on What Is Landscape? by John R. Stilgoe (The MIT Press)

John Stilgoe has taught the history of landscape development at Harvard for forty years, but his many books stare steadfastly out the classroom window. “Landscape mocks scholars,” he says. “Landscape perception is peculiar to each inquirer.” In his introduction to Landscape and Images (Virginia, 2004), he writes, “Landscape inveigles. Trees and highways, rivers and villages, hills and urban sprawl become more than view or setting altered by weather or slant of light or ideology. Looking at landscape, realizing it … reward[s] a willingness to be cajoled, surprised, reassured, ensnared, but often misled. Analyzing landscape slams traditional academic inquiry against serendipity and intuition. Always analysis begins in just looking around, noticing the nuance that becomes portal.”

StilgoeCover.jpg“Realizing” the landscape in art occurs when the artist is less interested in mimicking the real than in searching for it. Stilgoe’s eclectic essays on landscape and location work the same way – his prose enacts a probe for what is there, the eye and mind rigorously looking and connecting. But description is just one component of his evocative narratives. Alongshore (1994), his allusive book on coastlines, includes a chapter on “Wharves” that begins with observations about docks, then takes up Joseph Conrad’s memoir, the traditional differences between a wharf and a pier, the wharves in The House of the Seven Gables and Moby-Dick, New York’s “shadowy” waterfront in the 19th century, the effect of low tides, the small harbor wharves of New England, damage to and the repair of wharves, sea-life attracted to and destructive of wharves, the significance of the end of wood-hulled ships to wharf design, and noirish human behavior down by the wharf.

Landscape inveigles – and as if in retaliation, development effaces landscape. Stilgoe’s latest book, What Is Landscape?, continues his lifelong peering, embodying his two keys to making landscape manifest. First, “looking around,” behaving in a solitary and thoughtful fashion. Then, inquiring: “Asking generally, eschewing what seem generic terms, produces localisms, archaisms, and glimmering portals, especially from people intimate with the local place.” You can’t know what you’re looking at unless you know the words for things. Discover the words and you reveal the etymology of the landscape.

StilgoeShore.jpegWhat Is Landscape? answers its own question by taking the reader on adventures and naming its aspects. Civilization holds the landscape in check – but Stilgoe reminds us that the Black Death in Europe, striking endemically from 1348 to 1382, not only killed two-thirds of the population but turned towns into desolate patches of vegetation. “Squatters and brigands used abandoned land as the base for raids … In German lingers an old word, ortsbewüstung, designating the bewildering or wildering of a once-maintained, ordered, loved place. In English, bewilderment is a new term, traceable to about 1620. From its beginning it connoted being lost or confounded in a pathless place, often a dark woods …”

There is urgency here – the landscape and the words are vanishing together. Where I live, on the coast just south of Boston, people used to know what a guzzle is. One might notice a guzzle – but knowing its name and why it is so changeable empowers (changes) one’s own eye. Stilgoe tells us that a guzzle is “a low spot on a barrier beach over which pass neap tides and hurricane-driven surf.” You know what a “barrier beach” is, right? One place-name leads to another.

StilgoeHeadlands.jpgStilgoe’s landscape includes our dwellings and pathways, steads and fields. At the university, landscape suggests a beautiful subject for painters. He writes, “No matter how often informed in short and lengthy memos, deans and university presidents routinely ask what landscape studies ‘actually means.’ It means looking at built form outdoors – typically away from compact areas in which natural topography, surface features (trees especially), and natural systems have been well-nigh erased (as in urban cores), made purely ornamental or buried – and thinking about its history, present condition, and possible futures.” There you have it.

I’ve been Stilgoe’s devoted reader since encountering his classic Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. His writing is engaging and rich – but Stilgoe isn’t satisfied to have entertained decades of inquisitive chair-sitters. The final sentence of his new book reads, “This book is no field guide. Close it now, put it down, and go.”

[Published November 30, 2015. 280 pages, 16 b&w photos. $19.95 hardcover]