Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Landscapes and farewells

About the author
Ken Worpole is an author and policy adviser.
Harvest Moon‘Landscape is of little value but as it hints or expresses the thoughts of man.’
"Harvest Moon", by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)

In the past few months at openDemocracy we have endeavoured to provide a number of ways of thinking about the critical role that landscape plays in modern political and social movements, particularly in Europe. In this, we have largely been in agreement with the views of the painter Samuel Palmer, quoted in Peter Wood’s response to Jonathan Meades’ polemic against the picturesque: ‘Landscape is of little value but as it hints or expresses the thoughts of man.’ It is the inter-relationship between human activity and landscape that has exercised most of our contributors.

Many of those associated with the original City & Country theme (now Ecology & Place), gained much in our early discussions from Hugh Brody’s thoughtful and inspired deliberations upon the differences between hunter–gather and farming communities to the land they inhabited. These are gathered together in his seminal book, The Other Side of Eden (2000), as well as in his several contributions to this strand.

Farming issues, for example, have been highlighted by David Fine’s recent heartfelt essay from rural England (a crisis captured elsewhere in Europe by the Dutch writer Geert Mak in his best-selling book about the decline of a small Frisian village, Jorwerd: the death of the village in late 20th century Europe). Hunting has been energetically debated in an exchange between Roger Scruton, Donna Landry, Hugh Brody, Rupert Isaacson and Graham Harvey. Alastair McIntosh draws from a journey to rural Ireland the need to settle and work landscapes in ways that respect their spirit. Appropriate and inappropriate land uses, along with attempts to ‘tame’ nature, were highlighted in Michal Pechoucek’s heartbreaking account of the devastation caused by large-scale floods in the summer of 2002 in central Europe, particularly in Prague, his native city.

Mountains by CozensRomantic view: "Between Chamonix and Martigny", by John Cozens (1752-1797)
How we see landscape is often framed or shaped by others, notably painters, writers and composers (Pechoucek’s essay invokes the spirit of Smetana’s Ma Vlast). In the 20th century, photographers made their contribution. Therefore we were pleased to include pieces by Christine Wood, Jonathan Meades and Peter Wood, all of whom wrote about the close interweaving of landscape with classical and romantic traditions of representation in painting; meanwhile, Patrick Wright concentrated on how English writers evoked the chalk downlands as an enduring symbol of everything that was best about the English character. In another essay, Niall Benvie, a professional photographer, wrote about the total artificiality of wildlife and exotic photography as exploited in tourist and ethnographic publicity. All of these stimulating essays can be still conjured forth for free at the click of a button.

From landscape to archaeology

The over-riding concern expressed by many contributors is that powerful economic forces – whether industrialised agriculture, large-scale civil engineering projects and top-down forms of rural and urban development insensitive to local topographies and cultures – are crushing human attachments to place. The scale of nature and the scale of human enterprise no longer seem to be in harmony.

Badia a PassignanoCrushing human attachments to place: the view from my kitchen, by Flora Roberts
Time and again, those involved in this debate return to a question raised by Raymond Williams, who once asked why it is that ‘a working country is hardly ever a landscape?’ In this exchange of views at openDemocracy, people have been keen to re-assert not just the aesthetics of landscape representation, but the related ethics of everyday livelihood and economy.

In addition to matters of visual representation, significant remains of the story-telling element in landscape appreciation come down to people to this day. Much travel writing is in fact history, captured in the saying that ‘geography is history’. Not all writers about landscape are happy with the overlay between visual and historical cues and references. The doyen of naturalistic landscape study, W.G. Hoskins, wrote in his classic book, The Making of the English Landscape (1955), that: ‘The student of the English landscape therefore faces at times the possibility of underground evidence; though in this book I have striven to analyse what can be seen on the surface today as an end in itself. The visible landscape offers us enough stimulus and pleasure without the uncertainty of what may lie beneath.’

The fine line between landscape history and archaeology is something a number of contributors have already breached. Many people have already been given much food for thought by Eyal Weizman’s original and provocative reflections on architecture, archaeology and power in the disputed territories of Israel and Palestine, first brought to international prominence through openDemocracy itself. For Weizman, archaeology and landscape had become inextricably linked and politicised, as both sides sought historical justification for their land rights through literally excavating the past. Landscape, as both place and story, remains contested and therefore alive.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.