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.

The Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian epochs are awash with visionaries who have helped sculpture landscape sensibilities ever since. Titans for whom a surname is all that is required: Blake, Dickens and Darwin; Turner and Constable; Tennyson, Wordsworth and Keats; the Brontes and Hardy; Kipling, Conan-Doyle and Buchan; Ruskin and Morris; Emerson, Muir and Thoreau; the list goes on. Perhaps less heralded, but deeply influential on the hypothesis laid out here are the quintet of John Clare, Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Arthur Machen and MR James. Clare, the 'peasant poet' and authentic voice of rage and lament in response to the often discordant societal and economic changes he observed in his corner of Northamptonshire countryside; Jefferies and Thomas, chroniclers of not only the natural history but also the human life of the fields, woods, villages, tracks and downs of Southern England, based on intimate knowledge and capacious walking; James, the master of concise ghost stories for which physical setting was an integral actor, and whose work was given further lustre by the classic BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas televisual adaptations of the 1970s; and Machen, a more mystical voice, bringing liminal enchantment to the "solitude and woods and deep lanes and wonder" of the British countryside.

The transitional zone bridging Edwardian supernatural Arcadia and Utopian dreaming and our own age is the somewhat fusty and buttoned-up world of the first half of the twentieth century or so, though of course this period also witnessed such pioneering landmarks as the poetry of Auden and Eliot, J.B. Priestley's English Journey, the art of Paul Nash and Eric Ravillious and, eventually, the polymath travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor (though describing Fermor as a 'travel writer' is like labelling George Orwell as a political writer, too confining to be useful). We have come a long way since the more orthodox topographical guides of this era. Such works were essentially descriptive accounts of the main points of interest in a given area, with historical, geographical or folkloric detours along the way, rarely straying from the traditional ‘heritage’ norms of ancient monuments, picture postcard villages and country house piles. However, they have become much loved artifacts. There is great pleasure to be had in poring over the highways and byways, black and white photos or hand drawn maps of a Batsford or a King’s England guide book amongst the shelves of a second-hand book shop. In parallel to this more populist fare, the influential groundwork of landscape archaeology and history was being carried out, culminating in two influential works of 'muddy boots' empirical research: O.G.S. Crawford's Archaeology in the Field (1953), making innovative use of aerial photography to read the patterns in the landscape, and The Making of the English Landscape (1955) by W.G. Hoskins, certainly the most read (and one of the most readable) book on landscape history ever published, which uses the memorable analogy: "One may liken the English landscape, especially in wide view, to a symphony, which it is possible to enjoy in an architectural mass of sound ... ", but that "only when we know all the themes and harmonies can we begin to appreciate its full beauty, or to discover in it new subtleties every time we visit it".

Hoskins' story of how the English landscape developed from pre-history to the modern period is one of the ever expanding collection of re-issues of 'classic' but oft overlooked or out of print landscape and nature titles by the estimable Little Toller Books. This series provides a freshness and, hopefully, a new readership to works by W.H. Hudson, Henry Williamson, Clare Leighton, Kenneth Alsop and many more; re-enchanting what was perhaps fading from view as quite an orthodox canon; enabling these writings to be seen for what they are, a surprisingly diverse and eclectic record of lives lived in close harmony with the land and its players.

"It is clear that inherited landscape myths and memories share two common characteristics: their surprising endurance through the centuries and their power to shape institutions that we still live with." Simon Shama 
So this might all seem very interesting and Orphic, but what purpose other than the pursuit of an arcane form of hipsterdom does a rebooted, polyglot aesthetic that attempts to feed from all of these diverse landscape perspectives from the past serve? I think it can be argued that the freshness of an approach that assimilates and reinvigorates what has gone before in this way challenges existing orthodoxies regarding our relationship with heritage, landscape, nature and place. It may be that there is also, perhaps unconsciously, a need for a reaction against the general sense of gloom that often pervades considerations of the human relationship with and impact on the natural environment. Headlines of degraded habitats, depleted and recklessly consumed resources, dwindling flora and fauna, disengagement with nature, melting ice-caps - the list goes on, a seemingly turbo-charged, and irreversible, descent into a self-inflicted dystopia. At root in this analysis of a coming together is a sense of response, both practically - to rally and contribute to trying to turn back the tide and champion positive bonds between humanity and nature - but also to articulate anew how we feel about the spaces we inhabit, however much we may be abusing them. As Simon Shama articulates in Landscape and Memory (1996), his magisterial wander across landscapes, continents, centuries and genres, examining the relationship between humankind and landscape: "... it is a journey through space and places, eyes wide open, that will help us keep faith with a future on this tough, lovely old planet".

The idea of engaging with landscape as an all-encompassing, multi-faceted concept - shape-shifting and supple - drawing on diverse influences and perceptions does seem to be becoming embedded in discourse at the macro, policy level. The landmark Council of Europe European Landscape Convention is deliberately inclusive - covering, for instance, both urban and rural, outstanding and degraded landscapes and also recognising the impact of both human and natural processes, cultural and quality of life perceptions. In place for over a decade, the Convention is designed to be used by policy-makers across the EU when decisions and legislation with an impact on the protection, management and planning of landscape are made. How real and practical this underpinning is in practise is debatable and problematic, particularly at a time of imposed austerity, but it demonstrates a direction of travel towards a more holistic and imaginative approach. That landscape is not just about castles and country houses, National Parks and nature reserves, the works of Constable and Turner, is a doctrine that is slowly but surely gaining currency. At the launch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England's recently announced policy initiative, Landscapes for Everyone, Nick Crane reflected on this theme"Landscape. What a word. Earthy, yet artificial. Infinite and specific. Historic, modern. Deeply personal and collectively shared". 

Of course, many of the dynamic processes that lead to flux and change in society and the landscape are far removed from the influence or ken of policy-makers and legislators. Economic forces, shifts in attitude and taste and a host of other factors and individual or collective decisions will shape the countryside and urban spaces that we inhabit, how we use and think about them, in the future as much as government policy. However, as we appear to be entering a period of political uncertainty in Britain as elsewhere, with support for and confidence in traditional political parties and institutions retreating like the tide from a beach, it is worth contemplating the relevance of the so-called 'Green surge'. One can speculate on whether the progressive environmental agenda of the Green Party is going to get a look in amongst the cacophony of the conventional, the unambitious and the reactionary emitting from the wider political spectrum. But quietly, incrementally there are stirrings below the 'Westminster village' radar that are part of the mosaic described here: a reaction against the corporate and the bland, grassroots activity that builds on the best from the past and the now, moulding it into something fresh and forward-looking; radical spirit abroad in the landscape once more. Practical (and political) innovations abound: the Transition Town movement, new coalitions of environmental groups such as New Networks for Nature, local community action to take control of pubs, shops and post offices, the anti-fracking campaign, a revival in community food growing and permaculture schemes, guerrilla gardening and the rewilding movement. The types of activities, in fact, that are advocated in Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, Paul Kingsnorth's 2008 rallying cry for "... a future in which England wakes up again and steps back from the precipice ... a future in which the many wonderful things I have seen are not wiped out but are preserved, promoted and enriched as part of a living landscape". 

If the momentum of these examples of the radical ordinary is to be harnessed then buzz words such as 'place-making' and 'localism' that have entered the lexicon of official-speak need to be backed-up by credible actions. Now that the genie of devolution is well and truly out of the bottle - to an advanced stage in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a creeping scourge of broken political elites in England - then it is not just Nigel Farage and his John Bull UKippers who have an opportunity to force the agenda.

Less obviously eco-political, but I think still linked, is the trend towards re-imagined outdoor leisure. Rejecting static caravan and Caravan and Camping Club sites - with their joyless amenities, suburbanised trimmed lawns and crazy golf - the upward curve is with wild camping, old-school camper vans, festivals, camp fires and sites that cater for those seeking a simpler engagement with the natural environment (with, it has to be said, a hint of Nuts in May liberal middle class wankiness: take it away Keith and Candice Marie). Allied to renewed enthusiasm for 'proper camping' are a host of other activities such as wild swimming, gorge-walking, foraging, micro-adventures. Some might sneer at the whiff of lifestyle marketing attached to the likes of Cool Camping, but I think there is more afoot here than 'staycation' and glamping Sunday supplement flavour of the month. 

"Take me back to beautiful England/ And the grey, damp filthiness of ages/ Fog rolling down behind the mountains/ And on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains." Polly Harvey
How much does a coalescing of the landscape aesthetics discussed here really inform the developments just described? Can we justifiably point to a paradigm shift in landscape perception? An awakening to a common treasury? Perhaps, but many things are entangled here and it is, of course, hard to see the wood for the trees when navigating the present. If its not possible, at this point in time anyway, to mould a case for a manifesto that is or can be meaningful in terms of shaping the management of landscape or popular perceptions of it, it may be that the lasting impact of what is described here is at an altogether smaller scale; a focus on the small heart of things, to borrow the title from Julian Hoffman's book.

Look around and there are many contemporary examples of this composite way of seeing, of being in, landscape. Some are broad church, some have overtly socio-political agenda's, others are perhaps more frivolous. Trace the connecting threads weaving past and present, sometimes strong and clear, sometimes gossamer thin and shadowy, and we may just be on to something here. Of course, any such loose assemblage needs a locus of key texts, advocates and practitioners to articulate a coherent voice. To many the magnus opus for contemporary emerging landscape philosophising is W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, published in 1995. Here we have a ground-breaking narrative of a long walk along the East Anglian coast that becomes a portal for evocations of and meditations on an array of times, places and people. A work that sprinkles magic dust on even the most prosaic of scenes. See that line of fishermen's tents along the beach near Lowestoft? (apply sonerous German accent) "It is as if the last stragglers of some nomadic people had settled there, at the outermost limit of the earth, in expectation of the miracle longed for since time immemorial, the miracle which would justify all their erstwhile privations and wanderings." Wow, now that feels deep. Did Werner Herzog and Sebald ever get together before his untimely death? They are surely two peas in a Teutonic pod.  

The roll-call of other writers, poets, artists, musicians, film-makers, campaigners and, dare I say it, bloggers and social media contributors who inhabit this space is, like The Orb song, a huge ever growing pulsating thing. I would cite those described in the following paragraphs as particularly important waymarkers for me in journeying towards landscape epiphanies (an on-going perambulation). They articulate, in the words of Peter Ackroyd's examination of the roots of English cultural history, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination"a recognition of the landscape as an organic being with its own laws of growth and change".

The shadow of Iain Sinclair - "the writer as walker par excellence" - and his resurrection of the 'Cockney visionary' spirit of Blake and Defoe, edges its way across the picture here. Of course, this treatise would be remiss indeed if it did not venture, or rather drift, into psychogeographical domains. In recent years the term ‘deep topography’ has been coined to describe the writing and research of landscapists such as Nick Papadimitrou; a nuanced off-shoot of the more high profile landscape leftfieldism of psychogeography: a word and practice in danger of becoming an overloaded band-wagon of fecundity. Essentially, we are in the territory of metaphysical exploration of the intersection between landscape, human activity (historical and modern), psychological reaction and the natural world; more specifically liminal spaces, often in an urban or edgeland context away from the familiar and the well-trod. And we are on foot, rooting out the places that are overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye.

With origins in the derive of the Dadists and Situationists of mid-twentieth century Paris, psychogeography has generally remained resolutely urban in focus; in some ways almost anti-rural, certainly uninterested in the conventionally sublime or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the countryside (though, as Edward Chell so inventively and perceptively shows us in his Soft Estate book and exhibition, there is a "connective visual experience" between the Picturesque designed landscapes of the eighteenth century and much modern infrastructure)Such an approach can be prey to easy caricature as the haunt of earnest devotees seeking out and eulogising the most desolate and God-forsaken parts of London and the capital's outermost extremities. In reality, and stripping away the chaff, there is much to admire in a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject matter. But there has tended to be only tentative interaction with the more orthodox disciplines of landscape ecology, history, archaeology etc. The question arises: is not any spatial entity just as equally ripe for psychogeographical enquiry? To bring this approach into the fold of this thesis there is a need for indiscriminate practise of deep topography, wherever the path may lead. An exemplar that sets a template to follow would be The New English Landscape, Ken Worpole and Jason Orton's 2013 exploration of the “bastard countryside” of the estuary indented, marsh rich and semi-industrial Essex coastline – a liminal wonderland at once on the doorstep of, but also estranged from, the Great Wen of London.

Seemingly more orthodox but coaxial to such modish cultural geography is nature writing; moribund not so long ago but in the midst of an on-going new golden age. A bridge and direct link between both the urban experience and an earlier generation of environmental writers is provided by the late flowering of output from Richard Mabey. Since Mabey first published his, at the time, groundbreaking The Unofficial Countryside in 1973 many of the scruffy, neglected and wild enclaves of the natural and semi-natural in urban areas and edgelands have been transformed - for good or ill. The flowering of 'new nature' writing in recent years has included a vigorous and tenacious off-shoot focusing on such places. The prime example being Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, an updated tramp across the territory covered by Mabey, taking its lead from Marion Shoard's influential 1992 essay, Edgelands.
As well as a biography of Gilbert White (eighteenth century "parson-naturalist" and author of the Ur-text of British natural history writing, Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne) Mabey's prolific output has included books such as Food For Free and Weeds which presage or advocate the practical yet intimate and respectful interaction with the natural world that is at the core of much of the best of modern ecology and natural history prose. My own favourite Mabey work is though Nature Cure, his inspirational treatise on the positive impact of the natural world and sense of place on the human condition. In musing on his struggle to re-energise his relationship with landscape and the natural world in order to fight of depression, Mabey reaches a watershed moment: 
"I began to wonder - I hope not just rationalising my own naivety – if wilderness was really what I wanted, or should want … what I missed was some common ground between the wilderness and the thoroughly domesticated, some accessible country – real and metaphysical … I realised that what touched me most was not wilderness as a special, defined place, but the quality of wildness…the untidy, energising edge of all living systems."

It is a measure of the current strength of this genre that there are a number of authors who are able to match Mabey's high quality output. I have become something of a biblio-junky for this type of thing in recent years and curate book shelves heaving with tomes by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin (Wild Wood: A Journey Through Trees is a particular favourite), Mark Cocker, Tim Dee ... But wait, these are all white males, as have been the vast majority of names included in this piece so far. The subjects of landscape, sense of place and nature are hardly unique in this respect but it is worth pausing for thought here. In fact and of course, there are, and have always been, many fine female writers in this field. The above list of the books on my shelf would have gone on to include Rebecca Solnit, Kathleen Jamie, Sarah Maitland and many others. Nevertheless, it is somewhat dispiriting to realise that voices that are fairly uniform in terms of cultural background and gender still tend to dominate. Melissa Harrison, author of Clay and who I would also add here, has recently written perceptively on this subject, citing not only the struggle that female writers often have to enter this arena, witness the 70 years it took for Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain to be published and then widely recognised as a landscape classic, but also the different perspectives and approaches that are lost if women writers (and for that matter those reflecting gay, black, migrant, working class or any other experiences from society at large) are not heard. This point perhaps exemplified by the recent success of Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk, which deals with the author's relationship with a goshawk in the context of the death of her father. And here we have come full circle, back to Richard Mabey and his candid writing on his own mental health. What I think characterises much of the best of this work is an unforced desire to bring personal experience and memory, and the landscape and the natural world together; to recognise the intertwinedness of all things.    

I have previously written about poetry and the landscape on this blog (an anthology open in the sun), chronicling a vibrant contemporary strain of poetry echoing the outpouring of prose writing on themes of place, the natural world and our relationship with it in recent years. Much of this output feels radical and non-conformist, in the best traditions of the poetry of the past that has weathered well (and, as an aside and for whatever reason, it does seem that female voices are much more well-represented). For instance, new poetry figures large in EarthLines magazine, the journal Terrain and the Dark Mountain network of "writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for troubled times". The web and new media have also opened up opportunities for poets to share their work more easily. Collectives such as Longbarrow Press ("poetry from the edgelands") utilise on-line audio channels like SoundCloud to give voice to their output; neat symmetry with the oral traditions of poetry, which is generally best appreciated aloud.

Fiction also appears in this vista. A useful primer to how we have got here is Writing Britain: Wasteland to Wonderlanda book accompanying the 2012 exhibition of the same name at the British Library that examined how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works through the ages. One contemporary pathway that's worth exploring, and adds to the canon, is the run of novels such as God's Own Country (2008) by Ross Raisin, The Dig (2014) by Cynan Jones and (my current read) Ben Myers Beastings (2014) that have been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider. I would also add Paul Kingsnorth's 'shadow language' The Wake (2014) to this list. A crowd-funded novel bristling and boiling with imagery and imagination that both brings life to the gloom, old gods and shock of late period Anglo-Saxon England and also resonates with more contemporary anxieties; a so-called difficult read that crashed its way into the mainstream through its sheer heft.  

This well-spring of written words may generate much of the vibrancy that pulses through the sense here of a fresh perspective on old stories, but there are other ebbs and flows. The Caught by the River collective, ever-expanding from its nucleus of fishing and musical themes, is a regular contributor to this feeling of vigour. Its anthology, On Nature: Unexpected Ramblings on the British Countryside, seeks to provide "a kaleidoscopic vision of Britain" through multifarious contributions from the likes of Stuart Maconie, Bill Drummond and Tracey Thorn but makes it very clear that engagement with the landscape is not just about writing, "its about watching and listening, digging in, taking part"; a culture for practical aesthetes to thrive in, whether through immersion in deep topographical wanderings or other forms of creativity or activism.   

"Summer has come in/ Loudly sing, Cuckoo!/ The seed grows and the meadow blooms/ And the wood springs anew/ Sing, Cuckoo!" Sumer is Icumen In (Anon.)
"These isles are full of noise" and those working in music and sound provide some of the most interesting and vigorous responses to landscape (a subject also previously essayed here). Sumer Is Icumen In, first recorded in a thirteenth century manuscript, is a song with deep 'folk' origins in the life of the countryside that bridges the ages and musical genres; an example of the fluidity and adaptability of music that speaks universal truths about the relationship between people, the seasons and the natural world. This theme is taken up by Rob Young in his tour de force Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, inter-weaving folk music, landscape, esoteric culture and more through a sweeping history of "Albion's soundscape" over the last 100 years or so. The book examines the links in the chain of folk music-making from Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams through to the present day. The spirit of Sumer is Icumen In resonates still through the work of contemporary chroniclers of people and the land in song: artists such as Alasdair Roberts, Candidate, Gravenhurst, The Memory Band, The Owl Service and Tuung who offer a left-field take on the folk genre, often with a Wicker Man inspired coda of magic and unease lurking in the shady corners of the familiar. Even that most archetypically traditional of rural pursuits, morris dancing, has been reappraised and reappropriated, its combination of deep rootedness and inner strangeness empathetically exposed in Tim Plester's documentary, Way of the Morris (2011). A theme given wider kaleidoscopic exposure in the BFI's collection of archaic rural ritual, rights and custom, Here's a Health to the Barley Mow (2011). Further up the left-field lane from here is the arcane crate-digging of the likes of Finders Keepers Records, Ghost Box and English Heretic, delivering obscure, esoteric and downright pagan sounds of the countryside to a wider audience. This would be a dull world indeed without the likes of The Wiccan Circle by concretism to stir our folkloric loins:

One of the few artists to take these themes out of the confines of the folk idiom and present them in an intelligent and complex way lyrically is PJ Harvey, particularly on her last two albums, the much lauded Let England Shake (2011), which reflected on land, national identity and England's martial past and present, and its predecessor, White Chalk (2007), a more personal meditation on her home county of Dorset. Let England Shake has added interest due to the series of films made by Seamus Murphy to accompany each of the songs, a collage of the strange and diverse people and places of this land.

Julian Cope could not be described as a 'folkie', more of a psychedelic explorer; as musically out there as anyone, but also on a one-man pagan odyssey to explore the sites and monuments of prehistoric Britain: "Simultaneously embodying rock's righteous conscience and furious rites, Cope's redrawing of Albion fuses the passion of the antiquarian with the experimental spirit of rock, couched in a powerful advocacy for the primacy of land and freedom" (Rob Young). And this passion led to his magnum opus, The Modern Antiquarian (1998), a gazetteer to over 300 megalithic sites across the British Isles. Cope has now also branched out into literature and in 2014 brought out his first novel, One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel; probably unclassifiable but perhaps best described as a rock and roll psychogeographical odyssey. What artists such as Cope and Harvey demonstrate is that the different creative disciplines - art, film, music and sound, poetry and so on - are being increasingly combined to provide multi-dimentional responses to places and landscapes. Film-maker Ben Wheatley has been responsible for some of the most arresting recent results of this melange, particularly his 2013 English Civil War set A Field in England, a swirling psychedelic work based on the occult topography of rural England, tapping into Witchfinder General and Winstanley territory.

Conceptual artist Jeremy Deller's multi-media exhibition English Magic also personifies this approach. Interestingly, Deller entitled a 2013 lecture on his work "I am not an archaeologist" and this leads to a subject of some puzzlement to me (though it may not preoccupy the thoughts of many others). The vibrant and intense feeling for landscape and the stories that seep in and out of it that have been described so far are curiously muted in a subject that should be at the very heart of this argument: landscape archaeology and history (as pleasant as it is, Time Team is not really the vibe that I'm trying to promote here). Given that the landscape is a topographical treasury of the relict features of everyday human activity this is strange indeed. Thankfully there are signs of change afoot. I would particularly advocate Ideas of Landscape (2007) by Matthew Johnson, an accessible but stimulating run through of the key concepts, theories and philosophies of landscape in Western thought. A book about theoretical ideas that's a page turner. Like Chrisopher Tilley's A Phenomenology of Landscape (1994) and An Archaeology of Natural Places (2000) by Richard Bradley, Johnson's work challenges existing orthodoxies and seems more catholic and eclectic in approach than the generally quite insular and formulaic focus that characterises the study of the archaeology and history of landscape in its maintstream academic and amateur incarnations. The same can be said for Richard Jones and Mark Page's Medieval Villages in an English Landscape (2006), Nicola Whyte's Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (2009), the bi-annual Landscapes journal, the work of Tom Williamson and the Landscape Group at UEA and the English Language and Identities project. However, lacking here is the popular exposure and recognition of new nature writing or the zeitgeist buzz of psychogeography; this is an on-going missed opportunity, as landscape history should be inextricably linked to the prevailing discourse outlined here. 

More generally the somewhat hackneyed concept of 'heritage' is ripe for reappraisal and subversion. I particularly warm, for instance, to the concept of counter-tourism: a philosophy, rooted in performance art, that seeks to redefine how we interact and engage with heritage sites and attractions by means of A pocketbook identifying "50 odd things to do in a heritage site": "A book to take with you next time you visit a historic or heritage site. Its 50 'tactics' are designed to transform the way you look at these places and to get you thinking about the way the industry packages 'heritage' ".

Unearthing the commonality between many of these notionally disparate territories has certainly been a core undertaking of the landscapism that fires this blog. Whilst touring and investigating, scouting and prospecting, I have come across many other blogs and web sites that are also engaging with diverse landscape-related subject matter in interesting ways; helping to root and embed an all-embracing philosophy. I try and keep pace with this vastness, to catalogue the ever-expanding provinces and dominions of word and image, in the Exploring the Landscape gazetteer of landscape on the web. There are too many to shout out for here, but a fairly random but representative sample might include:
The Printed Land

The last of which included a post in 2013 entitled After London: Dreaming Wild England which became one of the inspirations, long gestated, for this piece.

For how hard it is/ to understand the landscape/ as you pass in a train/ from here to there/ and mutely it/ watches you vanish. W.G. Sebald

The philosophical, artistic and cultural convergences outlined above offer a corrective to easy tropes such as ‘landscape as palimpsest’: the concept of an orderly, layered history of temporal stratification, each successor wave of change wiping clean the earlier canvass, leaving only relict features of what went before. In fact, landscape is relentlessly unruly, more muddled and haphazard juxtaposition than ordered linear succession. It will not behave, even when we try to manage and mould it, to bend it to our will. Nor should landscape be seen simply in terms of the visible present-day and historical topography. It is also immersed in a soup of past realities, memories and myths, what Iain Sinclair has termed “fictions of memory”. Taking this idea further, geographer Doreen Massey has described landscape as “… a multiplicity of trajectories”; connected and unconnected stories that “… are not buried in a layered past, but are bursting through to speak to us now. They are on-going, unfinished stories that, in their unfinishedness address our today”. Given this multi-faceted context our responses to landscape need to mirror this compexity. To this end Robert Macfarlane's expansive and fluid definition of landscape in The Old Ways (2012) blows away the cobwebs of received wisdom and tired orthodoxy, and is worth repeating as it eloquently accords with what is articulated here:
"Landscape is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant - a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take 'landscape' as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds, the scents and uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment."
 If its easy for connections with a past sense of place to be loosened, frayed or severed - by the sheer onslaught and wash of constantly reinvented technology, of yet wider though somehow shrunken horizons - then the essaying of a new polyglot landscapism is surely a positive reaction that demands to be heard. Moreover, at a time when old certainties - the myopic capitalist model of a property owning, consumer society; the resilience of our archaic political models - seem to be in the midst of a long teeter, which may lead to a (perhaps sudden) fall, new ways of seeing and feeling the landscape around us are likely to surface. Maybe we will find that the infrastructure of capital that seems so omnipresent, so burgeoning, is as ephemeral as all that came before; ruination beckons, the Detroit-like fall of our urban culture a heartbeat away. Perhaps re-enchantment awaits even those distribution silos, those motorway junctions, those retail parks of our nightmares.

In my orbit of landscape discourse it feels like there are many who see a new world rising out of the - often half-forgotten or mis-represented - memories and realities (real, imagined and co-opted) of terrains and places, like Milton's vision of Creation in Paradise Lost or, to get even more Biblical, the righteousness of the Book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth". An alternative to the contemporaneous emptiness of the path towards plastic lives in a seemingly homogenised, 'Globalised' world. At once spiritual, esoteric and felt but also grounded, fabricated and everyday, and no less magical for that; for as Jonathan Meades has clarion-called, “We are surrounded by the greatest of free shows. Places. Most of them made by man, remade by man”. 

A re-imagined sense of landscape and place is needed to underwrite fresh responses to the world around us. The promiscuous, easy navigation across boundaries and borders that is the key touchstone of this analysis might just be what is required. A final riff of connections as illustration. A seemingly nostalgic and escapist retreat to the twilight inter-war world of the 1976 film adaptation of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male (Peter O'Toole reprising TE Lawrence as an old school adventurer hiding out from the Nazis in his overgrown Dorset holloway) could lead seamlessly to - and was part inspiration for - Robert Macfarlane's book Holloway, which has begot a forthcoming short film by folk horror champion Adam Scovell (Celluloid Wicker Man) and is illustrated by Stanley Donwood, album cover designer for Radiohead and Tom Yorke; which takes us up to Harrowdown Hill (sylvan scene of the tragic death of David Kelly):

This video sparks thoughts of M.R. James' A View From A Hill (another scene of a hanging; and an album title for The Owl Service) juxtaposed with Patrick Keiller mapping of the 21st century geographical and political landscape through his The Robinson Institute work and the aforementioned English Magic exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller. An obvious companion piece here is the fundamental and wide-ranging analysis of the new English landscape outlined in Doreen Massey's Landscape/space/politics: an essay. From Boys Own adventure to socio-political critique in eight easy moves, covering much diverse ground on the way. Now that, surely, is what a fecund and vibrant sense of landscape should be all about
; especially for those who wish to follow Robert Frost's maxim in his celebrated poem The Road Not Taken
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, and this has made all the difference".  

Postscript: As already mentioned, nothing is new. The Roman altar pictured, recovered near the Antonine Wall bares the inscription GENIO TERRAE BRITANNICAE, translated as "to the presiding spirit of the British countryside". These three Latin words, whispers in the wind across two millennia, encapsulate all that has been described here. If this sentiment spoke to people's relationship with their landscape then, it is surely even more important now and for the future to keep this spirit alive.


Ackroyd, P, 2002. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. Chatto & Windus.

Caught by the River (Eds.), 2011. On Nature: Unexpected Ramblings on the British Countryside. Collins.

Chell, E, 2013. Soft Estate. The Bluecoat. 

Coverley, M, 2006. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials.

Evans, G, Fowler, W & Sandhu, S (Eds.), 2014. The Edge is Where the Centre Is: David Rudkin and Penda's Fen - A Conversation. Texte and Tone.

Herzog, W, 1991. Of Walking in Ice. Jonathan Cape.

Highet, G, 1957. Poets in the Landscape. Alfred A Knopf.

Hollis, M, 2011. Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas. Faber and Faber.

Hoskins, W, 1985. The Making of the English Landscape. Penguin.

Johnson, M, 2007. Ideas of Landscape. Blackwell.

Kingsnorth, P, 2008. Real England: The Battle Against the Bland. Portobello.

Macfarlane, R, 2012. The Old Ways. Hamish Hamilton.

Machen, A, 2010. The Great God Pan. The Library of Wales.

Mabey, R, 2008. Nature Cure. Vintage.

Massey, D, 2011. Landscape/ space/ politics: An essay

Meades, J, 2013. Museum Without Walls. Unbound.

Milne, C, 1982. The Hollow On the Hill. Methuen.

Rousseau, J-J, 2004. Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Penguin.

Sebald, W, 1998. The Rings of Saturn. The Harvill Press.

Shama, S, 1996. Landscape and Memory. Fontana.

Thomas, E, 1980. A Literary Pilgrim in England. Oxford University Press.

Watkins, A, 2014. The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones. Head of Zeus.

Williams, R, 2011. The Country and the City. Spokesman.

Worpole, K & Orton, J, 2013. The New English Landscape. Field Station.

Young, R, 2010. Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music. Faber and Faber.

Young, R, 2012. Requiem for a Village: Cinema of the Anti-Scrape in BFI DVD booklet. BFI.  


  1. Great stuff Eddie. A truly epic read/wander which is too much to take in on one reading. Shall have to return again which will be no hardship. Lots of ideas/congruences ricocheting around the skull now. Thanks!

    1. Thanks!

      Yes, there was a lot to take in. I did reflect on whether it was sensible/ useful to try and cover so much ground as the piece began to develop in my head and in type, but the time seemed right to try and encapsulate much of the thinking that this blog has allowed me to bring together - which seemed to be naturally converging - in the three years that I have been engaged with it.

      I hope you enjoy your further reads.


  2. I really enjoyed the twists and turns of this post Eddie. Sensitively and humorously written. I'm sure every reader will bring their own gaps to the writing - a piece like this can never satisfy everybody's personal favourites - but it is the thrust of the post that is most important - this 'new landscape aesthetic' - there is currently some sort of critical mass going on that seems to be converging from a multitude of directions (in the arts, blogging, politics, etc.) to offer an assemblage (as Deleuze|Guattari might have put it) with a voice that is breaking out of its modest circle of adherents to find a wider audience.

    Labelling frequently creates problems but(!)…'Deep topography' gets mentioned but I wonder if an alternative (it's probably already been suggested somewhere) that cranks the volume up a touch more of 'radical topography' could be attached to this mode of thought, being-in-the-landscape, etc.? Radical topography as a way that is reached via the process of and interest in deep topography. It pulls topography out more broadly to make its relevance to all more urgent perhaps. This links through to Guattari's 'Three Ecologies'. In a collection of essays on the ecology of Deleuze and Guattari (Ed. B. Herzogenrath, 2009) Hanjo Berressem's suggests a move from Naessian deep ecology to radical ecology to explode the subject/object divide and here that could help blur the culture/nature one. It also overcomes the 'landscape as palimpsest' trope which you mention. I think this 'radical' element could also be moved on to 'radical place' as well to leave behind the arrogance of local authority (etc.) 'place-making'.

    The MacFarlane quote also reminds me of Tim Ingold's work on 'landscape' and how the etymology is not about viewing (scope) but shaping and so physical activity. If you don't know it - see 'Being Alive' (2011), 126. I see this shaping as being (more than) reciprocal.

    Good observation on the dearth of archaeological presence in this terrain (at least beyond a superficial level) - it has mass appeal but can also be highly political especially when tied to its cousin archival rummaging. We get to notions of hidden histories and Foucauldian subjugated knowledges.

    I look forward to your next post!

  3. Thanks Stuart

    You raise some interesting additional points. I like your idea about 'radical topography' or 'radical place' as a descriptor for the morphing movement away from the unhelpful culture/nature etc divides.

    I am aware of Tim Ingold's work but will seek out 'Being Alive' and the other references you mention.

    Thanks again


  4. Hi Eddie

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your latest post, not really enough space on a tweet to convey my full enthusiasm.

    As a sort of manifesto for Landscapism it sets up all kinds of different paths to explore (excuse the pun). Like much of your blog - I particularly like the drive towards more a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject - pulling in expertise and ideas from Natural History/Nature Writing, music, fiction, poetry, film, Archaeology, History, Urban Studies, Architecture etc.

    Breaking the old Country and City division and looking at landscape in a more holistic way - so that writing and thinking about it can embrace and include town and city and their cultural footprints alongside more natural/ancient environments seems to me a more forward looking and realistic approach to both landscape and the idea of landscape than parcelling sections off into wild/urban or nature/civilisation etc.

    In a sense everything about our world (at least as soon as we stop to think about it or engage with it) is at once natural and man-made.

    Anyway, lovely piece. Thanks


    1. Cheers Matt

      Much appreciated. Hopefully it conveys something of how many like-minded people are now viewing landscape, albeit often outside of the sometimes narrow confines of academic or professional disciplines.

      I've had a suggestion of 'radical topography' or 'radical place' as descriptors of this kind of approach, which I quite like.


  5. Have been under a stone or possibly a log the last few weeks workwise and only just read this at the weekend... had just been reading the Paul Kingsnorth article you'd retweeted so had lots of thoughts going round, then got time to go back on Twitter and catch up. Bloody hell, what a great piece you've written here. And not sure how deserved the credit is, but thanks - very kind - and obviously heartened by the articulation of so many things that strike so many chords here. So much to think about - just wanted to get a thanks for a great article down first. Hopefully will brew something up myself before too long!

    1. Thank you! I think there does seem to be an awakening or coming together of a fresh way of engaging with landscape that builds on an amalgam of past visions and texts and artifacts. And, linking with the Paul Kingsnorth article, wrapped up in all of this, perhaps, is an emerging sense of new Englishness, unmoored from tired old left and right tropes. Your piece definitely chimed with my thinking in this area and was one of the seeds for this 'mega-post'.

      Robert Macfarlance apparently has a major Guardian Review article on many of these themes on Saturday, 21st March, so that will be worth looking out for.


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  8. Just discovered and enjoying your blog. Have been following a Picturesque (in the real etymological sense) landscape aesthetic in my own work at

  9. Phew! A tour de force and relieved to find I've read most of 'em, Eddie. I'm currently working on some new slavery trails for Bristol and Gloucestershire, based on the UCL research into the compensation paid to owners of slaves in 1834 - trying to etch responses to that hidden history within our landscape. Be good to meet up.

  10. Hello, I have browsed most of your posts. This post is probably where I got the most useful information for my research. Thanks for posting, maybe we can see more on this. Are you aware of any other websites on this subject.aesthetic attraction


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