Friday, November 26, 2010

Ghost Landscapes: Seeing Everything

In human intellect as much as in human intuition, memory and empirical reality blend. As we pass through a place in our ordinary experience today, we encounter not only what is there, but also our memory of previous experience of that place, as well as our memory of responses and recollections to that place by others. Our ability to consciously perceive this all at once depends upon how much we choose to engage our attention. But however much we attend, this rich and complex presence of place is still there, offering considerable potential for us to participate with everyone – past and present – with whom we share the place.

As an example, an etching of the Cuyahoga River created by Kalman Kubinyi in 1934 is not just ink and paper, but a powerful spell which conjures up our knowledge and experience of human image-making, and evokes other personal associations with the Cuyahoga River. And then, the next time we cross the River and our sight gathers water, bulkheads, vegetation, and other bridges, the Kubinyi etching nudges how we process that information, altering the way that we understand that landscape.

Similarly, If you stop by the edge of the river, and take a moment, lyrics of a 1972 song by Randy Newman might involuntarily touch:

“Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams”

And, If you know some history, you know that however slightly we might regard the slow and muddy Cuyahoga, it has been an important highway for thousands of years. It was one of a few routes that led to a relatively easy portage between the Great Lakes and Mississipi River water systems (Chicago grew at the site of another portage). The Continental Congress of the United States took special note of the significance of these portages, asserting in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that ”the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free.” Is your imagination sufficient to see the ghost ripples of canoes being paddled up the river?

Finally, up the hill from the river, as you travel west on Detroit Road, you’ll notice that the land slopes immediately to the north. This was once the shoreline of a glacial Lake Erie. The asphalt road upon which you travel was built upon a brick road which was built upon a dirt road, which followed a path, which, again, had been traveled for thousands of years. This was once wilderness, then farmland, then a thriving commercial street, and then what it is today.

What the river and road are today are all of the landscapes which they have ever been, and as they are today, mediated by our expectations of what they will be tomorrow.

There’s the empirical landscape, the landscape which we can easily frame with a camera. And then there are the ghost landscapes of memory and imagination and of the possible, all present, when we choose to see everything.

artwork above: Kalman Kubinyi (1906-1973), Cuyahoga, c. 1934, etching, 7.25 x 10 in

artwork below: Frank N. Wilcox (1887-1964), title?, c. 1924, etching, 5 x 7 in

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