sheds and scapes

In the NYT on the 6th, “Fight Over a Communications Tower Unsettles the Hudson Valley” by Lisa W. Foderaro:

Hudson, N.Y. — When Frederic Church, the esteemed Hudson River School painter, built a Persian-style castle on a bluff overlooking the river here in the late 1800s, he framed the views from his windows with ribbons of colored glass, as if declaring the scenes to be works of art.

More than a century later, the vistas from Olana, Church’s 250-acre property and now a state historic site, still have the power to stop the 130,000 visitors a year in their tracks.

But a fight over a plan to erect a 190-foot communications tower on nearby Blue Hill in the town of Livingston, about two miles away, has roiled the usually serene landscape of Columbia County, where sharp elbows are reserved for vying over the ripest peaches at local farm stands.

Environmental activists and the Olana Partnership, the nonprofit group that supports the historic site, say the new tower, which was recently approved by Livingston’s planning board, would mar an otherwise sublime canvas — a pleasing patchwork of farms and woods, river valleys and highlands. They are suing the town, as well as the farm family who applied to build the lattice tower, to overturn the approval on the grounds that the environmental impact on the so-called viewshed were not adequately considered.

Viewshed is the word.

The word is relatively recent. From OED3 (June 2006):

orig. and chiefly U.S.   The view of an area from a specific vantage point; a computer model of this. Also: the area that comprises this view.

with the first cite:

1972   Oakland (Calif.) Tribune 23 Nov. f35/6   Crutcher, chief of the district’s planning section, said the proposed new single family residential units would damage the Garin park ‘viewshed’.

First, the history of the word, which is formed on analogy with watershed. Watershed, in turn, has a complex history, in which the shed component originally meant ‘division’. From OED2:

1. a. The line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas: = water-parting n. [from 1803 on]

b. fig. Also attrib. [from 1878 (Longfellow)]

2. loosely. a. The slope down which the water flows from a water-parting. [from 1839]

b. The whole gathering ground of a river system. [from 1874]

Sense 2b, with the ‘division’ sense extended to take in the whole area divided, is now the predominant one in everyday use, as in this cite:

1913   White Catskill Water Supply of N.Y. 17   The Croton watershed would in a few years be drawn on to its full capacity.

And this is the sense that is picked up in viewshed.

The alternative to viewshed would be viewscape ‘visible landscape’, and the alternative is amply attested, though it’s not in the OED, undoubtedly because -scape has become a productive combining form. That gives us things like this comment on a Maine website on “Have Wind Turbines Trumped Viewsheds?”:

I thought the word was viewscapes….

On -scape, from a posting on, among other things, soundscape:

Soundscape in OED2, which has two senses:

(a) a musical composition consisting of a texture of sounds [cites from 1968 on];  (b) the sounds which form an auditory environment [cites from 1973 on]

The combining form -scape (from landscape) is in Quinion’s affixes list, glossed ‘a specified type of scene, or a representation of it’, with a list of examples including cityscape, streetscape, dreamscape, and, yes, soundscape (in sense (a)), plus some one-off creations like Californiascape, skyscraperscape, and plotscape.

So viewscape is, in a sense, always available, but viewshed is somewhat more vivid, evoking the image of a bounded area.

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