Monday, May 14, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“LANDSCAPE AND MEMORY” by Simon Schama (first published 1995)
Reading one book about artistic representations of landscape sets me in mind of another – a book that presents a whole philosophy of landscape – and I pull it off my shelf to renew my acquaintance with it.

I know at least one trained historian who intensely dislikes Simon Schama. As a man who has frequently fronted popular television history shows – including a galloping general history of Britain – Schama is easily derided as a “telly don”. One of those academics who lower their scholarly standards to court mass popularity. I’ve never been quite able to share this view, however. One of the main reasons is my sheer enjoyment of this hefty 650-plus page volume of prose and image. I first read it as a reviewer when it came out in 1995.

Landscape and Memory begins with a very resonant anecdote.

When the first European explorers entered America’s Yosemite Valley, they thought they had found a pure and unsullied corner of nature. There were two dramatic walls of mountains, and at the floor of the valley fertile meadows, supporting a variety of wildlife in apparent harmony. It seemed like the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and that is the way a generation of paleface explorers reported it to the folks back East and in Europe.

What they failed to notice was that the Yosemite Valley had been inhabited for hundreds of years by the Ahwahneechee Indians. If it was as fertile as the mythical garden, it was only because the Ahwahneechee regularly burned off the choking scrub, thorns and weeds that naturally grew there. Much of the supposedly “natural” landscape was the product of human effort; and the Edenic interpretation of that landscape was partly the product of an Enlightenment desire to discover Noble Savages and uncorrupted human nature.

This anecdote neatly illustrates one of Schama’s leading themes. We are like those blinkered explorers. How we see nature and landscape is very much determined by the cultural expectations we bring with us. Indeed we have to realize that the very concept of landscape (not to be confused with raw nature) is a human construct – the product of a specifically human perspective. As Schama writes : “ Landscapes are culture before they are nature, constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.”

If the 18th century poet William Cowper once declared “God made the country and Man made the town” (a line dear to the hearts of all farmers who want to feel superior to townies), he was submitting to a cultural myth. The country in long-occupied lands is as much the product of human toil as it is the work of nature. The rolling vineyards of Tuscany, the long green miles of the Irish Midlands, the downs of England, the dairy-lands of the Waikato are all the way they are because generations of human beings have been rooting out trees and weeds, planting grasses and crops, filling in swamps, forging roads, putting up fences and walls, and shaping and cutting hills. There is nothing “natural” about their appearance. Those who think of nature as a pastoral place where “sheep may safely graze” are thinking of nature modified and tamed. (At this point you may consult and chuckle along with Aldous Huxley’s classic 1929 essay Wordsworth in the Tropics.)

Furthermore, every civilization imposes its own myths on nature. We never see nature or landscape with an innocent, untutored eye, but we are always informed by how others have seen them.

In his 650-odd pages, lavishly illustrated with art-works from every corner of Western civilization, Simon Schama pursues these themes – through the mythologies that different countries have imposed on the forests of Europe; through the Renaissance obsession with Christianizing pagan river myths; through the Romantic mystique of mountain-climbing.

The book is certainly erudite, but Schama wears his learning lightly. Pages of art-analysis are enlivened by personal anecdote, travel tales and family recollections, but never to the detriment of Schama’s developing argument. As a collection of curious and arcane learning, it is sometimes like a bracing combination of Frazer’s Golden Bough and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. And there is hardly a page that does not yield up some little-known fact. (Did you know that Gutzon Borghum, the Danish-American who carved the faces on Mount Rushmore, was a white supremacist and paid-up member of the Ku Klux Klan?)

It was the long first part of this book that engaged me most, however. Here Schama moves systematically through the way various European cultures have traditionally interpreted the wild woodlands.

For the Poles, the myth of the Lithuanian wilderness, with its mighty bison, was a sustaining myth of the unconquerable Polish soul, even though Poland itself had often been overrun and subdued.

By contrast the Germans, harking back to Herman the German trouncing the legions of Rome, had the myth of their dark forests as a breeding ground for the virtuous, hardy people who would always overcome the decadent southern Latins. This racial myth fed Teutonic nationalism from Luther’s Protestantism breaking with Rome to the forest rituals of the S.S. As a Jew, Schama is acute in seeing how incongruous it was that the Nazis – with their Wandervogel connections and pagan aspirations – had such apparently enlightened views about the preservation of woodlands, but weren’t so enlightened about human beings. As he notes: “It is painful to acknowledge how ecologically conscientious the most barbaric regime in modern history actually was.” It is equally painful to note how innocent German forest names now mean extermination (Buchenwald merely means beech forest).

In England there was the Robin Hood myth of the forest as a refuge for liberty, the myth being prolonged by Shakespeare’s As You Like It (“Under the greenwood tree, who loves to lie with me?” etc.) and then standardised in the notion of the British navy as the “heart of oak” defending English freedoms. As Schama observes, even before the Norman Conquest, only 15% of England was still wooded and (like the Poles, like the Germans) the English were harnessing to national mythology something that was at best a dim racial memory. No freedom-loving Englishman actually lived in the greenwood.

Then there were the rational regulations of French kings, and later of French revolutionaries, about how forests were to be treated. “Nature should be made orderly and functional,” says Schama of the rationalist French nature myth, “the forests of France were to be lined up awaiting their proper service to the state.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, America’s huge redwoods became symbols of sturdy American republican virtues.

As I delighted in this book, I could if I were so inclined spin out my list of the interesting observations and discoveries that Schama makes. But I prefer not to do this. Check it out from your library and discover them for yourself.

The central arguments of Landscape and Memory are not wilfully obscure. In an age of eco-consciousness, when the loonier fringes of the Green movement self-consciously build a neo-pagan “Gaia” myth of the Earth, this analysis of the cultural bases of “nature”-worship is still very timely.

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