Learning to look

Rebecca Solnit is one of the authors I quote several times in my new book, and I find her writing continuing to intersect with my own. In a chapter on the history of gardens (part of her book about walking, Wanderlust), she digs into the relationship between landscape design and nature appreciation, which was of course a way of thinking that had to be invented. “People were learning to look at landscape in gardens as they had learned to look at landscape in paintings,” she says of 18th-century England.

And this all had to do with moving one’s body through the landscape, and even moving one’s body to certain kinds of landscapes, ideas which are still replete in our culture today.

“The eighteenth century created a taste for nature without which William and Dorothy Wordsworth would not have chosen to walk long distances in midwinter and to detour from their already arduous course to admire waterfalls. This is not to say that no one felt a tender passion or admired a body of water before these successive revolutions; it is instead to say that a cultural framework arose that would inculcate such tendencies in the wider public, give them certain conventional avenues of expression, attribute to them certain redemptive values, and alter the surrounding world to enhance those tendencies. It is impossible to overemphasize how profound is the effect of this revolution on the taste for nature and practice of walking. It reshaped both the intellectual world and the physical one, sending populations of travelers to hitherto obscure destinations, creating innumerable parks, preserves, trails, guides, clubs, and organizations and a vast body of art and literature with almost no precedent before the eighteenth century.”

It’s fascinating to me to imagine encountering the landscape without these notions–to walk with no expectation of a profound communion, maybe even with no expectation at all.

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