I was reading in John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s (1980) The Necessity for Ruins to see how he wrote about landscapes. The softness of his voice was striking. The writing was flush with ideas and intelligence while also having great fluency, arising it seemed without effort or at least from a set of well-formed thoughts. I wondered whether it was simply self-assurance. Jackson must have posed questions to himself about landscape and culture to arrive at his intellectual constructs, but I didn’t get the sense that he questioned the constructs. The writing seemed that of a man with a moral universe that provided a ready frame for his constructions, which he presented in a disarmingly simple and straightforward manner.
Jackson’s essay “Learning about Landscapes” presented for himself an outsider myth. He lectured at colleges, became a teacher, but like “most laymen” he had “no conception of the Byzantine complexities of the academic world and its struggles for promotion, tenure and grants, which he claimed resulted in the initiates weaving lifelong shelters for themselves. At the time that he taught landscape studies he claimed that it had no academic legitimacy, but how could this have been true since he was teaching it in an academic setting? (I noted also that his book was published by an academic press) He claimed that his teaching had little practical or scholarly value and decided “I taught them how to be alert and enthusiastic tourists” (p. 3). He suggested, “What I was passing on were those experiences as a tourist—or the means of acquiring them—that had been most precious to me” (p. 3). Jackson founded himself not only in an outsider myth but developed also what Emerson called ‘self-culture,’ especially in the claim that his teaching was centered not in scholarship but only in self-experience.
Despite his distaste for academic traditions, Jackson’s view seemed to be essentially nostalgic. His writing conveyed a sense of loss, especially a lost connection to the divine. He wrote (p. 6): “I think we can envy those times when men and women derived something more substantial than esthetic pleasure from the view of a beautiful and prosperous landscape, when instead of a simple view, they saw the expression of what seemed an admirable social order, and they gathered evidence that man was till carrying out the divine mandate to bring nature to perfection.”
These ideas were extended in the essay “Necessity for Ruins,” in which Jackson suggested that preservation of wilderness areas was part of general movement to “restore” the “original” [italicized in original] landscape. He wrote: “It seems clear that the whole preservation and restoration movement is much more than a means of promoting tourism or a sentimentalizing over an obscure part of the past—though it is also both of those things. We are learning to see it as a new (or recently rediscovered) interpretation of history. It sees history not as a continuity but as a dramatic discontinuity, a kind of cosmic drama.” He went on to liken it to a recognition of a “golden age” of harmonious beginnings, but the materials will fall into neglect and the times will be forgotten until an age of rediscovery, in which we “seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.” (p. 102). Jackson argued that the interval of neglect was needed—saying it “is religiously and artistically essential” (p. 102). “[R]uins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins,” he wrote (p. 102), and this was his “necessity for ruins.”
For Jackson, this restoration offered a nearly religious redemption for a populace that could lead a charmed “state of innocence” in which they “become part of the environment.” We would become nouveau noble savages through restoration of ruins. “History ceases to exist,” he wrote, but I could not follow his equation in which restoration made life ahistorical.
The myth-making was fascinating. Jackson’s cycles of landscape neglect and restoration were beyond rational, intelligent thought; they were religiously essential. Jackson’s sentimental imagery of a golden age may have had value for swaying opinion, but the ideas fell short, for me, of the ecological imperatives of healthy, functioning ecosystems. The ideas failed to recognize that restoration was a myth when it comes to the biological landscape.
[J. B. Jackson, 1980. The Necessity for Ruins. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst]