- What is Landscape? by John R. Stilgoe
John R. Stilgoe. 2015. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 280pages. $19.95 hardcover, $13.95 eBook, ISBN: 978-0262029896 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0262330763 (eBook).
What is landscape? This is one of the most fundamental questions for landscape practitioners and researchers of the built environment to consider as a motivation for critical thinking about the past, present, and future. This type of question is truly a brainteaser that every generation of landscape architects has been fascinated by but has never fully answered. It is the type of question that defies answering because its seeming simplicity leads one to ask more questions. One only needs to look at the photograph on the book’s cover of a common landscape—a drainage ditch in a rural place—to realize that John Stilgoe has a lot to reveal in this book. Like catnip, this photograph will tug on the minds of readers to pick up this book and read it slowly and deliberately to savor its complexities and intricacies. All of us who have read his classic book, Common Landscape of America 1580 to 1845 (1982), are very familiar with this experience already, so it is apropos for another book by Stilgoe to explore the form and meaning of landscape and its roots in language, place, and culture.
Stilgoe uses a very particular and thoughtful approach to organizing this book to explore the meaning of the titular question, “What is landscape?” The first step, which I highly recommend, is to read the preface. Here he lays out the rationale for this book, which is unlike what is typically found in the literature of landscape architecture. He uses a very particular lens approaching landscape through its definition as a noun: “It designates the surface of the earth people shaped and shape deliberately for permanent purposes” (Stilgoe 2015, ix). With this definition landscape is a noun, but in between the lines the reader can glean its close relationship to process, action, and experience—whether influenced by environmental or anthropogenic changes. He stresses that his book’s approach is “a compact analysis of ‘landscape’ as a noun stripped of accessory and ornament, the word naming the skeleton and sinews of shaped land” (Stilgoe 2015, x). In its essence, this book is an analysis of the form and meaning of landscape as a noun in the English language, and by extension, how this rich, place-based vocabulary has also been influenced by other languages such as Frisian, Dutch, French, and German. Stilgoe is especially interested in the relationship of contemporary words about landscape, which we know well, to lesser-known old words about landscape that can only be found in old dictionaries and other sources.
In the preface, he also uses a very particular approach to show the relationship of contemporary words about landscape to old words. Bold-faced type is used in the preface and the remaining ten chapters to highlight key concepts, which Stilgoe uses as part of a relational approach to explore how the words are connected. It is tempting to think that this book would need a long glossary or index because of its emphasis on words, definitions, and meanings, but it does not have any of them. I contemplated why Stilgoe used this approach when I went searching for the index to find a word, and I then realized that this approach was probably deliberate. Instead, I had to dive into this book, because it is organized in such a way to reveal the form and meaning of landscape, which has its own intrinsic gestalt that cannot be easily dissected by an index. In many ways, the approach of using bold-faced type to highlight key concepts is much like connecting the dots—with each word representing a “dot” and [End Page 87] then Stilgoe’s words being the “line” that connects to the next “dot”—a new word. The ten chapters of this book are organized in this fashion to highlight how the language of landscape has evolved to have many subtle and complex relationships and for the need for the reader to explore and ramble...