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Landscape Beholders

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

South African landscape

Author: Emily Courtney

Recently, I found an old copy of Emerson’s Essays. I began my writing about Nature’s Eye inspired by a quote from Emerson, but admittedly I’m not overly familiar with much of his writing, so I was excited to delve into it more deeply. He wrote on subjects ranging from history to art, love to spirituality, intellect to character, and of course, nature. I naturally skipped to the Nature essay first, and, inevitably, came across a quote that struck me:

“The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders.”

This sparked a long and winding string of thoughts and musings. Initially I balked, thinking, “there’s vast difference between landscapes! How could he come to that conclusion?!” I re-read the surrounding paragraph a few times to see if maybe I’d missed something in the context. As it sunk in, a particular moment from a college course came rushing back to me, when a professor had pointed out how subtly landscapes can change in space. He demonstrated how change in elevation as slight as a couple of feet could alter soil types and plant communities. I began to wonder if maybe Emerson knew this, too. It made me think about all the different landscapes I have seen: mountains, river valleys, prairies, deserts. They do seem different to me, but there is a commonality. There is a horizon. There is the earth itself, and the sky. All landscapes share common elements to their composition. It’s all nature, and the beauty of nature is consistent everywhere she resides. Perhaps that was his point.

However, that wasn’t the end of his thought, and I wonder if possibly his ultimate meaning was less about the landscapes themselves and more about how we, the beholders, relate to them. All of our life experiences boil down to perception. The way we perceive the world around us ultimately determines how we experience life. It is circular, however, as our perceptions are also shaped by our experiences. The crux of the line seems to be that we all have different perceptions and that translates to how we perceive nature as well. For some reason, Emerson felt it was important to convey that.

Perhaps it’s because he knew that there would come a time when people would have to agree upon a value to place on wild places. He knew we would have to decide what a landscape is worth, or how many dollars to assign to a mountain, and he knew that each person that beheld such places would value them differently. Maybe he knew that our perceptions of nature would shape how we cared for it. Knowing that some beholders of landscapes were also stewards of them, he may have hoped to inspire cooperation between conservationists.

The truth of Emerson’s sentiment can clearly be seen in current conservation and land management, with a wide range of perspectives bringing a variety of different approaches to the field. Each individual biologist, conservationist, land manager, farmer or rancher, has their own unique appreciation for nature. At some point in their life, they looked out across a landscape and decided it was worth caring for. Whatever they saw, whatever their perception was, it influenced their future work. Different managers can approach the same property and have completely different ideas about the best way to manage it. There are disputes over land use, where one beholder will see the perfect landscape for a farm, the other will see a forest. There is no one right way in conservation, and I think that’s the beauty of Emerson’s thought; that he allowed space for everyone’s different perceptions. Embracing the different perceptions of nature and ideas for conservation can be a great thing in our field. Nature thrives on variety. Having a variety of management practices used on properties and a variety of land use alternatives chosen across landscapes is a positive direction.

At the end of the day, I can’t know for sure what Emerson intended, or the purpose behind what he wrote. I can only read his words and let them ripple through my mind, creating a waterfall of my own thoughts. It seems to me that he wanted to bring to our attention that we all perceive nature differently, but that nature’s beauty is a constant, immune to the whims of our perceptions. I think he also wanted us to consider how we might work together, despite those different perceptions. Or, perhaps he simply meant that we can each take in a scenic view of a mountain and appreciate it in our own way. Intended or not, his words inspired a newfound appreciation for the varied perceptions each of us have as landscape beholders.

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