Today, I gave a short presentation about my history and work to the Regional Conference of IFLA Americas. Thank you to Ricardo Riveros and the team at IFLA Americas for inviting me. Preparing for that presentation made me think a little about what’s converged to influence the way I think about landscape. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:
As an older kid and young teenager, I lived on a hobby farm in southeast Missouri. It’s a small-scale, mostly post-agricultural landscape. It’s a patchy landscape, filled with rolling hills, forest growth of various ages, and small patches of agricultural land. Few people make a full liveable income from farming. Fields are rarely more than 15-20 acres in size. It’s a landscape that feels very approachable (maybe because it’s my baseline for how landscape should feel) - never overwhelming in relationship to the scale of a human body. Walk half a mile, a quarter even, and the landscape is likely to change.
It’s impossible to escape the reality that this landscape is shaped by the interaction of humans with geology, water, plant life.
The larger geographic context reflects such confluences of force. Missouri is both southern and midwestern (the Midwesterner recently had a great piece on this - “State of Flux”, Elizabeth Enochs). Especially in southeast Missouri, we have a weird cultural identity - neither fully southern or midwestern. Gillian Flyn is the author that I’ve found does the best job of interpreting this place, especially in Sharp Objects, set in a fictional town in the Missouri bootheel. It’s the book that I’ve read which best reflects the feel of the place where I grew up - and that’s well translated in the HBO miniseries.
Perry County, where I grew up, lies right where the edge of the Ozarks arcs up to shape the northwest side of the Mississippi River Delta. Over eons, the river cut through that crescent of rocky ledges before opening into the wide meandering silty plain that wanders through the Missouri bootheel, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
While we were influenced by human movement east-to-west across the continent of North America, where I grew up, the influence of the River was much older. The place names reflect waves of settlement. This was first the land of the Kiikaapoi & Osage. Later, it was claimed by the French, the Spanish, the Germans, and those of us who only identify as Americans. Friends from the real midwest - the Great Plains, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois - are struck by the multilingual place names: Friedheim, Altenburg, Brazeau, Cinque Hommes, Belgique. Even in these names - I am confronted by the sense that landscape is never separate from humans. We make place. It makes us. We are always in relationship with it.
I’ve been reading a few books that have helped me tease out the way that I think about humans and our relationship to place. Here are some that I’ve found helpful:
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The Future Eaters, Tim Connolly
The Economics of Belonging, Martin Sandbu
The Gulf: Making of an American Sea, Jack Davis
Hello America, J.G. Ballard
Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto