Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Significance of Landscape in Literature of the American West

The Broad Expanse: charting the landscape

Western literature is tied to place more than any other regional form.  As we read the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel or an Annie Proulx short story, we traverse a world of staggering imagery: jagged peaks of distant blue mountains, arid expanses of red desert and sagebrush, and hip-high seas of winter wheat rippling and cresting in a prairie breeze.  It is a world of wide-open spaces and unpopulated places, where characters come and go, but the land is constant and forever. 
In her essay ‘Dangerous Ground’, Annie Proulx argues that landscape is much more than what the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson describes as being ‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a single glance’ (2008, p. 12).  Rather, she offers her own broader definition:
Landscape is geography, archaeology, astrophysics, agronomy, agriculture, the violent character of the atmosphere, climate, black squirrels and wild oats, folded rock, bulldozers; it is jet trails and barbwire, government land, dry stream beds; it is politics, desert wildfire, introduced species, abandoned vehicles, roads, ghost towns, nuclear test grounds, swamps, a bakery shop, mine tailings, bridges, dead dogs.  Landscape is rural, urban, suburban, semirural, small town, village; it is outports and bedroom communities; it is a remote ranch.  (ibid:10)

       As Proulx points out, landscape goes beyond the physical, beyond what can be touched and seen and experienced, and includes those sometimes transient and elusive influences which help to shape the environment.  Landscape possesses not only the physical elements of geography, geology, flora and fauna, but also the products of civilisation which are scattered across the land itself – rural communities and cities, and all the detritus those communities produce.  But landscape is also history, the people who trod the ground before us, and the events which took place at other points in time.  Beyond the tangible landscape lies another which is perceived rather than seen, a landscape in which all of preceding time continues to exist.