We think of a field as a permanent fixture in the landscape, but it’s not. A field never wants to stay a field. If it has any soil at all, it wants to grow up to be a forest. Keeping a field open requires either a herd of grazers or regular mowing to prevent shrubs from getting a toehold, because once shrubs become established, trees can’t be far behind. To prevent this ecological succession, we mow once a year and rotate two donkeys around the property. Abe and Zach don’t make a herd, but they do their part. Watching them in their solar electric enclosure in the back field recently, I thought, you two, you have this bucolic view of pasture butting up against the woods, through which you can see a flashing lighthouse upon the shore, and you never lift your heads from the grass. The donkeys are thinking, here’s this yummy vegetation at her feet and all she can do is look elsewhere.
They’ve got me there. Donkeys, like most animals, live in the moment. Not so humans. We’re always looking around, seeing what else there is, or might be. If we don’t like what we see, we do something about it. We are sculptors of calculated beauty, adjusting the terrain to suit our vision, because a view is not just a pretty picture, it’s a perspective. When I look across the wide expanse of fields, it expands my own heart. High above, the Red-tailed Hawk inspects the bare trees for a nesting site, and I feel that nature is doing well and all is right with the world.
It’s not of course. I know that. The natural world is not a landscape created for my viewing pleasure, but a complex ecosystem in deep water. The ocean that glitters so prettily through the trees is sick and the woodlands aren’t doing so well themselves. But for the time that I am lost in the view, it’s all good. Frederick Law Olmstead, the defining landscape architect of the Victorian Age, creator of Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, once said that designing a view was a spiritual exercise. Gazing up at a mountain lifts our souls; the vista from the mountaintop makes us feel like gods, masters of all we survey. Oceans stir up our deepest emotions, while a placid lake can calm our minds. A river is a journey untaken, and fills us with sweet longing.
It’s why views add such value to homes. The Realtor’s three rules of desirability are Location, Location, Location. The nicer the home, the better the view. But as Thoreau said, what is the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? And how easy it is to block out the intolerable. English lords razed crusty peasant villages to the ground in service of the view from the manor house. In the Industrial Age, the rich fenestrated their urban homes with stained glass so they wouldn’t have to look out on the smokestacks and congested streets. Our modern equivalent of stained glass is the TV or computer. We sit inside and look at a screen, our window on the world, and choose what we will be exposed to.
Like the English gentry, we want the world to look like no one else exists. We plant trees to frame a view — or “captured scenery” as the Japanese say — and we cut trees to expand a view. We use trees or earthworks to block out unsightly features, from a utility pole to a power plant to a neighbor’s house. Arborvitae run along a good length of the field. I planted them with my friend Deirdre when I moved here in 1979. They were just fuzzy wisps of plants then, and had to be protected from suffocating bittersweet and quack grass for years. Amazingly, enough survived to create a tall hedge that now blocks out passing cars from our view. Deirdre, however, did not survive. She died this fall. We are so ephemeral. It’s why we admire fixed features, like mountains and oceans, that go on without us.
Because they will. No matter how much damage we do it, the planet will continue, in one form or another. Our unconsidered actions will only make it inhospitable for us. When that happens, we’ll become as extinct as Steller’s Sea Cow, and the earth will heave a sigh of relief that we’re gone. We will have been one of nature’s experiments that hit a dead end, one of our own making. The post-human views could be horrific, or they could be spectacular, but either way, we won’t be there to find out.
As I return to the house, Daisy, the mighty hunter, pounces on voles in the hidden folds of the field, a field created two hundred years ago when Farmer Niles cleared the land of moraine rock, pushed here by the last Ice Age. But as much as a dog delights in open space, Daisy, like the donkeys, does not admire the view. It takes a human to do that. And it will take humans to love views so much they will fight for their survival, as well as our own.