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o'keeffe road to the ranch 2Our eyes are the great nexus between the inner and outer worlds, where the outer existence pours into our consciousness as if funneled through our irises, and where, conversely, our inner selves are projected, like a light-beam, out onto the world. Neither is sufficient of itself, but together, they create our sensibilities.

vision x 1

It is a great “X” where the two lines cross on our retinas and expand outward into the landscape on one side, and inward onto our cortex on the other. Which open angle of the “X” subsumes the larger extent has been the subject of philosophizing for thousands of years.

(This is not meant as a scientific description of the physiology of sight, but a metaphor for vision.)

Andrew Marvell summarized this process, albeit in his witty turn on a once-familiar Elizabethan trope, in his poem, The Garden, where he creates an image out of this “X:” “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find” and then goes on to say how that interchange is always colored by the mind that perceives: “Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

Which is all a long, roundabout way of saying that landscape — the world around us: geology, geography, our neighborhoods, even the interior of our homes — is never neutral, but always has meaning. It is this meaning that makes the land we inhabit so important to our intellectual understanding of the world.

We can easily misunderstand “meaning.” It does not stand for the equals sign in an equation: this means that; but rather we should understand “meaning” as “significance,” as when we wake up from a dream thinking “that dream meant something.” We may not know what the dream meant, but we are left with the distinct conviction that it had significance. This significance — this meaning — is the electrical power that charges myth and makes it glow from the inside.

The land, as we perceive ourselves living in it, is a projection of ourselves, as much as we are a product of it. robt lee 1

It was the land he grew up in that Robert E. Lee felt compelled to defend in the Civil War. The causes and results of that war are manifold, and the self-interest of slave owners should not be underplayed, but when Lee discussed his motives, it was his patriotism, not for the Union, but for the single commonwealth of Virginia that drove his actions: and it was the landscape he grew up in that fueled that sectional patriotism. (Again, this is not to justify Lee or the Confederacy, but to understand how much the landscape he grew up in defined his vision of what the world was and should be). Yoknapatawpha.County map

The landscape informs almost every important piece of literature, from the Mediterranean upon which Odysseus sailed to the woods of Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner populated, back to the snowy steppes of Russia in War and Peace and forward again to the Pennsylvanian suburbs of John Updike.

It is not merely that the action in a novel or epic has to take place somewhere, but that the land itself becomes a character and influences the lives and thought of all who inhabit it.

The land we inhabit in life has the same kind of metaphorical power that it does in literature. In some ways, we each live in the novel (or epic) of our own lives, and the characters in our personal novels all have meaning to us, including the land we tread.

That mythic force is why we feel the rise in our throats when we sing of “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.”

Our ur-landscape also provides a model of the wider world, which can influence our thought, emotions and political views, even when that landscape gives us distorted information. If we live in a city, we tend to think of the world as thick with people who have to get along to survive; if we grew up in Wyoming, we are more likely to see the world as mostly empty, and our interactions with others as less important, and often intrusive, and our survival dependent on ourselves alone. Conversely, those interactions in the rural West tend to be understood more personally, while in the bustle of New York, you must create some private space among the throng, and therefore can seem more impersonal to a neutral observer.

In the city, horizons are blocked and the space in which we understand ourselves to be acting is constricted; in the American West, horizons are planetary, and we believe ourselves to be actors in a vast scheme. The mythologies that develop in such places are vastly different.

Manhattan and Wyoming are just two extremes, but each landscape provides its own influence, has its own meaning.

It isn’t a question of right or wrong, but of partial visions, each partly distorted, partly clear. The Georgia farmer and the Maine lobsterman or the Cuban immigrant in Miami don’t merely see their home towns and counties as different, but project those differences out into the rest of the country (there is a reason our so-called “red states” and “blue states” are organized geographically) and onto the rest of the world, including the Middle East, Putin’s Russia and expanding China. It is an unavoidable provincialism. Travel is the cure.

Not merely that travel introduces us to other peoples, but shows us other soil, and other relationships to that soil. Landscape has great power.

It is to seek this power that great landscape artists — whether painters or photographers — make their pictures. It is not to make a postcard of a pretty piece of scenery, but to find in the land a metaphor for thought, emotion or state of mind — or even a political philosophy.

I am reminded of a passage in Hector Berlioz’s memoirs, where he says, “It is like the visitor who go up into the colossal statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Como (Italy), and who are amazed to discover the room where they have just sat is the inside the saint’s head.”clearing storm winter

And one is surprised, looking at Ansel Adams’ Clearing Storm Winter, Yosemite, that the view is as much inside one’s head as it is of the outer world. That is, that the scene feels in some way a perfect metaphor for the imagined landscape inside the skull, including a floor, a valley with borders, a tall ceiling or sky, and lots of weather. “That’s my brain,” I say looking at the photograph.yosemites postcard 1

But, of course, the land isn’t always that dramatic, always that Romantic. Indeed, Adams’ photographs can easily drop into the picturesque, like some supremely crafted post-card image. And it isn’t only the great mountains of the West that have meaning in landscape art.

The other great Adams in photography, Robert Adams, can photograph a street in Los Angeles or the flat plains of Nebraska and find a way — to quote him from his book, Why People Photograph — “to affirm life without lying about it.”Hopper

Telling the truth, however, isn’t the same as reporting the fact. The truth of how land creates meaning is obvious in the paintings, say, of Edward Hopper, where the raking light of early morning gives New York City a glowing loneliness that says something more truthful than merely transcendence in the light or the alienation of the empty street. There is both. The disjunction gives the painting its power.

I remember the first time my wife and I drove out West. We both grew up in the East, with its forests and slope-shouldered hills, with its rivers and streams, its highways and billboards. But as we drove, the landscape slowly became less and less familiar as the trees thinned out and the hills flattened into the billiard table of the Texas panhandle. Then, suddenly, the bottom dropped out of the world, right at the New Mexico border and we descended from the tableland into a land of buttes and mesas in the Canadian River basin. The ground was dun and gravelly and we realized for the first time that the landscape of the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons was a real landscape, and that all those tall buttes didn’t so much rise up above the land, as that the land dropped away from the peneplain into vast miles of valley, with the buttes as remnants of the former geology. It wasn’t merely a change in scenery, but a completely different world.
Monument Valley mittensAs we traveled around the country, we kept finding new worlds, and each new world was a new birth for us, a new awareness of the variety of meanings and significances of the planet.

NEXT: West Virginia

Olympic coast

 

There were a few photos left over from my blog about seeing the West for the first time. These were taken, mostly, on trips across the country in 1981, 1982 and 1983, leaving from Virginia and driving west across the Mississippi River and into the landscape that has the mythological cast to become not merely a piece of land, but a segment of psychology.

Olympic stumpScorched redwoodMendocino County, CalifKiva, Mesa Verde, ColoNisqually GlacierHydro OklaSonoma Valley fenceHaystacks, Joes, ColoSunflowers ND 01Desert scene copyTexasDante's View Death ValleyTorrey, UtahCrumbacher LakeTsegi CanyonChuckanutVermilion CliffsAspens, ColoArch Cape, Ore

Glen Rio, Tex (N.M

It is hard to describe to anyone not born and raised in the eastern portion of this country what a shock it is to see the American West for the first time. One gets used to the thick forests and twisting roads and the dense population of the East.

I had managed not to see the West until I was nearly 35. I was unprepared for what I found. There were mesas, buttes, mountains, geysers, chasms, canyons and prairies. There were deserts, high plains, cactus and arroyos. My eyes were pie plates. It was all new. We’re not in New Jersey anymore.Dawn, Grand Canyon

The air was crisp and dry. You could see 50 or 100 miles through it. Every day, there was something I had never seen before and had never even imagined.

This was in 1982, and in one single summer trip my wife and I put 10,000 miles on our car while driving in a huge loop around the Western half of the continent, and we saw everything from the Grand Canyon to Mount Rainier. We felt like mere babes, dumbstruck by a world we only knew through paintings by Thomas Moran, movies by John Ford and photographs by Ansel Adams. We hadn’t really believed what we had been shown: Nothing is really that gobsmacking.Goosenecks of the San Juan

We had some incredible luck. By accident, we came to Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona by the back roads and found a place along the edge of it that was not crowded with tourists. We sat alone on the rim looking down into the abyss for hours, listening to the breeze and the birds, before another car even drove by.White House Ruins

We were lucky enough to drive through California’s Death Valley in June. It was empty also. Few people are crazy enough to go there when it is 115 degrees. But it meant we saw Death Valley at its most characteristic. It is well named.Zabriskie Point

We were lucky to pass through Depuyer, Mont., when the cottonwood trees were shedding their ”fluffy-duffies” and coated the whole town like a blizzard.

”I love this time of year,” the woman behind the store counter told us. ”When I was a little girl, I would collect as much fluff as I could and make little doll quilts from it and use it to stuff doll pillows.”

There was a mile-long climb up the Lake Angeles trail in the Olympic Mountains of Washington, and at the top we came to a fog-skimmed lake with the rocky precipice of Mount Angeles on the other side, looking like a living, breathing Thomas Moran painting.Hurricane Ridge

There were the steaming clouds of limestone piled up in Yellowstone National Park, at Mammoth Hot Springs, glistening with trickled water.Mammoth Hot Springs

And driving east from Yellowstone, down the Shoshone River Canyon, dropping off the eastern face of the Absaroka Mountains, we passed rock formations and river rapids.shoshone canyon

About 20 miles west of Cody, Wyo., we passed a road sign that read ”Weather Info Tune to 1610 AM.” We had seen such signs before, but this time we thought we’d try it out. Just as we did, the land opened up in front of us and we saw the sweeping plains that spread out towards the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, about 10 miles in front of us. The scene was perfect: Purple mountains trailed off into the distance, broad plains and a lake intensely blue spread like a feast before us, a sky higher than any we had seen, filled with four or five different kinds of clouds and interspersed with an ultramarine, rippled out to a visual infinity. I clicked on the radio, and instead of weather, we heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Star-Spangled Banner with the richest kitschiest accompaniment the Philadelphia Orchestra could muster.Wheatfield, Pendleton, Ore

I’m not much given to patriotic sentiment, but I could not hold back a tear. I felt as much an American as George M. Cohan ever did. I felt the shores of Tripoli, the amber waves of grain, home of the free. The choir sang all the verses and at the very end, in a vocal trick now commonplace but brand-new then, the choir jumped an octave on ”free-eeeeeeeeee” as it ended, and I swear it sounded like Beethoven’s Ninth.

SaguarosOf course, when we later moved to Arizona, some of the glory wore off. We lived in Phoenix, which is pretty much Cleveland in the desert, and after 25 years working there — it isn’t that we didn’t still love the beauty of the landscape, but that it became familiar; it no longer astonished us. The human psyche can get used to almost anything.

“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Now that we have moved back to the Blue Ridge Mountains — an entirely more comfortable, less spiky, less prickly landscape, softened with humidity and afternoon showers, green of the forest replacing the tawn of the desert — now that we have moved back, the night splashes full with dreams of distant impossibly white clouds with charcoal bottoms floating over red buttes and vast bajadas.

”The American West was not only a land of new beginnings, it was also one of bad endings.”

— Albert Castel, historian

"Badlands"

“Badlands”

People talk about the ”Myth of the West,” yet there are really two myths.

The old Western myth was that of the cowboys and Indians. It was the myth of Manifest Destiny, of expansion, growth and nation building.

The old myth was optimistic. It gave us wide-open spaces in which anything was possible and in which a civilization could be created. It was a myth in which a single determined man could make a difference.

It is the myth represented in Randolph Scott Westerns, Frederic Remington paintings — and all its sad modern-day imitators — and even the common rhetoric of patriotic politicians.

Frederic Remington, "Dash for the Timbers"

Frederic Remington, “Dash for the Timbers”

But there has grown a second myth, a yin to the former yang: the modern myth of the Great Plains as an existential hell where the flatness of the wide-open spaces closes in on you, offering no options. It is dry, dusty, vacant and soulless. In it, no one has a future and there is no escape.

Neither of these myths is necessarily true, but each has developed an aesthetic tradition around it. The new myth became dominant after the Second World War: In mass culture it gave us spaghetti Westerns, TV’s adult Westerns and Sam Peckinpah.

On a higher aesthetic plane it is the raw emptiness of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is the theme of the Bruce Springsteen album, Nebraska, and the place where Larry Clark took the photos in his legendary book Tulsa, with its drug addicts and domestic violence.

springsteen nebraska

In this pessimistic West, we want redemption, and there is none to be had.

”Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.

It is a landscape populated by incipient Charles Starkweathers and Richard Hickockses, people who work in dead-end mill jobs and meet each night after work in filthy dives for beer and fistfights.

They are a generation with no purpose in life, no reason for living past the next cigarette and Budweiser, drunk from a quart bottle with the screw-top thrown on the floor.

It is a world of incredible sensory deprivation. The houses they occupy — for they cannot be said to be living in them — have no pictures on the walls. The furniture is from Goodwill and the blank eye of the television is the center of the room.

Their eyes are as dead as ball bearings.

They have no inner lives, and the only way they can express themselves is with a knife or a penis.

Larry Clark, "Tulsa"

Larry Clark, “Tulsa”

The Old West was a landscape in which all things were possible; the new, affectless West is where all things are permitted.

You can see the new mythology building in the Eisenhower years. All the optimism of the new suburbs was subverted in the photographs of Robert Frank, whose book The Americans was published in 1958.

In that book, a disturbing underside of American chamber-of-commerce idealism was pictured. Frank’s photographs are populated with poverty, desperation, brutishness and lonesome highways leading nowhere.

In the book, the only divinity is the glare from the jukebox.

frank jukebox with baby

Frank’s off-the-cuff style was a revelation in the stylized, artificial ’50s of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Avedon himself later used this second Western myth in his powerful book The American West. It was roundly criticized when it came out for its alleged ”West bashing,” but the photographs were as honest and direct as they could be. You can see any of the people in them walking the streets of Phoenix or Albuquerque on any given day.

avedon

The old myth shines from the images of Ansel Adams; the new, bleaker myth informs the photos of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach.

Robert Adams, "Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968"

Robert Adams, “Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968”

Those who have a romantic notion of America’s Beat generation have not really paid attention to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for it is a book about this second Western myth. Instead of a panegyric to youth and poetry, it is really an elegy to spiritual emptiness and hunger.

The book is the prose equivalent of Frank’s pictures. Indeed, Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans when it was published.

Clark’s Tulsa fills out the image with dirty heroin needles and pregnant girlfriends with black eyes.

Malick made the landscape beautiful in his film Badlands, but he filled the film with senseless, ugly violence.

It is a Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and short.

It’s there in director Kimberly Peirce’s desolate film, Boys Don’t Cry.

"Boys Don't Cry"

“Boys Don’t Cry”

Yet, the film does imply an answer. And it is found in the landscape itself.

Peirce periodically interrupts the action with stop-motion footage of the Nebraska sky both day and night. In the day, the clouds speed across the face of the blankness; at night, the cars speeding down the highways make smears of light along the bottom of the picture while the stars spiral across the blue-blackness.

The lives portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry are squalid at best, but your heart breaks to see such smallness lived out in a landscape so sublimely vast.

So many scenes in the film are shot at night, where the tiny area of land illuminated by a car’s headlights is a metaphor for the limited vision of the landscape’s inhabitants.

Ultimately, the new Western myth is one of disappointment, that, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says: ”The kingdom of God is spread out before us, and yet men do not see it.”

Dawn, Grand Canyon

Dawn, Grand Canyon

When my wife and I were first married, we lived on the Atlantic Ocean, facing east. It was the direction we knew best: We both were born and raised on the East Coast, and although we sometimes migrated north and south, we had never been to the West.

So, as a kind of honeymoon, several years after the fact, we decided to spend one summer driving west to see the West.

The question became something of a joke on that trip: Where does the West begin?

When the country was young, the Western frontier was the Appalachian Mountains. It took people like Daniel Boone to blaze trails over the ridges into the new, green country beyond. We drove across those mountains the first day. It didn’t feel any more like the West than New Jersey.

The first real milestone was the bridge over the Mississippi River. In some ways, it is still the unofficial boundary between the nation’s East and West. We looked at each other as we drove with smiles of excitement; we were finally in the West.

Yet, the West turned out to be Arkansas and it didn’t look any different from Tennessee on the other side of the river.

We could convince ourselves that Arkansas really was the West; it was where “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker held his court, it was where Jesse James robbed trains. Yet, a look out the window told us it wasn’t really true. We hadn’t reached the West yet.

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Surely, then, Texas was the West. As we cruised through on Interstate 40, though, it was a nondescript, flat, boring land. The Texas Panhandle might be technically in the West, but it wasn’t the West of the Randolph Scott movies we knew when we were young. Where were the canyons? Where were the cactus and the Indians? Even the people sounded more Southern than Western.

The first moment we really felt as if we hit the West was the Texas-New Mexico line, when the Interstate suddenly comes down off the high plains and into the eroded country of the Canadian River bottom. We saw, for the first time in our lives, mesas and buttes, red rock under smooth blue sky.

We sat bouncing up and down in our car seats for the excitement. It was like seeing the moon for the first time, it was so alien, so fresh, so different from anything we had ever known.

But were we yet in the West? The question may seem silly, but all the rain that hit the dry ground would eventually aim to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian River dumps into the Arkansas River, into the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

So our next goal was the Continental Divide, which we crossed near Thoreau, N.M., camping the night at Blue Water Lake.

Yet even the next day, driving across Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense, this still wasn’t the West.

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

And when we finally got to the coast, we got out of the car and stood on a cliffside among the tall, drying cow parsnip and looked out over the Pacific Ocean, feeling like stout Balboa with wild surmise, silent, upon a peak in Darien. There could be no question but that we had reached the West.

Olympic Coast, Washington

Olympic Coast, Washington

But looking out over the blue sea, we knew there was yet somewhere further. Beyond was Hawaii, Japan, China, Tibet, India, Iran, North Africa — and that eventually, the westward search would lead us back to Virginia — where we began — and we would see it again as if for the first time.

And we recognized that the West isn’t a place you can ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon, or conversely, that every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else, and when you can see that, you can recognize the even the familiar ground on which you stand as electric with the same excitement you feel when you leave it.

For all points on the planet are its still center and that all real travel takes place not on the ground, but in the heart and mind.

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California