Topophilia

The humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan popularized the term “topophilia” after observing that people from all sorts of cultures around the world tend to identify one sort of landscape as the ideal, and that people do best when we have access to that landscape. One of his observations was that when given their choice, people preferred a gently rolling, well-watered (but not swampy), grassy landscape with scattered copses and clumps of trees. A savanna, in other words, but not flat. The presence of good grass and trees appealed to both herders and farmers, because it shows good soil and steady grazing. The scattered trees provide shelter but don’t block the view, and people like views. They like to see what’s around them, what’s coming.

People relate to our landscape in various ways. We sort out what is good from what is less good, and what is downright dangerous. This over here would be a great farm, that over there should probably stay managed woodland, and avoid that boggy place that smells bad. We fall in love with landscapes, or reject them for a host of reasons. I grew up on the High Plains, which are semi-arid steppe grasslands. The first summer I lived in the Midwest, I boggled at the thick, black soil and the lush grass even in mid-July. Green ditches are not natural. Ditch grass is brown. But in that part of the world? It is a wonderful landscape that has to be maintained by people, or large areas revert to wetland and marsh. Other parts would become forest. The landscape today is flat to gently rolling, with clumps of trees, large swaths of domestic grasses, and semi-managed watercourses. Sound familiar? It’s beautiful, fertile, prosperous, and a bit rough during winter, with the occasional tornado, derecho, and giant hail in summer.

One of the things that Yuan tried to impress on people, especially urban planners, is that people need greenspaces. I remember reading an account from LA, where well meaning urban planners descended on a ghetto/barrio area with designs for a community center and pool and other amenities that would benefit residents. The residents informed the planners in no uncertain terms that they did NOT want another swath of cement that happened to have a pool and community center. They wanted trees, and grass, and growing things. This was in the ’60s, when the concrete and steel school of urban landscaping and city planning was still hanging on. In this case, the planners listened, and after to-ing and fro-ing, a new urban greenspace appeared in the form of a park with some trails and sports fields and trees. A savanna, in other words.

All people related to our environment in some way. We may reject it and seek another, we may sample a variety of landscapes and decide on a particular one where we want to dwell, we change our current surroundings in order to better fit what we prefer. Some people try to shape landscapes (notably urban ones) in order to remake society in the image they prefer. Others attempt to put the environment under glass, to preserve a perfect “pristine” world that never actually existed, and that is not stable. If there is weather, and sunlight, and the occasional plant, you cannot have an unchanging “climax state” in the ecosystem. In fact, the idea of climax states has gone out the window. We may prefer the land to be a certain way, but often we have to keep it so by burning, or irrigating, or draining, or adding trees, removing trees . . . We’re as bad as beaver and bison, except we have thumbs.

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