A residency on the coast inspires reflections on the view. How has the shoreline “view” been compromised by private interest? What happens when the need to gaze deeply into epic nature, to get lost in the scale and beauty of the shore, is no longer accessible? How can popular forms of education push back and build environmental consciousness? If climate change is about aesthetic devastation as much as toxicity, resource depletion, and colonialism, then the shoreline offers a reflexive site through which to reconsider views of the land and to argue for democratic access.

28 August 2019: Binoculars

Just now: A flash of red swoops by the window. Is it a red-tailed hawk, or red-shouldered? I’m new at attempts to identify, reliant on the dusty Peterson Field Guide to the Birds found in a used-book store on my way to the Cape. I love the detailed drawings, the encyclopedic promise of knowledge, and the way that flipping from page to sky doesn’t always match up. The book warns: “There is considerable variation in individuals within most of the species.”2 I take up the binoculars to look more closely: The bird is large in body and wingspan, with a small fierce head, eyes that rivet, and uneven red plumage down its back and tail. I follow the way it coasts and dives, then circles back up and around. Taking my eyes off the lens, I realize I’ve missed the bigger story: It’s beefing with an American crow.3 I check the glossier guidebooks specific to this shoreline: no mention of crows. These two are fighting, and clearly the hawk is bigger and stronger. But the crow has friends.

My view comes as guest of the National Park Services and Peaked Hill Trust on the backshore near Provincetown, MA. I’m staying in Ray Well’s shack on the dunes, a writing residency where my focus is on the privatization of the shoreline view. With one eye on the birds, and another on my reading, I find this account of artists on the dunes before me:

When they discovered [Provincetown], a lot of them decided to stay. They found the dregs of buildings to live in, because they’re all poor. One of the reasons for this is their whole quest. An artist’s quest is a spiritual quest. It’s not money. Money doesn’t come in to it. You see a shift today where people are being taught to market their art, and that’s a whole different thing. The passion to be an artist was something else. It was a very deep commitment to life, to experimentation, to develop a means of sharing whatever was inside you.4

Okay, but people have to eat. Where I teach, in an urban university with a strong set of art programs, no one separates art from money anymore; they can’t afford to. If money has always been the issue for artists, first underwritten by church and state before giving way to the bourgeois patron of the late 18th century and today’s art market, economic pressure feels tighter and tighter. Residencies are one tool in the artist’s survival kit, fantasy spaces of such allure and respite as if only to foreground the problem of access. What happens when the need to gaze deeply into nature, to get lost in the scale and beauty of the shore, is no longer accessible for the artist or, by extension, the fisherman, the lifeguard, or the tourist? Such views are stolen, briefly held, in an economy that names all of us workers above all else.

The sky is big around me: 360 degrees of blue, set against dunes and pitch pines. The shack is a wonder: sturdy, simply made, yet prioritizing all the right things. A glassed-in porch with writing desk and views on three sides. An outside deck for eating and bird watching. And a minimalist kitchen: two gas burners and a jug of water, hand-pumped and powered by gravity, for washing up. Small in scale, built from salvaged materials, standing lightly on stilts to accommodate the shifting sands, the shacks developed informally, mostly without land title, squatters informed by two needs: a roof for surf-men, pre–US Coast Guard workers who watched the sandbars for ships in trouble; and later respite for fishermen and artists who sought the light of the dunes and the salt of the sea.5 A place to observe the tides and weather; a place to shelter near sea-bound work, at once viewing device and home. This was “nature,” a view lived through sweat and labor, on the margins of capital’s meanest elements.

Watching the birds do battle, America in parts behind me, I wonder about the dreams of residency and the unholy trade of land for money: Who, or what, belongs here? Am I the hawk, or the crow?

Figure 2.

Illustrations from A Field Guide to the Birds (Eastern Land and Water Birds), 118, Plate 34; text and images by Roger Tory Peterson. Copyright 1934, 1937, and 1947 by Roger Tory Peterson. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Figure 2.

Illustrations from A Field Guide to the Birds (Eastern Land and Water Birds), 118, Plate 34; text and images by Roger Tory Peterson. Copyright 1934, 1937, and 1947 by Roger Tory Peterson. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

10 January 1987: Total

I was 20 when I first took the train west to Banff, Alberta, like others before me drawn to tourist and resource economies, lured by the boom and the bust, in hopes of finding work. I found a job as a maid at a hotel in Banff National Park, cleaning 30 rooms a day, four days a week, using a creamy-opaque product called “Total.” My coworkers, mainly Quebecers and a few from Ireland and New Zealand, warned me about Total: You needed to wear rubber gloves, it destroyed human skin. The gap between hearing and knowing, though, is big. By the end of my second day on the job, my hands were shredded: pink and red and nails torn off. I went into town to White’s Grocery on Banff Avenue in search of new gloves. It was body-breaking work, but I stayed on for the view: dramatic shifts of weather and light, changing the surfaces of the Bow Valley; air so pure it felt like a drug; and the rush of gravity, days off on the slopes skiing, with other kids like me, trying to sort how to do things with life.

It was 1987, and there were any number of world events to clarify the urgency of nature on the precipice and the limits on access to a “good” view: say, for instance, Clayoquot Sound.6 Or Chernobyl. Both were still present in the news and set deep in my consciousness. But my view was borrowed: fixed on survival of self, rather than species. The path toward my own environmentalism came slowly amid the hub and crush of rent, groceries, and the costs of being an adult: I was alone and trying to stay afloat, shocked by the unrealness of real estate, the impropriety of property. The route from Banff Avenue to Banff National Park, from the private to the public, came slowly, honed by life on the ground, with its daily goings-on and needs. In the contrast between the fluorescent lights overhead in the hotel to the epic sky by Two-Jack Lake, my surroundings schooled me toward a slow kind of tuning in. Outside, off-work, time and space were different, and the figure in a landscape, momentarily, entered another structure of feeling: free as a bird. Never was the link between access and economic privilege more on view than in my time as a cleaner at Banff, changing sheets in the upper suites, with an eye to the window and the rockface of Mount Rundle.

Date Unknown, 1835: Real Estate

My father’s great-great-grandfather was James Thompson, said to be born in Cork County, Ireland, in 1808. Landing at the port of Quebec in 1835, with his wife, Elizabeth Kelly, and two children, they made their way via the Ottawa River to Lochaber Township, where he worked as a laborer clearing bush while subsistence farming on a bit of land. He was one of many Irish escaping poverty and famine, some 30,000 arriving annually to Canada between 1830 and 1850. But the stories I’d learned in history class, and the memories told at family dinner, always made it sound like, you know, famine happens. As if land or climate acts alone in such crises. By 1835, though, a constellation of bad decisions and policies made by London elites had already consigned the Emerald Isle to the status of raw material for ambitious farmers and wealthy landowners. Karl Marx, in a short text on Ireland from Capital, noted a curious outcome as the amalgamation of small tracts of land into larger farms and the shift from arable to pasture lands developed: On the one hand, depopulation and diminished land quality; on the other, increased profits from rents charged and total surplus product.7 He writes, “The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only.”8

Things could have been different, I think, looking out toward the shoals off the Lower Cape. Enclosure, or the partitioning of common lands and smaller tracts—part of the epic ontological shift from feudalism to capitalism—only began in about 1450 with the clearing of small estates through proclamation or law and the subsequent amalgamation of lands for bigger farm operations. Historian Jason Moore sees this longer pattern of the expropriation of land and displacement of its people—whom Marx deadpans as “surplus population”9—as a defining aspect of capitalism. In his accounts of the “capitalocene,” Moore writes, “The whole thrust of capitalist civilization develops the premise that we inhabit something called society and act upon something called Nature.”10 Reassigning to the category of “nature” most humans—the Irish, as in my story; but more significantly Africans, Indigenous groups, and women—alongside the forests and animals allowed for the cheap production of food, energy, labor, and raw materials: “cheap nature.” That meant poverty, enslavement, and worse for those on the wrong side of the binary. What came next was the theft of access to land and sea, the reification of the sun.

Sunshine was not elusive for James Thompson, who worked outside “with an axe,” likely in the booming timber trade of what is now eastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec. Very recently, I came upon a deed held in his name, showing a purchase in 1836 of 100 acres in Lochaber Township, just northeast of the river at Thurso, Quebec. Remarkably, he bought what was called in flattering terms, “Crown land,” for 25 English pounds just one year after he arrived. And one year after Algonquin groups in the region had sent a petition to the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, demanding protection of their common lands, asking that “squatters” be compelled to leave and that any partitioned or “dismembered” lands be compensated for.11 Caught in a cycle of displacement and theft, at once the object and instrument of capital’s brutal need, his life was made through violence on both sides of the Atlantic.

Historical time, like geological time, offers up its sightlines slowly. There was always sand on the tip of the Cape but the dunes once held expansive coniferous forests, and there were stands of oak, beech, and hickory.12 The coastal lands were the traditional hunting and small-scale farming grounds for the Wampanoag tribes—the Nauset and Mashpee—who worked and dreamed this area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers. Displacement and development—meaning illness, death, and enslavement for the Indigenous—ramped up from about 1650 onward, when settlers cleared vast stretches of the land for wood, agriculture, and buildings. Only in the 19th century, after near decimation of the landscape, were the pitch pines and beach grasses planted, when the sand got so bad it piled up and threatened to overwhelm the houses of Provincetown.

From the shack, I can see the cliffs by the beach drop out here and there, as wind and wave revise the line of the shore daily. Walking west, I can see the shoals flood and disappear as the seas rise with the daily tide and an annual rate of 3.2 mm due to warming temperatures.13 And I can see the line of trucks snake past my porch four times daily, as tourists pay $28 each for a brief ride through the blinding light of the dunes.

Figure 4.

Digital facsimile, land deed held by James Thompson, 1836.14

Figure 4.

Digital facsimile, land deed held by James Thompson, 1836.14

26 August 2019: Dead Things

Seasonal workers rise early, most summers in the Outer Lands, to rake the beaches and ready the chairs and umbrellas for vacationing guests. Paid minimum wage plus tips, these workers form the underclass of the tourist economy, nevertheless they play an epic role: Like theater stagehands preparing scenes for a play, they sculpt pristine ocean views for the holiday crowd, clearing the wrack line and placing chairs along the shore. In a sleight-of-hand move, swapping physical labor for uncluttered views, the prepared beach affirms beautiful nature as expensive, empty, other. Farther from sight? Sea lettuce, rockweed, green fleece, molted crab shells, elaborate nests, and, amid the tangled flux…plastic.

Plastic, so ubiquitous in the petty tasks of daily life, tends to recede from view. But this morning, on my first walk along the shore by the Provinceland dunes, it resurfaces with a horror I can’t quite place.15 This is the National Seashore. These are bird nesting areas. I am just south of Race Point, following the wrack line. So many shorebirds gather here, to my eyes, without tension: terns, sandpipers, gulls. Herring gulls, laughing gulls, great black-backed gulls. Then a ruddy turnstone, a piping plover, an American scoter. What I see, slowing down to learn the names of the different birds and plants along the shore, is the glittering carpet of seaweed—glittering with plastic, what feminist scholar Heather Davis has called the “undead.” Now a kid’s shovel, now a fragment of a Polar Springs water bottle, many deflated mylar balloons. But everywhere and tangled up in green: bits of straws, birthday ribbon, lots of flat twine—the kind that holds boxes together. Everywhere. Gleaming, entwined, inseparable—part of a “new sensorial regime,” an “accidental aesthetic,”16 that is dazzling in its ubiquity and fusion with sea life/death.

Dialectic images, to be sure, as I write, flipping from nature as crafted to culture as material death. But these scenes are lived: fully dimensional, embodied, and elemental. Heading back from my morning walk, I look up to see a gull with a saggy orange balloon in its beak, and flash to my hands Total-ed: the unexpected burn of our immersion in toxic materials. I stop and watch for a while, keeping my distance. Then I’m maneuvering around, jumping and waving to try to jar the balloon from its beak. But I give up and keep walking. On the berm to my right, I suddenly notice a large dead bird: its wings upright and open, its head in the sand. The angle is ghastly, as if it died intentionally, in protest, crashing headlong into the beach. Everyday life at the shore, a mix of death and life, waste as commodity residue and nature as viewable. Seeing requires distance, steps made away from the grind of working life. We separate in order to attend, but at what cost?

31 August 2019: Use-Value

It’s said that, back in the day, the ocean held little romance for the people who made their living off its waves. Dune resident Colin Malicoat remembers that, “when you got off the boat, you turned your back to the sea.”17 The shore was serious, to be used not played with. Anthropologist Michael Taussig remembers the same in his recollection of growing up on the shore near Sydney; the shoreline was home only to the working class who couldn’t afford better spots, away from the harshest elements. For Taussig, encounters with the sea have fallen out of ordinary experience, just as real estate speculators have transformed these spaces into commodities of the highest value. He writes,

This reconfiguration of money and the sea began and has been completed in my lifetime, this total reversal of value and forced exodus of the economically weaker from the seaside. It is by no means as dramatic or as consequential as the appropriation of the land from the Aboriginals that was begun in the late eighteenth century, the land having been legally defined by the British government as without owners, much the same as was done to the Palestinians by the Israelis this century, but was achieved freely by the anonymous force of the market instead, the market of fantasy.18

Taussig’s interest, then, is to sort out how the transformation from common to commodity, from public to private, happens. He writes, “The secret of the expansion in value is a consequence of an artistically contrived revelation around the axis of prehistory. The trick, for the modern capitalist magic, to function, is to deface the commodity of labor, allowing its mimetic or use-value component to surge forth, flashlike, only to disappear once again as an expanded semiotic or exchange value.”19 What’s striking here is Taussig’s insistence that at the heart of capitalism lies an aesthetic maneuver, which enables fantasy—the pristine waterfront, composed in linear perspective—to take hold, thereby raising values. Confounding mathematical or scientific explanations, the commodity’s sudden appearance is driven by the power of aesthetics to take hold of our imagination and the flight of desire, to grip us with feelings of worth and worthlessness, through a kind of masking, as in the erasure of waste and labor on the beach.

Here at the shore, there is no question that natural aesthetics move us in everyday life. How else to explain the older jogger who crosses my field of vision each morning making the arduous trek across the dunes at 8:30 a.m.? Barefoot, toes in sand, skin exposed to the muscle of the wind, he is smiling as he passes and greets me with a wave. I too feel more alive in this place: my body animated by proximity to the elements, attention honed by the scale of the landscape and the slowness of time. But beauty is such a dirty thing: marred by its seductive power, colonized by the markets to sell and resell. This is something of what scholars Patricia Ávila-García and Eduardo Sánchez have in mind in their description of “the environmentalism of the rich”: whereby excellent lands—biodiverse, pristine, unspoiled by toxic waste—along the Jalisco coast in Mexico were expropriated in the name of conservation, federalized and/or privatized, with development slotted to benefit wealthy elites.20 Along the Jalisco coast, actions in the name of environmental protection—aesthetic acts—served only to greenwash a move toward access and control by financial elites. Conservation, the impulse and political movement to “save” landscapes deemed beautiful, operated as a kind of theft. But where writers like Ávila-García, Sánchez, and Taussig zero in on a use-value approach to access that pits “inhabiting” against “contemplating,” I want to expand use-value to include contemplation as an essential kind of doing, and the view as its critical tool: allowing an embodied form of attention that ought to be seen as a basic human right, akin to fresh air and drinking water.

Figure 6A.

Claude glass as shown in Pike’s Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue21

Figure 6A.

Claude glass as shown in Pike’s Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue21

Figure 6B.

Young Man with a Claude Glass22

Figure 6B.

Young Man with a Claude Glass22

Date Unknown, Circa 1776: Claude Glass

The Claude glass was a small, portable convex mirror used in the 18th century by painters and tourists as a mechanism through which to perceive the largesse of a landscape. Its small convex lens—sometimes tinted, sometimes clear glass—compressed the vastness of the landscape into a small reflection that respected proportion and detail but flattened out texture and tone, and darkened and miniaturized the view for better recording by the artist, better seeing by the tourist. Named after the French artist Claude Lorrain, the Claude glass framed and filtered the view, reorienting the gaze of the beholder toward a handheld mirror and often requiring, hilariously for observers of the day, that they turn their back on the very view they hoped to paint in order to allow for mirror reflection. A framing, a distortion, a reduction, an abstraction, whereby “fascination quickly becomes malaise.”23 Associated with the 18th-century picturesque,24 a category of art described by William Gilpin as holding “some quality capable of being illustrated in painting,”25 the device was part of an assortment of optical instruments, including the camera obscura and the graphic telescope, bound by new research in optics and used by painters and tourists as a tool for seeing environments.

Devices of this order helped construct the idea and shape of land as representation and “view,” anchored less in the lived experience of being in or of a landscape, more in its idealization and recollection toward acts of inscription—that is, translation acts from tree to representation of tree.26 Western ideas of a perfect view established conventions for seeing and being in the landscape, training eyes through the work of 17th-century geographers, who drew maps and scenes from a linear perspective that centered the colonial gaze; or via seekers of the picturesque, who codified scenes in the framing of sight lines, curating of points of interest and staging of distance in order to magnify nature’s pleasing effects. Phenomena such as these played a central role in the sedimentation of a culture/nature binary through art as older mass media.27

This history of making images, full of eccentricities yet complicit, fucked-up, and still beautiful, is partly what I’m wrestling with as a teacher, in the hybrid studio/reading class I teach at the university.28 The course explores the shoreline, in particular, as a shape-shifting site of natural and cultural identity and imagines different ways to bring landscapes and their crises into art practice and curricula at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. We read the environmental ethicist Allen Carlson, who writes that art history has had too strong an influence on how we understand our response to nature.29 But at least since the 19th century, art history has made the deepest investment in exploring the visual world’s affective power, and in teaching us to see and see differently. Moreover, its attention to beauty, however flawed, corrupted, or co-opted the category may be, takes seriously the phenomenon’s power to move, gather, incite, enfranchise.30

My gaze wanders away from screen to sky. It’s first light on the dunes, and I hear the tree swallows cluster and sing in the patch of rugosa rose just by the door. When I stand, they fly away, in unison, up and around, settling somewhere beyond sight. Minutes pass. The clouds break open, a neon crack in the dark, then fire orange, then pink and blue and the drama of the lightening sky. I step outside and lie down on the steep, sandy path below the shack: stay here, alert to the scuttling thoughts, alive to the skin on the sand, the flies near the face and the retina sky above, indifferent. It’s a beauty that affronts for being beyond our control; and whose originality confronts us in ways that can’t be met in language alone.

Summer 1968: Being There

I’m four years old, up on my dad’s shoulders as we cross the knobby terrain of a newly purchased hobby farm in southern Ontario. A public-school science teacher and former meteorologist, Dad will transform the site into a science lab for students: planting trees, learning about composting and soil improvement, studying cloudscapes and cedar growth, water levels, and bird arrivals. He didn’t call it environmental literacy, nor did he think of what he did in fancy terms like pedagogy. Still, he was focused on sharing a love for the poetics and the politics of the land and water, and he did so within a framework of education bound by co-presence, collaboration, and lived experience.

The first in his family to attend college, Dad’s approach to teaching was rooted in his upbringing in the Italian neighborhood of Ottawa, where his father ran a lumberyard and his mom spoke four languages and went door-to-door selling Avon. Dad studied biology and chemistry at a Catholic college downtown, before taking a job with the national weather service in Winnipeg, drawing maps by hand every three hours, scanning the skies for halos and sundogs. He believed that work transformed mind and matter. But experience taught him that the world did things, too; science was a meditation with the wind. I see my dad, a small figure in a vast landscape, looking up: the ancestor of Irish peasants named illiterate in an 1851 census, settlers caught in a wave of migration, at once displaced and displacing the Algonquin peoples who came before.

Learning from the land takes time when knowledge is embodied and often slow-moving. David Orr, an early leader in environmental education, sees environmental literacy as a core interdisciplinary competency, gained through direct experience of the landscape and learning in place.31 Orr’s ideas foreground land-based learning, not as trend or supplement to the curriculum but as the root of all education, by which he means, of all self-knowledge. It’s a message prefigured by Indigenous thought; Leslie Marmon Silko, for instance, tells the story of how land shapes identity, via the need to befriend every plant, insect, animal, and root in the Pueblo in order to survive its rigors—the world pressing in through surface of the body.32

The view teaches us, as “we become what we behold.”33 This is why contemplation and beauty—codified, unspoiled—matter, as feet and face come together to perceive environments. The view, it turns out, has always been a kind of doing, but geographic scale, geologic time, and the enigmas of material life—inside science, yet outside language—require revised modes of seeing and being in/of a landscape. I think this must be what progressive healthcare people like Sonya L. Jakubec and her team of researchers in southern Alberta have in mind, in their work bringing hospice patients into the national parks as part of the end-of-life process.34 Being there mattered; immersion in a landscape held tremendous power to reshape the experience of grief. Their sense of the view, bound primarily by gentle, affective interactions on the ground, begins to suggest the ways that land-based forms of contemplation—used here as vernacular shorthand, wherein the word’s association with careful looking, thinking, and intending all come together—may be consequential.35 Equal parts portal and balm, the view ignites profound forms of attention that soothe and shape deep inquiry. Yet there is no view without access, no view without a body moving in a landscape.

It’s just past 7 a.m. I look up from reading to see two mourning doves on the deck’s railing. The elegant shape and long tails, the silken coat: feathers of silver and tan on the back, blush pink on the breast. They seem to look my way, gazes steady, peering through the glass. There’s no outcome to this exchange, no easy meaning. But look out, listen, keep watching. “Knowing” is an illusory tic on the way to the view.

4 September 2019: Bird’s Eye/Vogelfrei

Marx takes a “metabolic” view of nature, at once doing and done into,36 and he finds this dialectic squarely rooted in the circuitry between bodies and materials. It’s a balanced view of material agency—that dreamlike set of contemporary ideas, foretold in various religious and cosmologic practices, as well as in the histories of animism, magic, and puppetry, that embrace the life of nonhuman objects and decenter postures of human authority. Yet, as the 45th US president eyes federal lands for resource and development opportunity, and the backshore of the Cape appears more as canvas than ecology, the need to stay focused on human agency and embodied forms of power weighs more heavily on my mind than any speculation on the doves.37 Consider the unfettered corporate agency on view, for example, in the spoiled landscapes and watersheds of Argentina and Peru, poisoned by multinational Canadian mining companies like Barrick Gold, whose stakes in the landscape are limited to monetary. Or think of the agency of the state, whose socialism for elites takes the form of, say, federal insurance subsidies for ongoing coastal housing development, in spite of devastating storms and flooding.38 Accounts like these proliferate, stick in me: a tangle of relations between human agency, institutional scale, and landscapes in the grip of rootless wealth and power.

Orr contrasts the idea of “inhabiting” with “residing,” wherein inhabiting implies sustained engagement in a landscape and residing is itinerant: “The sum total of violence wrought by people who don’t know who they are because they don’t know where they are is the global environmental crisis.”39 He, too, has in mind the irresponsibility of the corporate actor, whose crimes are veiled by imagined geographic distance and cultural bias. But movement in a landscape hasn’t always felt flawed, just as roots were not always measured in dollars. Indigenous groups in the Cape moved over vast areas, for instance, while still maintaining long-term relationships to place bound by practices including hunting and farming.40 In its earliest usage, vogelfrei referred to the sense of being “as free as a bird,” unbound by debts of any kind. The term becomes pejorative around the time of enclosure, applied to the vagrant and outcast, whose loss of legal rights is predicated on and punished through enforced land relations.41 But the poetic sound and syntax of vogelfrei perhaps return us to the promise of its earliest usage, marking a time before property, when the body in a landscape could figure differently. Bird free. Then, I imagine, access to a view wasn’t bound exclusively to notions of wealth or ownership; and residency implied only being there. Land meant all kinds of relations, among other things, or as Peter Kulchyski writes the term in his work on Aboriginal political forms: “The landscape itself as a trace as a story as a setting as an obstacle as a site as a question as an opening as a language surrounded by and representing an embodied inscription.”42

I turn away from the page to the shore, moving slowly. Thinking takes space, as history swells up, around, and in me in the here and now. I’m thinking, too, about the university classroom—talk about institutional agency moving toward totalization! Still, in the studio class I teach, with its focus on making and reading imagery as and against trained views; I work as my colleagues do, finding ways small and large to return to the space and place of land. Moving from image to view is akin to shifting from inscription to lived experience; it involves a retraining of the eye or, more precisely, a revised sensitivity to being in the eye–body–environment as historical perceptual machine.43 A view may not count for much, you think—it’s either too cheap or too commodified.44 But a view is dialogic, never static—at its best, the view offers a luminous stepping out of time, in which a laboring body finds the space to “see.”

I make my way from the edge of the water back toward the shack, and at the top of the dune, I lose my balance. Just over the beach grass, the wide sea: at high tide, dark blue and calm as glass. To the south, there are mostly cirrus clouds, dark gray with bands of pink. To the north, cumulonimbus—the upward towers and rounded stacks that foretell storms. Hurricane Dorian, I’ve been told, due to hit before midnight tonight. It’s only noon, and I’m pausing over the end of my time in this landscape. The beach below is crowded in all directions: pipers, shearwaters, cormorants, calling out in languages unknown to me. Suddenly, a small plane appears, headed for Race Point. As it nears, I see the banner behind it: Michelob Ultra. My thoughts skip from Air Rights to Amazon.com drone deliveries, and the fate of the birds. Who, finally, will own the sky?


The author thanks Liz Miller at Concordia University, the Peaked Hill Trust and National Park Service, and the Editor and readers at Departures in Critical Qualitative Research.



Unless otherwise noted, all images were made by the author on a broken Android cell phone. Research assistant, photographer, and BFA student William Normand-Robichaud helped with curation and technical manipulation of images.


Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds (Eastern Land and Water Birds) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1947), 43.


That there were four of these birds makes me think they are crows. But their larger size, soaring flight, and croaky squawk makes me think they are ravens. A notice on the local NPR station WCAI notes that ravens are newly breeding along the Lower Cape, with increased sightings since 2012, attributed to forest recovery in the area. See Mark Faherty, “Ravens among the Newest Breeding Birds on Cape Cod,” WCAI: Local NPR for the Cape, Coast and Islands, 22 March 2017, https://www.capeandislands.org/post/ravens-among-newest-breeding-birds-cape-cod#stream/0.


Robert J. Wolfe, Dwelling in the Dunes: Traditional Use of the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, Cape Cod (Washington, DC: National Park Service/United States Department of the Interior, 2005), 27.


An early source for this architecture locally may lie with Indigenous peoples on the Cape; by the early 1800s, the Mashpee were building simple one-room houses described as “huts” or “cabins.” See Daniel R. Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 9.


Clayoquot Sound is a coastal area on the west of Vancouver Island, home to Nuu-cha-nulth Indigenous peoples for over 2,000 years and characterized by diverse terrain and temperate rainforests. The Sound was the scene of fierce activism around the destruction of old-growth forests that began in the 1970s and culminated in 1993, when 859 people were arrested in what was one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The government of British Columbia signed a temporary agreement to stop logging: Indigenous groups obtained greater authority over the region; and in 2000, UNESCO named it a biosphere reserve. Logging, however, continues in the area and across the Island.


Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1976), 854–70.


Marx, Capital, 861.


Marx, Capital, 782.


Jason Moore, “Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 3 (2017): 600.


See Algonquins of Ontario, “Algonquin Petition of June 6, 1835,” http://www.tanakiwin.com/wp-system/uploads/2013/10/f-Algonquin-Petition-of-June-6-1835.pdf.


Patrick J. Lynch, A Field Guide to Cape Cod (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 75, 81. See also John Cumbler, Cape Cod: An Environmental History of a Fragile Ecosystem (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).


Lynch, A Field Guide to Cape Cod, 30.


For a discussion on waste’s relation to the sublime, see Amanda Boetzkes, “Waste and the Sublime Landscape,” in “Landscape, Cultural Spaces, Ecology,” ed. Lora Senechal Carney and Édith-Anne Pageot, special issue, RACAR: Canadian Art Review 35, no. 1 (2010): 22–31.


Heather Davis, “Life and Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic,” in Art and the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 349, 348.


Wolfe, Dwelling in the Dunes, 27.


Michael Taussig, “The Beach: A Fantasy,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (2000): 251.


Taussig, “The Beach,” 271.


Patricia Ávila-García and Eduardo Sánchez, “The Environmentalism of the Rich and the Privatization of Nature,” trans. Victoria Furio, Latin American Perspectives 39, no. 6 (2012): 51–67.


Claude glass as shown in Pike’s Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical and Philosophical Instruments; Manufactured, Imported and Sold By the Author; With Prices Affixed at Which They are Offered in 1856, vol. 2 (New York: Benjamin Pike Jr., Optician, 1856), 193.


Young Man with a Claude Glass by Thomas Gainsborough, 18th century. Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum. III, 1.


Arnaud Maillet, The Claude Glass (London: Zone Books, 2004), 217.


For art historian Renzo Dubbini, the picturesque is “an interpretive code and a theory of character applied to the environment” (Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002], 136).


William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: To Which Is Added a Poem on Landscape Painting (London: R. Blamire, 1792; Ann Arbor, MI: Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004863369.0001.000/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext, accessed 14 November 2020.


See Ron Broglio, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750–1830 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008); Gina Crandell, Nature Pictorialized: “The View” in Landscape History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Dubbini, Geography of the Gaze. On the construction of landscape through capital, see Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, 3rd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).


Art historians have made decisive cases for how the picture-making of land shapes our seeing of the natural world. For example, Crandell has found that Greek architects sited their buildings in relation to important geological features on the land; she argues that because their representational conventions were different from our own—which privilege the view from a singular pair of eyes standing in a landscape—we couldn’t see the profound relation antiquity had with land (Nature Pictorialized). See also John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).


Art Education, Concordia University, Montreal: “Image/Text/Motion: The Poetics and Politics of Water” (2015); “Water 2.0: The St. Lawrence River/Fieldwork in the Anthropocene” (2016); and “Art and the Anthropocene” (2018).


Allen Carlson, “Ten Steps in the Development of Western Environmental Aesthetics,” in Environmental Aesthetics: Crossing Divides and Breaking Ground, ed. Martin Drenthen and Jozef Keulartz (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 13–24.


David Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).


David Orr, “Environmental Education and Ecological Literacy,” Education Digest 55, no. 9 (1990): 49–53. See also Native American studies scholar Gregory Cajete, who defines land education as bound by direct experience; he writes that it involves learning about “not only a physical place with the sun, wind, rain, waters, lakes, rivers, streams but a spiritual place of being and understanding” (“Reclaiming Biophilia: Lessons from Indigenous Peoples,” in Ecological Education in Action: On Weaving Education, Culture and Environment, ed. Gregory Smith and Dilafruz R. Williams [New York: State University of New York Press, 1999], 193); and aesthetics scholar Arnold Berleant, who argues for further attention to experience, understood as sensorial and embodied; he sees “an aesthetic interest in environment as fundamental…because our sensory engagement with environment precedes and underlies every other interest” (“The Cultural Aesthetics of Respect: Kant’s Contribution,” in Environmental Aesthetics: Crossing Divides and Breaking Ground, ed. Martin Drenthen and Jozef Keulartz [New York: Fordham University Press, 2014], 63).


Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination,” Antaeus 57 (1986): 882–94.


William Blake, paraphrased in Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 7–21.


See Sonja L. Jakubec, Dan Carruthers Den Hoed, Heather Ray, and Ashok Krishnamurthy, “Grieving Nature—Grieving in Nature: The Place of Parks and Natural Places in Palliative and Grief Care,” in Health in the Anthropocene: Living Well on a Finite Planet, ed. and Katherine Zywert and Stephen Quilley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 241–50. Jakubec’s work functions outside transactional phenomena like the ParkRX program, in which doctors officially proscribe time in natural spaces, often providing patients with state-allocated day passes to parks. Whereas Jakubec’s model involves self-direction from patients and caregivers, the Park RX model weds doctor-as-authority-figure with a transactional access model, whereby doctors provide day passes to particular spaces. For more on Park prescriptions and the health benefits of being in green spaces, see Nate Seltenrich, “Just What the Doctor Ordered,” Environmental Health Perspectives 123, no. 10 (2015), A254–59.


Cajete notes “the development and nurturance of this sensibility play a very important role in maintaining our physical, mental, and psychological health” (“Reclaiming Biophilia,” 190).


See Smith, Uneven Development, 16–28.


Since the time of writing, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on the Upper Cape have had their lands newly expropriated by the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior. See Max Jungreis, “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Is Losing Its Reservation,” The Boston Globe, 28 March 2020, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/28/metro/mashpee-wampanoag-tribe-is-losing-its-reservation-leader-says/.


See Gilbert Gaul, The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).


Orr, “Environmental Education,” 49. This distinction recalls Taussig’s contrast of the actions of contemplating/inhabiting (“The Beach”); and gestures to the landscape/taskscape divide in Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000).


Mandell, Tribe, Race, History.


Marx uses the term vogelfrei, I think, evocatively to refer clearly to an emergent proletariat without land rights or access to means of production and to suggest the potential of this group toward setting themselves free (Capital, 896). For a sense of the term’s usage in more recent legal scholarship, see Umut Özsu, “Grabbing Land Legally: A Marxist Analysis,” Leiden Journal of International Law 32, no. 2 (2019): 219; Markus Dirk Dubber, “The Right to Be Punished: Autonomy and Its Demise in Modern Penal Thought,” Law & History Review 16, no. 1 (1998): 120. For a general account of the term’s history, see Wikipedia, s.v., “Vogelfrei,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vogelfrei.


Peter Kulchyski, Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005), 18.


New York dancer/choreographer and performance artist Carolee Schneemann’s “Eye Body” (1963) is a key reference point here. As a set of actions and representations by the artist in an environment that sought to center the body in the creative act, the work marks the embodied nature of seeing and challenging perceived divides between painting and sculpture; painting and performance; artist and subject. See Carolee Schneemann and Bruce McPherson, More Than Meat Joy (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Co., 1979).


A recent New York Times article described the purchase of air rights from a neighboring building by members of a condominium seeking to protect their view. See J. David Goodman, “How Much Is a View Worth in Manhattan? Try $11 Million,” New York Times, 22 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/22/nyregion/manhattan-real-estate-views-air-rights.html.