- Listening to the Mojave Desert:A Magical Confusion
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In this article I detail how listening to a landscape, and speaking for a landscape, can be achieved in creative geographical practice. In the penultimate section of the article, readers get a chance to listen to the Mojave Desert answer a question about death. This is an experiment in the process of personifying a cultural geographical concept—landscape—such that the desert itself, in all of its micro-detail, becomes woven together into a character with something to say. How does a landscape talk? It talks through human voices, and human thoughts and emotions and perspectives. A human author must put pen to paper, something that the abstract, culturally constructed category “landscape” cannot do. As a concept, landscape relies on the admission that it objectifies a swath of territory and separates it from a seeing, analytic human, a point refreshed by the native Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko. When Silko talks about the relationship between Pueblo cultures and the land, the landscape is already personified in a certain way. Namely, for Silko the earth seems to express itself through people a priori; there is no need for an intentional voicing. She writes that “so long as the human consciousness remains within the hills, canyons, cliffs, and the plants, clouds, and sky, the term landscape, as it has entered the English language, is misleading” (Silko 1987, 84). [End Page 65]
Writing from the perspective of a landscape, then, is very much an Enlightenment project, and is in actuality using the landscape to think—to organize those ideas, emotions, and perspectives that one associates with particular landscapes (Lopez 2006). I believe the societies comprising non-Native America need a way to listen to what the landscape has to say, much more clearly than they have since militarily conquering the continent. This cannot bother, borrow, or steal from Native spiritualities, nor can it replace them. It should, rather, be generative, and like its Native counterparts, be peaceful, respectful, nonviolent, and caring. If it must start from an Enlightenment perspective where the landscape is a separate entity, then so be it, but let the voices we give to the landscape be plural. Speaking from the perspective of a landscape is therefore a political act (Marston 2013). To speak from the perspective of a landscape, one must first listen to it, and listening to a landscape is a way to build an extension of oneself into that landscape. Fortunately, the seeds of what it means to listen to a landscape have already been sown.
Writers concerned with strengthening humans’ attachment to places have argued that landscapes speak with their own language. Susan Naramore Maher, for example, has offered a range of evocative terminology to help us understand the type of language spoken by a landscape. These terms include a “biomic voice,” a “particular grammar,” a “home tongue,” a “land’s idiolect,” or a “home ground vocabulary” (Maher 2015, 148–49). Maher further hints that in listening to the land, people become forensic linguists, deciphering bit by bit the syntax of the land’s tongue.
Near the end of this article I ask the Mojave Desert a question, and then hear what it has to say. For some readers, it may be a work that is more easily categorized as creative writing, or art, than geography. Creative geographical practice is nascent within the geo-humanities, and there is not yet (nor may there ever be) a readily agreed-upon set of activities that encompass that creative practice (Hawkins 2014; Cresswell 2015; Vannini 2015). Analytic epistemologies reward working hypotheses, but not free speculation. Listening to a landscape—and subsequently speaking for it—are imaginative acts, fueled by the position, beliefs, intentions, and knowledge of the listener, and compose one possible avenue of praxis within the geo-humanities. The kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen (2007, 37) describes how he conceives the artist’s method in opposition to that of an engineer. For the artist, he says, [End Page 66]