Learning to See the Land

Environment, Humanities

By Bryce Tellmann

Many, perhaps most, of the students I teach are from the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, all states that are frequently referred to as “Plains States.” (We can spend a lot of time debating the inclusion criteria for a state to qualify as a “Plains State,” but that’s a different post.) At some point in the semester, I usually ask them, as a group, to complete this sentence: “The landscape of my state is ______.” Almost invariably, I am met with a unison chorus of “flat!” or “boring!” This response is more than mere topographical observation.

I grew up in western North Dakota, seeing the landscape much as my students do: essentially flat and nondescript. Not until years later did I realize that I lived in a very dramatic landscape: knuckles of stone push their way out of ancient hills, the last evidence of resistance to glacial domination thousands of years ago. Stretches that appear flat are actually cascading downward, racing toward whatever rare stream or coulee will collect the sparse rainfall. The grass itself frustrates efforts to touch the ground, as one must dig through several inches of dense, matted undergrowth to find soil. This immense complexity is most evident at dawn and dusk, when the extreme angle of sunlight throws easily elided variation into sharp relief.

My inability to describe this landscape as anything other than “flat!” when I was young was not because of an inability to distinguish between straight and crooked lines. Rather, I defined the place I lived as “flat” because I had learned that it was. Diane Quantic, a scholar of Great Plains fiction, reports a similar experience:

When I was a child and we traveled outside of Kansas, people would comment, “Oh, it’s flat there, isn’t it?” I assumed they were right … My childhood perspective—confusing “flat” with “hills”—and the adjustment we made when we moved to the edge of the true plains have made me aware of the effect of place upon point of view. (ix-x)

To Quantic’s last sentence I would add “and the effect of point of view upon place.”

What we think of the physical space of a region isn’t just—or even primarily—based on what we see. We bring our own baggage and expectations to our interaction with these places, and those expectations influence what we think we’re looking at. Rhetorician Casey Schmitt points out that the way we see landscapes is inescapably intertextual. That is, we understand landscapes based on other landscapes we have seen or heard about, whether in-person or as represented by photographs, movies, and other media. Judgments rendered as we hurtle along the Interstate—a system specifically designed to minimize contact with in-between places—places an onus on the land itself to impress us. I recently had an argument at my hometown bar about whether the drive from Bismarck to Rapid City is beautiful or not. I said it is; the gentleman on the other end of the table described it as “desolate.” We were talking about the same landscape, as seen from the same road, but we brought to the question different expectations.

A perfectly flat landscape with nothing of interest. Image credit: Bryce Tellmann.

Historically, we have had a compulsion to label prominent places – few mountaintops go unnamed. We are less likely to name flat places, or if we do, the names are much less popularly known. This vertical bias is not unique to any one culture, but it presented a particular challenge to European colonizers as they pushed into the interior of North America. Dick Harrison, writing about Canadian fiction in what would become the Prairie Provinces, calls this an inadequacy of European imagination: “They found no suitable conventions of landscape painting or description, very little in the way of architecture, song, story or social custom, and what there was among the Indians and Metis they failed to recognize” (14). Preoccupied as Euro-American landscape representation was with having some sort of focal point to establish a sense of scale, it would struggle for decades to come to terms with horizontal space. In many ways, it never came to terms with it.

This is more than aesthetic curiosity. How we see a landscape affects how we value it, and how we value a landscape affects how we see it. Harrison points out competing definitions of “land” as either “environment” or “property.” Each carries with it implications for proper use. Similarly, on the Great Plains, if we see our predominantly horizontal spaces as “empty,” “boring,” or “undeveloped,” there is little room for a meaningful relationship between humans and the landscape. But if we attune ourselves to the drama present in the most nondescript quarter section of prairie grasses, we find the means by which to cultivate a more nuanced – dare I say, affectionate – relationship to our corner of the world. As the increasingly dramatic consequences of climate change are teaching us, the natural environments in which we live are not merely settings for the stories we tell. They are characters themselves.

In my upcoming STEAM Café, I’ll talk about how we’ve seen and told stories about the Great Plains and how those stories stack up against the social, economic, and environmental challenges the region faces. More so than many other regions, the regional identity of the Great Plains is often tied directly to its landscapes, and this landscape has been envisioned as a garden, a desert, a future paradise, a broken promise, and countless other stories. Each of these visions is the result of the goals, preoccupations, and ideals of the viewer. What remains to be seen is if we can tell stories about the past of this region that enable us to confront its future.

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