The Place Looks Back
by Luanne Armstrong
Next door to our farm on Kootenay Lake, a rich man is building a house. This is happening a lot these days as the baby boomers retire and the price of lake frontage skyrockets. I don’t know this man, but I do wonder what he thinks about when he looks out at the pictures his windows make. Sometimes I imagine him as a blind man in a house full of light. The land upon which he has placed his house has been bulldozed, graveled, leveled, staked, concreted, and underneath, unknown and unseen, the earth is walking, moving, breathing, being born, living and dying while he sits, and stares at a picture he can only understand in a certain way, because he knows almost nothing about it except what it has cost. The land on which he has built his house is land I have walked on since I was five. And now I walk there no longer.
Of course, I am being unfair. I don’t know him and I don’t know what he sees. Nor do I really know if he is rich. In fact I don’t know anything about him because rural people are no longer neighbours. We pass each other on the road or in our lives, unknown, ungreeted. Once, rural people were neighbours because they depended on each other to survive. Now we live side by side, ignoring each other like people in a too crowded apartment building, even with a half-mile of space between us.
My father, who was from a different era, a different system, and different values, would have gone over, and introduced himself. He would probably have annoyed the man by telling him stories and then he would have ended by charming him. People were charmed by my father because they had never met anyone like him before and probably never would again. My father assumed everyone was his neighbour because he had always survived as a rural pioneer person. For him, neighbours mattered. Who they were and what they thought about things mattered much less than the fact that they were present and available to be neighboured with.
But I’m a writer who imagines things so instead of introducing myself, I imagine the way that this man looks at the pictures his windows make. Perhaps he says to his friends, “Look at the view” and they say, “Isn’t it pretty,” and “Aren’t you lucky.” I know some of what I imagine might be true because before he built his enormous summer home, projecting out over the water, he put up a sign naming his place Wood Nymph Trail. His house is on the granite shores of a huge rugged lake. There may be wood nymphs here but it is unlikely. The actual First Nations Ktunaxa story is that there are powerful and ancient spirits here, and certainly the lake itself is a presence, muttering in is deep narrow bed, turbulent, wind driven and cold.
How odd that a view should be worth so much money. The price of lakefront property has risen lately to strange and almost unimaginable heights. Lakeshore in our area is all granite, difficult to build on. Sewage has to be pumped away from the lake. But still people come, crowding in to build anywhere they can see, or even glimpse, the water.
People are buying a view, rather like the way speculators buy gold and diamonds. It’s strange that a view should be worth so much money because it is useless. It is useless other than as a picture, useless other than as a commodity. The world is beautiful, but that term is only human; unlike an ecosystem, or water, or trees or other components of the world, a view means nothing unless it is somehow owned and appreciated by humans. Selling views is like putting the world in a zoo, carving it into pieces, and putting frames around the pieces. The world as art, framed on a wall.
I like views myself, as all humans seem to do. When I was sitting with my daughter this summer on my deck, we stared out at the lake and the clouds rolling by. My father built this house on a cliff; the deck looks out over a pond, green fields, the lake, and the statuesque blue mountains, stoically eternal.
“It’s like a very slow movie,” she said. “It’s so entertaining.”
My daughter, who is a landscape architect and a much better gardener than I will ever be – I am a farmer and not a gardener— then told me about the theory that humans want and need to be up high so they can see what and who is coming.
It turns out there is something called prospect refuge theory; in this theory humans get “aesthetic satisfaction”, from the “contemplation of landscape”. This apparently, according to writer, Jay Appleton, in The Experience of Landscape (London: John Wiley, p.69) stems from the “spontaneous perception of landscape features which, in their shapes, colours, spatial arrangements and other visible attributes, act as sign-stimuli indicative of environmental conditions favourable to survival, whether they really are favourable or not.”
In other words, we like the view because it used to help us survive. Appleton adds, “Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge. . . To this . . . aesthetic hypothesis we can apply the name prospect-refuge theory.” (p. 73)
This doesn’t explain why we want so desperately to stare at water. There’s also a theory that humans were once cliff dwellers; another that we were shore living inhabitants. Perhaps if we can combine cliff dwelling with water viewing, so that we can be sun basking cliff dwellers, we get a situation that satisfies some deep biological urge. And then if we can capture this behind glass so we don’t actually have to deal with anything, so that we’re safe and the prospect before us is only a prospect, then we can relax. The view is no longer about survival but only about aesthetics. A view becomes yet another avenue to satisfy the drive by modern day capitalism to commodify everything; once it is only a view, it can be sold off to an “owner.”
But of course the person behind the glass doesn’t have a relationship with what he or she is looking at; they only have a view, a concept stripped of challenge, danger, interest, and the possibility of coming to know the other beings who are in this place with you, as well as the possibility of them knowing you.
For many years, I have had people come to the farm, look around in wonder, and pronounce it beautiful. After that, they often tell me how lucky I am. And although I smile and nod and agree with them, I am never quite sure that we really understand each other.
Because, after that, we usually go for a walk, and they are also, I find out, afraid, variously, of mosquitoes, wasps, (or bugs in general) bears, cougars, spiders, lightning…there’s always something. They look at the garden, the fruit trees, the fields and the animals with interest but little comprehension, and then we go inside for tea.
I don’t want to disparage these people; they are wonderful, caring friends and they mean well. But we sit on either side of a cultural divide that for me, keeps getting wider and more unbridgeable.
Lately I have been getting a plethora of thirty-something visitors, usually through an international program called WWOOF, (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) who pronounce themselves interested in gardening or organic food or herbs or whatever fad is current. One of these young men asked me the other day if there were whales in the lake. Nope, I said, with some amused despair, didn’t think so, never seen any.
What are they seeing, all these varied people and what do they think they are doing here? I have decided, after long experience and some thought, that perhaps what they are seeing must, most closely resemble a photograph and what they are doing is living, temporarily, within that photo. Or perhaps sometimes it’s a painting. It doesn’t matter. This still doesn’t explain the vagueness of the term, beautiful, or why they seem to think they are complimenting me, as well as the place, by saying it. To some extent, it is because of the quality John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, terms, “glamour.” (p.148) Glamour, he says, can’t exist without envy. Since I, in some mysterious way, now ‘own’ this expensive view, then somehow it is a compliment to me and gives me glamour, that I live in such a beautiful place, that I am so “lucky”, (which of course I am) and of course, immensely privileged to live here, which I understand and, yes, of course I also understand the edge of envy in their voices.
But there our communication tends to stop because although I hear what they are saying, I don’t think this way about the farm nor are our experiences parallel. After all, most of what they know about nature and about “land,” (the word always intoned, somehow) comes from pictures, from movies, or from art – and most of what I know comes from experience. So there is a great gap between their and my understanding of what I am doing here.
That’s an understatement. Sometime I feel like I stand on the other side of a vast canyon, yelling gibberish to people on the other side. I (perceive their experience as one-sided and consumptive, whereas I my experience is inherently interactive, I engage with plants and animals every day, and I also try, through constant observation and learning and thinking, to understand how I can best live here.
I don’t want to be too hard or judgemental of my visitors, who are my friends and often even family. And really, how can my well-meant and caring visitors tell the difference between being here and being in a picture? After all, their experience of nature is that it is something ‘outside’, outside of the city, outside the house, outside of their experience, and outside of their world. The non-human world, to most people these days, is something one looks at, briefly, or takes a picture of to take home, or uses, as a pretty toy, like the summer people who come for two weeks every years, drive around and around in circles in their boats or Seadoos, and leave again.
All of these people, when asked, are sure that they love nature and I am sure they do as well. They love animals, they value peace and quiet, they love the fresh food from the garden, they love the beauty of the farm, they are glad to get out of the city for a while, however briefly, and they are happy to have the experience of being here with me. But, it’s all about how it makes them feel. I don’t denigrate their experience and I believe them when they say they love it here. What I don’t understand is what they think they love.
No, that’s not true.
When I was a child, living where I still live, I was endlessly swept up, transported and thrilled by the beauty of this place. I tried, as a child, to think how to respond because such beauty seemed to call for a response. I began painting and drawing at an early age; I wanted to capture what I was seeing with paint and canvas but eventually, I realized this was impossible and I stopped painting.
So then I just walked around, looked at it, listened to it, smelled, watched it; I still do.
But when I look out from the deck of my house, these days, what I often see, despite my almost sixty years here, is how little I know or understand. I have am so that this is not a picture and that ‘being’ here, is here is an experience of being within a an endless number of profound and complex relationships. What I feel is the depth of my own not-knowing, my lack of my own ability to get outside of my humanness and begin to understand who or what is looking back at me. But because I have to find my own way to this relationship, I am the confused one, the lost one, the one still learning how to behave.
Or, as Gary Snyder says, in The Practice of the Wild, “Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.” (p.39) Although I have both information and experience and am always on the hunt for more, now, at fifty-nine, I feel I am just beginning. True, I was seduced into the relationship by beauty. But that’s the beginning of understanding, not an end. I also worked on the farm from a very young age, and understood from listening to my parents that my work was necessary to our very survival as family. Or as my father put it, when I complained, “You work or you starve.” And in doing the work, I also learned to love it.
Recently I was talking with my friend Evelyn about all this. She lives on different lake from me but one where I have spent a lot of time. We were talking about art and its power to communicate. She began telling me about an artist who had spent a week in a cage with a coyote. Why he did this and what he was hoping to communicate is beyond me. I can imagine it and I suppose, if I was really interested, I could look it up. But what amazed me is that someone would do such a stupid thing to an animal. A coyote knows nothing about cages or art because she or he doesn’t care. Why should they? They are meaningless in the coyote’s terms. What amazed me is the utter effrontery and rudeness of the artist thinking he could use an animal in that way and have it mean anything to anyone.
My sister is a horse trainer and whenever she is around, we talk about horses, animals we have lived with and loved and danced with and ridden and smooched with all our lives. They’re still a mystery to both of us. She knows a lot more than me. Of course, I’m a rank amateur compared to her and now I don’t even ride anymore because myI have arthritis is too badly to even get on a horse. Mostly I like to have them around to look at and play with. Horse people can talk about horses forever and never get tired of the stories or the mystery or the power of being with them.
Sometime I talk to people about horses because most people are afraid of them. I was, when I was a child, because they were big and powerful and even though I rode all the time, no one ever explained to me how to do it well and how to communicate with my horse. But my sister has been riding for fifty years as well, and all along she has been learning from her horses., She loves her horses but, as she says, she’s not nice to them. She’s the lead mare and in charge and when she’s around, even I can see that the horses are relieved and glad that she knows what she’s doing and they are part of her herd. But they teach her as well, all the time.
I’m not particularly nice to my dogs either. They’re working dogs and have jobs to do and that makes both them and me happy. I get to be the pack leader of the dogs because I have the house and the food. It’s a useful and ancient agreement and they and I both honour it.
What they and I like best is walking around. My dogs are collies, an extremely moralistic breed. They believe in walks. In the afternoons, if I haven’t shown any signs of moving, they start, very determinedly, figuring out how to herd me out the door.
I am never quite sure what it is about walks that is so important but they satisfy something in both of us; they know their territory intimately by smell and sound and touch and taste and I know it somewhat more dimly, by looking around and listening. As Gary Snyder says, “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility.”
After our walk, after chores are done and the farm has settled to sleep, then they settle in on the rug in the evening for a snooze; we snooze together, in our dog-smelling warm den.
My relationship with the other domesticated inhabitants of this place is fairly peaceful and least some parts of it make sense.
But I want this clarity with the other less-seen inhabitants of this place. Now, when I go walking, it is often more like wandering, stopping, starting, staring, listening. This kind of walking is one way of greeting the non-human beings where they and I live.
“The world is watching; one cannot walk through a meadow or a forest without a ripple off report spreading out from one’s passage. The thrush darts back, the jay squalls, a beetle scurries under the grasses and the signal is passed along. Every creature knows when a hawk is cruising or a human strolling.” (Snyder)
One of the moments I loved most as a child was the passage from the open fields into the trees, and the moments when I would stand inside the tree line, listening to my passage being announced, squirrel by squirrel and raven by raven. I was very young when I at least figured out that the forest was watching, and listening and that inside the forest; I never felt alone, I felt at home.
The human supposition that we are in some way superior to animals, can use them, impose our metaphors, ideas, experiments, emotions on them, is deeply entrenched in our cultural assumption. But it is a cultural assumption, not a scientific one. It makes just as much sense to assume that animals and plants are, in their own way, as ‘intelligent’ as I am. But communication is a problem.
Our notion of human superiority is a supposition based in part, on the fact that since we can’t speak to animals, they must be stupid. They don’t understand us. The same supposition was used by colonizers all over the world. It’s a similar supposition to that of religious people who assume without ever being able to prove it, that not only do they know what God looks like, they know what and how he thinks. But I have a suspicion that animals understand us much more than we understand them.
I laugh at myself every time the bear comes to eat ‘my’ apples. But I still get mad. There’s undoubtedly a bit of frustration on both sides. The bear needs those apples, needs the fruit on the trees, needs what he or she sees as necessary to his/her survival. How can a bear tell that the wild apple tree down the road, also covered with apples, is any different than this one in my yard? On my part, I want to have some way to tell the bear not to smash the tree down, which to him or her is the easiest way to get at the apples, and to leave some for me. We’re still working it out.
I have spent of my life in far greater contact with animals than with humans. This summer, I had a lot of young French Canadian visitors. At first they thought the swallow nests above the deck were kind of cute, until they realized there were several wasp nests up there as well. I pontificated on the fact that wasps have a keen sense of smell and a keen sense of neighbourliness as well and would get to know them. They didn’t believe me but since it was my house, they couldn’t do much about it. And after a while, they got used to sitting on the deck under a bunch of wasp nests but it made them uneasy, not only because of the wasps but at the manifest craziness of their hostess, who made them sit there.
In fact, the chair on the deck in which I sat every morning to drink my coffee also had a wasp nest underneath it. I didn’t really notice until my son sat in the same chair. He was indignant and hosed the chair down until all the wasps went away. Then the wasps were probably somewhat indignant, as well, or at least I was on their behalf. But they appeared to accept it as some kind of natural disaster, dried themselves off and went away and when my son was gone, they rebuilt the nest in the chair and we went on having coffee together.
Later this summer, I went on a brief retreat by myself to a camp on a peninsula in the lake. I broke the rules and brought in a can of salmon to this vegetarian camp. The wasps went a bit mad. “Salmon” I could imagine them thinking. “Hey, this stuff is amazing, way better than broccoli.”
I sat on a stump and ate my sandwich while they swarmed me in numbers that got a little overwhelming. I laid my plate down for them covered in bits of salmon and juice and they literally licked it clean. But even while I was eating and being swarmed by wasps, I felt no sense of fear. No wasp fixed me with a beady eye and demanded that I share. Instead, they were amazingly polite and hopeful, wanting a share but hesitating, watching me devour this giant sandwich and never interfering except to buzz by my head in constant breathing desire for food.
I walk through this world as both prey and predator. Mostly predator. Chris Irwin, the great horse trainer, says that horses know immediately when you enter their field that you are predator, they are prey and so of course they also know your intentions. If you turn your body and eyes towards them, their immediate instinct is to run. Since most people come into a field to catch horses, the horses’ instinct is, obviously correct. But if, in all politeness, you bend turn your hips and your eyes away from them, they can relax. They’re not being attacked. Such small communication allows a bond of understanding to begin, but only begin. I practiced such politeness walking by the wild ducks that settled in our pond this spring. Turn my eyes down, no staring, don’t stop or point. No predator behaviour. The ducks watched me, and then relaxed and sailed around the pond unconcerned.
The place looks back. The place has thousands of eyes. The place has morality, courage, a culture, all within a pattern that lives and breathes and dies and is born and within which I make my own interruption, and my own breathing space. I watch the plants that grow along the road, another interruption, a clear space within a crowded pattern, how each finds its space in the light so that although there is crowding, there is lushness; the thimbleberries produce and produce, the blackcaps twine their way around and through and underneath, the baby maples are putting their feet down, getting ready to make their own way.
And so, yes, the farm is beautiful and I appreciate it. When people get out of their cars, in my yard in the summer, they look out across a grassy windblown pasture to the blue bulk of Steeple Mountain, and a line of Selkirk Mountain peaks marching north. There are flowers and birds. It is all lovely. In the summer mornings, unless it is pouring rain or too thick with mosquitoes, I take my coffee outside to the deck. I sit and stare out over the glowing green fields; there are wasps and usually a few mosquitoes and hundreds of swallows. At that moment, I am always conscious, — I remind myself to be conscious—that I am here, that this is beautiful, that I am unbelievably privileged and fortunate, and that I love being here. Those are fine reminders with which I have no quarrel. But I do quarrel with the idea that this is something I could ever, in any way, ‘own.’
On the other hand, I used to live in the old house across the yard that my mother hated because it had no view, and that I loved because it was old and dusty and full of ghosts, and in the mornings, there, I would sit in my flower filled, bird-singing small porch at the front of the house, with no view at all, and feel just as lucky.
John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says two things that I try to always be aware of; one is that how we see things is “affected by what we know or believe.” He also says that the relationship between what we know and what we see is never settled.
This gives me some hope that the man in his glassed-in house to the north of me might look out of his windows and learn something, might come out of his door one day and notice the ospreys whistling above him and say hello. I can, at least, hope for this.
For my own part, I may still be walking through this landscape I know so well somewhat blind and deaf but I have, I think, over the years, at least developed better manners. I am always learning; I pay attention; I say hello. Each day I try to walk myself a little deeper into the reality of this living, breathing landscape, of which I am a small and sometimes lonely participant somewhat aware at last, of seeing, and of being seen.
Appleton, Jay, The Experience of Landscape, London: John Wiley, 1975
Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, London, Penguin, 1977
Snyder, Gary, The Practice of the Wild, New York, NorthPoint, 1990