1. Introduction

"Landscapes can often hold together a past and present, a present and a future, or all three together. They are often understood as repositories of the past, holding history in their contours and textures. WG Hoskins likened landscapes to palimpsests, traces upon layers of lines and marks, each left at a particular moment and still resonant, awaiting decoding. Indeed, looking at landscapes as evidence of past processes and events seems a strong temptation, much stronger than seeing landscapes as offering possibilities for the future. But the meanings of landscape, whether historical or for the future, are never simply there, inherent and voluble. Instead, they are made to speak, invited to show themselves, and that invitation is the process of practising landscape which always places landscape in a present moment. This presentation is a crucial one and a political one, for it disrupts accounts of landscape which seek to ground certain claims and identities in a self-evident earth. Landscapes are always perceived in a particular way at a particular time. They are mobilised, and in that mobilisation may become productive: productive in relation to a past or to a future, but that relation is always drawn with regard to a present." (17)

Deterritorialisations... Revisioning Landscapes and Politics (2003)
Mark Dorrian and Gillian Rose

North, South, East, West...

I'd like to tell a story - a spatial story about land and property, measurement and orientation, roads and trails, Indians and Whites, basketball and religion, remembering and forgetting, symbolism and ideology. This story deals with particulars of Champaign County, Illinois in both the past and present tense. However, the questions put forth invariably lead further a field to much broader concerns and ongoing struggles. The connections I wish to make are both temporal and spatial - linking past and present, local and global. I'm especially drawn to those moments and spaces of resonance, where the past percolates to the surface of the landscape as palimpsest and either complements or contradicts what has heretofore been taken for granted. This tension between continuity and interruption is a useful point of entry into the political discourse of landscape, exposing the complex ways in which our sense of place is produced and contested. Furthermore, it reveals the difficulty of forgetting - memory may fade but the material of history does not therefore disappear. "All present experience contains ineradicable traces of the past which remain part of the constitution of the present. Teasing out such vestigial features left over from the past is an important part of understanding the nature of the present." (Ashcroft, 174) This teasing is, of course, not a neutral act - selective remembering and forgetting plays a dynamic, and often contentious, role in the constitution of the present.

This story has emerged over the course of the past four years, during which time I've sought to deliberately and directly engage this landscape. It is the product of countless hours spent walking country roads, leafing through dusty manuscripts in the University archives, talking to and working with farmers, and, occasionally, arousing the suspicion of the local sheriff. In the process, I've made an effort to compare what has been written with what is being said; and what has not been written with what is not being said. It is my intention to complicate the stories we tell about ourselves. While simplicity can be a virtue, it can also be a vice. And in this case, it is one that I resist. This story is complex because the histories it evokes are dense and thorny. My sense of this place - of place in general - is fluid and unfinished, complex and open. I am suspicious of efforts, including my own, to fix it with an essential and static identity. The telling of the story today is but another piece in its continual unfolding....

In this story I draw many comparisons - some very conditional. In making these connections, I don't mean to suggest that are that all things are equal and that we are simply recapitulating the past. Rather, I believe this can be an effective strategy for revealing the subtle ways in which the past is carried through into the present - the persistence of rhetoric, attitudes, metaphors, rationalizations, justifications, and symbolic associations. I am interested in how our interpretations of the present are often unconsciously filtered through our conceptions of the past.

An amalgamation of image and text, this story privileges physical sites and written history. I felt that it was important to visit these specific sites. Likewise, I believe something is gained by speaking these histories aloud - it activates the text, just as standing on the bank of the stream activates the landscape. The texts that I've selected come from a variety of sources including: newspaper articles, scholarly essays, historical manuscripts, county board meetings, and congressional testimony.

A major theme running throughout this story relates to questions of orientation and direction. How do we orient ourselves in the landscape? How is this sense of direction produced on both a material and symbolic level? How does it evolve? And how do we disentangle the conflation of direction, symbolism, and ideology?

These questions were inspired by a simple appeal made by the author Dee Brown toward the end of the introduction to his book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. First published in 1970, it has sold over four million copies and been translated into seventeen languages.

Brown writes:

"I have tried to fashion a narrative of the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it, using their own words whenever possible. Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward. This is not a cheerful book, but history has a way of intruding upon the present, and perhaps those who read it will have a clearer understanding of what the American Indian is, by knowing what he was. They may be surprised to hear words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages."

Incidentally, this book was written in Urbana. Brown spent 24 years working as an agricultural librarian on this campus. He died in 2002, the same year another Dee Brown - who has since become the face of Fighting Illini basketball - came to campus. Here begins the ironic intermingling of past and present....

This story is told facing eastward - it is, in part, an effort to come to terms with the profound implications of this gesture....

On a technical note:

The two sets of slides projected to the north consist of assorted images from around Champaign County that are of general relevance to the story.

The digital images and videos projected on the southern portion of the west wall chronicle the Fighting Illini's "March to the Arch" and are juxtaposed with images of an older and more consequential march to the arch.

The two sets of slides projected in the southeast corner are based on a tour of one square mile of the Champaign County grid. Photos were taken every 400 feet in each of the four cardinal directions.

The four sets of slides projected to the east and west are perhaps the most significant. The locations of the photographs were determined by overlaying an 1833 map of Champaign County on a current highway map. Photographs were taken - one facing east, one facing west - at the precise locations where six historic roads would have intersected current roads. There are 167 such intersections in the county. With one exception, the historic roads no longer exist. These intersections serve as points of continuity between the past and the present. The space, in these precise locations, still essentially functions as a passageway - albeit to different ends and by different means....

NEXT > A Spatial Story > John Deere & Prairie Restoration

Table of Contents