Mar 12, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Photo by Anil Jergens
What does it mean to be human?
It is an endlessly intriguing question with an impossibly elusive answer: a question that a liberal arts education would bring me closer to answering. For that reason, it surprised me to find that all of my first five courses at Colorado College set out to answer a seemingly unrelated question:
What should you notice when you look at a landscape?
To explore the relationship between these two questions, I reached out to each of my professors from first semester to discuss their personal connection to landscape and the place-based nature of a CC education.
“It’s the massive variation of things that defines landscape,” said Scott Ingram, a professor in Anthropology at CC.
“I imagine I am missing almost all the important details,” said Jake Smith, a history professor at CC, who spoke about his fear of seeing a landscape “panoramically.”
The idea of landscape proved captivating for every professor that I spoke to. Landscape has the quality of being tangible yet unknowable to its fullest extent. To understand it, humans break landscape down into its most basic structures: the geological patterns, the individual flora and fauna, the human history embedded in it. Doing so collapses the immensity of landscape into something digestible but simultaneously strips it of its identity as a whole.
In that way, humans are not unlike landscapes. “I am not reducible to a material understanding as matter is understood in the sciences today,” said John Riker, a philosophy professor at CC. Riker believes that humanity transcends the physical sciences and takes on a life of its own beyond material limitation. For him, this quality is reflected in nature.
“Emerson is right that landscape speaks to us in terms of metaphor or symbol,” said Riker. “A river is not just powerful because of the ions in the air but because it speaks to a deeper truth — that life flows.”
It is possible, then, that the study of landscapes and the study of humans are not unrelated.
Both Ingram and Riker believe that what it means to be human is to inquire into what it means to be human. This answer sent me into a tailspin where the more I questioned, the more questions arose. The only way to escape this, as CC professors have found, is to ground the question in space and time. According to Smith, “if being human is somehow connected to our ability to recognize our own embeddedness in time … a liberal arts education is essential.”
According to Sarah Schanz, a geology professor at CC, “we look at the Front Range — this rugged natural system — and ask, ‘where do we fit into this?’” She believes that this brings us closer to answering the question: What does it mean to be human? As Ingram sees it, “there is a permeable barrier between self and the environment.”
This truth is hard to avoid as a CC student. Situated at the base of Pikes Peak, our campus is framed by landscape in a way that is inescapable. To keep landscape out of the classroom would be to take the school out of its position in the American West.
“If you are postmodern, to be human is to be situated, and to try to get to a general abstract answer to the question; What does it mean to be human? takes us out of our situatedness,” said Riker.
So, what should we see when we look at a landscape? We should see patterns and colors and species and history, but most importantly we should see ourselves as part of it. We are embedded in this landscape in a way that is powerful and irreversible. We are part of the patterns and the natural biome and the history.
I am no closer to answering what it means to be humanthan I was before I attended CC, but I have instead been guided by the question: What does it mean to be human here and now?