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Learning to See

by Patricia Colleran

What do we really see when we look at a landscape? What escapes our notice, and how can we learn to see differently?

These, among other questions, find their way into the nature essays of Andreas Suchantke, who takes his readers descriptively through some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth: the savannahs of East Africa, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the rainforests of South America and Africa, the islands of New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

What do we usually mean when we say "landscape"? Most of the time we are referring to the panorama that is before our eyes when we stand upon any given point on Earth. Normally, no matter how sweeping our gaze, it is unlikely that we see a complex, integrated whole. At best, we see variations of structures of objects linked together, which make up recognizable scenery to us: forests, rivers, lakes, seascapes. A closer look, however, shows us that each of these structures is made up of smaller units that in turn have their own structure, and in combination, contribute to the whole. The rich moss along the tree trunks of a moist, shady forest, for example, would not be found on the sun-bleached rocks of a dry desert.

What we are seeing, then, when we look at a landscape, is the visible expression of the interplay of all the living and nonliving parts. It could be called, in Suchantke's words, the ecological gestalt of the landscape: something becomes visible that is a result of the indivisible interplay between the parts and is more than the sum of the parts. This leads us to understand that a landscape is a kind of ecosystem. With further observation, we are able to take even a further step: to see a landscape as an organism.

What exactly is an organism? Suchantke, who taught natural sciences for nineteen years at the Waldorf school in Zurich, brings the thinking of the founder of these schools, Rudolf Steiner, to his understanding of nature. Steiner was one of the few writers who approached the question in an original way and from many perspectives, and came to identify seven processes in the organism: respiration, thermal regulation and nutrition, whereby the organism takes in elements from the outside; decomposition, conservation, growth and reproduction, whereby the organism develops and contributes to the future of the species. Suchantke helps the reader to see-by not only paying precise attention to detail, but also by engaging the interplay of our imagination and ability to perceive meaning in what we observe-ways in which landscapes share these features.

Suchantke's beautiful descriptions and wonderful illustrations of the elements of a landscape make this book one of those that you will want to pick up and look at over and over again: the graceful gazelles and variable zebras of Africa, the mysterious swamps and giant moas of New Zealand, the marvelous winged populations-birds and butterflies-of the rainforests, come to life in the reader's imagination. By bringing imagination to our ways of seeing the landscape, Suchantke helps us recognize that nature can be understood as a language and experienced as a form of meaning. The quality of our relationship to nature, therefore, is influenced by how well we learn to understand this language.

Suchantke, who was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1933, trained in zoology and botany at the universities of Munich and Basel. He refers to himself as a "freelance ecologist," and works primarily in Israel, in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Nature. Eco-Geography itself may prove to be a valuable contribution to the protection of nature, for through it we are able to see nature in a new way which inspires not only our love and reverence for it, but also our sense of responsibility toward its future and protection.