Landscape as ethical condition

In a Paris Review interview, Italian poet Antonella Anedda makes a poignant case for why we should honor the land around us. All too often, she says, the land is but an afterthought, something to take and use and scar, and then so what?

Geology has made me aware of the insignificance of human presence, of the absence of an intelligent design. The landscape of La Maddalena and Sardinia is harsh and barren and windswept. The vegetation is sparse, but also, often enough, scarred by arson, for humans have wounded the landscape as well. Since the early eighteenth century, when Sardinia was ruled by the House of Savoy, systematic deforestation was the policy.

… when the landscape is wounded by greed and speculation … has been scarred . . . the landscape that surrounds us … reminds us that we are not the masters of the natural world. It is an ethical condition. What is happening to the landscape in Sardinia and elsewhere is deeply worrying. Landscape has a relation, a spatial relation, to rhythm in poetry.

Maddalena
La Maddalena is the main island in an archipelago of the same name, off the northern coast of Sardinia.

Anedda’s formulation strikes me as true, exact, right on. Who can stand in the middle of a landscape like the granite of La Maddalena, or the limestone of the Ozarks where I live, or the Rocky Mountains, or a fragile desert, for that matter, and not feel awe? Not feel that we are transient compared with the rhythms of “rocks, and stones, and trees” (William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”) that roll us around and our loved ones who inexplicably and inevitably fall and die.

The Lake District
The Lake District of northwest England through which William Wordsworth walked and mused (long before modern tourists).

And an awe bound up, as Anedda suggests, with the silence and solitude of the land, the terrestrial rhythms that permeate nature and take us back to archaic times. Even the dullest of us has to feel that we’re trespassing when we step into the vastness and silence of nature; feel that we’re displacing the land, or the land (soon enough) will be displacing us and our petty individual lives. 

Like Wordsworth, a later English poet, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928), recounts an abandonment to nature, in a poem called “Moorland Night”:

My face is against the grass — the moorland grass is wet —
My eyes are shut against the grass, against my lips there are the little        blades,
Over my head the curlews call, And now there is the night wind in my        hair;
My heart is against the grass and the sweet earth,– it has gone still, at      last;
It does not want to beat any more,
And why should it beat?
This is the end of the journey.
The Thing is found.

We’ve all had an inkling of that final thing, I would think, and if not had best get around to it before we find ourselves (that is, lose ourselves entirely) in a landscape of ruin.

Here and now in the States, at the start of the more environmentally conscious Biden administration, we hear the same wearisome and unconvincing argument about jobs, jobs, jobs. Why should we switch from gas-guzzling cars to electric? Oil extraction and exploitation give us jobs, money, livelihood if not life. So what if we scar the land and ruin it, in effect, with our depredations? More money to spend on more unnecessary things, the junk we see in the ads or the store aisles.

Of course, it’s American poets like Gary Snyder that come to mind most readily when we think of landscape, as in the lovely and particular discovery that is the subject of “Above Pate Valley,” a poem in which the narrator has certainly got his derriere off the couch and out into nature, which is not untouched, not an idyl anymore:

We finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek …

Look at this poem and feel the rhythms of the hike that Snyder is taking, and taking us along on, up through the mountains “Beyond the white pine groves, / Granite shoulders, to a small / Green meadow .” Yes, this is the poetic rhythm that corresponds, as Anedda would have it, to the landscape it describes or enacts. A rhythm that jolts us into the discovery, in Snyder’s case, of a high-up and faraway place where he finds the remains of past human exploitation.

“Up to you!” as my comical younger brother Bob used to say, when he was alive to say it, about any life dilemma. Our relation to the land is certainly a dilemma, a tragical dilemma, and an ethical condition that demand a response from all of us.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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