The Design Observer Group

Posted 06.30.11

Ken McCown

Point of Astonishment

In every landscape, the point of astonishment is the meeting of the sky and the earth.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1850

I recently traveled from the Western United States to New Zealand and discovered an extraordinary — an astonishing — landscape. Here on the other side of the earth I found landscapes where plate tectonics transform the horizon from the peaceful repose of open plains and wide lakes to the jagged heights of volcanic mountains. I found landscapes that demand to be moved on, over, under and through. Planes flew us close to volcanic spouts, buses rambled precariously over hills and through tunnels on a voyage through fjords to the ocean. Caves were filled with glowworms that seemed like stars as we floated on the water looking up.


These dynamic experiences opened up new ways to connect with landscapes, mixing continuous sensations of earth, air and water. And throughout there is the quality of the light. The air in New Zealand is notably clean, and the light remarkably pure, unfiltered by haze and pollution. In some parts of the country the landscape seems jaunty, sparkling in the clear air. In contrast some landscapes, especially on the western side of the South Island, are dark, murky from clouds that deposit over a hundred inches of rain every year.

To relate to these new and exotic landscapes, I referenced my experience in the western United States, especially California. I thought about what I'd learned of the history of California in the first half of the 20th century, before the big postwar suburban boom, when the state was less populous, the air not so dirty. New Zealand today seemed to me like California once was. So you could say that these photographs are an attempt to see two lands and two times as one. To see a land as I move through it, in the here and now, and to imagine a long-ago place I can never visit. And to wonder: What was it like? What have we gained, and what have we lost?