Field Guide to Fields

By Bill Laws

The Field Guide to Fields
© 2010 Quid Publishing.

Help us out with an imaginary poll: Raise your hand if you have a guide book for Colorado hikes, fishing spots, trail runs, backcountry huts, mountain bike routes, snowmobile trails, wild flowers, 14ers or bird watching on your bookshelf.

If you have more than one of those guidebooks, we think you’ll enjoy this excerpt from “The Field Guide to Fields”. The book, published by National Geographic, offers simple but stylish illustrations by Robert Brandt matched with a potpourri of insights to travel, food, history and global traditions. Enjoy.

From the paddy fields of Asia to the pastures of New Zealand, and from the water meadows of northern Europe to the North American grain prairies, fields have had such influence upon the environment that they have come to symbolize the parts of the globe in which they are found. But how is it that fields have come to have such a defining role in shaping our landscapes?

The World of Fields

Viewed from above, the checkerboard of the world’s fields is quite remarkable. And it must have been even more so to the world’s first air travelers, Jean- François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, aboard the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon in 18th-century France. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier’s innovation had first been unveiled in 1782, before further demonstrations—including tethered flights above Versailles— were made over the course of the following year. However, it was on November 21, 1783, that what is widely acknowledged as the first free flight by humans was made. Of course, much has changed since Pilâtre de Rozier and his compatriot d’Arlandes drifted over Paris, but we have wondered at the aerial view of the world ever since.

In spite of the fact that air travel has since become relatively commonplace, the view of the world from above still excites the popular imagination. More recently, thanks to the proliferation of satellite imaging and the power of the Internet, it has become accessible to millions through the medium of Google Earth. This revelation has allowed millions of viewers the opportunity to soar high above the land and sea, and provides an arresting view of the world’s fields from above.

From above, a viewer can gaze upon an array of forms and patterns: squares of tulips quartered by canals in Holland; or vast, neat rectangles of corn in neighboring Germany; the perfectly circular green fields of Spain, traced by the rotating booms of their irrigation systems; and the curious notch of woodland that marks the traditional pheasant cover of an English game-shooting field. Paddy fields descend Asian hillsides like a verdant mantle of fish scales peppered with peasant huts, while in northern Italy they ascend Alpine valleys like the terraces of a giant’s garden. In Cumbria, England, upland fields are stitched together by silvery, limestone walls; while in France, south-facing Burgundian hillsides are strung with vines.

As well as providing texture and pattern, a field’s crops also color the view: the black of dried field beans; the chrome yellow of flowering oilseed rape; the pastel blue of a field of flax; the white stripes of ripening cotton; and the chain mail of semicircular stone walls sheltering the vines of the Canary Isles. Lavender, sunflowers, hops, olives, almond trees, vines, date palms—each crop adds a different texture and color to the land, while the seasons rub along from spring greens and summer golds to the reds, grays, and browns of autumn’s plowed fields. This aerial view of fields is as susceptible to the vagaries of the weather as the crops are below—obscured by mist, burned gray by drought, or submerged under snow, leaving lonely lines of fence posts to mark the fields’ boundaries. However, this view from above reveals more than just a pretty picture; indeed, such an overview can reveal sickness or health in the soil below: for example, brown paddy fields embossed with grassy bunds, compared with salt-encrusted rectangles, the infertile result of over-irrigation; or a peninsula patterned with emerald-green fields, each sheltering behind its own stone walls, juxtaposed to an estuary stained muddy brown by soil leaching from poorly protected fields.

Inspiring Fields

Of course, satellite imagery, no matter how detailed, cannot easily capture the play of sunlight and shade across the patchwork of fields. But such scenes have fascinated the artists of the world for many centuries, and they can render such nuances far more effectively. For the 18th-century Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the paddy fields and bunds beneath Mount Fuji were integral to his stylized view of the mountain itself. The radical French Impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Edouard Manet (1832–83) both featured the field in their work as they painted en plein air, in the open air, as did the post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). In fact, when one interviewer asked the most famous Impressionist of them all, Claude Monet (1840–1926), about his studio, the artist gestured at the landscape of northern France and declared: “That is my studio.”

So intrigued was Monet by a group of haystacks in a Normandy field that he painted them again and again—as he would the lilies at his studio home in Giverny—in mist, in snow, at dawn, at dusk. When he exhibited Haystacks in 1891 the reviewers criticized his subject matter as banal and commonplace. Yet within days every painting was sold.

In the 20th century, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) embraced the neat, ordered landscape of his childhood haunts in his rectangular abstracts; while the Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo (1907–54) often adopted agricultural scenes as backgrounds to her many self-portraits. When she was in a positive, reflective mood, she would portray the lush, rich vegetation of Mexico; when she was in emotional and physical pain it was the barren badlands that figured in her work. The relatively recent art of photography has also made its contribution, and field portraits from the likes of Ansel Adams (1902–84)—although more famous for his work in U.S. national parks—have become a cornerstone of the medium. But when the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand (b. 1946) took his camera on a series of balloon flights over Kenya in the 1970s, it led to major change in the way fields are viewed. Arthus-Bertrand’s ensuing collection of field and crop portraits found enormous popularity when published as The Earth from the Air, and subsequent exhibitions and new editions have proven its enduring appeal. Now the field has been revealed—whether in intimate aerial portraits or the spectacular panoramas of satellite images—not just as the subject of art, but as art itself. As Arthus-Bertrand himself says, “The Earth is art.”

Reprinted with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book “Field Guide to Fields” by Bill Laws. Copyright ©2010 Quid Publishing.

After you've finished this excerpt, tell us what you think is the best guide to Colorado — any guide, that is, suitable for our readers. We'll share the results in an upcoming EnCompass.

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