To love an ugly landscape


By Guest Ranter Susan Leigh Tomlinson.  In this excerpt from "Pentimento", published in the literary journal Isotope, Susan describes her complicated relationship with the land around Lubbock, TexasUgly_9, known locally as the Llano.

Normally this is the place where I would have an epiphany of sorts and come to realize that the beauty is indeed there, but hidden. But if you’ll permit me, I’m going to swing a little wide of the standard paean to the comeliness of nature. Because except for the brief moments I see this pentimento and I can convince myself that this landscape is visually pleasing, the rest of the time I have to own up to the bald-faced truth: The place I call home is, by most standards, butt-ugly. That fact simply will not go away, no matter how hard I try to stuff it in a Sunday suit and take it to the dance.

And it is beauty that we value, not the lack of it. I’m no different from anyone else in this. It takes grit to love an ugly landscape. Some days I feel I have it, and some days I don’t. But what is love anyway but a relationship that has its ups and downs? What is it but commitment? Real love, in a sense, transcends the simple emotions that are the result of aesthetic appeal. It has to, or the first time a spouse or child was less than beautiful or likeable (and it’s going to happen) we’d walk away.

Maybe it is more accurate to say that I don’t always find the Llano especially attractive, but I have decided to love it. And god help me, a place this ugly needs someone to love it.  And that’s the other side of the story, isn’t it? Suppose I did live in a place that was easy to love? It might even have that mountain range, or seascape, or burbling brook. I could look out my window every morning, sip my tea, and say, "My, isn’t nature a pip?" And that would be a very nice life. I will not lie to you, if someone offered me the opportunity this very minute, I’d be hard pressed to turn my back on it.

It is easy—natural, even—to desire that which is beautiful. Beauty takes hardly any grit a’tall. But the unlovely place is like the odd girl in the schoolyard, with the bad haircut and the wrong clothes, to whom nobody ever talks. Perhaps it is a measure of character to choose to overlook these shortcomings. Perhaps we would be surprised at what we find beneath the surface. Perhaps I am sympathetic to the unlovely landscape because I was that girl in the schoolyard. I know what it feels like to be overlooked. I know what a mistake it is.


  1. Hi Susan, this is an amazing piece of writing! The girl in the schoolyard with the wrong clothes immediately brought an image to mind, and then it being you was bells ringing in my psyche. Brilliant!

  2. I grew up on the prairie and I’m always annoyed when people say, “It’s so boring; there’s nothing there for miles and miles.” (And people do say that.) I love the prairie, but it’s hard to explain the open skies and the thrill of seeing a thunderstorm coming from miles and miles away; and the meadowlarks that used to sing on hot summer mornings. (I suppose they’re all gone now.) The cultural geographer Yi-Fu tuan talks about how space becomes place, fascinating reading. Anyway, you have to love a place where directions are: “Drive 25 miles north and turn right at the tree.” (Directions from a patient to my father, a country doctor long ago on the prairie.)

  3. Having grown up in central California and eastern Kansas that photo of the open landscape tugs at my heartstrings. Love the fields.

  4. Well said! I also did not grow up in a bodacious brad and angelina landscape–such places can be distracting in their beauty, and have none of the peculiar serenity I find in flat scrubby expanses–

  5. It took me years to get to love the natural world of central AZ when we lived there. I was on my hiatus from the landscape industry, and the hot, dusty, seemingly barren surroundings were more an expression of what they weren’t- NOT green, NOT lush, NOT inviting. Then we joined the Desert Botanical Garden and I got back into the landscape industry, and my whole perspective changed. Sometimes, I think gardening just imbues people with a clearer sense of place- not a bad thing, seeing how transient we Americans are as a population.

  6. Ann–I know how you feel about it.

    Sarah–Brad and Angelina landscape, LOL! I hadn’t heard that term before, but I actually say something like that in another essay of mine about learning to love ugly landscapes. I call the movie star landscapes “easy beauty for the masses.” 😉

  7. Dave–I do think gardening helps us learn to love a place. If you’re going to grow something, you have to learn something about the place in which it will reside, and that can lead to respect, and even affection.

    Gail–thanks for the kind words.

  8. But it’s NOT ugly… people’ views of beauty have been distorted by endless magazines informing them that beauty is found only in endless blooming plastic landscapes.

    It’s like telling women that they HAVE to look like the plastic-faced models in Glamour magazine; and that any other look simply lacks beauty.

    I can walk just a couple hundred yards, look across a brown waving prairie to a skyline of large oaks and other trees, backed by blue sky and brilliant white clouds… (different in detail from the photo, but very similar in elements)

    Or…in Summer, when dappled light alternates with deep green shade under the trees, while a brilliantly-lit prairie blows in the wind…

    Or…see that same scene as a winter wonderland, frosted in white, ice-encrusted seedheads forming intricate patterns, with snow-line branches arching high above them…

    True beauty…

  9. Thank you for the lovely excerpt. I grew up and have lived many years as an adult in what many consider to be the armpit of the nation. Putting aside (which you really can’t) its contribution to our planet’s environmental woes I have the same begrudging respect for the New Jersey’s industrial landscape. Yes to the ‘odd girl’–when I drive down the turnpike at night and see lights from running 24 hour shifts, I think I might be seeing Oz.

  10. Bob–Ah, but that’s the trouble with excerpts, isn’t it? I happen to agree with you about the prairie. Sadly, there is little of the original prairie landscape left where I live. What you see in the photo is from a local park where they are trying to restore some of it (the park and the restoration are also in the essay).

    But mainly the essay is about just the sort of thing you’re talking about–our preconceived notions of beauty, and what makes a landscape worth loving.

    Susan–Oz. Beautifully said.

  11. I agree with Marta, especially. Beauty is partly about the beholder, of course, but also partly about scale. Look closely in the prairie, and all those uniform-looking plants become distinguishable. No all kinds of beauty are the same. (Thank goodness we all don’t have to be cosmo girls!)

  12. Great essay. I loved the reference to the odd girl in the schoolyard (was that me?). 🙂

    I actually find the photo to be pretty, but maybe that’s because I grew up in Texas. I like Nancy’s comment about scale. Invariably I start looking at the diversity of plants in a scene like in the photo and that changes my reaction to it. Thanks for the great post.

  13. My heart, being hungry, feeds on food /The fat of heart despise. Beauty where no beauty stood,/And sweet where no sweet lies/I gather to my querulous need,/Having a hungry heart to feed. (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

  14. Susan… The area I’m talking about is in virtually the same situation. Here in Illinois, 99.9% of the original prairie landscape is gone 🙁

    The property I mentioned occupies about 20 acres of a 60 acre park. I’m one of two stewards helping the local park district to cut out aliens and restore native plants. I also help manage 80-90 acres of tallgrass prairie nearby (and my yard has been replanted to look like a prairie grove of 200 years ago)

    …And there’s nothing like laying down in waving tall grasses, and watching blue sky overhead:)

    Even though we have a long way to go…it’s beautiful! Keep up the good fight!

  15. Susan, I loved the essay.

    I grew up in the lush south, yet I think one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen was watching the Kansas wind turn fields of golden wheat into a vast sea of waves for as far as my eyes could see.

    “amber waves of grain” indeed —

    And looking at your photo, I was reminded of that scene.

  16. A beautiful and evocative essay, indeed! And that landscape is beautiful in a subtle way that needs careful study and the eye of love to appreciate it. Here is a little extract from the poem “My Country”, the iconic Australian poem by Dorothea McKellar, which expresses some of the same ideas:

    The love of field and coppice,
    Of green and shaded lanes,
    Of ordered woods and gardens
    Is running in your veins.
    Strong love of grey-blue distance,
    Brown streams and soft, dim skies –
    I know but cannot share it,
    My love is otherwise.

    I love a sunburnt country,
    A land of sweeping plains,
    Of ragged mountain ranges,
    Of droughts and flooding rains.
    I love her far horizons,
    I love her jewel-sea,
    Her beauty and her terror –
    The wide brown land for me!

  17. Hey, I was that girl, too, in the sixth grade. It was a difficult time, and my mom would say the boys tease because they like you. I knew better than that, and it wasn’t just the boys.

    Whew! I’m glad that land has someone like you to love it! I do see beauty in it, though.

  18. This whole Thread is touching.Made me stop and reflect.Love the Essay,love the Poetry.When I lived in Utah it would feel desolate in August,but only at first glance.Then you could see a different kind of Nature.Not ugly,just different.

  19. Your musings on the land you love (some of the time) are wonderful. I can’t help being reminded of a movie from my high-school years, Fandango. Here’s a quote:

    Philip: Texas is really ugly, you know. I mean, what could anyone possibly like about this state?

    Dorman: I like the way it’s shaped.

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