Landscape and Images

December 2, 2020
Landscape and Images

John Stilgoe is just looking around. This is more difficult thanit sounds, particularly in our mediated age, when advances in boththeory and technology too often seek to replace the visual evidencebefore our own eyes rather than complement it. We are surrounded bylandscapes charged with our past, and yet from our earliestschooldays we are instructed not to stare out the window. Someonewho stops to look isn't only a rarity; he or she is suspect.Landscape and Images records a lifetime spent observingAmerica's constructed landscapes. Stilgoe's essays follow theeclectic trains of thought that have resulted from his observation,from the postcard preference for sunsets over sunrises to theconcept of "teen geography" to the unwillingness of Americans towalk up and down stairs. In Stilgoe's hands, the subject of jack o'lanterns becomes an occasion to explore centuries-old concepts ofboundaries and trespassing, and to examine why this originallypagan symbol has persisted into our own age. Even something asmundane as putting the cat out before going to bed is traced backto fears of unwatched animals and an untended frontier fireplace.Stilgoe ponders the forgotten connections between politics andpainted landscapes and asks why a country whose vast majority livesless than a hundred miles from a coast nonetheless looks to therural Midwest for the classic image of itself.At times breathtaking in their erudition, the essays collectedhere are as meticulously researched as they are elegantly written.Stilgoe's observations speak to specialists—whether they beartists, historians, or environmental designers—as well as to thecommon reader. Our landscapes constitute a fascinating history ofaccident and intent. The proof, says Stilgoe, is all around us.