Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Boundary Issues

A couple days ago I quoted John Stilgoe on reflected light, and the other day I quoted Sven Birkerts on the "gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal," a phenomenon which Birkerts says "parallels the overall societal shift from bounded lifetimes spent in single locales to lives lived in geographical dispersal amid streams of data." Here is Stilgoe again, from earlier in Landscape and Image, describing what a "bounded lifetime" looked and felt like:

Smallness was both absolute and subjective in the typical medieval landschaft. The twelve-to-fifteen mile area was home to perhaps three hundred people satisfying almost all of their own wants. Every rod of ground was fully recognized as vitally important. Meadows, arable fields, and pastures were precisely divided and bounded by paths and balks, and everyone spoke a vocabulary of landmarks. Space was symbol. A family's dwelling bespoke economic and social status as clearly as its fields expressed skill at husbandry; every spot was invested with memory or some other significance — the copse where someone saw the Devil, the corner where the cart collapsed, the hill struck twice by lightning long ago. To move about the landschaft was to move within symbol, to be always certain of past and present circumstance. The laborer, woodcutter, baker, and husbandman understood each other's responsibilities and associated each responsibility with a specific place. By place, men understood social position and spatial location: the woodcutter's place was hewing timber in the woodlots, not directing apprentices at the bakeshop. Cycles of birth, marriage, and death, of sowing and reaping, of building and rebuilding all found expression in space. (33)

That bounded harmony was broken first by the road:

The integrity of the landschaft was broken by princes and kings intent on consolidating their rule. From the fifteenth century onward, at first hesitantly and then decisively, they made forests and other wastes safe for travel... The new concern for roads, and for exploration, developed as slowly as political unity and long-distance overland commerce, but eventually it entered the popular imagination as strassanromantik. The romance of the road found expression in ballads and tales and, most importantly, in wandering. The newly safe roads which passed from landschaft into forest promised excitement and fortune... Self-sufficiency vanished as capitals and large towns drained surrounding regions of talent and produce and flooded markets with fashionable goods... Local values contested with those of the road; the husbandman prized honesty, but the peddler prized sharpness...Travelers were anonymous, and their larger experience was approached with a mixture of distrust and deference by adults and adolescents alike. The road introduced the kind of marked change in interpersonal relationships which one usually associated only with city life. Strangers met knowing they might not meet again, judged each other as types according to dress and occupation, and talked of matters of importance only among themselves. (35-7)

And then came the turnpikes, and then the railroads:

Railroads only sharpened the dichotomy between traveler and inhabitant already implicit in turnpike design. Trains followed their rights-of-way too quickly for casual communication between passengers and spectators, and forced riders to look sideways at a silent blur. Soon space was ordered about the track; towns focussed on stations, water towers, and grain elevators which blocked passengers' views of the towns...The railroad traveler was denied a long-distance view and the opportunity of stopping to analyze nearby space. The inhabitants of trackside areas could in turn only gape at the faces staring behind the glass. (37)

This dynamic in the evolution of the modern world is captured quite precisely by a painting I've always loved, often taught, and recently found myself thinking about often as I was reading Stilgoe and Birkerts. The Lackawanna Valley was painted by George Inness in 1855. It shows the new railroad roundhouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania. At some point in the not-so-distant past, Penn's Woods were cleared to make pasture for the cows: both the stumps and even the cows themselves are visible in the painting (not so visible in this digitial reproducation, but in a larger version you can make them out just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. And now the pasture has been cut through by the railroad. The locomotive is steaming from the background right into the center of the picture, heading right for an old man in a white shirt, red sweater, and straw hat sitting alongside the cowpath. This is a man who presumably has a connection to this place, who has been witness to its history and its continuing evolution from forest to farm to industrial park. A world becoming flatter, more horizontal, with each passing day.

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