Landscape and identity in a globalised world

Ken Worpole Roger Scruton
4 June 2002

The attachment to landscape is part of the identity of every individual and every culture. The familiar streets, squares, parks, canals, fields and hills of childhood are an integral part of people’s psychological make-up and sense of rootedness in the world. When these things are lost – whether through exile, development or wilful destruction – their character often becomes even more important to people’s inner life. Think, for example, about how so much wonderful music and literature has been written in exile, in the form of home thoughts from abroad.

In a similar fashion, most cultures and nation states evoke loyalty and membership through the evocation of the national landscape: chalk cliffs, rolling downland, heather-strewn moors, song-filled valleys, roaring cataracts, proud mountains, silver lakes and scented forests. Whatever you have, it is always worth fighting for and is a good subject for epic ballads and childhood memoirs.

Loyalty to place has often given rise to powerful feelings about the relationship of landscape to culture. Pagan tribes worshipped the gods of the trees, waters and mountains. Christians have seen the natural world as a gift from God, as evident at a recent Tate Modern exhibition in London, American Sublime, in which the majority of the painters felt that they were recording and celebrating God’s great purpose in re-creating these majestic valleys, mountains, rivers and plains. The very scale of the landscape seemed to be yet another piece of evidence that God existed.

In Britain from the 16th century onwards, there was an equally religious view of landscape as a manifestation of God’s beneficence. Not only this, but the patterns of the natural world and landscape – traditional continuity, organic growth and decline, natural hierarchies of scale, size and pecking order – were also seen as a model for human society. This was the subject of Nigel Everett’s important book, The Tory View of Landscape.

Bringing work, and people, back in

In this period, significantly, ideas about the creation of ideal landscapes were completely intertwined with the aesthetic ideals behind the painting of landscape, notably in the work of Claude and Poussin. The landscape and the artistic representation of the landscape became one and the same thing. The problem was that, in this view of landscape, work disappeared along with the basic human activities of making, growing and feeding and the development of collective social relations, institutions and cultures, which underwrote the shape and rhythms of the landscape itself.

It was in this sense that Raymond Williams once famously wrote that “a working country is hardly ever a landscape” (The Country and the City, 1975). In the developing world, the landscape of a subsistence economy is radically different from that of a cash crop economy. Landscape formation and human endeavour (as well as human misrule) go hand in hand.

In recent times, it has been the environmental movement that has raised the greatest challenge to the modern making and breaking of landscape, seeking a return (or a leap of faith forward) to more sustainable, less harmful ways of managing and living in the natural world, and using its resources in ways which are not terminally destructive. At such moments, landscape and economy come into sharp conflict again: agribusiness and genetically modified crops (urged on by the ‘cheap food’ ethos of the supermarkets who control the markets) versus more humane and labour-intensive modes of food production that reattach the rural landscape with a way of life.

Landscapes (including townscapes) change constantly, as a result of human activity: farming, timber-felling, canal and road building, imperial conquest, urban agglomeration, park-making, hunting, outdoor pursuits, estate management, tourism, natural catastrophes, and even war. One never steps into the same landscape or street scene twice.

If you look closely at the photograph below of Dungeness, you see a landscape that is simultaneously the second largest shingle beach in the world, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) for its unique ecology, the location of a nuclear power station, and a living community of tiny wooden huts and dwellings. Here, one inhabitant, the artist Derek Jarman, has created a garden that has challenged the current aesthetics of international landscape design, and has brought a new sensitivity and distinctive imagination to bear on garden and landscape culture. All these completely different worlds apparently manage to coexist in a kind of hybrid landscape.

Dungeness, Kent, a dry shingle beach in England's far south-east. ©Larraine Worpole

Places to lose yourself

In so many places today, however, landscape and place are being challenged as never before, by global economic powers and development interests, leading to the worldwide appearance of what one anthropologist, Marc Augé, has termed non-places. These are the bland, contractual landscapes of the shopping mall, the themed waterfront development, the gated residential community and the motorway service station, where human relations become customer relations, and the aesthetics of place come from corporate pattern books (or CAD software) developed by security companies.

While it is understandable that so many people today want the best of both worlds – economic development and the retention of familiar and loved settings – it is now clear that there are vital trade-offs to be made. The understanding and clarification of the nature of these trade-offs form the major theme of this new City&Country debate.

We are delighted that a number of serious and original writers have already agreed to contribute to this discussion about landscape, identity and the impact of global economic forces for change. In the coming months, we intend to publish a number of vividly illustrated contributions on this important topic. These include contributions from Sue Clifford of Common Ground on the need for local distinctiveness, from Nina Lubbren on the public impact of artists’ colonies in rural areas of Europe, and from Jonathan Meades with a criticism of the picturesque ideal. We start, however, with Jessica Douglas-Home’s lyrical evocation of the Saxon village settlements of Romania, and their vulnerability in the face of social change and ambitions for mass tourism.

We welcome responses and suggestions for small essays on this fascinating and many-sided set of themes.

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