The pioneering American cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909–1996) learned to analyze landscapes not at Harvard, where he lectured, or in New Mexico, where he lived and ranched, but in the war-shattered countryside of Germany’s Hürtgen Forest during the Allied push eastward after the D-Day landings in 1944. German resistance had halted the American advance in the forest, and Jackson, attached to the Ninth Infantry Division as a combat intelligence officer, spent a cold and uncomfortable winter there. With time on his hands, he set about creating a most unusual library. During the day he moved between ruined buildings, searching the wreckage for regional guidebooks, picture postcards, tourist maps, and works of French geography and history—anything, really, that offered details of the terrain ahead. In the evenings, he studied aerial photographs of the area, questioned Wehrmacht prisoners, and scrutinized their diaries and Soldbücher (logbooks).
From this fragmentary archive—a bomb-struck Baedeker—Jackson pieced together a vision of the landscape beyond the front line. He gained not only a bird’s-eye view of the countryside, but also ground-level, fine-grained details of settlement and geology. He scrutinized soil textures and types of dwelling (wanting to know which farms had barns large enough to accommodate enemy vehicles). He assessed the differing sizes of roadside orchards (to determine which might conceal German artillery or troops). He gathered this evidence primarily to inform military decision-making, but he also read it historically as testimony to the long-term human culture of this landscape before its drastic rearrangement by war. Even when fighting through small industrial towns, he noted the small vegetable gardens that backed onto the “long rows of workers’ houses,” or the half-timbered farmhouses that were “wedged in at an angle among the modern buildings.” “Combat existence” also developed in him, he later recalled, a hunter’s “acute receptivity to the messages sent out by the environment.” He learned to distinguish between “kinds of gunfire,” the sounds of vehicle engines and footsteps, even the stink of the enemy—“for each army had a characteristic body odor.”
Jackson was thirty at the outbreak of World War II. Born in France to American parents, he grew up first in New York, then at boarding schools in Switzerland, France, and Massachusetts. He scarcely knew his father, who abandoned the family at the outset of World War I, when Jackson was five. His mother was loving, controlling, independently wealthy, and very ambitious for her son. Through a combination of her string-pulling and Jackson’s persistence, he was admitted to Harvard in 1929, where his undergraduate tutor found him to be a “rather half-baked intellectual.”
He fancied himself, incorrectly to my eye, to be a decent artist en plein air with pencil and crayon. He toured Europe in the early 1930s, and witnessed the rise of Nazism in Munich and Nuremberg. His published work from these years—essays, reviews, and short stories—reveals a young man both fascinated and appalled by fascism and suspicious of liberalism; he was, in the words of his biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “a cultural conservative of the deepest dye,” given to the “biases” of his “privileged background.” A travel journal Jackson kept from a trip to Cuba in 1938 is marred by casual racism; he uses the n-word unhesitatingly and writes of the “brutal” faces of mixed-race Cubans. Horowitz is unsparing of Jackson’s failings in these respects, but the story she tells in her excellent biography is of a man striving to outgrow his youthful prejudices. “One needs to remember this passage,” she writes of the Cuba diary entry. “It is a way of marking where Jackson began in early manhood, not where he ended up.”
In the late 1930s Jackson worked for two years as a cowboy on a large ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, near the Colorado border, then leased his own ranch east of Albuquerque. He wrote a novel with a terrible title—Saints in Summertime—that received respectful reviews when it was published in 1938, sold about a thousand copies, and then sank. The publishers rejected his second book.
His career as a novelist over, Jackson enlisted in 1940 and served for the full term of America’s engagement. He trained in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was commissioned as an intelligence officer due to his skills as a linguist (fluent French and decent German, acquired during his European school years), and saw his first action in the North African desert in 1943. The austere landscape of the region scarcely interested Jackson; he found it to be “dry and relatively empty.”
In 1944 he landed two days after D-Day, and moved first into Normandy’s bocage—a farmed patchwork of hedgerows, woods, and fields that, he observed drily, “we were in the midst of…and having trouble getting out of”—then to the Ardennes and the Hürtgen Forest. Here were landscapes that spoke of the habits and hardships of sustained human life in a place. In his essay “Landscape as Seen by the Military,” written long after the war, Jackson characterized these months of “landscape reconnaissance” as an intellectual turning point. Horowitz concurs that his intelligence work “gave him a new understanding of the landscape.” She also identifies “the crucible of war” as the period when Jackson’s character was reforged: he emerged, she writes, “a substantially different human being…more open to the world and less judgmental.”
In the war’s closing months, inspired by the popular French works of geography he had read in the Hürtgen Forest, Jackson decided to found “a magazine of geography” back in America. A bad riding accident sustained while ranching delayed his plans, but in 1951 he published the first edition of Landscape, a magazine he edited, contributed to, and published for seventeen years. Landscape was the wellspring of Jackson’s transformative work as a geographer of the American vernacular—a thinker who, as Horowitz puts it, “enabled Americans to see everyday America through its places and spaces as they evolved over time.”
Our word “landscape” arrived into English in the late sixteenth century from the Dutch “landschap,” originally meaning a “unit or tract of land,” but at the moment of anglicization more strongly associated with the emerging school of Dutch landscape painters that included Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This sense of landscape as painterly and passive has remained surprisingly persistent, despite frequent attempts to unsettle the association. I have long preferred to think of “landscape” as a compound noun with a verb concealed inside it—a reminder that land “scapes” human existence as a dynamic, participatory presence, rather than a static backdrop to our actions. Anna “Nan” Shepherd—the Scottish writer who completed The Living Mountain, her slender masterpiece about the Cairngorm massif of Scotland, while Jackson was halted in the Hürtgen—was also drawn to a vibrant sense of landscape. In a beautiful passage, she describes looking upside-down and back through her legs at the mountains, defamiliarizing the terrain she loved. “As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles,” she wrote. “Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
Jackson believed that “a new definition” of landscape was needed; this was why he founded his magazine. But he had little time for Shepherd’s “bristle,” and cared not how the earth might “see itself.” Jackson’s was a wholly human geography. He liked gas stations, front lawns, and street corners—landscape artifacts that exist only with reference to the looker. He preferred woodlots to primeval forests, “crowded ball parks” to a Thoreauvian cabin in the woods. To Jackson, writes Horowitz, landscape “encompassed the full imprint of human societies on the land.” It was, in his memorable phrase, “a complex and moving work of art, the transcript of a significant collective experience.”
Both definitions, of course, raise questions about who is included in, and who excluded from, that supposedly “collective experience,” that “full imprint.” Jackson’s curiosity was for the most part admirably inclusive, ranging across Hispanic and Native American as well as Anglo-American traditions: his essay “Pueblo Dwellings and Our Own,” for instance, compares the “vernacular dwelling…for working people” prevalent in prehistoric Pueblo village architecture with early medieval European home-building. Such a broad vision makes the persistence of some of his prejudices—especially his casual anti-Semitism, carefully tracked by Horowitz—all the harder to fathom.
Jackson was an unorthodox observer, whose ways of seeing ran against the grain of midcentury American landscape conventions, with their attachments to the picturesque and the sublime. His unpublished travel journals from the 1930s to the 1950s—now archived at the University of New Mexico, where Horowitz consulted them—record what caught his eye while on the move. In Central Europe, he cataloged the different “mascots for cars,” and the various jackets and caps “inspired by autoculture.” Driving to Mexico in 1957, he noted the “bells on porches to call in field workers,” and the varying “colors of the soil.”
On arrival in a new town or city, he would often acquire a local phone book and calculate the ratios of “Drs, Beauticians, restaurants, churches,” or close-read street maps for information on zoning, parking, industries, and commuting routes—the skills learned in the Hürtgen Forest, repurposed for Santa Fe or Silver City. He was nerdily fascinated by that degraded phylum of Americana that the artist Philip Guston once referred to as “crapola”: junkshops, edgelands, strip malls, and trailer parks. When Jackson was publishing the early issues of Landscape, Edward Hopper was painting his late studies of transit loneliness, Morning Sun and Hotel by a Railroad, and Nabokov was writing Humbert Humbert’s road trip to hell in Lolita (1955), when Humbert and poor Lo motor through motel America, “putting the geography of the United States into motion” as they careen between “the stucco court,” “the adobe unit,” and the “log cabin.”
There is a tenderness to Jackson’s engagement with “crapola.” By studying what he called “the commonplace aspects of the contemporary landscape,” he sought to invest mundane places of work and dwelling with a value at least comparable to venerated landscape sites such as Yellowstone or Yosemite. He wished—to borrow a phrase from his own appreciation of the Puritan writer Timothy Dwight—to endow “everyone who lived and worked in [landscapes] with a kind of visibility.” At its best, Jackson’s project might be described as a democratic devotion to everyday dignity. He was a localist, not a nationalist, most interested in cities and towns, not nation-states, as the optimal units of community-making. He wanted, as he said in his 1995 PEN address, to remind people “that each of them had his or her own landscape which was part of the way they related to the wider world. [Landscape is] a place with which we have daily contact…. It is where we live and work and celebrate together.”
Landscape magazine’s inaugural 1951 issue—subtitled “Human Geography of the Southwest”—was funded entirely by Jackson, written mostly by him, and circulated in a small print run, which Jackson (always a good networker when the need arose) gave away to those he considered influential and hand-sold to local bookshops. The project might well have stopped and sunk there, for its focus on the built environment was out of kilter with the picturesque register of landscape writing at the time, and most small magazines die quick and noiseless deaths. But Jackson persisted. He quickly enlarged the scope of the magazine from the American Southwest out “to the broader field of human geography,” as Horowitz puts it. He drew in a wide range of writers, including city planners, architects, anthropologists, and “wise citizens,” and tasked those contributors not only with mapping the past and present of America’s “human landscape” but also with improving its future.
A measure of the magazine’s preoccupations might be taken from some of Jackson’s own contributions, including “The Westward-Moving House”—a brilliant comparative analysis of an early settler farm in New England, an Illinois homestead from the 1850s, and a one-story house in modern Texas—and “To Pity the Plumage and Forget the Dying Bird,” an impassioned account of the neglect of what he calls “small-city” America, which reads now as a precursor to recent attempts to explain the rise of Trump with reference to this overlooked realm. “Economic poverty and political inertia are certainly not confined to the rural small-city countryside in America,” wrote Jackson in 1967, “but here they are a peculiar kind of menace, because they are well disguised.”
By the time he stepped down as Landscape’s editor in 1968, the magazine had helped drive a “cultural turn” in American geography. Jackson began to teach at Harvard and Berkeley, and to give numerous public lectures. In 1970 the first collection of his writing was published; Landscapes gathered around a dozen essays that originally appeared in the magazine, together with lectures presented at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1960s. Several more essay collections followed, including The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics (1980) and A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994).
At Harvard in 1973 Jackson taught a course unprepossessingly called “Studies of the Man-Made Environment Since the Civil War”; the students quickly nicknamed it “Gas Stations.” Jackson was usually good at titles. Scanning down the contents pages of his essay collections, it’s hard not to want to guzzle them all: “A Puritan Looks at Scenery”; “The Mobile Home on the Range”; “Agoraphilia, or the Love of Horizontal Spaces.” He was good at first lines, too: “I am very pro-automobile, pro-car and pro-truck, and I can’t imagine what existence would be without them.” “Like millions of other Americans I have no great liking for wilderness and forest, but like the majority of Americans I am fond of trees.” You might not agree with these gong-banging openings, but you surely want to hear more.
His written voice is often testy, bracing, or prickly. He likes to demand assent and provoke dispute. He upends pieties, amplifies counterintuitive details. Strange flickers of faith are visible in his writing, for though he distrusted mysticism, he was a lifelong churchgoer, unembarrassed by referencing a “divine law.” His prose lacks the crystalline clarity of Barry Lopez (whose 1989 essay “The American Geographies” is a landmark piece in this field) or the broader political drives of Wendell Berry toward agrarianism and pacifism, but it is often hard to resist its peculiar passions: “The loading dock is a feature of the modern factory not much discussed in architectural circles, but it is not only an essential part of the building, it has to be designed and built with great precision.” I relish a person who can write and mean a sentence such as that.
Loading docks in; mountains out: Jackson hated the modern American conservation movement. His published writing resounds with potshots at environmentalists. This was partly ground-clearance work; to direct people’s attention onto the vernacular landscape of human labor and leisure, he needed first to wrest that attention away from its traditional objects of “national parks and national forests.” But it was also a bigger political disagreement with what he perceived as environmentalism’s desire for a return to “the pretechnological purity of the past” and its endorsing of a “static social order.”
The Hudson School, the Sierra Club, and the 1964 Wilderness Act, with its stipulation that humans should “visit” rather than “remain” in certain areas—these were anathema to Jackson, for whom the human imprint was always beautiful. He denounced environmentalism as “shrill and self-righteous,” in denial about its covert millenarian theology, and committed to an “arch reactionary” narrative of decline whereby the American landscape had “gone downhill ever since the Civil War.” He rightly called out the baked-in racism of aspects of American environmentalism, including the “racial quotas” of membership in the Sierra Club in its early years, and the presence in the conservation tradition of the eugenicist Madison Grant, who campaigned to save redwoods and the American bison, but also advanced anti-immigration and “anti-miscegenation” laws, and wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a grotesque and influential work of white supremacism.
In contrast to what he snortingly called the “wilderness experience,” Jackson argued for a “vernacular, urban, contemporary perception of nature…a demystified, demythologized definition which automatically includes human participation.” On this basis he would, I think, have approved of Trump’s decisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, and to shrink the extent of the Grand Staircase–Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in Utah—even as he would have disliked the targeting of Trump’s public-lands populism at a white working-class base.
I thought of Jackson when I made my first visit to Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, last June. It was a sunlit Sunday morning among the giant coastal redwoods, and I shared the boardwalks that wound between the trunks of those giants with hundreds of people of diverse backgrounds, speaking dozens of languages. Though I have been a mountaineer for more than thirty years, and am drawn to lonely summits in ways that Jackson would consider escapist, I was moved to be part of that mixed and awed congregation of worshipers. For we were, unmistakably, all at church that morning. It did not matter to us that we had to queue to stand beneath the tallest trees, or that in the gift shop you could buy a plastic-packaged sequoia seed to take home and plant, germination guaranteed (I did buy one; it didn’t germinate, to the anguish of my young son, who had expected a six-hundred-foot redwood to rear overnight out of our suburban lawn in Cambridge like Jack’s magic beanstalk). Here was a place where, for a while at least, the arboreal sublime meshed wonderfully with contemporary “human participation.”
But I also left Muir Woods reflecting on the absolutism of Jackson’s commitment to “human presence.” He was not an ecologist, and it often shows. The strength of his allegiance to human geography left him largely unable to imagine that our dignity and well-being might be interdependent with the fates of other species. He had no interest in Aldo Leopold’s 1949 idea of the “land ethic,” which expanded the definition of “community” to include the creatures, plants, soil, water, and air with which human life is made.
Jackson liked to distinguish between landscape “disturbance” and landscape “damage.” “Damage” he denounced as environmentalism’s blanket term for the consequence of all human activity. He preferred “disturbance,” which he saw as having been underway “since the remote Neolithic time.” But to characterize all human interventions into landscape as neutral “disturbance” is blithe, at best; can the Deepwater Horizon disaster really be categorized just as a “disturbance,” or the mass extermination and displacement of Native Americans by settler-colonialism? “Man is a maker of new plants and new plant communities,” writes Jackson optimistically. Sometimes. But “man” is also an expert and high-volume destroyer of communities and organisms, as current extinction rates lay bare. As human activities drastically deplete life’s diversity on earth, so the possibility of what the feminist ecologist Donna Haraway calls “sympoiesis”—the comakings and mutualisms out of which new life springs—is correspondingly depleted. We are, certainly, a damaging as well as a disturbing species.
The final fifteen years or so of Jackson’s life took a strange turn. From his ranching days before the war, Jackson had been drawn to manual labor. In 1980 he enrolled in a night class for auto mechanics in Texas, where he indulged his motorhead fondness for engines, and tinkered with shopcraft-as-soulcraft philosophical epigrams: “Learning to be a good auto mechanic is learning to be civilized.” He got a BMW motorbike tattoo on his upper arm and disengaged himself from teaching. In 1984 he set up as an odd-jobman in his hometown of La Cienega, working as a painter, roofer, trash hauler, and, eventually, “mopping up after the…mechanics” at a local garage. He started attending an African-American church in Albuquerque—where he was soon accepted by the congregation—and began to explore the possibility that he was of African-American descent.
Horowitz writes vividly of these years, when an independently wealthy former Harvard professor was voluntarily working as a cleanup guy. In her telling, Jackson emerges as a man committed to realizing the meaning of “landscape” that his work described: a medium in which humans “live and work and celebrate together.” Details leap out from her descriptions: his daily habit of walking to his mailbox around midday “to deposit a refrigerated can of Coke for the mailman”; the way he held an open house daily between 1 PM and 3 PM, welcoming visitors and neighbors for conversation or to lend them money; his quiet funding of a local swimming pool. Jackson’s will included a substantial endowment fund left to the Santa Fe Community Foundation, “to help long-time residents with emergency needs, including property taxes.”
Horowitz met Jackson in 1973, when as a young historian she reviewed his book American Space: The Centennial Years and visited him at Harvard. They were friends and correspondents until his death in 1996. Two years before Jackson died, Horowitz arrived at his house to find him in the yard outside his kitchen, burning his papers in a large oil drum. “I yelled for him to stop,” she remembers. “He answered, ‘The past is too much with me.’” In another writer—Gore Vidal, say—this might be taken for staged melodrama, an episode knowingly prefashioned for the biography to come, right down to the rehearsed final line. But Jackson’s seems to have been a private act, unintended for witness or interruption.
This urge to erase the past sits oddly in a writer whose subject was precisely the persistence of material human histories. Yet Jackson’s own life, as Horowitz shows, was characterized by numerous erasures and suppressions. His erotic and emotional life is especially opaque. He claimed never to have had a serious relationship, but Horowitz discovered a marriage notice that shows him to have been engaged in 1943. He was appalled by the prospect of details about his “personal history” being published after his death, and forbade Horowitz—whom he appointed as his literary executor—from writing or releasing such material.
Horowitz ignored Jackson’s proscription, however. Her necessarily incomplete account of his life—structured in the form of nine intersecting essays—is by turns loving and anguished, admiring and angry. She describes a privileged young man struggling, though not always successfully, to become more open and humane. She gives “Brinck,” as she called him, short shrift for his pre-war “blindness,” and notes that he was still in “bigotry’s clutches” well into the 1950s, making journal references to “coons” and “Jew Names”—even as she applauds his work advancing a “vernacular” geography of democratic dignity and his generous support of the “largely Hispanic community” of La Cienega.
In Jackson’s fine essay “Roads Belong in a Landscape,” he discusses a botanist named Edgar Anderson. Anderson was to botany what Jackson was to geography. His expertise was the common plant species of farmland and urban margins—everyday weeds and wildflowers. Anderson showed, writes Jackson, an “unflagging curiosity about [the] everyday landscape of cornfields and backyards.” He took his students to investigate the plant life in “dump heaps and alleys.” Toward the essay’s end, Jackson approvingly quotes Anderson: “In the dump homo sapiens is the most overwhelming of all the organisms in his primary and secondary effects on the landscape.”
All earth is the dump now, though. The naming of the “Anthropocene” as a proposed new geological epoch recognizes the overwhelming effects of human activity upon landscape at a global scale. The oceans are clotted with plastic flotsam, more than 250,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste wait above ground for long-term safe storage, biomass concentrates in a handful of species (pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, humans) as biodiversity plummets and CO2 levels build. The “Capitalocene”—as Jason W. Moore prefers to call the Anthropocene, in recognition of its origins in an economic system, and the inequities of responsibility and vulnerability that this system produces—is inscribing itself upon landscape in ways that will be legible in the strata-archive for millions of years to come.
I wish Jackson were here to write about these times of ours. I’d like to read him on so-called Planet-B plans to terraform Mars for human occupation when the earth becomes uninhabitable, on mega-dairies and the California wildfires, and I’d like see him grapple with the implications of climate-intensified sea-level rise and storm surges for poor coastal communities in America and beyond. I’d want him to acknowledge that “disturbance” can mean “damage,” and to engage with the inseparability of environmental harm and social justice, especially in the Global South.
Jackson sensed that big changes were coming. In “Landscape as Seen by the Military,” he anticipates the shift in knowledge that will be revealed by advances in “aerial or space photography,” and other kinds of technology that would “entirely transcend the human visual experience.” These new modes of analysis, guessed Jackson, would allow us to “discover a new environment and a new relationship between that environment and man and, I dare say, discover a new definition of man.” He was right. They have. But their discovery is not the “new landscape of harmony and order” for which he hoped. Rather, advanced computational and remote-sensing technologies have made the Anthropocene crisis visible in terrifying ways: slumping permafrost and raging bushfires, burning jungles and emptied ecosystems. When, in the winter of 1944, that young intelligence officer gazed out across the devastated conflict zone of the Hürtgen Forest, he was looking not only eastward in space but forward in time.