One place you must add to your “must-visit-before-I-die” list is the Wenatchee Valley during full bloom of the pear and apple orchards in late April. Perhaps you’ve seen Van Gogh’s lovely, but not often reproduced, painting “The Pink Orchard.” It’s very simple, a small orchard in bloom. But it’s so simple and lovely it will make you cry with desire. Now imagine it juxtaposed with one of those sublime Western landscapes by Bierstadt. Impossible? Of course. But keep trying. Imagine these vast orchards, all in bloom. And behind them loom the magnificent Cascades, still etched with late spring snow. Once you have it in focus, you’re looking at the sublimely perfect juxtaposition of the natural and the agricultural.
There are other such places as well.
A newly harvested potato field in northern Ukraine, bathed in warm October light, bordered by not quite familiar hardwoods, Ukrainian species of oak and maple, the onion dome of an Orthodox church hovering on the horizon.
The gently rolling mixed pasture, apple orchard, and woods, interspersed with half-timbered houses and brown and white Norman cows, the hedgerow-lined narrow roads of the bocage region of Normandy.
An Indiana bottomland hayfield on a mid-summer evening, the windrows curving gently into the shadows of honey locust and box elder that separate the field from the river, the intoxicating scent of fresh-mown hay permeating the humid evening air, a bouquet as integral to the landscape as the light of dusk.
And another landscape, more recent, added to memory. The precise geometry of the parallel rows and the deep blue green of Walla Walla Sweet Onion fields have always attracted my fancy. But now that I have visited with some of the onion farmers, now that I know some of the crop’s history, of its Italian immigrant growers, the landscape now instills a much deeper aesthetic in my mind.
It may be true, as evolutionary psychologists suggest, that the African savannah prompts an ancient love, that all of us carry an archetypal memory of that open landscape’s appeal. But I believe the most beautiful landscape is one that blends the cultivated with the natural.
Even monoculture holds a certain beauty, at least if framed against, say, the low forested mountains of the eastern Palouse—though endless miles of winter wheat depend to a large extent on the play of light and wind for their aesthetic appeal.
More beautiful—and I realize I’m entering an entirely subjective realm—are the locally consumable, the diverse, the old. Landscape that clearly defines the region, its food, its history, its culture. Cows grazing on an impossibly steep pasture in the Alps. Ancient rice paddies on the plains south of Bangkok. The old farm orchards of the upper Midwest.
It must be either age or appetite, with their irksome intimations of mortality, that drives one to seek meaning amongst the levels of landscape, to imagine, with deep satisfaction, one’s place when landscape, culture, history, food, all blend into one. But perhaps that is simply the definition, the emotion, of home.
Tim Steury, Editor