfolded, our relationship to the land came to be characterized by two crises—one having to do with our accelerated use of energy and the other, the diminished quality of our environment. It is an epic and potentially disastrous story in which the life that we enjoy finds us consuming natural resources that cannot be renewed even as the land we love demands a measure of care that we seem either unwilling or unprepared to provide.
IMAGING THE LAND
In the visual arts, landscape as a genre falls in and out of fashion. During the Renaissance and Classical periods, for instance, the landscape— rendered, perhaps, by a studio apprentice— frequently served as a background or stage set for portraits and historical narratives. In other periods, artists like the Dutchman Jacob van Ruisdael or the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich chose to showcase the raw force and power of nature often juxtaposing it with a diminutive human presence. The landscape figured importantly during the second half of the nineteenth century for Vincent van Gogh and a host of Impressionists such Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet. Meanwhile and across the Atlantic, the genre was well-suited to American exploration and expansion and, thematically speaking, was the central subject of the Hudson River School in its pursuit of the sublime. The regional character of the American landscape is present in the work of artists like Winslow Homer and Grant Wood and following the Great Depression, a host of mural paintings sponsored by the Works Public Administration. In the Modern and Late Modern periods, noteworthy painters such as Milton Avery, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Burchfield and the photographer Ansel Adams all depicted the land. On the contemporary scene, painters like David Hockney and installation artist Andy Goldsworthy carry the tradition forward.
The preceding survey is only suggestive, of course. But just as the figurative tradition holds the capacity to dignify the human body, so also the centuriesold discipline of plein air drawing and painting is well suited to record the grandeur and nuance of the land. Panoramic views of the natural world and its powerful forces certainly inspire wonder and awe. But smaller things—the turning color of a leaf, hoarfrost on a sunlit morning, iridescent green moss on the forest floor—are no less evocative. And here let me add that, as in mature figure studies, plein air practices also account for the vulnerability, disease, and even demise of its subject.
Against the backdrop of these traditional practices, consider this: our surveillance of Earth’s terrain has increased exponentially. Hand-held smart phones access Google maps that, in turn, swiftly deliver bird’s eye topographical views that could not be imagined even a decade ago. These marvels are also the source of considerable category confusion. This world of images and experiences that forms our current understanding of the land is substantially edited and redacted. That is, the spectacle we are presented with is something other than reality. Wide-angle IMAX screenings and high-resolution digital photographs are understandably scintillating and perhaps even a gateway to something transcendent. But these displays can also leave us stranded in the liminal space that lies between data and knowledge, making it difficult to recognize that the former is not the dynamic equivalent of the latter.
Beyond digital media, we witness the land in other ways. It seems likely that most U.S. residents reading this essay have flown above the great expanse of plains, deserts, and mountains west of the Mississippi River. If seated next to a window, perhaps you have been impressed, as have I, by the near absence of human presence below. Not infrequently, America’s South, Midwest, and inland West regions are described as “fly over” country by those who imagine that the nation’s most important cultural, economic, and political work occurs on either coast—one with its face turned to receive Europe and the other, Asia. If, however, land precedes or at least sets the stage for culture, then this notion is turned entirely inside out.
Consider this: if the land goes barren or if its aquifers no longer purify our water, then culture (narrowly conceived) will quickly and dramatically revert to something primal. Is this not the animating idea behind so many dystopian films? Put differently, “culture” alone does not set Florida apart from Vancouver or distinguish Los Angeles from Florence. The native character and qualities of the land—its borders and bodies of water, hazards and wonders, climate and topography—give rise to particular socio-economic, political, and even spiritual realities.
It is at this point that conventional disciplines like painting and drawing reassert their relevance. Their core function is not so much to render lovely scenes, but rather to teach us to see. This seeing finds it locus in tracking the quality and movement of light as it passes across foliage, land forms, and bodies of water. Experience confirms that perceiving and then rendering these ever-shifting shapes and hues can be maddening. At the same time, and as Joel Sheesley reminds us in the essay that follows, the landscape is “a knowable mystery” and the ability to see things as they are is a precondition of wisdom. At least for some, seeing the land full and wide leads to genuine knowledge about both our nature and God’s.
PRAYING THE LAND
Not unlike the Arcadian vision, Christian spiritual retreat is often associated with a return to nature. The thought here is that forsaking human noise and activity is a means to encounter God’s presence. While this assumption seems reasonable, it is a misnomer to suggest that the land is silent. To the contrary, the land contains a chorus of audio, visual, haptic, and metaphorical voices that bear continual witness to the glory and power of God (Rom. 1:20- 21). To be sure, viewing a Terrence Malick film or listening to a Morten Lauridsen chorale may stimulate a transcendent encounter, but these enthrallments are different—though not less—in character than walking through an open field, hiking deep into the woods, or watching waves lap the shore. In Psalm 42, we are reminded that as the psalmist beheld the mighty waterfall and billowing waves, “deep called to deep” (7). All of this is intrinsic to the Divine design.
It follows from this that any Christian ethic or aesthetic having to do with the land, its use, and care, will be built atop the simple yet comprehensive claim that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). From the soil beneath our feet to its fleeting and tiny place in the universe, planet Earth belongs to God.
If the Bible is first the story of God, it is second an account of God’s people, and the story of these men and women is often defined, in part, by their relationship to the land. They are gardeners and farmers, herdsman and sojourners, they enjoy land’s bounty—its milk and honey—and bear up under its austerity. God’s charge to our first parents was to tend the garden and we of all people should not imagine that that mandate has been rescinded. In the Edenic context, God’s command was overwrought neither by utility nor necessity. Their “tending” labors were characterized by pleasure and wisdom. May it also be so for us.
Like Earth Day and Earth Art, the essays, poetry, art, and reviews gathered up in this SEEN Journal all point to the landscape. My sincere thanks to Joel Sheesley who served as guest editor for this issue and, especially, for an early conversation with him about his 2014 sabbatical plan to investigate Lincoln Marsh—a 150-acre wetland preserve located in the city of Wheaton where he lives. It turns out that Joel’s anticipated plein air exploration coincided with my musings about land, landscape, the natural environment, and a myriad of related aesthetic concerns. Why, some may wonder, devote creative time and space to a topic regarded by many as burdened by tradition or encumbered by political debate? The answer is straightforward: we are embodied beings and it is the land that sustains this embodiment.
Cameron J. Anderson is the Executive Director of CIVA.
- Ian Chilvers, A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 335.
- Jeffrey L. Kosky, “Learning to Live on the Spiral Jetty,” Image (84), 36.
- I bid., 38. For a more critical evaluation of Smithson’s Jetty see
Amanda Boetzkes, “Spiral Jetty: Allegory and the Recovery of
the Elemental,” The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2010), 64-100.
- I thank University of Wisconsin professor Randy Jackson
for this citation. W. B. Whitman, D. C. Coleman, W. J.
Wiebe, “Prokaryotes: the unseen majority,” Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of
America (1998) 95 (12): 6578–83.
- Theophilus of Antioch as quoted in Martin Laird, Into the
Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation (London: Darton,
Longman and Todd, 2006), 37.
- Victor Davis Hanson, The Land Was Everything: Letters from an
American Farmer (New York: The Free Press, 2000).
- Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House,
- Aaron Sachs, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental
Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 4.
- I bid., 5.