Without vocabulary a place is invisible

In the Introduction to her Antarctic Dictionary (CSIRO & Museum Victoria, 2000) Bernadette Hince writes that for many people the Antarctic continent is an invisible ‘barren and useless wasteland’. She cites journalist Walter Sullivan who in 1957 proposed that

until the moon or other planets are attained, Antarctica will remain the most unearthly region within the reach of man. The landscape is so alien that a completely specialised language is needed to describe it.

John R. Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004) brings to life the salt marsh lands of North America. For many people these regions are as invisible as Antarctica. Stigloe explains that ‘Landscape or seascape – that lacks vocabulary cannot be seen, cannot be accurately, usefully visited’ (54), and that ‘Johnson and Thoreau suggested that most people essentially ignore their surroundings, and walk, if they walk at all, oblivious to nearly everything’ (44). Stigloe’s words render the marsh lands more than visibly. They animate connections to place through language that past inhabitants used to describe it. Stilgoe’s language is researched and crafted. His words bring us with him to the marsh lands on his little boat Essay.

Where the rower of Essay meets no other humans, language might be as unimportant as watches or clothes or credit cards. But the rower pulls with purpose other than exercise and recreation. He intends a book, a landscape history of the realm of estuary and marsh, and pulls as an explorer, as a chronicler of a place facing extinction as the earth warms and the sea level rises. Oriented towards the visual, he still needs to write, and in writing wonders about the quiet, almost mute vocabulary of his neighborhood, his environs. He wonders as he pulls along the creeks. In the quiet, the old language barely whispers (8).

What of the lands that we inhabit every day? Familiar places can become invisible when we cease to move through them and be moved by them. Can a new visual language evolve to describe shared knowledge of our changing environment. When we physically move through it we can use body knowledge to draw, make and animate. Shared visual elements can be combined with scientific data to connect us with the changes.

About Lisa Roberts

Project leader
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