Monday, 16 February 2015

Towards a new landscape aesthetic

"There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts.  ... my body has to be on the move to set my mind going ... to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things." Jean-Jacques Rousseau  
If I was to sketch out a day spent engaging with landscape and place to realise a wide range of phenomenological experiences and responses of mind, body and spirit - maximum topography - how would it look? Well, in the spirit of Rousseau, it would be an excursion on foot of course (if lacking the epicness of Werner Herzog's trek from Munich to Paris as chronicled in Of Walking in Ice, the ethos of letting oneself drift, 'a falling forward becomes a Walk', would be the same). But not just any walk, variety and unpredictability would be the key. So maybe it would commence in an urban setting; the grittier the better, with the right mix of post-industrial decay and renewal and diverse architectural styles, juxtaposed with a sheen of surface functional banality to expertly peel back, revealing the layered temporal stories behind the bland facade. A detour would be made into a stalwart and defiantly Amazon-baiting second-hand bookshop with a capacious 'topography' section and a number of musty volumes purchased, something antiquarian, something to saviour from the 60s or 70s and a long lost nature writing classic. City would morph into country as suburb, urban green space and anarchic edgeland are navigated - both a route-march along a harsh, litter-strewn and anti-pedestrian roadside and a meander through an oasis of unexpectedly lush and mysterious greenery would feature in this liminal, transitional phase.

As the countryside authentica is reached, guidebook spoon feeding would be disdained in favour of more spontaneous route-finding, perhaps using an antique Ordnance Survey map and attempting to trace nineteenth century topography on the ground. Along the way some reminders of harsh rural realities would no doubt be observed: a sighting of baseball-capped men digging for badgers, improbable fly-tipping, maybe a suspicion of dogging. But a number of viscerally profound moments would also be experienced. Catching the eye of a fox or deer and joining in a lingering stock-still stare. Sensing lives lived and gone whilst rooting around a ruined farmstead or water mill, where unidentifiable rusted ironware or the colours of a cracked tile become refracted relict reminders of the past. A feeling of magic in the air as wind and light switch and shift, changing the mood of the tree- and field-scape. As the gloaming hour approaches and fatigue sets in, having clambered up a rocky stream-bed and scrambled through holloway undergrowth in Rogue Male style, a hill-top clearing would be chanced upon with views over several counties as shadows lengthen across endless fields, as pylons and rail lines and infrastructure become magical objects of gaze. A good place for a night's wild camp. Sleep would be fitful, muffled nocturnal (spectral?) sounds invading thoughts of the day's encounters, accompanied by a soundtrack of wyrd-folk, pastoral electronica and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and readings from Reliquiae (a journal of old and new work spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism). 

During the walk ambulatory clear-headedness would provide space for musing on a range of landscape-related topics whilst the miles were clocked-up: the links between the Parliamentary enclosure of common land and present day urban-rural division, how is an innate knowledge of fungi and wild flowers achieved, would Edward Thomas have favoured Nick Drake or the Incredible String Band, and such like. Along the way observations, smart phone photographs of arresting or unusual features and vistas and appropriate quotes from the landscape canon would be tweeted to an eclectic and discerning band of followers; observations and visual representations of the day to be later blogged or instagramed and debated on-line, perhaps included in a talk at a left-field festival, conference or pub social, or even forming part of the content of a crowd-funded book.

What would this mash-up journey into landscape immersion represent? Would it just be the ploughing of a mildly eccentric lone furrow? Creating an irrelevant line made by walking in the spirit of Richard Long, ephemeral self-indulgence whilst the real heft of landscape discourse and reality swells elsewhere: local campaigners mobilising against unbidden corporate uniformity or statist grand plans; photogenic academics revealing the results of their research through television series and tie-in book; exciting plans underway for the return of the wolf and rewilding nirvana; hip new ruralistas setting up boutique bunkhouses, offering foraging before breakfast, coasteering followed by artisan bread, craft ale and star gazing. Would this be just another example of a wannabe Self or Sinclair, strong on effort and perspiration but lacking their esoteric vocabulary or ecstatic sneer?

Or is there something in the wind, a fresh approach that this imaginary excursion partly encapsulates and, in fact, also links the other activities cited above. Perhaps not new ideas or concepts (the basics were all birthed in ancient Greece or long before), nothing that could be labelled a movement or a philosophy (the times are too post-modern for anything so quaint); but maybe an emerging coalescing - an alliance - of varied ways of thinking about, of looking at, of experiencing our spatial surroundings; their past, present and future. An antidote to the narrow focus that has often been the Achilles heel of much landscape discourse, characterised by a lack of cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and areas of interest (and often the absence of a feel for the range of emotions that being out in a landscape triggers). An echo of the view of Christopher Milne, searching for a personal philosophy and to find his own path away from his famous father’s shadow as outlined in The Hollow on the Hill, taking a lead from Richard Jefferies who “could be on one occasion the naturalist, observing and recording, and on another occasion the philosopher-poet, sensing and dreaming. One does indeed need to be both, for the one complements and enhances the other”. 

If there is the prospect here of a new aesthetic approach to landscape, then its worth pondering what components, however tangentially, combine to provide its origins, form and quintessence; to trace the foci and ley-line linkages (and talking of the ley, Alfred Watkin's The Old Straight Track (1925) is an example of what we are getting at here. The central ley lines theory of the book is eccentric, discredited, farcical - but that's not the point. As Robert Macfarlane's introduction to the 2014 edition unfurls "... the ley vision - with its mixture of mysticism, archaeology and sleuthing - re-enchanted the English landscape, investing it with fresh depth and detail, prompting new ways of looking and new reasons to walk").

“With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct but all suddenly present.” Raymond Williams
Interestingly, to discover this new vista it is necessary to go back, back to multiple pasts. Landscape as a mirror for reflecting on humanity's relationship with and manipulation of the natural world has deep antecedents; and its the mingling of these temporal layers of envisioning that is of interest here. The late 1960s and early 1970s seem to be a particular touchstone, a launching off point for a more eclectic approach to landscape; and not, I think, just thought of as such because I was born in the midst of this period and have nostalgia pangs for a time that never was as golden as it seems from this distance (my earliest memories of sitting in sunlit meadows are untroubled by the realities of Enoch Powell and industrial strife). Of course, this was a time of seismic societal change in culture, politics and economics, in the way people lived. And contemporary representations and responses to landscape and sense of place reflected this, though at the time without any conscious esprit de corps or awareness of common threads or interest. 

By way of illustration a seemingly amorphous and random collection of landscape aesthetics from the period might include: the sense and scenes of a decaying industrial infrastructure central to films such as Get Carter (1971) and Kes (1969); John Betjeman's televised elegies, in the teeth of the march of modernity, to disappearing or seemingly threatened features of England's architecture and landscape, typified by A Bird's Eye View (1964-1969) and Metro-land (1973); a triptych of cult folk-horror films, reinterpreting themes of a rural pagan past: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973); an empathetic, ecologically aware, less sentimental and more anthropomorphic engagement with nature as exemplified by the writings of Richard Mabey and J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine (1967); a new and more accessible discipline of landscape archaeology emerging from its high academia landscape history and historical geography roots, with practitioners such as Mick Aston and Christopher Taylor keen to range between study and field; the pastoral folk rock and psych-folk stylings of the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Waterson-Carthy, Shirley Collins and Vashti Bunyan; and, of course, foregrounded at this time was a general back to the land, 'good life' strand of counter-cultural hippiedom. All are examples of reinterpretation or reappropriation of the past in a time of great change, sometimes in a somewhat reactionary or idealistic way, often breaking new ground.

It is perhaps only with the passing of time that the paths between these varied perspectives can be navigated and identified as a loose network; a pattern that can be plotted and pieced to provide some kind of cohesive narrative. And a rich seam revealed at the heart of this new landscape vision is the heuristic weirdness just below the surface of even everyday and seemingly tamed terrain - Deep England (and Deep Wales, Deep Ireland, Deep Scotland, and, well, Deep anywhere). Back to the 70's polestar and two cultural artifacts, from many examples, serve to illustrate. The 1974 BBC Play For Today Penda's Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is now much exalted, talked and written about; remarkably so given that it is not available on DVD and so rarely seen. A British Film Institute release with comprehensive and thoughtful accompanying booklet has become de rigueur for such treasures and will surely come. In the meantime impatience has been salved by the publication of a pamphlet, The Edge is Where the Centre Is, marking a rare screening of the film in 2014 on the anniversary of the death of the Ango-Saxon King Penda in AD 655. Found within is a synopsis of the story by Rudkin himself, which could serve to represent and encapsulate many of the themes essayed here:
"In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman's son, in his last days at school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away - his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith...
Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills, he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England's last pagan king. In the final image, he turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into a world and adulthood with a value-system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience."
David Gladwell's film, Requiem For A Village (1975) has received the BFI treatment. As with Penda's Fen, and with echoes of William Blake and William Morris, Requiem is a meditation on societal change in the countryside that combines, in Rob Young's words, "the contradictions of an English radical tradition in which opposition to the encroachment of 'the scrape' (ie capitalistic development) is instinctively aligned with a more conservative will to preservation" with "an attempt ... to show the coexistence of all things in time". The images in the film of the bodies of villagers from previous generations rising from the grave, reawakening the village past, are a reminder of the supernatural and hauntological undercurrents that have always effected perceptions of the landscape: "we had eyes for phantoms then". A theme also taken up at the time in television productions such as The Owl Service (1969), based on Alan Garner's influential book of the same name, Robin Red Breast (1970) and Children of the Stones (1977).

Once this terrain has been surveyed and mapped, other features and relics that provide signal traces, from before and since, can be unearthed, excavated and added; the layers enriching the sense of commonality and communion. Who would be the historical Arch-Druids that have formulated this stratigraphy? An irrelgular yet inspiring collection of mystic topographers, antiquarians, Utopians, visionary poets, folklorists, landscape historians and archaeologists, and proto-psychogeographers; often linked by their divergence from accepted norms and doctrines. 

Musing on landscape is as old as humanity - countless un-named, unknown shamen and sears must have held their tribes in thrall with vivid stories and imagery inspired by the flora, fauna and topography of their surroundings long before even Vergil and the Classical poets came on the scene with their flourishing tales of magick, milieu and mind: "Happy too the man who knows the gods of the country, Pan, and old Silvanus, and the sister Nymphs". Through dark days and into the Renaissance the flame was carried by the likes of John Leland, driven to madness by his topographical quest; Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of St George's Hill, their doomed attempt to establish a 'Common Treasury' of land for all; and Sir Richard Colt Hoar and the empirical antiquaries "speaking from facts not theory", birthing archaeology whilst pillaging barrow and chapel.