Monument Valley

Monument Valley. Image from Wikimedia CommonsMonument Valley. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At several points in this site we use Monument Valley as an example to illustrate a key theme. In one of the very first pages on the waymarked route we asked "what is landscape?", and asked you to note what you could see - what you noticed - in the image of Monument Valley that we repeat here. Different people may notice different things, and be inspired in different ways, by the same landscape. Usually people start by noticing topography, vegetation, the built environment: concrete visible features. Consider which of the viewpoints below occurred to you when you first saw the image. Which of them do you agree with? Which of them matter to you? Which of them should be included in a description of the landscape? We'll go through some quick examples below then try to identify some categories...

Did you think of...


(some of this information comes from


This is home. This is Navajo land. The Navajo name is Tse'Bii'Ndzisgaii. At the census of 2000, there were 864 people, 207 households, and 174 families living in this district. 94% of them were Native American. One quarter of them were below the poverty line.

Myth... This is the wild west. This is where John Ford filmed those westerns with John Wayne, Henry Fonda and the rest: this is the land that he called "the real star" of his westerns. This is where Ethan Edwards brought Debbie back to the Jorgensen ranch. The Ringo Kid's Stagecoach drove along that track. This is cinematic mythscape, as well as landscape.
The Earth... These are sandstone mesas and buttes, erosional remnants of a severely dissected plateau. The geological structure of the rock - bedding planes and joints - is visible in the morphology of the surface features.
Photo opportunity... This is one of the most photographed points on Earth.
Habitat... This is a living habitat for plant and animal species. Not much of a habitat because of the aridity, but Purple Sage, Cliffrose, Rabbitbrush, Snakewood and Juniper can be found when moisture allows, and there are coyote, rattlesnakes, scorpions and spiders.
Sacred place... "The Navajo version of how the valley was created... it was a muddy flood plain left when the people living here drained off a sea that bubbled up from the waterlogged Fourth World, until the Holy People decided the residents needed some landmarks and carefully placed each spectacular rock spire. A plaque placed before a picture window admonishes visitors, "You are looking into a sacred landscape" and asks them to respect sacred sites within the park." The Navaho Times.
Social History... This is where Harry Goulding and his wife Mike set up a trading post in 1924. This is where the Navajo Tribal park was established in 1958.
Deep time... Geologists speak of "deep time" to describe the unimaginably long periods during which the earth has endured. The rocks here are about 160,000,000 years old. They were deposited as sands in a vast lowland basin, buried, solidified, and then slowly lifted to form a great plateau which, in turn was slowly dissected, worn away grain by grain to create the features we see now. One hundred and sixty million years.
Things in solitude but gathered as a group... Each monolith stands alone, separated from the others, yet they also exist as a group. Geomorphologists sometimes define landscape as an assemblage of landforms. In this case the landforms are now separate but are remnants of what was once a single plateau. Things which appear isolated and in solitude are frequently connected at depth.
The artistic renaissance in contemporary Navajo basket weaving... "The day's fading sunlight creates dappled images in shades of purple, mauve, ocher and orange. The parallel between this stark, haunting beauty and the multitude of contemporary weavings I saw not two hours earlier at the local trading post is remarkable... As I drive further and encounter the shadows of Big Rock Door Mesa and Mitchell Butte, I experience a spectrum of natural color and shapes that is the basis for this artistic renaissance. Ribbons of paved highway, and the occasional dirt road, crisscross the area, intertwining the area's remoteness much like splints dart through and around the coils of a new basket..."
The desert wilderness... This is desert. This is wilderness: untouched wide open space where we can reconnect with nature.
Route... You could come this way from Durango to Flagstaff, along US Highway 163. You could also come this way on many other journeys. It could also be a destination. It could also be a starting point.
Archaeological site... Over 100 Anasazi archaeological sites have been identified in the area, revealing a prehistoric story of habitation. Rock art indicates antelope, big horn and deer. There is a deep history here of human occupancy, but the Anasazi left the valley around 1300AD.
The sky... Notice the difference between the two sides of the picture. This is changing weather. The clouds show the atmosphere in motion horizontally and vertically, condensing moisture, circulating energy. If it were not for the daylight blinding us we would see the stars between the clouds. Did you notice the daylight, or did you take it for granted?
The location... We are looking east along the northern edge of Arizona. This is the Colorado Plateau on the border between Arizona and Utah, on the route of US Highway 163. The elevation is five and a half thousand feet above sea level: that's just over a mile above the sea. This is desert: there is less than eight inches of rain each year and there are no perrenial streams here. The mean monthly temperature is over 90 F (32 C) in the summer, but overnight temperatures drop below freezing for four months in the winter.
Tourism... This is a tourist attraction. 400,000 visitors a year come here. There are guided tours, balloon trips and a loop-road so visitors can drive through the park. The Navajo Division of Economic Development estimates that only seven cents of every tourism dollar spent in the area goes to Navajo Nation businesses and residents. Notice the small wall at the right of the picture, which is part of the of the viewing area at the park visitor center.
A rock-climber's paradise? This looks like a rock climber's paradise. But is rock climbing allowed? Perhaps a cyclist's paradise, then?
Mittens... That's what those two buttes at the left of the picture are called: West Mitten and East Mitten. The Butte to the right is called Merrick Butte.
Skeet McAuley and Sherman Alexie... This is in the area where Skeet McAuley took his photograph "Navajo Tribal School near Goulding, Utah", which inspired Sherman Alexie's poem "At Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School".
The sounds... Explore landscape not only with your eyes. Even from this picture, using memory and imagination explore the sounds of the landscape. Natural sounds, human sounds.
Boundaries... Landscape is full of boundaries. Verty obviously here we have a boundary created by the wall between the visitor center and the rest of the landscape. Between civilisation and wilderness, perhaps, as is so often discussed in the art of the American west (especially cinema - Westerns) and in historical analysis (for example the F.J.Turner's Frontier Thesis. There is also the boundary between the inside and the outside of the vehicle. That between land and sky. That between the viewer and the view...
Curves and straight lines People often assert that nature is wiggly and people try to build straight lines. Sometimes that is true. Look at the wall on the right: so straight compared with the rest of the landscape. But, then, look at the dirt road that winds its way through the topography, and look at the straight lines of the cliffs of the Buttes, the regular angles of the footslopes of those Buttes. Shapes tell us about materials and processes. This is one of the ways we read the landscape.
My car... Whose is that car on the track? Where are they going? What is the view they have through their windscreen? What does it sound like as you drive along that track? Is it hot? Is it dusty? What does the dust and the heat taste like with that sound of the tyres in the dirt?
Nostalgia... Buried in this land are times and people from the past. Some of them are remembered and mourned. Perhaps tied to notions of home, or myth, or local history. Personal experiance or cultural inheritance. The good old days. When the wilderness was wild. Nostalgia.
The loveliest and saddest... Is this the loveliest and saddest landscape in the world? Antoine de Saint Exupery, who used that phrase to describe a landscape in The Little Prince, also wrote: "That which is essential is invisible to the eyes". So...
What else can you see... we've only just started. Look again. Look harder.  
  Look at the wall. Look at the horizon. Wait for the lightning. Wait for dark and the stars. Is this where the wild horses run? What can you buy in the visitor center? Why are the lower slopes of the mesas all at that same angle, and why is the top section of each one steeper? Why does the road look pale? Who sat last on this wall? Who built the wall, and what did he or she think when they looked at this scene? What would somebody who cannot see experience of this landscape?

Monument Valley. Image from Wikimedia CommonsMonument Valley. Image: Wikimedia Commons  

Some Headings

So can we start to organise those examples?
Can we put them under some general headings or identify labels or shorthand terms that we can then use to start us thinking when we consider other scenes? The list will only be provisional, a starting point for you to build on, but already we can see that we've thought of some of the following.

This list is deliberately disordered, incomplete and partially repetetive. It is not an answer, it is a prompt.

Vegetation Geology Topography Wilderness Religion Climate Mythology
Built environment Cinema Habitat Tourism Soundscape Park Weather
Poetry & literature People Location View Memory Routes Culture
Archaeology History Shapes Desert Art Names Wildlife
Economics Distance Imagination Time Elevation Politics Boundaries
Straight lines Sky Nationhood Emotion Horizon Nostalgia Life
Daylight Sight          

Expand this list for yourself, perhaps as you work your way through the site, and choose which elements of it apply to each of the landscapes we look at. You might want to see whether you think the headings above match up with D.W.Meinig's ten ways of seeing a scene.

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