Ancestral Landscapes

This past January through April, I had the fortune of taking part in the WWOOF program. WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a volunteer work exchange supported in 40-something countries around the world. I “WWOOFed” in Sicily. My grandparents came to America from the southern Italian island in the early 1900’s. My father and his brothers are first generation Americans. The sicilian culture was always very prominent in my life as I was growing up. We had the big family dinners almost every Sunday at my grandparents house in Long Island. I was exposed to the stories of what being an immigrant was and everything that came along with that, the struggle to conform to a new culture, while holding on to the one that you can be so very proud of. I had never been to Sicily like my father and some of my cousins had gone to visit. I had always yearned to go and see the country, and after developing a desire to learn more about, and experience agriculture, the WWOOF program seemed a perfect means of travel.

After two weeks of traveling with two friends from college, we parted ways, as they were off to study abroad for a semester in Prague. I, alone, made my way from norther Italy down to Sicily. Until this moment, I had only ever seen pictures and TV shows about the country, but I had no idea of what I was going to experience. The farm I stayed at was situated in a mountain valley southeast of Palermo, above the town of Alta-Villa Milicia.

The landscape was pastoral. Surrounded by mountains to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, valley and hills to the east and south. The countryside was spotted with olive trees and wild herbs. You could hear the bells dangling from the necks of cows and sheep throughout the valley, along with the rushing water in the river from the winter rains on the mountains above. As it was the rainy season there, it wasn’t beautiful sunshine everyday, but when it did shine, it was jaw dropping. 

The landscape wasn’t one that was hustling and bustling everyday with activity, but instead filled with the mellow chatter of farmers tinkering on projects or herding their cows to new pastures. The feeling the landscape gave was calming, and tranquil, you could sense the freshness and warmth with every breath, and every interaction between other people, and even the animals. A lot of the emotion there came from the interaction of humans with the landscape. Though my trip had a very cultural focus that was appreciated more through interacting with sicilian people and learning their dialect, I felt something powerful from the landscape. It was the same land that generations, beyond the ones I am even aware of, lived their lives, working on the land in very modest fashion. It was the slow tinkering of the famers there that reminded me of my grandparents, and a lot of what sicilian culture really is. To me, its an obsession with everyday life. Its an immense passion for living each day as fulfilling and beautiful as possible. That interaction with the surrounding landscape is what seemed to tie an entire culture together.

Henri Frédéric Amiel’s quote, “Any landscape is a condition of the spirit,” was something that rang true for me. I immediately felt at home there as soon as I woke up to the bright sicilian sunrise in that old stone farmhouse. By the end of my stay there, I had an immense respect for every step I took on the earth there, knowing that there was a bit of tradition to it. Working on the land there was something I shared with the people, albeit only for two months, but it was how we all defined ourselves, as men of the country. 


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Awe-Inspiring Landscapes

Some landscapes are considered to be “awe-inspiring” for various reasons. Some are feats of engineering, some take advantage of Earth’s natural beauty, and others are fantastic expressions of art. There are also the landscapes that connect us to another time, and instill a greater sense of historical importance. One of these such landscapes, is Valley Forge National Park.

Visiting Valley Forge, surrounded by a pastoral landscape, it is easy to lose yourself in another world. It is large enough to forget the surrounding suburban sprawl immediately outside of the park. All the structures date back to the 1700’s or earlier and the openness of the space creates a connection to the land and leads the mind to wander and imagine the place as it was once used. 

There are few places in America where there is truly a sense of the past that goes beyond colonial buildings and information signs. A place like Valley Forge, where there were once soldiers training, and battles fought to decide the fate of the country, has been left so unchanged from its original design. There is something intangible about the landscape that is felt while there, not just observed visually.

There are certain things that I think contribute to the feeling that is created. The more obvious are the buildings and structures left over from the original town. The less obvious things are the plantings. While there are woods near by with their own unique ecosystems there have been many large trees planted all over the site, roughly the same age as each other. Based on their size, many of these trees could date back to revolutionary war times, meaning that those trees were specifically planted, or left un-cut and have endured the changing of the world over the past 250 years. As a society, we have become used to seeing remnants of buildings, structures, and other man made items, and although they can be dated back to certain time periods, for many of us, we don’t always associate them with an exact time period. We see these things in history books and it seems like another world, almost having nothing to do with us. However, with these large trees, where we can estimate their exact age based on their size can help us understand the exact distance in time between now and then. There is also something important about that fact that those large trees are the same species of tree that we have now. They are something that physically connects the present and everything we know now, to back then.

Furthermore, leaving Valley Forge adds to this experience. After all the emotion felt at the park, when you leave, you are immediately brought back to present times. The area surrounding the park is a somewhat typical area of suburban sprawl with highways and strip malls. It is an area so drastically different than the park, that it really does seem like another world and not another time. However, taking in to account the actual history of the Revolutionary War and the fact that the Industrial Revolution was already beginning to happen before the war ended, helps explain the two different worlds. It is easy to forget that the country’s history was something that actually happened and not just a fictional story in books. Valley Forge is a park and a landscape that is powerful enough, and well preserved enough, that we can maintain that very real connection to our past here and appreciate how powerful of a place it is. 

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Landscape is History Made Visible

JB Jackson’s quote, “Landscape is History Made Visible” is a commentary on the way that our landscapes are distinctly different throughout time. They can tell us what times were like in all respects during any given period. We can see differences in technological advancements, religion, and significant events through the history of man, through the different landscapes.

There are different technologies that are representative of different eras of human history, from the earliest mud and stone huts for housing, to the current skyscrapers of mega cities. There is also a visible evolution of transportation systems that shape our landscape. The evolution of roads over time, including the difference seen in the pre- and post car era. Other transportation technologies with a similar effect are the railway systems of the industrialized world. Some of the oldest cities in Europe and the US have small roadways that were never intended for the use of cars. The road ways are impassable by vehicles in many respects, however these roads are extremely efficient for pedestrian, cyclist, and even horse travel through these cities. Cities planned or redesigned after the automobile and train were staples of travel tend to be more sprawled out, implying that the use of these means of transportation is necessary for the inhabitants of the cities.

In regards to religion, we can see how many civilizations planned and designed their cities with a higher power in mind. There is evidence in the axis-mundi shown in ancient Latin American cultures, tying a permanent connection to the heavens into cities. There is also evidence in ancient Greece, particularly before the grid layout became prevalent. Cities we planned with a conscious effort to maintain a connection to nature, which they worshiped. Greeks also kept the positioning of the temples to their Gods in mind. Later on, when Christianity became prevalent throughout Europe, magnificent Churches were focal points of cities, squares, and skylines.

There is also physical evidence of major historic events left within landscapes that remains visible. Even just looking at America, a much younger nation than European, Asian, and Mid-Eastern nations, there is evidence of the major wars and social or political movements. Most states up and down the East coast have buildings, roads, and other structures left from the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War. Older cities and towns are filled with statues of war heroes and local heroes. There are physical remnants of where the underground railroad went when slaves were escaping the plantations of the south. There are still tunnels and preserved distilleries in many American cities that were used by prohibition smugglers and bootleggers. Most American cities are also filled with evidence of natural disasters that had major impacts, whether its leaving actual flood lines on buildings. or a line segregating new and old development due to a flood or earthquake destroying older parts of towns.

Landmarks from these events and trends can be used to define parts of American landscapes and create a timeline of development throughout the nation’s history. In old cities like Philadelphia and New York, one could likely pick out which sections of the cities are the oldest and newest based on architectural styles, the prevalent transportation methods, and other themes within landscapes. Both cities are also rich in famous historical events and movements in the nation’s timeline, which can help date components of the cities.

Landscape physically represents changes over time. There are remnants, footprints, and ruins from long ago, blended with the infrastructure of modern times. There are physical landmarks that give the idea of dates and time periods. Taking a walking tour of an old city or town is like taking a walking tour of the history of mankind in many respects.

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A Natural Landscape

Lao Tzu’s quote, “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished, ” is a commentary on the efficiency and design of the system of nature. In regards to natural landscapes, it is easy to observe nature’s efficient design through the progressions of woods from their beginnings to eventual maturity. For example, when a piece of land is left alone, it begins to go through the process of succession. Throughout this process, species of plants, animals, and microorganisms establish themselves. Starting with a completely barren landscape, the first things that would establish themselves would be annual plants such as grasses, wildflowers, and the things most people consider to be weeds. Following those plants would be all of the other organisms that rely on those plants as food or shelter, as well as the soil born organisms related to those plants and otherwise. As the years go on, more perennial plants and shrubs start to establish themselves, along with their related fauna, followed further by smaller trees and softer wooded trees, and eventually large hardwood trees. Over time, each stage of succession slowly out-competes flora and fauna of previous stages in many ways, including the change of microclimate, changing the ability of the ecosystem to support different species or encourage adaptation.

This process can take hundreds or thousands of years to progress. As it relates to Lao Tzu’s quote, the process is obviously not hasty. Furthermore, there are no concrete dividing lines between subsequent stages of succession. Plants and animals slowly fill certain niches that are dictated by the other organisms in the system. These niches may change over time, or even disappear and reappear, but eventually, by the time the forest has established itself, there is a harmony of coexisting organisms that developed over hundreds of years without any outside disturbance. Everything has been accomplished, meaning there is such a complex web of relationships, interdependencies, and functions between all the organisms of the forest. From a holistic point of view, a forest would seem simple, it has trees, shade, and certain organisms associated with it. However, when one takes a closer look at all the complex interactions going on within a forest, it is fairly clear that the simple holistic view can be derived from the successful harmony nature as bestowed upon the many relationships within the forest.

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Axis-Mundi in Ancient Greece and Rome

The term axis-mundi is defined as “an imaginary vertical axis running as a center pole from the zenith of the sky through the ground, uniting heaven, Earth, and the Underworld.” (p.516, Rogers, E). While there are direct examples of this in the ancient cultures of the Americas, there is not such clear evidence in ancient Greek cities, and no evidence of it in ancient Rome.

There are several factors within Greek city design and culture to consider: their cities were laid out largely based on the topography of the land, and their polytheistic religion was inherently tied in with nature. The temples to their gods were not necessarily places of worship but worthy homes for large representations of their gods, and therefore were not sited in a place that necessarily had an axial relationship to the city. The sites for these temples were in places that may have had special meaning within a landscape such as on a mountain-side, or within a central location to the city. Most cities had no axial layout to their plans, thus making it difficult to see the direct evidence of an axis-mundi that is there in the ancient Americas. The Greeks, for much of their reign, did not believe in axiality for the sake of axiality, which became more prominent in the hellenistic period and in Rome.

Though there is not the same clear axis-mundi, as in the Americas, there is evidence in the siting of the cities and temples themselves. The Greeks experienced landscape religiously, not aesthetically. They viewed mountains as places of sanctity, and many forests and trees had special meanings and associations with their gods. Due to this religious view of landscapes, there is a form of an axis-mundi that can be seen. In classical Greek society, “..axial relationships as existed were implied lines linking temples with particular distant mountains of sanctity.” (p.62, Rogers, E). This shows that the classical Greeks did use some form of an imaginary line between elements within their cities to what they viewed as sacred. There isn’t necessarily the clear link to the heavens and underworld as defined, but it could be assumed that with their relationship to landscapes, in this example, there is some implied connection between the earth and the godly forces. This specific example of axis-mundi can be seen at the Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi.

Classical Greek city design and religious practices varied greatly from the Roman empire. These differences lead to the evidence that there was no axis-mundi in Roman cities. The Roman cities did follow an axial plan, they put emphasis on order, efficiency, and had a great theme of being inwardly focused within cities.

Ancient Rome was the first major culture to start separating itself from the natural world intentionally. The axial pattern created a patter of enclosed courtyards within city squares and within larger building complexes. The Roman forums within the city were not places of circulation as with the Greek Agora. The forums were a destination that could be reached, but not part of a thoroughfare. This element as with the courtyards and plazas in Roman design were based on “…place shaping and place fixing impulses.”(p.80, Rogers, E). Rogers goes on to say that “The sense of self-containment, enclosure, and embrace that their buildings and cities displayed denied integration with the greater landscape and, instead, metaphorically proclaimed the values of the entire urbanized commonwealth.”(p80).

With this evidence there is a transition from a religious view of landscapes to a more aesthetic view. With this transition, even though there is an axial theme to city layout, there really can be no axis-mundi. The Romans did not put emphasis on their religion through their landscape design, but instead put an emphasis on civic structure and humans as something separate from the outside world.

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