- The Camaro in the Pasture: Speculations on the Cultural Landscape of America by Robert B. Riley
The Camaro in the Pasture: Speculations on the Cultural Landscape of America
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.
xii + 170 pages.
ISBN: 978-081-393715-1, $39.50 HB
ISBN: 978–081-393716-8, $39.50 EB
“The countryside just doesn’t look like countryside is supposed to anymore,” Robert Riley writes in the essay that gives this collection its name. “The tractor-tire garden out front is now an eight-year-old Camaro with a ‘for sale’ sign on it” (92). This unexpected new reality—Riley’s “machine in the garden”—prompts a broader inquiry into the contemporary rural landscape in transition.1 It used to be that people who lived on the land also earned a living from it. This old rural landscape played a stable role as both a physical place and an image of preindustrial wholesomeness in the spatial imaginary of the modern city. Today, however, much of the American countryside has shed its traditional associations and become part of the metropole, home to “commuters, retirees, or desktop publishers earning a living from their den,” who “regard the rural landscape not as a productive system or a way of life but as a locational amenity” (94).
The Camaro in the Pasture, which brings together twenty-six essays and short reflections—half of them published previously, the earliest from 1958—represents Riley’s more than fifty-year engagement with U.S. cultural landscapes, rural and urban, as a writer, educator, and designer. He is professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois and for nearly twenty years served as the editor of Landscape, the [End Page 136] journal of human geography created by John Brinckerhoff Jackson in 1951. Riley dedicates this volume to his mentor, “in memory of Brinck.” He is among those most influenced by Jackson’s gift for seeing and analyzing the American landscape, and this book is a tribute and contribution to that tradition.
Jackson is perhaps best remembered for crafting pithy and evocative portraits of new metropolitan rituals, like the Sunday drive as a 1950s family outing. His wry description of the danger, hassle, and sensorial paucity of such an experience in “The Abstract World of the Hot-Rodder” sent him into an affectionate reverie for the past: “I find myself recalling the days when the streetcar was the chief means of Sunday transportation out of the city.”2 Jackson viewed the streetcar excursion as a spiritual and deeply ecological experience. He was not paralyzed by nostalgia, however. His genius lay in recognizing how new forms of mobility generated novel cultural landscapes. Jackson’s essay goes on to explore the abstract world of the hot-rodder as the paradigm for a more visceral and direct type of engagement with the physical landscape in which the excursionist wanted to be part of the environment and not just its observer.
Hot-rodding—building, adapting, and racing cars—anticipated the rise of skiing, surfing, gliding, mountain climbing, and other less communal and more kinetic sports where the individual is at the controls. (This list also included motorcycle riding, well known to be Jackson’s travel mode of choice.) At the time, Jackson’s appreciation was all the more radical because the hot-rodder got no respect in highbrow circles: “What we notice in particular about his activities is the rubbish-strewn landscape, the disregard for time-honored esthetic values, the reckless driving.”3 Jackson resisted the urge to prejudge, however. The drag strip and the motorcycle excursion, like the Sunday family drive, were for him authentic expressions of culture, and their practitioners would create “a new poetry and a new nature mysticism,” a prediction that just barely postdated an early example of such work: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.4
Though steeped in this tradition, Riley balances Jackson’s imperative to observe with a competing one shaped by his role as designer and critic: to improve. J. B. Jackson was not averse to critique. In his essay “The Stranger’s Path,” for instance, he warned against the clearance of...