Landscape patterns and social responses

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Arguing from the specific to the general always carries a burden of uncertianity, but it is so attractive. I wonder if the landscape we experience is so powerful that it shapes our social organizations, or are we as social beings the cause of the landscapes.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Social analysists have traditionally seen cultures arising in response to their settings, phrases like "Ithica's rocky shores are poor for grain, but good for heroes", or descriptions of Mediterranean peoples urban experiences creating populations without a need for privacy, abound. The other end of the scale attaches rugged virtues and innovative individualism to the occupants of the scarcely settled lands, and religious experiences traditionally occur in remote isolated places.

Experiencing the cultural and horticultural differences between the long populated Provencal region in the south of France and our almost infant populations in the Archipelago these questions resonate constantly. We have a tremendous advantage in our access to the wild, and to the resource rich sea, while the Provencals have to be satisfied with peaches, melons and one of the richest grape growing regions on the planet.

The shape of the cultivated spaces reflects the regions ancient horticultural traditions, small farms and individualized cropping areas contrast with the larger farms and ranches of the agricultural U.S. The small farmer in France is politically protected as a cultural icon, where this inefficient scale of production is maintained for reasons of national identity.

This resulted in a century of lagging profits, but maintained a regional character, which now turns out to be perhaps the most desired commodity on the planet. The throngs of touring humans from every part of the globe made us feel right at home, I think I even saw a few familiar faces along the clipped hedges of the old royal gardens. There is a similarity in our experiences as a tourism destination. People who kept a straight face while I stumbled over unfamiliar grammar and verb constructions broke into excellent English when we mentioned Alaska, many had been here or wanted to come.

The landscape in the region seemed to me to be an extension of the political conditions; it's a controlled society, both internally and nationally, with strong boundaries of behavior, speech, and manners. The polite phrases of greeting, meeting and departing are always followed, people are addressed formally, and a hierarchy of ancient lineage is obvious even in the smallest communities. This is the surface, but right under this is the seething maelstrom of revolutionary behavior that is now enshrined in the Bastille Day festivities.

The countryside shows a similar sense of order and control, sheared hedges separate small plots of crops, orchards rarely exceed a couple of acres, and melon fields, sunflower plantings, and wheat or millet plots are the same. Vegetable crops are grown in even smaller areas, the size we would associate with a large family garden. The fruit trees are all pruned into short easily worked shapes, many grown on trellises like grapes. It's an agricultural landscape populated by hand labor.

The abundant greenhouses are similar, small by our standards; 30 feet by 80 feet was the most common size. They're everywhere, and dedicated to the production of high value crops in the early parts of the year when production schedules of the more northern regions were less competitive. The protection of the lifestyle of the farmers and agricultural producers is so strong that larger operations are nearly impossible to introduce.

Miles of sycamore trees, whose mottled trunks and huge toothed leaves can be seen winding across the countryside, line the roads. The planting scheme was ordered by Napoleon to shade his troops as they marched along the roads, and when his ministers said it would take a century for them to become effective, he told them to hurry up. The roads that are shaded and outlined by this huge forest of evenly spaced equally aged trees, is filled with apparently homicidal drivers, all using the center of the road, and going 80. Seething under the surface.

Our roads, kept clear of obstructing trees for a monumental distance at great effort, seem tranquil and orderly by comparison, while the landscape seethes all around us. The wildness looms above us, where the giant trees, bears in the yard and salmon in the creeks all speak of a land only barely touched. Our lives are open, the boundaries to behavior and expectation unlimited. The message of our landscape is one we love to hear, listen to its song.

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