16 May 2011

the geography of the rings of Saturn

From W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn:
The small propeller plane that services the route from Amsterdam to Norwich first climbed toward the sun before turning west. Spread out beneath us lay one of the most densely-populated regions in Europe, with endless terraces, sprawling satellite towns, business parks and shining glass houses which looked like large quadrangular ice floes drifting across this corner of the continent where not a patch is left to its own devices. Over the centuries the land had been regulated, cultivated, and built on until the whole region was transformed into a geometrical pattern. The roads, water channels and railway tracks ran in straight lines and gentle curves past fields and plantations, basins and reservoirs. Like beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity, cars glided along the lanes of the motorways, while the ships moving up and down river appeared as if they had been halted for ever. Embedded in this even fabric lay a manor surrounded by its park, the relic of an earlier age. I watched the shadow of our plane hastening below us across hedges and fences, rows of poplars and canals. Along a line that seemed to have been drawn with a ruler a tractor crawled through a field of stubble, dividing it into one lighter and one darker half. Nowhere, however, was a single human being to be seen. No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. One sees the places where they live and the roads that link them, one sees the smoke rising from their houses and factories, one sees the vehicles in which they sit, but one sees not the people themselves. And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that once worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today's stock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end, I thought, as we crossed the coastline and flew out over the jelly-green sea. (pages 90-92)
Since the spring semester let out last week, I have been re-reading my favorite of Sebald's works, for the first time since 2004. Returning to this unique novel-travelogue-plus-plus with the geographic perspectives brought on by spending the last five years spent studying geography in graduate school, I wonder if all I am doing in my own work is attempting to take apart this long quote I typed out above. We have multiple, interconnected human and natural landscapes seen or imagined from a perspective of aerality, transportation infrastructures, networked ecologies, information flows, commodities, all tied together in space, in the absence of the human inhabitants.

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