In the art of landscape painting, the artist’s canvas is the space within which she unites nature and art.
Informed by the physical realities of the world she paints, yet engaging in a creative endeavour in that space that is entirely her domain, the artist is like the chemist.
Working within the confines of the predetermined qualities of the substances she brings together, the chemist is, nevertheless, the primary actor who enables the rearranging of atoms.
Working within the limits of the colours on her palette, the brushes she uses, the quality of her paints, and the features of the landscape she depicts, the artist transforms the canvas from a blank space to a simultaneously representational and creative space.
She joins the natural features of the landscape with her own artistic sensibility. Nature typically features prominently in a landscape painting; art enters the scene through the artist’s unique representation of the view.
Depending upon the artist’s perception of the nature and art present in a landscape, aspects of the landscape that have been artistically and/or artificially altered may appear in the painting as well.
I’d like to explore another manifestation of ‘landscape as canvas’: the framing of America’s national parks as aesthetic objects to be viewed similarly to the way the English tradition conceptualised the landscape in gardens and paintings. Each of the national parks contains its own unique landscapes and frames. As distinct as they are in their aesthetic features, terrain, climate, human history, and framings of these aspects, all of the national parks share a common ancestor in the iconic Yosemite Valley.
I will focus on the aesthetic roots that made the Yosemite Valley into an icon and left a legacy on the valuation of the national parks as aesthetically important spaces. America’s national parks, much like the landscape gardens of English estates, were originally conceived of as places for recreation and the appreciation of the aesthetic beauty found in nature.
The 1,169 square miles that now comprise Yosemite National Park were once only seven and one. In 1864, Congress passed an Act granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California. The seven-square-mile valley and one square-mile grove would be incorporated into Yosemite National Park twenty-six years later, in 1890. The Act granting the original eight square miles to California read, “the premises shall be used for public use, resort, and recreation.” Advocates for the aesthetic and recreational value of the national parks included John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, but also Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect better known for designing numerous urban parks, including New York’s Central Park. In the nature/culture dichotomy that has long been internalised in Western society, urban spaces, even semi-natural spaces such as parks, are rarely associated with the apparently wild national parks.
Nevertheless, Olmsted’s “Report on the Management of Yosemite”140 was essentially an evaluation of Yosemite, at the time not yet protected from consumptive uses,which used the aesthetic concepts landscape architects had been applying to gardens since the time of Capability Brown.
The association of public lands with the more obviously landscaped private estates and urban parks is also present in the wording of the 1872 Act of Congress that established Yellowstone as the world’s first true national park, “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Congress’ use of the phrase “pleasuring-ground” hearkens back to the English landscape garden origins of the art of framing landscapes practised by American park architects such as Olmsted. The phrase conveys the value of Yellowstone as a place to enjoy and take pleasure in – as a setting or backdrop for enjoyable experiences, and also as an aesthetic object. The original choice of the rather tame word “pleasuring” as opposed to something like “adventuring” is significant. As the world’s first national park, Yellowstone was meant to function somewhat similarly to the way the gardens of English estates functioned: as spaces that provided a place to comfortably experience nature.
Leaping the fence from private to public park did not require leaving behind the aesthetic principles developed by Brown and Repton. In fact, aesthetic concepts such as the picturesque, the sublime, and the beautiful were readily applied to the national park landscapes by Olmsted and others. Moreover, when Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park in 1858, English landscape gardens and the writings of Humphry Repton served as important sources for the aesthetic theories he applied to the park’s plan.
The applicability of aesthetic terms to national parks, however, did not mean that the national parks were merely three-dimensional paintings, easily replicable on a canvas.
Despite the longstanding tradition of using the language of landscape painters to describe a landscape garden, there were important differences between the landscape itself and its portrayal in a painting.
Olmsted conveys this divergence when he articulates the fundamental impossibility of encapsulating the landscape of Yosemite on the bounded, two-dimensional space of a painting or photograph: The union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not in any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yosemite the greatest glory of nature.
No photograph or series of photographs, no paintings ever prepare a visitor so that he is not taken by surprise, for could the scenes be faithfully represented the visitor is affected not only by that upon which his eye is at any moment fixed, but by all that with which on every side it is associated, and of which it is seen only as an inherent part.
With this passage, Olmsted suggests that the unique quality of landscape architecture as a way to frame a view-shed – “the natural environment that is visible from one or more viewing points”– is that it provides an experience of the landscape in its entirety.
This cannot be accomplished with visual representations such as a painting, a photograph, or even a “series of photographs.”
Note that Olmsted’s assertion that Yosemite cannot fully be captured in paintings and photographs does not contravene the notion that landscape — in particular, the landscapes of the national parks – can be ‘framed’ and understood in the aesthetic language of landscape painting. Olmsted’s frequent use of terms such as “picturesque,” “beautiful,” “sublime” illustrates this relevance of the language of landscape painting to the national parks.
That language can still be imposed upon the landscape and used to understand it. The landscape itself, however, as a space that can be moved through and experienced through all five senses, is fundamentally different from the static aesthetic of a photograph or painting. Olmsted’s claim that the landscape cannot be represented by a two-dimensional image is strikingly similar to Repton’s discussion of landscape painting and gardening. Recall that Repton himself coined the term “landscape gardening” to convey the close relationship with landscape painting to which his profession was indebted.
Repton’s reluctance to entirely analogise landscape gardening with painting, which had primarily to do with the fact that an English landscape garden, unlike a canvas, can be experienced in motion, and that the former is not bounded by a physical frame. In the passage above, Olmsted’s emphasis on experiencing Yosemite in its entirety, without parcelling it out into particular points of the picturesque, the sublime, or the beautiful, echoes Repton’s writings. Olmsted and Repton were separated by a century and the Atlantic, yet their ideas about landscape gardening’s parallels and points of departure with landscape painting converged.
Artistic Representations of Yosemite Valley
The paradox of preserving Yosemite Valley under Olmsted’s justifications is that in recognising it as a place of great scenic and aesthetic value, we naturally want to reproduce its vistas through artistic forms, especially photography and painting. These artistic representations of the landscape have contributed significantly to the particular ‘framing’ of the national parks since their conception. Representations of Yosemite Valley on film and canvas are particularly illustrative of the framing I describe.
From the first days of tourism in Yosemite Valley, visitors described the grand views of the valley in the aesthetic terms that had originated in England in the 18th century: “beautiful,” “picturesque,” and “sublime.”
Appraising Carleton Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite Valley, a review published in The Post read: The views of lofty mountains, of gigantic trees, of falls of water which seem to descend from heights in the heavens and break into mists before reaching the ground, are indescribably unique and beautiful. Nothing in the way of landscape can be more impressive or picturesque.
I will thread carefully in my interpretation of the reviewer’s use of the term “beautiful” here, for the word is commonly used in so many contexts and ways that it is rather like that pesky word, ‘nature,’ in its ambiguity of meaning. But the reviewer’s choice of the word “picturesque” is unmistakable in its reference to the original English definition of the term, because it is preceded by a description that fits Gilpin’s definition of “picturesque” remarkably well. The scene is picturesque because of its impressiveness – it features falls that “descend from heights in the heavens” – and also because of its obscurity; these falls “break into mists before reaching the ground,” suggesting the mysteriousness characteristic of the original English definition of the picturesque. The aesthetic concept of the sublime also featured prominently in artistic representations of Yosemite and other ‘natural’ landscapes of the American West. English reviewers wrote of Albert Bierstadt’s Storm in the Rocky Mountains , “no picture that we have ever seen has more entirely conveyed a sense of natural sublimity,” a strong statement considering that the sublime had already been a subject of artwork for two hundred years, since the paintings of Salvator Rosa. In the same breath, the reviewers recognised that this painting was clearly a work of art, not a literal representation of the scene, and applauded Bierstadt for accomplishing this artifice. In fact, in order to properly portray sublimity, employing the ‘art’ of imitating nature was essential.
This non-literal reproduction of the landscape was the same ‘imitation’ that the English landscape gardeners used in their practice, when they sought to emulate the best qualities of, rather than strictly copy, nature. Just as English gardeners had emphasised the imitation of nature in the art of landscape gardening, artists depicting the landscapes of the American West highlighted those features that would produce the most “powerful impression of overwhelming natural grandeur.” This artistic augmentation of the natural sublime, according to Bierstadt’s reviewers, was the primary object of the landscape painting of Bierstadt and his contemporaries.
Alber Bierstadt – Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie
In the rather special case of Yosemite Valley, however, there was little need for artificial enhancement. “In Yosemite Valley . . . [Bierstadt] found a landscape so spectacular, so unique in its grandeur, that he was able to offer what had been desired but not realistically expected: a national landscape for which there was no equivalent.
In its natural state, Yosemite Valley fit the specifications of the sublime, beautiful, and picturesque remarkably well and provided artists like Bierstadt with a nearly canvas-ready view of the landscape. More significantly, as a “national landscape,” Yosemite was to be cherished as a source of American pride and identity.
As such, Yosemite and other scenic natural places in the West became aesthetic focal points of the idea of progress put forth by manifest destiny.
Yosemite’s natural origins enabled visitors to view the valley’s aesthetic beauty as divinely created. Upon first seeing the Yosemite Valley in 1863, Fitz Hugh Ludlow (who was traveling with Bierstadt) marvelled, “never were words so beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature.” As a landscape within the territory of the United States that visitors associated with divine Creation.
Yosemite and similar places were used as justification for Western expansion, and the aesthetic value of places like Yosemite became inseparable from national identity.
Works of art that celebrated such places reinforced the goal of manifest destiny by creating an idealised, paradastical image of the landscape.
Bierstadt’s – Looking Down Yosemite Valley, in addition to other paintings he produced of Yosemite, accomplishes this glorification of the American West. Soft, warm, golden light (a hallmark of Bierstadt’s work) suffuses the valley and obscures the features in the distance, suggesting that this landscape remains to be fully explored and charted. In addition to inviting exploration, the landscape appears to be a pleasant, tranquil place: in the mid-ground, a glassy lake reflects the rich foliage of the trees in the valley. The looming granite walls of the valley convey the iconic grandeur and sublimity of the Yosemite Valley. Artists who strove to capture Yosemite’s majesty on film and canvas were aware of the impossibility of fully capturing Yosemite through their work. Photographer Ansel Adams produced the most iconic images of Yosemite, yet understood that not even superb photography could substitute for the in-person aesthetic experience of the national park.
Many of Adams’ photographs convey the sublime grandeur of Yosemite’s massive, glacially-carved valley and soaring, granite cliffs. Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm
depicts the Yosemite Valley as a sublime landscape, shrouded somewhat in mystery by fog that obscures much of the background.
The photograph, a classic landscape image, takes a broad view of the landscape and captures the impressive length of the Yosemite Valley, keeping the entire view in focus with a large photographic depth-of-field. The foreground is set by conifers, the mid-ground by El Capitan on the left (peeking out of the mist) and by Bridal Veil Falls on the right. In the distanced background, more granitic features are barely visible through the mist.
Moon and Half Dome
In Moon and Half Dome most of the space within the photo frame is taken up by the figure of Half Dome and a silhouetted granite feature in the foreground, creating an impression of the vastness of the rock. The large shadow encroaching onto the face of Half Dome heightens the sense of enormity and sublimity.
Despite his enduring status as the most revered photographer of Yosemite, Adams knew that his photographs “could not convey the full experience of Yosemite.”
Viewing a photograph taken in Yosemite could not compare with experiencing the national park in person. Adams had a strong motivation for attempting to convey as much of Yosemite’s aesthetic value as possible, for he was an activist as well as an artist, and in his introduction of a book anthologising Adams’ photography of Yosemite, Michael L. Fischer asserts that he was “the best-known American environmentalist since John Muir.”
Adams “devoted much of his life to fighting the historic compulsion of the National Park Service and its concessionaires to turn this magnificent natural resource into a resort.”
Adams’ photography of Yosemite is iconic, yet because he strongly believed that America would be aesthetically poorer without preserving the physical landscape as well as photographs of it, he advocated for policies to preserve the national park as close to its natural state as possible.
Not everyone who has visited Yosemite has felt similarly to Adams about the importance of preserving it in its natural state. In the first years of Yosemite Valley’s existence as a public space, there were those who wanted to emphasise further the “park-like appearance” of Yosemite, past its original natural resemblance. The Valley’s caretakers, one visitor suggested, should “cut away more of the trees and shrubs, and give the Valley a more park-like appearance – it could be made into a beautiful park.”
Such views of Yosemite Valley as a park with the potential of “improvement,” the same kind of improvement as the English landscape gardens, had their clear origin in England. As Stanford E. Demars notes, one visitor’s remark that “the evidences of civilisation do not spoil the valley . . . [they] only add to the picturesqueness” is “a typically romantic evaluation.”
I would add that this is an evaluative stance inherited from the legacy of the English landscape garden, when the idea of the “picturesque” was being developed by Gilpin, Repton, and others, at the same time that Romanticism as a cultural, artistic movement was developing.
What would become the national park, however, departed from its ancestry in one particularly significant aspect: the parks were open to the general public and were intended to require little cost to visit.
When Yosemite was established as the first federal land set aside for the public use, Olmsted called attention to the essential democratic nature of this shared ownership and open access.
Olmsted wrote eloquently about the role of public lands as democratic spaces all citizens can enjoy regardless of their place in society, asserting in the report on Yosemite, “it is not true that exemption from toil, much leisure, much study, much wealth, are necessary to the exercise of the aesthetic and contemplative faculties.”
Olmsted’s words here convey his conviction of the ability of aesthetic appreciation to transcend class divisions, a quality that was essential to considering national parks as truly democratic spaces.
In addition, in the report Olmsted specifically contrasted the accessibility of America’s national parks with the elite park estates of England: There are in the islands of Great Britain and Ireland more than one thousand private parks and notable grounds devoted to luxury and recreation. . . . The enjoyment of the choicest natural scenes in the country and the means of recreation connected with them is thus a monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few, very rich people. The great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it.
In contrast with their private equivalent in England, in which the rich have a “monopoly” on park spaces, Olmsted intended the “choicest natural scenes” of America to be available to all citizens. “The great mass of society” must have access to places so beneficial to the health and wellness of both men and women, as Olmsted expounded in his report.
Olmsted saw Yosemite and other ‘natural’ and semi-natural spaces as redemptive – as building character. In Yosemite, Olmsted saw the potential for aesthetic appreciation that was barred to no one, for the benefit of all. As I will discuss further in this section, Olmsted’s envisioning of the parks as democratic spaces continues to inform the American public’s conception of the national parks.
The national parks continue to be framed today as democratic spaces by the National Park Service and by public media.
From the perspective of the National Park Service, as “democratic” spaces accessible to all, the national parks must be interpreted so that all visitors can appreciate what they have to offer. According to a National Park Service publication: Another term for interpreters could be visitor experience specialists. They provide orientation, information and inspiration in the right amounts and at the right times so that visitors will have more enjoyable, meaningful and complete experiences.
While the document goes on to expound on the meaning of this definition, it is undeniably vague. What, exactly, are the “right” amounts of interpretive elements, and when is the “right” time to unveil them? Furthermore, what constitutes a “meaningful” and “complete” experience? Who defines these values? The National Park Service provides numerous resources to interpretive staff (including, for example, the publication from which the above passage came) so that the agency can direct the interpretation to some degree. Yet interpretation, as the publication also notes, “is an art.”
Each “visitor experience specialist” becomes an artist with some creative leeway to interpret the landscape as they wish, re-framing the landscape for visitors to experience.
The interpretive methods employed by the National Park Service also frame the landscape by encouraging visitors to experience a landscape from particular viewpoints and paths and at a particular scale. A vista is by definition a broad, panoramic view of a landscape, yet the designation of a viewpoint marks a landscape as a bounded space.
By distinguishing a view as a vista, the National Park Service divides the landscape as a whole into a single view, framing the space and sometimes, depending on the popularity of the park and vista, creating an iconic image.
Consider that the same phenomenon occurs whenever a landscape artist or photographer chooses a particular view as their subject, framing it as a work of art. The grand Yosemite Valley that became the subject of Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley and Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm became iconic partly because of their respective choices to paint and photograph it from those specific viewpoints. Interpretive signs, which are usually conspicuously placed close to the wall or fence delineating the viewpoint, draw visitors’ attention to particular features in the landscape much as an artistic frame.
Like the didactic placards introducing an exhibit in a museum, interpretation also provides visitors with the historical and natural contexts for their experience of the park. Visitors to the national parks experience landscapes that have been altered from their original natural state so as to encourage a particular viewing experience. Pathways, trails, interpretive signs, scenic viewpoints, pamphlets, and books available for purchase in national parks gift shops all function as interpretive tools the National Park Service employs to ensure that the public is able to experience numerous facets of the parks.
Through interpretation, park biology, geology, climate, history, anthropology, paleontology, and hydrology are all put into language and images the National Park Service believes the public can understand.
Because of its inherently democratic nature, interpretation (unsurprisingly) originated in America. Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, whose numerous park designs and extensive writings on landscape theory earned him the title of “The Father of American Parks,” made significant contributions to interpretation as an art. Downing “introduced the fundamental concepts of selecting viewpoints, enframing vistas, and moving the visitor through a sequence of views and scenes along curvilinear paths and steps to ensure pleasure and comfort while fostering appreciation and sensibility.”
Previously to Downing, such interpretive elements as viewpoints, framed vistas, and directed paths were of minimal importance in the experience of a landscape.
Throughout its nearly 100-year history, the National Park Service has employed these interpretive features so as to make the national parks accessible to the public. This democratic park legacy has been highlighted by public media. Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which aired on PBS in 2009 with an estimated viewership of 33.4 million, emphasises the democratic quality of the national parks. In the film, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club describes the national parks’ special relevance to democracy: What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by aristocrats, by monarchs, by the wealthy. In America, magnificence is a common treasure. That’s the essence of our democracy.
The most striking aspect of Pope’s remarks is that they identify “magnificence” as America’s most valuable asset. Pope chose “magnificent places” – specifically, the National Parks – as “the essence of our democracy,” over the many other significant American hallmarks (including agrarianism, diversity across multiple categorisations, and “the American dream”) that define the American nation.
Pope’s statement that the national parks are “the essence of our democracy” is a strong claim, but not unprecedented. Both his words and, more overtly, the film title itself, echo the original words of Wallace Stegner, whose 1983 article in Wilderness proclaimed “the national park idea [is] the best idea we’ve ever had.” The documentary and its promotional advertising are intended to convey to PBS viewers the inherently “American” nature of the national parks.
On the PBS website, an “About the Series” page describes the film as “the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.” Such a depiction of the central aim of the national parks as democratic spaces – “for everyone” – echoes Olmsted’s words in his report on Yosemite. Olmsted, too, placed the democratic ideal of the national parks in contrast with the exclusivity of other natural spaces, including the English landscape garden; the national parks were, by definition, “not for royalty or the rich.”
The film itself attempts to democratise the story of the national parks by featuring the contemporary stories of racially diverse Americans “who continue to be transformed and inspired by the parks today.” Olmsted’s view of public lands as highly American, democratic spaces continues to be expressed by filmmakers like Ken Burns and within the public sphere.
This positioning of the democratic nature of the national parks in contrast with the elitism of estate parks mirrors, of course, American nationalism itself. Just as the English landscape garden was both born out of, and fed by, English nationalism, the American national parks were originally conceived of as cornerstones of national identity.
America’s great experiment of democracy, starting most notably with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was predicated on the founding fathers’ determination to do things differently from the monarchic system that ruled England.
As is evidenced by Burns’ film, which was widely aired on American public television networks, the national parks continue to be characterised as constitutive to the American nation, if not “the essence of our democracy,” according to Pope.
Burns’ characterisation of the national parks is not unproblematic. While his films strive to make historical subjects accessible to the general public, in many ways they fail to challenge viewers to consider subjects in a new, more accurate light. In fact, the very aim of making Burns’ films entertaining to the general public is a hindrance to the extent to which they can accomplish the goal of educating the public: Although his work has been soundly critiqued by academics for its endorsement(s) of neoliberal ideology, its interpretive liberties, its avoidance of intellectual controversies, and its misleading articulations of evidence in the service of advancing an entertaining narrative, his interpretations of history continue to be celebrated by the mainstream media.
Burns’ “endorsement(s) of neoliberal ideology” and “avoidance of intellectual controversies” in particular produce documentaries in which viewers’ existing ideas, which may be inaccurate, go uncontested. Instead of being asked to consider divergent viewpoints to the ones they are used to adopting, viewers enjoy “an entertaining narrative.”
Considering the congeniality and undemanding nature of Burns’ storytelling, it’s no wonder that America’s mainstream media has “celebrated” Burns’ work.
What is the ultimate effect of such practices as avoiding intellectual controversy and “advancing an entertaining narrative”? In her discussion of “conservation civics,” which asks the public to adopt ideas of “environmental public memory” while remaining comfortably distanced from the challenges of actualising conservation, Spurlock describes how Burns’ films seek to provide a reassuring historical identity that Americans can readily latch onto: As highlighted in National Parks, conservation civics deemphasises or elides the role of conflict, presents conservation as commemoration, positions the relationships between nature and culture as national and free of local complexity or nusance, and encourages the public to value these particular places as scenic and abundant natural resources of cultural and environmental inspiration.
Discourses that deploy conservation civics . . . aim to make conservation an acceptable part of public life by not interrupting, challenging, or contesting the status quo.
Conservation civics encourages an ‘easy’ kind of engagement with conservation, centred more on asking the public to identify as passive conservationists cheering from the sidelines than as an organised citizens who works through the exigent challenges to bringing conservation to fruition.
Deceptively disabling, conservation civics threatens democracy by allowing citizens to feel as though they are engaging with and shaping conservation in meaningful ways, when really they are deferring to those who benefit from the status quo.
So here is the paradox we have reached: The American public prides itself on its national parks as symbols of democracy, yet the ways in which these democratic places tend to be discussed – including discourses such as Burns’, which aim to reinforce that connection with national identity – actually end up subverting the aims their so called democratic system.
Generally, they define their democracy as a governmental system that encourages the active engagement of citizens with issues of national concern, in an effort to continually improve.
America’s founding fathers declared “. . . that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [individuals’ unalienable rights], it is the Right of the People . . . [and] their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
I will also remind the reader that the U.S. Constitution provides the means for keeping public officials accountable, as well as amending the text itself, so that your government can better protect the “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” as Jefferson first articulated, of the collective American people. These original documents that laid the foundations of a democratic United States of America posited that citizens should be able and expected, through civic engagement, to participate in their democracy. (Though, of course, with some gaping holes in terms of who could participate, which were subsequently patched by the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, among numerous others; some gaps remain and continue to be filled in to this day).
The extent to which the nation has surpassed or fallen short of these original goals is constantly debated in today’s partisan political sphere, and I will not digress further into this realm. My point here is that the framing of the national parks – by Burns, the mainstream media that take its cue from his presentation of history, and even the National Park Service itself – attempts to ratify democracy, and instead undermines fundamental democratic ideals.
My primary objective in this thesis is to draw connections between modern American conceptions of ‘nature’ and their roots in the English landscape garden.
The framing of the national parks as constitutive to American national identity mirrors the way in which we, the English conceived of our landscape gardens.
I discussed how our English landscape garden’s became a culturally-significant space in which the international power struggle between England and France was played out. The English nobility undertook the time-consuming and costly task of ‘improving’ their estates partly in the interest of defining and affirming their national identity.
Significant differences notwithstanding, the English landscape gardens and the American national parks are essentially artistic undertakings: both constitute projects that use nature, combined with aesthetic ideals and interpretive framings, to craft national identity.
In this thesis I have first discussed the English relationship with landscape in the eighteenth century, as the landscape gardening movement developed. To investigate this relationship through the lens of a cultural product, I then turned and “leapt the fence” of the garden by examining how the aesthetic ideas that took root in the English landscape garden dispersed to the comparatively ‘wild’ landscapes of the American National Parks.
Both consciously and unconsciously, we shape and frame our social and physical landscapes, making them into ‘canvases’ onto which we paint nature, human nature, and art.
In landscape gardens we have harnessed nature through art, imposing abstract aesthetic values onto the estates of nobility and framing these places as ‘natural.’ In novels we have combined nature and human nature with art, producing texts that we frame as artistic works worthy of extensive literary analysis. And in the American national parks we have framed landscapes as ‘natural’ and democratic, at the same time that our very framing introduces the art of interpretation into the landscape and encourages a conservation civics that undermines our democratic power to protect these places.
By recognising the ways we frame these landscapes – some of which are problematic and perpetuate past harms done to both nature and our fellow humans – we can critically examine our own perceptions and actions and, I hope, move towards a more original relation with nature and humankind.
The landscape gardens in the English countryside and the American national parks, function as loci of character development.
In eighteenth-century England, the landed gentry created landscape gardens on their estates as part of a broader intention of identifying as ‘cultured.’ They both created, and were shaped by, the aesthetic theories they made manifest in the landscape.
I hope I’ve illustrated, the landscape garden was intended to be a space for polite, genteel conversation and etiquette – for entertaining friends and for courting lovers.
Landscape gardens as spaces that allow these character dynamics to be perceived.
The making of the landscape into a ‘canvas,’ above all, reflects ideas of what is ‘natural.’
Landowners’ conceptions of what landscapes appeared ‘natural’ became expressed in the general style of the eighteenth-century English landscape garden.
In Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, this notion of ‘natural’ appears in the scenes featuring English landscape gardens, and in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, ideas of what is ‘natural’ appear both in reference to the landscape and to the affinities of souls.
The aesthetic foundations of American national parks presupposed the ‘naturalness’ of spaces that had already been occupied by humans for thousands of years.
In all of these relationships of humans with what they called ‘natural,’ there was fabrication; what was seen as ‘natural’ was often more artificial. Yet despite the denial of artifice, of human influence, in these disparate arenas, there is also truth in the relationship of these societies with their landscapes.
Landscape gardens, novels, and national parks are an expression of the engagement of humanity with nature, a force traditionally seen in the Western world as separate from ourselves, with what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls “NOT ME.” In that engagement, humanity reaches outside of its small and isolated sphere. Emerson wrote, “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
This “original relation” is something we as a species, despite our confidence in our own dominance, and because of our shame in that dominance, invariably keep returning to.
In Elective Affinities, the schoolmaster reflects on our interaction with nature as that around us: “We should know nothing of nature,” he said, “except that of it with which we are in immediate living contact. With every tree around us which blossoms, bears leaves and brings forth fruit, with every shrub we pass by, with every blade of grass upon which we tread, we have a true relationship, they are our genuine compatriots.”
In creating ‘naturalistic’ landscapes, the English landscape gardeners and the founders of the American national parks sought to be “in immediate living contact” with nature, so as to develop a “true relationship” with it.
Austen and Goethe expressed a yearning for a similar connection with the nature of the landscape garden and the human nature they made visible through their novels.
When we visit the national parks, interpretation asks us to experience nature in particular ways, some of which are problematic and constrain the relationship of a visitor with the landscape they experience.
My conviction is that a greater consciousness of the ways that we ‘canvas’ and frame landscapes, rather than merely making us self-critical of these tendencies, can invite us into a more reflective and intentional relationship with nature.