Wondering about landscape appreciation

Hi everyone, I am a first time blogger here. Am based in Cambridge, UK, and doing a PhD there at the moment. I have come back from fieldwork some 6months ago.

Before I went off to fieldwork in the northern Taiga of Siberia I made a little booklet with pictures of my home country to show around at my fieldsite. I had compiled – in my opinion – the most beautiful photographs of 10 years of hiking and skiing in the mountains together with pictures of medieval towns. This, I felt, summed up well the beauty of my home country, the Tyrol.

Fast forward to a camp in the forest:

Surprised noises from the first person to look at it summoned more people to crowd around the booklet. I took the oohs and aahs at first as a sign of appreciation, until I was told otherwise.

‘My, how hard it must be to live there.’

‘Just rocks everywhere, how do people manage there?’

And finally, ‘Now I see why you like to come here to the forest so much. I can understand you.’

I was more than surprised. All the landscapes, views and vistas that I treasured were a reason for people to pity me. The locals especially commented on a series of pictures, taken from a mountain top of a little over 3000m where I spent the night tied with a rope to the top in order to not accidentally fall off in my sleep and capture the sunrise. The whole of the Alpine range from Austria to France could be seen.

The only two things they could relate to as something nice in the booklet where pictures of the monument of a hunter in bronze and the flower pots lining all the windows of the houses.

This got me thinking about my first reactions to the landscape that the locals of my fieldsite lived in. I did not find it beautiful but rather worrisome to navigate in. It was not only flat, but seemed to me to consist of swamps only, different types, but nevertheless. The lack of clear views and vistas among the trees and bushes posed to me a tremendous challenge of not getting lost and the swamps one of not getting stuck. But the more I walked in it, the more I learned to appreciate it. Not the clear views seen from a stationary point but the myriads of ever-changing tiny vistas created by my movement through the forest made the charm and beauty of the place. Beauty through movement?

So maybe the locals’ reaction to the pictures of the rocky alps was not only based on their preferring forest to rocks as a place of living, but also on their type of landscape experience and appreciation. Especially the pictures taken from mountain tops (as opposed to those taken on the way up or down) offer a tremendous view of very large distances without having to change place or move about. For me this is one of the reasons I love going up mountains and then sit for hours on the top enjoying the view without moving. But it also constitutes a very static landscape view, to a large point independent of movement.

What are the locals’ opinion and experience of vistas and, what’s more, what kind of vistas? When walking long distances with them I observed how much they appreciated changing surroundings to keep them interested and vigil. They told me how a walk seemed shorter to them that way, how different types of forest offer different grounds to walk on and demand different ways of looking (looking through the trees, towards the top of trees, on the ground, expecting different animals, different signs, and different resources). All these mini-vistas could change within minutes and form a dynamic mosaique.

Except for a newly introduced type of landscape that offers long, far distance vistas that do not change for hours even when one is in movement: clear cut tracts made by oil-explorers. These tracts allow the locals to look far ahead, to see a far away point that they have to reach. A different landscape experience: valued by some because it enables more direct movement, devalued by some because walking on them is so disheartening with the vista never changing.

To my surprise, after I have finished the fieldwork, my landscape appreciation seems to have changed for good. Where I loved open places with a good view before, I feel more intimidated now and tend to look for a dense forest to find good shelter. Where before I enjoyed a large pine forest, I now feel bored after a while, because it is only a pine forest and not a patchwork of different types of forest and swamps that makes reaching a patch of pine forest all the more wonderful. When I look at my booklet now, I see the rocks and barren places before I see the vista. I notice now that I tend to photograph mountain tops without showing the valley or the mountain forest below, which comes from taking pictures when standing on a high mountain top where valleys cannot be seen.

I am curious about your experiences of and ideas about landscape appreciation when it comes to your fieldsite and home country.

Ewe Landerer

One thought on “Wondering about landscape appreciation

  1. Stephan Dudeck

    Short and spontaneous comment: your experiences in challenging your own aesthetic views on landscape with that of people with a completely different lifestyle constitute something like the core of ethnographic fieldwork and I like this kind of interactive experimental communication in witch not only the fieldworker learns about the hosts but they learn also something about the fieldworkers views on the world.
    There is a lot of literature on the historical development of European aesthetic views of the mountains and especially of the Alps and it’s easy to understand how it developed out of secularisation and the romanticism. During my fieldwork in the West Siberian taiga I was not so much surprised that my hosts did not share my aesthetic relationship to the beauty of landscapes, light and vistas. I thought that for them this is not wild nature but a working place and a living room. But to my surprise I discovered that they were in some moments also overwhelmed by the beauty of the forest, the colours of the sky or the snow, emotions that appear during the movement through the forest by snowmobile or reindeer sledge. One guy asked me once “Did you feel the same when we were riding the sledge?” And I asked “What do you mean?” And he answered: “It was like if my soul was singing.” I shared something very similar while sitting on the sledge, breathing the cold air and driving through the silvery and golden shining forest-tundra over lakes and between the small birch trees covered by snow.

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