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).