Review of 'The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape'
By Suzannah Lessard
This book of thought-provoking essays queries the nature of place, asking landscapes to reveal their meanings. Suzannah Lessard begins in Rensselaerville, a remote village not far from Albany, New York, that you reach by descending a forested ridge into an intimate valley. The first sign of town is an elegant 19th-century church spire poking through the treetops; it’s like entering Brigadoon. Her elegant prose unveils contradictions behind the beauty, where neglect and abandonment lap at the edges of the carefully tended historic village.
Lessard, author of The Architect of Desire (on Stanford White’s tragic story), tries to set aside her own predilections (against suburbia, for example), which she admits is something of a fool’s errand, as she develops themes that include authenticity and its corporate exploitation and our fascination with the ruined and discarded.
She does not revel in the nostalgia for a golden past, as essayists of the landscape often do. She is skeptical and, with a keen eye, she goes well beyond the rote analyses implied by such well-worn terms as “context” and “precedent.”
One essay begins with her casual decision to attend a small Memorial Day ceremony in Rensselaerville, where she lives part time. That leads to a consideration of the evolving meaning of the holiday: while it originally commemorated those of the North who died in the Civil War, it has conveniently erased slavery as the reason the war was fought. In another essay, she visits Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the National Park Service interpretation sanitizes the war’s history just as Jim Crow laws eradicated the gains of Reconstruction for blacks in the South. The setting is so delightful, she finds, that it is next to impossible to conjure the horrors of the battles that introduced industrial-scale death to combat.
As Lessard looks at other places where the design arts are used to beautify troubled pasts, she concludes “the need for romance—the usefulness of romance—is over.” The Greek Revival antebellum mansions of Natchez, Mississippi, were paid for in the blood of slaves. But the frail economy of the now biracial city seems to require catering to tourists’ Gone with the Wind preconceptions instead of telling the deeper, more tragic stories: a less damning context-free preservation of old architecture has become the city’s means of financially sustaining itself.
At her other home, in Brooklyn, Lessard is not fooled for long by the apparent stasis of the historic neighborhood she moved into in the 1990s. She appreciates the restoration of brownstones but sees that row houses once accommodating five or more apartments have become palatial single-family homes, displacing hundreds on a single block. She offers no glib solutions; she realizes that she, who lives on her own nice two floors of a brownstone, is an agent of change as well as a student of urban dynamism.
There are contradictory forces that divide people like her from her full-time country friends, whose destiny is tied to farming (which is increasingly less viable). Her neighbors could subdivide their land, spoiling her contemplative view, or assure their future by selling to fracking companies, a fate she adamantly, if guiltily, opposes.
In thinking about Gettysburg, she argues, “What we need now is as deep and complex a sense of our humanity as possible: to really know ourselves, because it is going to be out of that self-knowledge that an effective response to our latter-day predicaments will come.” She eloquently asks us to look harder at our surroundings, and ask better questions about what we see.