July
8th 2013
What is the function of “flat?”

Posted under: American history, weirdness

Nebraska

I’ve just driven 2,615 miles over eight days, from Potterville to Minnesota and Wisconsin and back, and I have been wondering about the function of the insult “flat” that’s leveled against much, if not most, of the interior of the United States.  After having driven across the prairie states of Nebraska (two different ways), Iowa, Minnesota (two different ways), Wisconsin (two different ways), South Dakota, and tagging Wyoming on the way back home, very little of the land we traversed could accurately be described as “flat.”

I once had a roommate in college who referred to me as a “flatlander” because I was a native of Ohio, one state west of us in Pennsylvania.  Most of Ohio is, however, luxuriously green, lush, and hilly, sited as it is on the Ohio River and neighbor to the Appalachian Mountains.  I started to wonder more about this descriptor “flat” as I drove from Ohio to Colorado on I-70 nearly a dozen years ago.  I had dreaded the drive across Kansas especially because everyone in Ohio had sympathized with me about enduring “flat” Kansas.  “It’s so flat,” they all said. But I-70 across Kansas in August, I found, was mostly lovely rolling green hills dotted with round hay bales and sunflower fields worthy of a Vincent VanGogh painting.

South Dakota

So, what, I wonder, is the function of calling a state or a region “flat?”  Flat is almost prima facie an insult.  What is described lovingly or admiringly as flat?  Nothing that I can think of.  Flatness connotes homogeneity, dullness, and an absence of fertility.  Beverages and foods described as “flat” are the opposite of tasty.  Women’s figures are insulted as “flat” if they don’t have prominent or cute breasts.  Accents are described as “flat” if they’re owned by people from states and regions described as “flat.”  The Oxford English Dictionary is a font of the insulting connotations of flatness–interestingly, the military or political resonance of being flattened, laid flat, or prostrate by a foe was quite prominent in the first several definitions of the adjectival form.  Perhaps calling a state or a region “flat” is a rhetorical move meant to lay claim to (and insult) the land and people of another region, if only linguistically.

Wisconsin

Parts of most states in the U.S. can fairly be called flat.  For example, my native corner of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are in fact pretty flat.  Northern Indiana and Illinios are pretty flat too, but south of I-70 they’re as hilly as the rest of the Ohio valley.  Some of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin is flat.  Colorado, on the other hand, is a state that is considered the opposite of “flat” because the Rocky Mountains march regally down the middle, but eastern Colorado–and especially northeastern Colorado–is pretty darn flat.  Much of Wyoming on I-80 is scary flat, but because it’s framed on most sides by mountain ranges and marquee National Parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, no one calls it “flat.”  At the same time, there are few places flatter than Manhattan, Philadelphia, Washington, or Baltimore.  Eastern Massachusetts is pretty damn flat too, but no one calls it that.

Although I question the extent of the flatness of so-called “flatlander” states, I think there’s actually an aesthetic of flat.  As opposed to the very hilly, cliff- or butte-strewn, or even Badlands character of the drive I’ve just completed, there are many flat landscapes that are utterly beautiful.  I remember a westward drive in June across Wyoming on I-80 during which we watched thunderstorm after thunderstorm roll over us, the blue-black skies and golden sunshine making a gorgeous contrast with the green of the pinion pines and the tumbleweed and the red of the soil.  One of my favorite drives is U.S. 127 through western Ohio and southern Michigan, with its orderly procession of fields and farmhouses, county seats and courthouses, for more than 200 miles.  Ironically, Denver is a damn flat town (it is sited on the Platte, or Flat River, of course!) but we don’t dismiss Paris on the Platte as “flat.”

Why do we call the U.S. midwest and prairie states “flat?”  Most of the people who dismiss these places and regions are very unfamilar with them.  Why do we feel the need to condescend out of ignorance?

39 Comments »

39 Responses to “What is the function of “flat?””

  1. Bardiac on 08 Jul 2013 at 8:24 am #

    I think condescension sort of requires ignorance, no? And it fits with the flyover country condescension, too.

    Biking makes me rethink “flat” because there are enough little hills pretty much anywhere to slow me down or speed me up (when I get to go down).

    Still, for me, I feel more “exposed” when I’m in a prairie state than when I’ve got mountains around. And as someone who grew up with mountains at least in a distance, I don’t like that feeling so much. I have friends who grew up in prairie states who feel constricted in more mountainy areas, like they can’t see far enough or enough sky.

    That’s more about us as people than about the areas, though.

  2. Werner Herzog's Bear on 08 Jul 2013 at 8:27 am #

    As a son of the state of Nebraska, I thank you for this. I’ve had so many people tell me so many times over the years that my home state is unrelentingly flat, only to find out all they’ve seen of it is Interstate 80, which follows the Platte River valley. My father grew up in an area of Nebraska so full of hills that his German great grandmother constantly complained about the lack of flatness after she emigrated! And yes, the flat parts are quite beautiful, and something I will be looking forward to when I visit home this summer.

  3. Dr. Virago on 08 Jul 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Hear! Hear! Thanks for this. I think Bardiac is right that a lot of it comes from ignorance and coastal/regional snobbery/parochialism. My SIL’s family told us that before they visited her in the KS suburbs of the greater Kansas City area that they imagined KS as not only flat by *treeless*. WTF? My brother didn’t live on a giant wheat farm; he lived in the suburbs. What suburbs don’t have trees??

    Btw, speaking of where I grew up and also where you grew up, this made me LOL: everyone in Ohio had sympathized with me about enduring “flat” Kansas. “It’s so flat,” they all said. Hahahahahaha. NW Ohio is *so* much flatter than the part of KS I grew up in. So, yeah, ignorance, parochialism, etc.

    And as you point out, what’s wrong with flatness in the first place, especially flatness with unobscured views stretching to the horizon in every direction? A calm sea is like that and no one ever calls the ocean “flat.” the prairie is a beautiful and sublime place. The thing is, it’s just not meant to be driven through at 75 mph. Then it *is* going to appear to be a flat, blank, sameness for hour after hour. People need to get out of their cars every now and then and just stare at the horizon, and feel the immenseness of that space and one’s own utter smallness against it. Sublime.

  4. Indyanna on 08 Jul 2013 at 8:53 am #

    A great essay, and well worth waiting for! I’ve been dancing around this issue forever. If you grew up on a sand-bar that pretends to be an island, or actually, The Island, flat is your baseline. Moving into the flattest corner of Pennsylvania was perceived by my sixth grade classmates as an exercise in mountaineering. College in Ohio, right about on the moraine line where the glacier hesitated and turned back north, was no place to even think about being a geology major, but that’s what I did, until I learned about the chemistry part. So I learned that any field trips worth taking (unless you were interested in limestone sinkholes) would be weekend jaunts to West Virginia, which put an end to all that. But I knew that the northwestern onion-field part of the state was flatter than the rolling hills down around AY-thens, which I never got to, any more than the glacier did. A brief academic tour in eastern Iowa prepared me to expect seriously flat, but that part of the state rocked and rolled at least as much as the equivalent corner of Pennsylvania. I once took a train across the I-80 part of Wyoming, and was not disappointed by its flatness, but rather by its tree-lessness, as I had contrived to imagine that the Rockies were forested from sea-to-shining sea. Wrong. There used to be a thriving academic subfield called “environmental perception,” but I don’t know whether it’s still out there. But if you thought literary studies embraced subjectivity, you haven’t gotten to environmental perception yet. The only really objectively flat part of the U.S. that I’ve ever seen is the corridor between Fargo and Grand Forks in North Dakota, which would not frighten even a bowling ball. But I suppose even that’s a contestable proposition. I now live on a PLAT-teau, although I thought it was just an eroded mountain flank when I went there.

    Is there anywhere out there where a windswept high school with a sense of humor has actually embraced the table-topness of its surroundings, so as to call its teams the “Flatlanders?” That’s the true test of cultural traction on this fractured bedrock continent.

    Second Bardiac on that experience where Vermonters get seasick in Texas while Texans get claustrophobic in the White or Green mountains. It’s all relative.

  5. Belle on 08 Jul 2013 at 9:14 am #

    I used to work on the 29th floor of a building in Denver, facing east. It looked wide and flat out there, but then I’d go home to Aurora, and encounter gentle rolling hills all the way. My first trip across Kansas I kept asking ‘where is the flat part?’ West Texas has very flat parts to it, but then so does California, Oregon, etc.. So I agree with Bardiac et al too; it’s a matter of perspective and more indicative of ourselves than the terrain.

    FWIW, I’ve encountered many more ‘flat’ people than places, and I’m not talking about their chests!

  6. Historiann on 08 Jul 2013 at 9:15 am #

    WHB: I found Nebraska enchanting. I drove east on I-80 weekend before last, and maybe it’s because Colorado is so dry and brown now, but I loved the rolling GREEN hills and trees that start not far east of the Colorado border. My drive yesterday was through the butte-covered panhandle, and that was cool too.

    Bardiac & Indyanna: When I first moved West, I missed the rolling green tree-canopied hills and byways of Ohio and Michigan. Now, when I go east, I feel a little claustrophobic and penned in by those canopied byways. It’s weird not being able to see more than 1/4 mile down the road.

    I’m now used to a wide-open vista, and seeing 100 miles in every direction. The big skies of the west are easier to get used to than I would have imagined. No one can sneak up on you or surprise you out here!

    And Virago: the tree thing is weird. That’s another belief that people harbor about the “flat”lands. Treeless landscapes are something I associate much more with western/southwestern states like WY, CO, AZ, and UT.

  7. Bardiac on 08 Jul 2013 at 10:17 am #

    The first time I drove across country, from CA to Illinois, I was on I-80 (because I wanted to get there with my stuff fast), I remember being utterly shocked by how green things started to become, even in August, through Nebraska. Coming from California, where it’s brown from June on (well, the grassy hills, anyway), my eyes just felt so different and rested looking at the green. Somehow, it was less glary than the desert and brown not-quite desert.

    I have to say, I get lost much more easily in the midwest than where there’s an obvious range of hills to orient by (or a big body of water).

  8. Helm Hammerhand on 08 Jul 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks for this post! I grew up in the Rocky Mountains but my entire extended family lives in the Midwest (where I now live too), so I’ve driven I-80 across the Great Plains more times than I can count. My favorite part is driving west across the Nebraska panhandle into Wyoming, which might seem “flat” but is actually gradually climbing the whole way. The farther west into the Nebraska panhandle you go, you start to notice more and larger hills, you start to see buttes around the point where you pass the I-76 exit, and then when you reach the Wyoming border you notice pine trees. Then, boom, you climb up into the mountains between Cheyenne and Laramie and you’re surrounded by beautiful reddish-brown rock, evergreen trees, and snow in the shady spots well into June.

    Also, after the Wyoming mountains, the second-largest collection of big hills on the stretch of I-80 I’m most familiar with is actually in western Iowa. So much for “flat.” If you want to see flat, you’ll never see anything flatter than the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, a state often noted for its non-flatness.

  9. joellecid on 08 Jul 2013 at 11:50 am #

    I loved the landscape in Eastern Iowa, where it’s very hilly and green, with lots of river bluffs. There’s nothing mountainous, but certainly nothing flat either! I always felt maligned by people who called it flat. Now I live in the SC Lowcountry — and it’s pancake flat, and gorgeous, too. So I’ve given up any notion of flat = bad. Flat can be expansive and ever-changing in this part of the world!

  10. Nicoleandmaggie on 08 Jul 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    I like mountains. What’s wrong with that? (And yes, I am from a flat state and currently live in the flat part of another state. No hills to be seen. I still like mountains.)

  11. Comradde PhysioProffe on 08 Jul 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    At the same time, there are few places flatter than Manhattan, Philadelphia, Washington, or Baltimore.

    Philly, DC, and Mobtown are pretty fucken flat, but Manhattan is far from flat! Itte’s even got neighborhoods referred to as “Heights” such as Morningside and Washington. The fucken Continental Army even built a fort up in Washington Heights because it is so fucken high up.

  12. Indyanna on 08 Jul 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Hey, Philadelphia’s got Society HILL; Lemon HILL; Chestnut HILL; some HILL up in Fairmount Park from which iconic pictures are taken of the downtown skyline. We might not have the proverbial hill of beans, but what’s flat is where you fly over an area and they have those huge circular irrigation units down below. Because I don’t think those would operate if you had even as much as a half foot of elevation on a hundred acre farm. Northwestern New Jersey is probably the best example I know of the category described in the geographical literature as “surprisingly not flat…”

  13. Susan on 08 Jul 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Great post. I do think you’re right about the power relations of calling places flat. I remember on a college tour driving east across Ohio, and suddenly hitting a place where we went from roads that had clearly been laid out on a map — straight lines, 90 degree intersections — to the Pennsylvania line, where roads followed the land, and were no longer straight. Where I live, it really is flat, but we can (on a clear day at least) see the mountains. Our roads are straight, but as you head into the foothills, they start to bend.

    As a native of Manhattan, I would add to the heights that CPP mentions other hills. I know the walk from the subway home by way of the library was uphill. And of course, the buildings create other hills. There is a reason, though, that you go UPtown….

  14. rustonite on 08 Jul 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    there’s something to the theory that places perceived as boring are labeled flat. Louisiana south of the Red River is almost perfectly flat, but no one ever complains about it or uses that as its primary descriptor.

  15. Contingent Cassandra on 08 Jul 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    The parts of D.C. that are flat (e.g. the National Mall) tend to be filled-in swamp. Otherwise, there are definitely hills (and forts, or the remains thereof — the defenses of Washington — on said hills).

    In general, I believe that many older east-cost port cities are located at the fall line — the point where the coastal plain meets the beginnings of the foothills, and rivers cannot be farther navigated because of falls (leading in many cases to the building of canals). The coastal plain is pretty flat (if you’re looking for a flat state, try the eastern portions of New Jersey, or the Tidewater area of Virginia; coasts do get rockier farther north); the approaches to the Appalachian chain, considerably less so. The fall-line colonial port city now integrated into D.C. is Georgetown, a bit upriver from the newer federal city, which is flatter; Georgetown is pretty steep in places (e.g. the famous Exorcist stairs).

    I have to admit that I haven’t done any serious surface travel west of Chicago (though I’ve touched down a few places by air), so I’m not really in a position to comment on the flatness/non-flatness of the land (though yes, I’ve heard the comments). As others have pointed out, the most striking thing from the air is the highly-geometrical layout of the more settled/agricultural Western states. Since roads in the older eastern states often follow ridge tops (for various logical reasons) and other topographical features (or detour around said features), I wonder whether the comparatively straight roads enhance the impression of flatness, at least as seen from the air?

    But yes, I think there’s also a general association of flatness and boring and/or backwardness (see, for example, “flat earth society”).

  16. Meander on 08 Jul 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    Fascinating post and comments, especially in comparative perspective. No one every writes so dismissively about the Netherlands being flat–which of course much of it is, especially the newest province of Flevoland–in the same way that people use the term “flat” to describe various midwestern states, as if flatness gets at some deeper cultural ethos (or defect). In the Netherlands, the flatness–more physically real and expansive than anything I have encountered driving around the United States or living in Iowa–has instead been celebrated, painted, immortalized, etc., cherished by painters, preserved by UNESCO in world heritage sites.

    My part of DC is positively alpine compared to the flood plains of the National Mall, and you can get a great sense of the hills of Washington if you visit the Frederick Douglass home.

  17. Susan on 08 Jul 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    Just to add a thought – given the local agricultural economy whe I live — flat, or gently rolling, is where you grow crops. Otherwise, it’s pasture. We need flat for food.

  18. Mark Peterson on 08 Jul 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    Best not to overlook an obvious fact. Road builders (whether railroad or highway) love flat places, and so the major avenues across the vast spaces of North America tend to follow the flattest available routes, for economy’s sake if nothing else. And from 35,000 feet up, subtle gradations disappear. Many of the comments above distinguish the ill-informed opinions of the rapid by-passers from the loving appreciation of those who actually live in the supposedly flat places. The economies of travel may help to explain why. And as a former Iowa Citian who lived in a neighborhood called Mannville Heights, and sweated up the hill on my bike every evening, I too can attest to its unflatness.

  19. History Enthusiast on 08 Jul 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    This may be my favorite post that you’ve ever written. And I’ve been reading your blog for a long time! I grew up in Washington state, but moved to Kansas in high school, and I have grown to love the Kansas landscape. It has so many lovely wild flowers, redbud trees in spring, and gorgeous green hills and woods. It is one of my greatest pet peeves when I hear people talk about the “flat, boring” Kansas that doesn’t exist in reality.

    And to piggy back on Mark’s comment, we also can’t forget that highway crews grade roads, so even in already flat areas they make them even flatter.

  20. Ruth on 08 Jul 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    South Dakota isn’t flat. Eastern South Dakota, where I have traveled periodically for nigh on 40 years, is flat. To get from the town where Mr. Ruth grew up to the nearest airport, you point the car south, drive an hour and a half, turn left, drive a few miles, turn right, drive another hour, and all that time you see no topographical feature that would cause the road to deviate. If you drive to the Twin Cities (or “the Cities” as we flat landers call them) you’ll have most of your 7 hour drive completely straight and flat. Philly to Pittsburgh is a more interesting trip topographically any day. But, as Susan says, flat is where food is grown.

  21. Jezebella on 08 Jul 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    Well, rustonite, you beat me to it. I got to the end of the post and thought – nobody calls a swamp “flat”. South Louisiana couldn’t possibly be any flatter (“none more flat”) but who calls New Orleanians “flatlanders”? Not a soul, I declare. I grew up in the distant reaches of (new) Metairie and to this day am terrified of riding a bike downhill. Momentum is scary, y’all. I never learned to negotiate it in my formative years what with all the flatness.

  22. truffula on 08 Jul 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    If you want to really study flat, as a metric and a (certain kind of) experience, download and examine the full resolution shaded relief image of North America here. It’s made using data collected during a Space Shuttle mapping mission. Flat is entirely scale dependent but when you look at it in this way, it is also all about process.

    Really, go have a look. Zoom in and out and around. It’s an Alice sort of experience. I grew up in one of the flattest places on that map–it is so flat now because 650,000 years ago it was a giant lake. So that scale dependence is in space and in time.

  23. Indyanna on 08 Jul 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Just a small caveat on Ruth’s point that “Philly to Pittsburgh is a more interesting trip topographically any day…” I would allow that the first 77,251 times you do it this is doubtless true. After that, you begin to wish a friendly tornado would pick you up and blow you clear to Dakota, but it never happens… :)

    It was so good to see this blog up and posting this morning!

  24. Mark on 09 Jul 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Hi Ann. Not that you don’t normally write about important stuff but I really enjoyed reading this post. It brought back great memories of when my family and I drove from the east coast to baa ram u, and seeing NE, WY and CO for the first time. I too was warned about the boring landscape on the way but like you I found it rather beautiful and even spectacular. Greetings from hot and humid Malta!

  25. Historiann on 09 Jul 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Great to hear from you, Mark! Thanks for checking in.

    And thanks, everyone, for all of your comments & corrections/amendations to my post. I’m glad I’m not the only one here who has come to value & appreciate the different kinds of North American landscapes, and to question some of the stereotypes about them.

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    [...] might have wondered why I found myself driving across South Dakota recently.  I’ve heard for years about the DeSmet annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, in which the [...]

  27. David Schorr on 09 Jul 2013 at 7:37 am #

    Great post.

    First of all, I second Comradde PhysioProffe on Manhattan. Look east from Columbia University and you’ll see all of East Harlem over to the East River and Laguardia Airport below you. Even south of the Heights, just take a look up or down one of the north-south avenues and you’ll see some nice hills. Also Contingent Cassandra on DC. Not just Georgetown, but all of Northwest. Drive up or down 16th Street and you’ll see. As Mark Peterson suggests, the best way to appreciate how non-flat all these places are is to bike them!

    A pretty flat American region that I didn’t see mentioned so far is the Everglades.

    As to the larger point, I think there is a long history of denigrating and fearing flat landscapes as the home of nomadic barbarians. Take this quote from Washington Irving’s Astoria:

    Such is the nature of this immense wilderness of the far West; which apparently defies cultivation, and the habitation of civilized life…. It is to be feared that a great part of it will form a lawless interval between the abodes of civilized man, like the wastes of the ocean or the deserts of Arabia; and, like them, be subject to the depredations of the marauder. Here may spring up new and mongrel races, like new formations in geology, the amalgamation of the “debris” and “abrasions” of former races, civilized and savage; the remains of broken and almost extinguished tribes; the descendants of wandering hunters and trappers; of fugitives from the Spanish and American frontiers; of adventurers and desperadoes of every class and country, yearly ejected from the bosom of society into the wilderness…. Some may gradually become pastoral hordes, like those rude and migratory people, half shepherd, half warrior, who, with their flocks and herds, roam the plains of upper Asia; but others, it is to be apprehended, will become predatory bands, mounted on the fleet steeds of the prairies, with the open plains for their marauding grounds, and the mountains for their retreats and lurking-places. Here they may resemble those great hordes of the North, “Gog and Magog with their bands,” that haunted the gloomy imaginations of the prophets.

    Remember, too, that lowlands tend to be more swampy and thus more malarial than uplands. So there used to be lots of talk about foul vapors, unhealthy air, and the like.

  28. Amanda on 09 Jul 2013 at 11:47 am #

    In Vermont there is a traditional distinction between “Woodchucks” and “Flatlanders.” Woodchucks are multi-generation Vermonters, while Flatlanders are transplants who don’t really “get it.” The virtues of the hill farm are very much praised; much of the state is very poor farmland anyway, but the small hill farms allowed for barely a subsistence living, and are mostly gone now. The parts of the state that are flatter, like the Champlain Valley, have much richer soil. I wonder if there isn’t an edge of that, as well – the good old Protestant work ethic at play? It’s too easy to live on the flat land and you didn’t really earn your living.

  29. Turducken on 09 Jul 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    It’s not exclusively a U.S. thing. I’m currently learning Portuguese, and at least in Brazil, “chato” literally means flat but is used colloquially as “boring.”

  30. Indyanna on 09 Jul 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    It doesn’t stop there. One of those slightly wacky medical stories that I clicked on today instead of finishing a footnote disclosed that doctors are finding that up to half of the two-month old infants they see nowadays have discernible “flat spots” on their skulls. This was attributed to various parental practices and absences of practices in turning and rotating kids like roasts in the oven, and the article described in detail various studies, and corrective measures up to and including multi-thousand dollar “orthotic helmets.” What the article didn’t do is say even a word about the functional implications of this syndrome. From a participant-observer standpoint, I can report that I had a noticeably flatter left rear I don’t know what to call it, skullplate? well into primary school, and yet I get an article out every once in a while, even have a couple of book projects drifting morosely toward completion. So I don’t know whether to think of this as orchestrated frenzy by the K-Street helmet lobby, content space-filler from some stressed-out internet platform manager, or evidence of more serious health problems. It does have a back-story. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bands of Iroquois warriors retaliated for mean things that kids in the Carolinas were saying about them by calling all Southern Indians “flatheads.” They probably blamed it on those silly straw kid-carriers that the Catawbas got at WalMart, rather than at some swanky artisanal lifestyle shop on Flatbush Avenue.

  31. Lyndsay on 10 Jul 2013 at 9:32 am #

    I felt the same when I drove through “flat” Saskatchewan. A lot of it isn’t flat and it’s a different experiences to see a thunderstorm that is far away. The clouds are amazing.

  32. Historiann on 10 Jul 2013 at 9:47 am #

    Lyndsay–I considered including the prairie provinces of Canada in my essay, but since I have never driven through them, I decided that I shouldn’t make claims of which I had no direct experience. But, I’m glad to hear from you, and glad to know that my instincts were right on their alleged “flatness.”

  33. loumac on 10 Jul 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    Add my voice to the choir of people loving this post! I’ve been trying to think of a widespread use of “flat” that has positive connotations, and all I came up with was the unattainable (for anyone over ten years old) “flat stomach.”

    This is probably a really obvious thing to say, but I bet the distaste for perceived flat land is classist – money (or other vectors of power) buys the ability to raise yourself above the territory and survey it, rather than having to toil in it (going back to the feudal castle). An anthropological explanation of the premium attached to “view properties” today.

    The islands in the Puget Sound of Washington state are about as flat as my desk, with a high point of just several meters above sea level, but no-one ever refers to them as “flat” – because lawyers and doctors live there.

  34. Paul S. on 10 Jul 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    A lot of Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, etc., did strike me as flat compared with my home area in Massachusetts, but that is based mostly on the very limited experience of driving through on an interstate highway.

    I think that one reason that many people perceive flat as a negative term is that it implies a lack of variety – the same view in every direction. That’s not necessarily true, but it’s a matter of perception.

    Interestingly, I’ve read that quite a few Euro-Americans compared the flatter parts of the plains with the ocean, in the sense that both were flat and lacked identifying features that distinguished one part from another. This comparison was made by both early Spanish explorers and 19th century sailors crossing the prairie.

    Flatness vs. hilliness really is quite local, though – even in the small state of Massachusetts, there are areas of low mountains, rolling hills, and almost totally flat terrain. I live in one of the “rolling hills” areas, so that’s what I tend to think of as a “normal” landscape.

  35. Paul S. on 10 Jul 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Sorry, I meant 19th century SETTLERS crossing the prairie.

  36. truffula on 11 Jul 2013 at 3:26 am #

    It might be time well spent to consider the difference between “flat” and “open” as characterisations of central and high plains landscapes. Same topography, different meaning.

  37. David Schorr on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:42 am #

    Just came across this from Roland Barthes’s Mythologies:

    “The Blue Guide hardly knows the existence of scenery except under the guise of the picturesque. The picturesque is found any time the ground is uneven. We find again here this bourgeois promoting of the mountains, this old Alpine myth (since it dates back to the nineteenth century) which Gide rightly associated with Helvetico-Protestant morality and which has always functioned as a hybrid compound of the cult of nature and of puritanism (regeneration through clean air, moral ideas at the sight of mountain-tops, summit-climbing as civic virtue, etc.). Among the views elevated by the Blue Guide to aesthetic existence, we rarely find plains (redeemed only when they can be described as fertile), never plateaux. Only mountains, gorges, defiles and torrents can have access to the pantheon of travel, inasmuch, probably, as they seem to encourage a morality of effort and solitude. Travel according to the Blue Guide is thus revealed as a labour-saving adjustment, the easy substitute for the morally uplifting walk. This in itself means that the mythology of the Blue Guide dates back to the last century, to that phase in history when the bourgeoisie was enjoying a kind of new-born euphoria in buying effort, in keeping its image and essence without feeling any of its ill-effects. It is therefore in the last analysis, quite logically and quite stupidly, the gracelessness of a landscape, its lack of spaciousness or human appeal, its verticality, so contrary to the bliss of travel, which account for its interest.”

  38. Feminist Avatar on 11 Jul 2013 at 7:01 am #

    I’m late to this post because I was having my own ‘flat’ experience but on a different continent. Before I left to drive East to Sydney (through 3 states), everybody warned me how ‘boring’ it was because it was so ‘flat’ and ‘unchanging’. Yet, in the 14 hours of driving between my home and Sydney, about 3 of them were spent on a plain, which was genuinely flat and which had no end to the horizon, and to my mind quite beautiful. More bizarrely for the narrative of flatness, the last 7 or so hours are through rolling hills, some quite steep and a very winding freeway. This area was also very beautiful and reminded me of home. Given this, it made me wonder what people were remembering when they saw it as ‘flat’.

    In contrast, when I drove north last year through the centre, I spent about 12 hours of driving time going through ‘flat’ desert with no end to the horizon, but it was breathtaking and nobody questioned that it would be otherwise, despite its ‘flatness’.

  39. truffula on 11 Jul 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    I don’t think Barthes is right about the “old” mountain mythology, unless by old he really means only the latter part of the 19th century. Certainly at it start, the real old views were still in force, views that aligned mountains with danger. One of my favorite 19th century poems, Percy Shelly’s Lines Witten in the Vale of Chamouni, reflects that older view but he does so using modern (at the time) scientific ideas about landscape processes.

    (a excerpt, the whole poem is here)

    A desert peopled by the storms alone,
    Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
    And the wolf tracks her there,—how hideously
    Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,
    Ghastly, and scarred, and riven. Is this the scene
    Where the old earthquake-demon taught her young
    Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
    Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
    None can reply,—all seems eternal now.
    The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
    Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
    So solemn, so serene, that man may be
    But for such faith with nature reconciled;
    Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
    Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
    By all, but which the wise and great and good
    Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

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