Monday, February 22, 2010

Chesuncook and The Afterlife of Gardens -- interactions of parallel reading

I've now finished re-reading "Chesuncook," the second essay/chapter of Henry David Thoreau's The Maine Woods. I am awestruck at how Thoreau touches on all the themes of nature / development -- both in the 19th century context and in ways that are totally relevant today. Thoreau considers the impact of the timber industry, its impact on the landscape and on the urban centers south of Maine. Thoreau is fascinated and repulsed by the hunting / slaughter of moose hunters. He vacillates paragraph by paragraph-- sometimes admiring the skill of the hunter; sometimes repulsed by the pointless slaughter of the animals; sometimes acknowledging the use of the pelts, meat; he's an absolute groupie in admiration of the native American/hunter guides' knowledge of the enviornment; Thoreau is puzzled that his guide can tell him how long it will take to get from point A to point B -- but has no sense of how far (miles or whatever) it is -- a great anthropological observation of the different ways that different cultures prioritize; finally-- Thoreau is nonchalaunt about evolution/extinction-- he speculates about-- oh, when all the moose are gone . . . He's not nostalgic, or panicked should all the moose be gone. Thoreau seems to be embracing/living in the moment of his trip to the Chesuncook lake-- and he is not "worried" about the future.

While reading Thoreau's "Chesuncook," I'm also reading The Afterlife of Gardens by John Dixon Hunt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). Dixon Hunt is brilliant and insightful in his distinction between garden/landscape understanding from the perspective of the Designer (the person looking at the "floor-plan") vs the person actually walking into and through the space. I've learned much from his book. The analysis of Francesco Colonno's Hypnerotomachi Poliphili (1499)is really enlightening.

But I don't understand why Dixon Hunt thinks (doesn't think?) there is little/no American literature involvement with (his terminology) the Reception Experience of Nature.

Thoreau's The Maine Woods is totally organized by way of what Dixon Hunt calls the "reception theory" -- how the landscape is experienced. And -- so are lots of other textscapes -- Pilgrim's Progress for one. Finnegans Wake for another. I find Dixon Hunt's book a revelation in most respects, and am sorry I hadn't read it years ago. But his thesis needs to be applied and tested far beyond his (acknowledged, very impressive) scholarly sources.

There is so much more literature and reportage focused on "reception" of nature than Dixon Hunt's 2004 book acknowledges. Particularly American literature . . . .

What about Henry David Thoreau? His whole body of work is ab out the reception/experience of nature. And what about Bruce Chatwin? (Chatwin's assertion about the essential human experience is walking through nature is key.)

Takeaway: Dixon Hunt has the right idea. But read further -- Thoreau -- Chatwin -- maybe even Vita Sackville-West's diary of her sailing to Persia. There is lots of "reception" description/experience of landscape. Dixon Hunt's book opens your eyes -- but once open, there's so much more beyond his book.