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Publication Date

2013

Abstract

“Most American places do not feel haunted…they do not play upon the imagination in such a way as to produce near tangible impressions of ages and people long gone.

The Hudson River Valley is a great exception to this American rule. The windows on all its eras are nearly always open, so that despite whatever modern progress its communities may make, it is never difficult for a visitor to conjure the faces and voices of the Valley’s past. This is the river of Franklin Roosevelt, of Frederic Church and Benedict Arnold and ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne. Washington Irving owns it still, and Hendrick Hudson forever sails upstream toward its hidden heart.”(Scheller, 1988)

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself at the site of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt. There, following a camel ride into the desert, I sat at an outdoor bar with friends sipping a beer, watching the sun go down and the sky turn dark. When the night had come, spotlights came on and a deep voice, in English, began telling the history of the pyramids. This Son et Lumpier production was my first awareness that landscapes are not simply views and vistas;, our perceptions of them are shaped by history, and that if there is no context for a landscape, the viewer cannot fully understand what he/she is looking at. Why is this important? Because, as the National Park Service likes to say, people will not try to protect resources that they do not know are there.

Today we call these landscapes “Cultural Landscapes”, and it is under their umbrella that we have greenways, greenline parks, and living landscapes, among others. There are probably as many definitions of cultural landscapes as there are landscapes. Here are some:

-- “Landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock.” (Schama,, 1995)

-- A landscape shaped through human intervention.

New York State Department of Transportation:

--“A way of seeing landscapes that emphasizes the interaction between human beings and nature over time; also–Any landscape people have created, modified or protected–from historic gardens and urban parks to conservation reserves, from neighborhood streetscapes to working farms and forests.” The Institute for Landscape Studies, Harvard University

My favorite, however, is not a definition at all but a description from the American Battlefield Protection Program that tells the meaning perfectly:

“Battlefields are historic landscapes. Across farmers’ fields armies clashed and moved on, leaving only blackened earth, hasty burials, scattered bullets and shell fragments, the litter of combat. Residents returning to the site picked up pieces of their lives, rebuilt their burned-out homes and planted the fields anew. Hastily buried bodies were unearthed and interred in local and national cemeteries. Relics were discarded. Life went on.

“Yet the passing event fundamentally altered the relationship of the community to the land. Once obscure places became associated forever with the momentous events of America’s wars. So long as the memory is nourished, people will point and say that is where the battle happened.”(Lowe, 2000)


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