This summer, I’ve been working on collecting my thoughts around landscape painting into a new essay. Here’s an excerpt:
Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations interprets the United States as a precarious coalition of eleven warring regions. Woodard tells U.S. history through the lens of tracking each region’s evolution and migrations within the country over time, from the first arrivals of European settlers to the present. The book was a revelation to me, in that it theorized a truth that I’d sensed, inarticulately, about my home country.
I’ve always been fascinated by how, in the United States, different worldviews center around distinct, geographic regions. When I was three, my parents, sick of the cold in their bones, uprooted their lives from Michigan and set off for sunny central Florida. For the first few years of my life, I drank “pop” and called my parents’ friends by their first names, but in Florida I was raised amidst Southern, conservative culture. Our household somehow managed to embrace it all while maintaining pride in our Northern roots, while nurturing my sister and I’s sense of Jewish heritage and our secular, science-oriented worldview. Looking back, it seems miraculous that I never knew a bee sting of prejudice until I left for college.
I recently took a road trip from Philadelphia to Orlando. In North Carolina, I was struck by bright yellow billboards punctuating the walls of foliage lining I-95, reading “Jesus is Savior,” or more concisely, “REPENT.” In South Carolina, a roadside field had been cleared for an enormous confederate flag. From the car, the landscape seemed to back up Woodard’s thesis of America’s cultural pluralism. The views from my window also seemed the perfect illustration of how landscape is more than land shaped by practical human needs; landscape is branded by the ideology of its inhabitants.
Trump country is beautiful. There’s tension in the thought because the landscape’s formal and political reality are at odds (for me, at least). There’s an awkwardness to feeling moved by a landscape that’s intimately tied to a culture far from one’s own. Every time I visit extended family in central Pennsylvania, I grapple to square my love of the landscape with certain Appalachian ways that I reject. I think the discomfort is telling; it suggests some reciprocity between a place and its people, it implies landscape’s animacy. Another way to think of it might be that landscape is steeped, ontologically, in its human history.