Landscape – a ‘Focus of Perception’

LANDSCAPE IS a ‘focus of perception’ and by this is meant a focus in seeing, feeling, being and relating. Landscape as a ‘focus of perception’ is a manifestation of personal and collective creativity and imagination, which originates in the psyche.

Denis Cosgrove comes close to describing landscape as a ‘focus of perception’ when he concludes that:

“landscape is a social and cultural product, a way of seeing projected on to the land and having its own techniques and compositional forms; a restrictive way of seeing that diminishes alternative modes of experiencing our relations with nature.”[i]

A ‘focus of perception’ excludes to some extent other ways of seeing and experiencing the landscape which are not in focus. Like horse blinkers one sees, feels, has being in, and relates to what is focused upon and ignores what is out of intentional focus.

A ‘focus of perception’ is relational rather than objective, originates in and is mediated by the inner psyche of the individual, and is a manifestation of personal and collective creativity and imagination.

Pre-verbal, Universal, Landscape Perception

GIVEN THAT LANGUAGE is inextricably tied up with our perception of landscape, at this point one could ask, along with the deconstructionists, whether it is language which ultimately creates our perception of landscape and our ‘being’ in landscape. Or is the landscape – in which we have ‘being’ – based on something more fundamental than language?

It was philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who referred to language as “the house of being”.[ii] In support of Heidegger, Saroj Chawla suggests there is “a close relationship between language, philosophy, and our handling of the natural environment”.[iii] For example, in comparison with Amerindian languages, English language habits are not very conducive to a holistic and careful attitude towards the natural environment. English as the ‘language of technology’, is now being adopted by other cultures and becoming a world language. If any change is to come about in our attitudes to the natural environment “it will have to be at the level of perception, and at the linguistic level, such perception is reflected in language”.[iv]

Sallie King, however, goes further. She suggests the reality of a non-verbal cognition and unmediated perception, which is independent of a verbal-cultural tradition:

“The sensorial experience of listening to music, as of drinking coffee, illustrates that there is something even in mundane experience that eludes the grasp of language: our ordinary lives are full of qualities beyond the denotative reach of our words… In coffee and music we have seen the reality of non-verbal cognition, we have seen the impossibility of the verbal-cultural tradition producing the experience.”[v]

King suggests that we need to examine further the way in which “reflective consciousness inspects non-verbal knowledge and issues its report”.[vi] She also suggests that phenomenological data for such inquiry can be found in both mystical and secular experiences. Furthermore, the universality of pre-verbal landscape perception is shown in our ability to imagine and enter into others’ perceptions of landscape, even that of animals. As Lopez points out:

“In recent years the writing of people like Joseph Campbell and Claude Levi-Strauss has illuminated the great panorama of human perceptual experience, pointing up not only the different approaches we take to the background that contains us (the landscape) but the similarities we seem to share.”[vii]

We can apprehend, understand, and imagine other human and even animal perceptions of the landscape, even those which diverge markedly from our predominant ‘focus of perception’. Lopez makes a plea for tolerance for perceptions of landscape other than our own:

“It seemed clear to me that we need tolerance in our lives for the worth of different sorts of perception, of which the contrasting Umwelten of the animals on the island are a reminder. And we need a tolerance for the unmanipulated and unpossessed landscape. But what I came to see, too, was that we need to understand the relationship between tolerance and different sorts of wealth, how a tolerance for the unconverted things of the earth is intertwined with the substance of a truly rich life.”[viii]

While, as Takeshi Yamagishi has pointed out, the individual’s existential landscape may be a ‘primary landscape’[ix], our ability to understand, imagine and enter into other’s perceptions of landscape is universal.

Direct, primal, feeling and mystical perception of the “unmanipulated and unpossessed landscape” is, as Lopez argues, the substance of a truly rich life.

TO SUMMARISE, landscape is not something totally objective ‘out there’, independent of us and our ‘being-in-the-world’. We generally bring a cultural, experiential and linguistic component to our ‘focus of perception’ and our being in landscape. However, it can be argued that there are some direct primal, feeling and mystical experience aspects to perception and perception of landscape, which are unmediated by language and prior to the subject-object split. This is not to deny that such experience can not be described later, however inadequately, and moulded to fit in with our existing epistemology and cultural perception of landscape. The implication of all this is that landscape perception can be at a deep level, unmediated, potentially universal and therefore not totally culturally determined. As we shall see, this type of perception is archetypal.

[i] Cosgrove (1984) Social and Symbolic Landscape, 269.

[ii] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, Trans. Peter Hertz (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971), 63.

[iii] Saroj Chawla, ‘Linguistic and Philosophical Roots of Our Environmental Crisis’, Environmental Ethics, v.13, no.3 ( 1991), 253.

[iv] Ibid, 262.

[v] Sallie B. King, ‘Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism’, Journal of American Academy of Religion, LVI / 2, Summer (1988), 266.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Lopez (1998) Arctic Dreams, 275.

[viii] Ibid, 313-4.

[ix] Takeshi Yamagishi, ‘Landscape and the Human being’, Human Studies, 15, (1992).

Participatory, Poetic Landscapes

HUMANISTIC, EXISTENTIAL and postmodern geographers, who have questioned viewing the world through an objectivist epistemology, or theory of meaning – are supported by some Western philosophers, biologists, neurophysiologists, environmentalists; and East Asian philosophy, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Here very briefly, are the arguments of some others who advocate meaning or an epistemology based on an active and relational process of perception and cognition.

OBJECTIVISM AS A ‘GODS-EYE-VIEW’ of reality independent of human understanding is opposed by philosophers Mark Johnson and Hilary Putnam. According to the Objectivist orientation, which is rooted deeply in the Western philosophical and cultural tradition, the world consists of objects that have properties which stand in relationships independent of human understanding. Human beings can have no significant bearing on the nature of meaning and rationality.[i] Johnson, like Putnam, argues for realism based on our mediated understanding of our experience. They argue that experience is an “organism-environment interaction”. The organism and its environment are not independent and unrelated entities.[ii] Johnson concludes that objectivity “does not require taking up God’s perspective, which is impossible; rather, it requires taking up appropriately shared human perspectives that are tied to reality through our embodied imaginative understanding”.[iii]

Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela reach very similar conclusions to Mark Johnson’s “embodied understanding” by “offering a scientific study of cognition as a biological phenomenon” wherein “the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism)” are eschewed.[iv] The act of cognition does not simply mirror an objective reality “out there” – rather it is rooted in our biological structure and is an active process in which we actually create our world of experience through the process of living itself. We are “continuously immersed in a network of interactions, the results of which depend on history”.[v]

Steve Odin observes that “the primacy accorded to relational ‘field’ over that of the ‘substantial objects’ implicit in the ecological world view is also at the heart of the organismic paradigm of nature in East Asian philosophy, especially Taoism and Buddhism”.[vi]

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), environmentalist, scientist, ecologist, forester and writer of the classic ‘A Sand Country Almanac’ (1949) is widely regarded as establishing environmental ethics as a distinct branch of philosophy. His ethics arise from a “metaphysical presupposition that things in nature are not separate, independent, or substantial objects, but relational fields… the land is a single living organism wherein each part affects every other part”.[vii]

J. Baird Callicott an American philosopher of environment and ethics, follows the insights of Leopold and argues that “object-ontology is inappropriate to an ecological description of the natural environment. Living natural objects should be regarded as ontologically subordinate to “events” and/or “flow patterns” and/or “field patterns”.[viii]

THE RELATIONAL FIELD idea of environment or landscape, has been promoted by ecologists and some significant philosophers, East and West. In the Western philosophic tradition, English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was seminal with this view.

Modernism and hence objectivism was systematically challenged by Alfred North Whitehead. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodernists, Whitehead whose contribution to philosophy, mathematics and logic as well as metaphysics is “considered by many to be one of the great intellectual achievements of all time”[ix] is known in particular for his relational field view of reality. A.N. Whitehead gave the field concept of nature implied by ecology its fullest systematic expression in his process metaphysics and philosophy of organism.

As Odin points out, Whitehead “elaborates a panpsychic vision of nature as a creative and aesthetic continuum of living field events arising through their causal relations to every other event in the continuum”.[x] Odin argues that nature, in terms of the Gaia hypothesis, is “a synergistic ecosystem of symbiotic relationships” and this is the relational view of reality of many ecologists as well as much philosophy of East Asia based on Taoism and Buddhism.[xi]

Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski is another one who argues for a new epistemology based on a “participatory concept of truth” wherein ‘objectivity’ “has become a myth which is pernicious and which we need to transcend”.[xii] He holds that there is “a close and inevitable relationship between the view of the cosmos of a given people (cosmology) and the system of knowledge of a given people (epistemology). One recapitulates the other, and is in the image of the other. Thus the outer walls of the cosmos are the inner walls of the mind.”[xiii] In other words, there is a close and inevitable relationship between the landscape ‘focus of perception’ of a given people and the system of meaning or knowledge (epistemology) of a given people.

For example, Lopez argues that the rational, scientific approach to land loses something profound; rather the land is like poetry. For instance:

“A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.”[xiv]

[i] Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind – The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1987), x.

[ii] Ibid, 207.

[iii] Ibid, 212.

[iv] Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (New Science Library, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987), 214.

[v] Ibid, 241.

[vi] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, Environmental Ethics, v.13, no. 4 (1991), 350.

[vii] Ibid, 346; see also Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (N.Y: Ballantine Books, 1966).

[viii] J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.) Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought – Essays in Environmental Philosophy (State University of New York, 1989), 58.

[ix] Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 909-910.

[x] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, 350.

[xi] Ibid, 360.

[xii] Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind – A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe (Arkana, Penguin Group, 1994), xviii-xix.

[xiii] Ibid, xvii.

[xiv] Lopez (1998) Arctic Dreams, 274.

A ‘Way of Seeing’

PETER JACKSON concluded in 1989, that within the landscape tradition the emphasis is now on the idea of landscape as a social construction or a ‘way of seeing’, rather than being reducible to a series of physical traits.[i] He cited Cosgrove’s definition of landscape and argued that there are potentially as many ways of seeing as there are eyes to see: “A reconstituted cultural geography must therefore be prepared to examine the multiplicity of landscapes that these plural conceptions of culture inform”.[ii]

As a case in point, Barry Lopez describes the mobile and changing nature of landscapes in a nation’s history as follows:

“[T]he narrative direction that a nation’s history takes is amenable to revision; and the landscapes in which history unfolds are both real, that is, profound in their physical effects on mankind, and not real, but mere projections, artifacts of human perception.”[iii]

TO ILLUSTRATE from a New Zealand perspective – the traditional Maori view of the landscape as being ‘alive’, and as a defining matrix of personal identity, was quite different from the view of the first European New Zealanders. Some prominent first Europeans to New Zealand were notable for viewing the landscape as something objective – ‘out there’ to be tamed, civilised, cultivated in order to fit a European ideal and so exploited, not only for a personal living, but for amassing wealth and profit. Several generations later, when Europeans became Pakeha New Zealanders, some regret was felt at the early colonialist exploitation of the indigenous landscape and the destruction of forests. The natural New Zealand landscape was cherished and sought out for spiritual sustenance. In particular, this ‘way of seeing’ was expressed by the writers and poets of the 1930s and 1940s; mountaineers, trampers and skiers have for the most part continued their long tradition of revering the natural landscape.

Today there are conflicting perceptions of the New Zealand landscape. Commercial interests with multi-national backing and government departments including the Department of Conservation and both Pakeha and Maori, have financial interests in the commodification of natural landscape and nature experience – hence the tourist dollar, mining, native timber-felling, real estate development, power generation, thirsty dairying in inappropriate areas of dry grassland, leading to depletion and pollution of rivers and waterways, and financially motivated immigration consultancies. The natural landscape, including National Parks, is not infrequently seen in primarily objective terms, as a resourse to be utilised to maximise corporate and government profit.

In opposition to all this are many New Zealanders – Maori, Pakeha and new immigrants – who have lived deeply in and felt intensely for this land, sometimes for generations and sometimes not. They feel a spiritual affinity and identity with the indigenous, pristine landscape and wish to conserve and restore what remains. In particular these New Zealanders wish to keep our National Parks unspoiled: unexploited commercially, aesthetically and environmentally unpolluted, and in the spirit in which they were originally gifted and conceived by our Maori and British colonial ancestors – as loved landscapes with old and humble huts of unique value in and of themselves; spiritual reservoirs (not to be paid for but our birthright), to be approached with reverence and care by all New Zealanders and visitors regardless of race. These New Zealanders wish to safe-guard and care-take the intrinsic values of mountains, flowing rivers, the pristine waterways, lakes, wetlands and the quality of the soils, flora and fauna in their natural landscapes. In this landscape they perceive their soul as New Zealanders.[iv]

[i] Jackson(1989) Maps of Meaning, 181.

[ii] Ibid, 177.

[iii] Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (London: The Harvill Press, 1998), 256.

[iv] See Te Maire Tau, ‘Ngai Tahu and the Canterbury Landscape – A Broad Context’ in: Cookson, John & Dunstall, Graeme (eds.), Southern Capital Christchurch – Towards a City Biography 1850- 2000 (Canterbury University Press, 2000) 41-60; Geoff Park, Nga Uruora The Groves of Life – Ecology & History in a New Zealand Landscape (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995); Trudie McNaughton, Countless Signs – The New Zealand Landscape in Literature (New Zealand: Reed Methuen, 1986); Harry C. Evison, Te Wai Pounamu The Greenstone Island – A History of the Southern Maori during the European Colonization of New Zealand (Christchurch: Aoraki Press, 1993); Hong-Key Yoon, Maori Mind, Maori Land (Berne & New York: Eratosthene Interdisciplinary Series, Peter Lang, 1986); Philip Temple (ed.), Lake, Mountain, Tree: An Anthology of Writings on New Zealand Nature and Landscape (New Zealand: Godwit, 1998).

Geographers’ Landscapes

IN THE FIRST HALF of the twentieth century geographers sought to establish universal laws such as those found in physics or chemistry in their science. Environmentalism was earlier rejected because it was regarded as insufficiently scientific.[i]

Eminent geographer Denis Cosgrove points out that early geographers and teachers like Freidrich Ratzel (1844-1904), William Morris Davis (1850-1934) and Andrew John Herbertson (1865-1915), as well as methodologists who followed them such as Alfred Hettner (1859-1941), Richard Hartshorne (1899-1992) and Carl Sauer (1889-1975), all regarded geography primarily as a positive science.[ii]

[i] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social and Symbolic Landscape (Croom Helm, London & Sydney, 1984), 261.

[ii] Ibid, 260-261.

Landscapes of Geography

“Although the land exists, ‘the scape
is a projection of human consciousness,
an image received’.”
– Erlich

“Mentally or physically, we frame the view,
and our appreciation depends on our frame of mind.”
– J. Douglas Porteous

“Landscape is not merely the world we see,
it is a construction, a composition of the world.
Landscape is a way of seeing the world.”
– Denis Cosgrove

GEOGRAPHY IS ABOVE ALL the study of landscape. For geographers, the idea of landscape has undergone change and this is especially so from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Landscape has developed from a purely positivist and modernist, empiricist based concept, towards a cultural, humanist, existential, perceptual and postmodernist exploration. Landscape is now recognised by geographers as an inner perceptual conception.
The case here is that landscape is a ‘focus of perception’ . By ‘focus of perception’ is meant a focus in seeing, feeling, being and relating – and as such it is intrinsic to the psyche. The literary, the existential, the phenomenal and the imaginal, in the archetypal depths of the psyche, are all recognised by postmodern geographers as relevant. The academic study of ‘geography of religion’ has become a geography of landscape spirituality.