Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 55-62.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The plains landscape has always been a dominant factor in the lives of those people who confront it daily. Our recognition of pioneer nineteenth-century landscapes is a fusion in the mind of what we remember from early reports and visual images and our own personal vision of the land as it looks today. That concept of the pioneer landscape remains in our minds even as we respond to the contemporary landscape or through the imagination create our own. One reason, then, that pioneer landscapes are still important to us is that they have influenced our perceptions of the plains in the twentieth century. Although man alters his physical environment somewhat from decade to decade, it may still be argued that the land is eternal in relation to the brief existence of man. The duration of an individual's perception of the land is almost negligible in the long view of many centuries. Yet, the land and its shape can mean nothing without man's awareness of it and his attitudes toward it.

To a certain extent it is man who changes, rather than the land itself. His changing beliefs affect his perceptions of the landscape, so that descriptions and representations of the landscape are constantly in a "pioneer state." In that sense the term "pioneer" applies to contemporary as well as nineteenth-century observers of the land.

Because landscape is at once elementary and complex, we encounter a great variety of reactions to it. Indeed, many contemporary geographers, psychologists, and artists define landscape as a concept. We can no longer view landscape as mere scenery. It is able to evoke in us much more than pleasantries or idle expressions of interest. Whereas scenery represents for the viewer a rather simple visual pleasure, landscape seems to be synonymous with nature-that part of our total environment that is original, that existed long before the arrival of humankind. Whatever we call it, it is through the land, or nature, that man arrives at philosophies and personal beliefs, that he survives physically, and that he dreams of the unknown. As Hermann Mattern has said, we treat a landscape as we do nature. We substitute landscape for nature, though we know that at best it is only a piece of nature, a part which we take for the hannonious whole and of which we expect that, incomplete though it be, it could communicate at any time and to the very end of time the harmony which belongs to the whole.

In this context, both nature and landscape have meaning, whereas scenery is a lesser tern denoting only a view, an optical vision or experience lacking the implications of a psychological or spiritual vision.