To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here. The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall. However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written. It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time. When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later. Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs. Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.
For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry. But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.