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Whatever landscape a child is exposed to growing up,

that will be the sort of gauze through which she or he experiences all the world afterwards.

—Wallace Stegner

When we experience a change in our landscape, there is something deeper that shifts within us as well. There are many who take Proust’s cue that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, but for a student of place, our surroundings make a clear impact.

There is a certain sense of healthy upheaval that new landscapes and new horizons bring, an opportunity to both re-confirm what is most important in our lives and our work while welcoming new connections and insights. And while Terry Tempest encourages us that “perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home,” sometimes we also need to be intentional about seeking and shaping the places we call home.

Barry Lopez has written about the need to reconcile our inner and outer landscapes. This is not simply a process we must pursue individually—in finding the place that feels most like home, or the work where we can truly make a difference—but we must also explore this on a cultural level. We have crafted a country where development looks a particular way, where our options for getting around hint of freedom, but are relatively limited, and where work and the economy are defined in fairly narrow terms. In the midst of the economic crisis we are experiencing, there is a cultural crisis as well—and a perfect opportunity to seek and create a new landscape.

What lies over the horizon is always difficult to predict. A member of a group I was working with recently which set out to explore a twenty-year vision for their work shared that we could think all we wanted about what the country looks like in twenty years, but it might be fairly inaccurate. Certainly, this is the case—and we can’t know what might influence the landscape before us in the years ahead—but we owe it to ourselves to articulate a clear vision, even an intention for what is possible to guide us, inspire our work, and encourage others to join us.

Paul Hawken quips that “a mess is just a pile of opportunities in drag”—and nowhere could that be more true than in our current situation. The twin stories of ill-fated air travel from earlier in the year can serve as an interesting metaphor for our predicament: on the one hand, there was the “Miracle on the Hudson” with a pilot taking control of a plane with no hope of returning to a runway and landing it in a river, and saving everyone aboard. And then, not ten days later, a small commuter jet apparently on ‘autopilot’ during a treacherous approach into Buffalo crashed into a neighborhood, with the opposite tragic results.

Our culture and our economy are on similar trajectories, and we have some ability to decide the path we take—how creative, calm and proactive can we be with how and where we might land? Where do we see opportunity on the horizon and what is the path developing in the current landscape that can take us in a more positive direction?

We are powerfully influenced by our landscape at the same time as we are able to shape it, but this is a tentative and symbiotic relationship. What lies on the horizon depends upon our sensitivity to both understanding our current situation and where we went awry, and on allowing and encouraging new, creative and more sustainable avenues to emerge.

March 2009