Seeking the nature and culture of magical landscapes

The following article post is a revised version of an unofficial conference paper I put together for school two years ago. For the disclaimer, I’ve never seen fireflies, northern lights, or a Yayoi Kusama installation1 (although I would love to see all three). I know I’m being contradictory because I say that landscapes exceed language and representation, and yet, I trust the representations that I’ve been given whether it is through photography or written description. Perhaps, this is part of what I mean about magic being a belief. Read on to figure out why.

Nature vs. culture: the Dandelion and Orchid Hypothesis

I remember wanting to get off the train at every point and lie in the sweet summer fields. While it’s nice to think that my image of those fields came from within, from memory of authentic, animated, real space, I know that is also part of the repertoire of images of nature that tourist culture produces in great number and variety, and that in some ways are indistinguishable from nature itself.2

Alexander Wilson’s description of the sweet summer fields, which I’ve re-quoted from a few weeks back, reminds us that our perspectives on nature are a result of cultural conditioning. Behind the idyll romance felt from the initial scene is also a repertoire of images from my cultural memory that entices me to automatically imagine a field of unspecified yellow wild flowers. Unfortunately for dandelions, they are not among the yellow flower candidates. To an urban adult, the dandelion is seen as the evil antagonist of the garden, but to a child, there is unlikely this kind of value judgement towards either a field of dandelions, a field of canola, or a field of orchids (if hypothetically, orchids could grow in mass fields). The dandelion and the orchid carry entirely different cultural connotations, one as the undesired weed and the other as the delicate houseplant. However, both flowers are distinctly material and live because of distinct habits of light, temperature, moisture, soil, and proximity to and from other flora and fauna, including humans. Our understanding with dandelions and orchids are affected both by nature and culture.

One of the oldest arguments of human psychology is the one of nature vs. nurture. Landscapes, like the human nature vs. nurture debate, can be seen as a binary of nature vs. human, nature vs. culture, and even nature vs. language. Interestingly, looking at dandelions and orchids could provide an alternative perspective. To explain the serotonin transporter gene that controls emotional environmental sensitivity, psychologist Bruce Ellis and developmental pediatrician Thomas Boyce introduced the Dandelion and Orchid Hypothesis.3 Deriving from the Swedish idioms of the “dandelion child” and the “orchid child,”4 the hypothesis categorizes those with the shorter gene or with less transporters and more serotonin as orchids, i.e. those who are more emotionally sensitive. Those with the longer genes, therefore having more transporters and less serotonin, are less stimulated by their environments and are considered dandelions. Or course, this categorization reinforces generalized and stereotypical binaries of human personalities. However, it is still a more encompassing stance on the traditional binary of nature vs. nurture. To be fair, as vigorous as the dandelion may be, it does not grow where orchids strive naturally. Instead of seeing the dandelion as more naturally adaptive and the orchid as more culturally dependent, I see this hypothesis as saying that the biological nature of each plant shapes how it responds to its environment. Alternatively, culture can also shape biology. For example, obsolete body parts such as missing wisdom teeth are claimed to be evolutionary results of changes in cultural practices. Nature and culture is inseparable in understanding humans as well as landscapes.

Phenomena as intra-acting agencies

If we can never resolve the nature-culture debate, then perhaps we should just temporarily park it from the discussion. But where does that leave landscape? What remains are experience and materiality. Experience comes from lived bodies interacting with places and elements in the world. Physicist Karen Barad alters this perspective with an ontological theory that views human and non-human entities as intra-acting agencies.5 As opposed to interacting agencies, which assume that entities have individual ontologies prior to interaction, the intra-acting agencies work together to create the basic unit of phenomenon. The perfect example to show this is by double split light experiment. Light shown through a single slit creates a simple pattern while light shown through two-slits creates a wave-like diffraction pattern. This is not because light has two different properties, but because of the phenomenon that is experienced when light intra-acts with a specific quality of the apparatus itself.

Results from the double split experiment: patterns from a single split vs. a double split, by Jordgette, Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because of its intangibility, light’s materiality is assumed as different from the materiality of land. However, from the experiment previously described, light is not immaterial. Its existence is only perceivable in relation to other materials. The intra-action of light and things create colours, shadows, and forms. Because of cultural conventions, humans ability to perceive certain landscape elements is curtailed.6 Whether it is our inability to perceive these phenomena spatially, temporally, or cognitively, the result is that these agencies are unseen or overlooked. The northern lights are phenomena that echo this concealment of agential connectivity. Anthropologist Tim Edensor describes the heightened contemplative condition created in the configuration between people, space, and things as the “affective field.”7 A spellbound stillness is present between standing on the ground, the feeling of the wind on the body, the sounds of sawing trees, the murmurs of awestruck tourists, and finally, the movement of the lights above.

VISIONS: Seeing the Aurora in a New Light, by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The aurora (northern or southern lights) can be understood in two different ways: through science or through the transcendental sublime. The scientific explanation of the aurora is that they are the result of the collision between the particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with the electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the atmosphere above the northern and southern magnetic poles. Different colours are created by the type of gas the particles are colliding with: yellow-green for oxygen molecules at 100 kilometer elevation, red for oxygen molecules at 320 kilometer elevations, and blue-purple-red for nitrogen molecules.8 For some people, this explanation may not be satisfactory in comparison to its transcendental effect. Mythical interpretations try to capture the indescribable effects of the aurora as powers outside of the world of humans, such as stories of goddesses, spirits of hunters and animals, and omens of war and famine. By representing the aurora as cosmic and other-worldly, a disconnection is emphasized in which the magical lights exist in a world where we don’t belong, i.e. the sublime.

Material bound

. . . between the constellations below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the clusters of stars overhead, others, like graceful meteors, slipping down from above to join the constellations underfoot . . . I felt myself at times falling through space, at other moments floating and drifting. I simply could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies, and their reflections in the water’s surface, held me in a sustained trance.9

While certain phenomena such as the northern lights seem to resist representation by language according to Edensor, experience is still always embodied and nature is still material bound. David Abram’s description of the fireflies in Bali, re-quoted above, is just as spellbinding as any other other-worldly encounter, and yet, the enchantment of the fireflies for him can be proven as material bound. Light is embodied in the material of the insect. They are tangible, natural, and active. While observing, Abram is not only attuned in his stillness, he is impacted by vertigo. From the perspective of the landscape observer, the body is never left out of the equation.

Firefly, by Terry Priest, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Magic as belief

If there is something natural of the sublime, then in contrast, sleight-of-hand magic is metaphorically cultural. While we may think of sleight-of-hand magic as manipulative, Abram describes sleight-of-hand magicians and traditional shamans as mediators of perception.10 It is the audiences’ participation and their imagination that make magic possible. It is also the magician’s imagination and trust in his/her sensory performance that makes the act most believable for the audience. Those who do not want to participate and are hooked on logical explanations and analyses also rely on the imagination of wires and mirrors to provide alternative answers. Northern lights and fireflies can be magical if we can see that there is more to moving lights in a landscape, whether it is the magic of intra-acting elements creating a spellbound affective field caused by invisible colliding particles, or light from the abdomen of an insect, or the mythical stories we choose to believe in.

Seeking nature and culture separately in phenomena limits the understanding of landscape to representations that are as imaginative as what we already know and can explain. Imagination is about the opposite. If we still doubt the phenomena of aurora landscapes and fireflies as magical because of a conflict between nature and culture, we can examine Yayoi Kusama’s installation Fireflies on the Water. First exhibited in 2002 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibit is a solitary experience in a small room with mirrors, two inches of water, and 150 mini suspended lights. The project creates a hallucinatory reality with the perception of infinite space of dazzling lights continually reflected through the mirrors and water.11 The space is contained, tangible, and conventionally non-natural. The perfect irony is that the installation does use wires and mirrors like the magic tricks of non-believers, and yet its effect is comparable to the fireflies in Bali and the aurora landscapes of the Earth’s poles. We cannot always represent or interpret all phenomena between nature and culture, but we could always consciously enjoy the magic that landscape phenomena can bring us.

Yayoi Kusama – Fireflies on the Water, by Maurizio Mucciola, Flickr (CC BY-NC-DD 2.0)

1. Through 2017 and 2018, Kusama will be having her first North American tour in 20 years with exhibits in Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cleveland.
2. Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), 20.
3. Michael Jawer, “Orchids and Dandelions: The Emerging Science of Emotional Sensitivity,” Noetic Now Journal 20 (2012): accessed 22 Feb. 2015,
4. Bruce J. Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17.3 (2008): 183–86, accessed 3 March 2015,
5. Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28.3 (2003): 801-831.
6. Tim Edensor, “Aurora Landscapes: Affective Atmospheres of Light and Dark,” Conversations with Landscape, eds. Karl Benediktsson and Katrín Anna Lund, (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010).
7. Ibid.
8. “Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis Explained,” Northern Lights Space and Science Centre, accessed 28 February 2015,
9. David Abram. The Spell of the Sensuous, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 4.
10. Ibid, 5, 58.
11. “Spectacular Fireflies on the Water Light Exhibit,” My Modern MET, 14 June 2012, accessed 28 February 2015,


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