Any landscape is a condition of the spirit
-Henri Frédéric Amiel-¹
One of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging and a common denominator across diverse cultures is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place. Studies of landscape and its meanings have been coincidental with a widening interest in the public history movement and everyday landscapes. It underpins the notion that landscapes reflecting everyday ways of life, the ideologies that compel people to create places, and the sequence or rhythm of life over time tell the story of people, events and places through time, offering a sense of continuity: a sense of the stream of time. Therefore, landscape is not what we see, but a way of seeing.(Cosgrove 1984). Historically taking Cosgrove’s reflection on seeing and comprehending is Milton’s comment on a piece of landscape in 1632:
Streit mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures.
Neither is landscape simply or overwhelmingly a product. Rather, it is a process in which humans create landscapes – cultural landscapes – where ‘our human landscape is our unwitting biography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears in tangible visible form.’ (Lewis 1979). In this context of landscape as process, and social/cultural process at that, ‘landscape concerns the world we are living in’ (Wylie 2007:1).
Memory of landscapes visited, or where we live, are invariably associated with pleasant memories and associations. Yet landscape memories are not always associated with pleasure. It can be associated sometimes with loss, with pain, with social fracture and sense of belonging gone, although the memory remains, albeit poignantly. Here we may think of the Killing Fields at Phnom Penh or the Auschwitz Concentration Camp complex. We may also think of a loved landscape that has disappeared as in the case of Margaret Drabble (1979, p.270) in A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature referring to Virginia Woolf’s sense of loss of a loved place where she vividly expresses an emotional sense of landscape lost:
The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become. This is one of the reasons why we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.
Corresponding with the opening quote to this essay on the relationship between landscape and spirit is Relph’s (2008) proposal that the spirit of a place lies in its landscape. In both quotes ‘spirit’ has associational connections and meanings in the sense of spirit as ‘the non-physical part of a person … the seat of emotions and character; the soul.’ (OED). In this way the abstract idea of spirit is inseparable from the intangibility of the accumulation of human memories and meanings – private and collective – and identity that we associate with the word ‘landscape’. Focusing on landscape as a key word inevitably brings into consideration inquiry into the meaning of the words ‘places’ and ‘spaces’ and their relationship to ‘landscape’. We are apt to interchange these three words ‘space, place and landscape’ and use them synonymously, when in fact, whilst linked, they have different associations.
Space can be described as a location which has no social connections; no value has been added to it and no meaning ascribed to it. It is more or less abstract. Nevertheless there is a relationship between space and place in that spaces become places when given human connections and meaning, either through physical interaction or in indirect and conceptual, symbolic ways as for example in literature and art or by the simple fact of people living there. Spaces and associated places therefore are part of, and cumulatively create, the landscape where landscape is the setting for our lives. Here is what we call the ‘cultural landscape’ physically reflecting the process of landscape making through time replete with human associations anchored in values and meanings. It is a process where we can recognise successive layers in the landscape through time. We may therefore ask: ‘What is landscape?’. Here I am perversely reminded of Peter Howard’s challenging suggestion that ‘Landscape is not very rational’ (Howard 2011:2); a statement which he then perceptively deconstructs with the beguilingly profound yet simple and comforting observation that landscape ‘is intensely personal and reflects our own history and culture, our personal likes and dislikes. It is always about “my place”, or at least somebody’s place.’
To try to summarise, we need to understand that people see and make landscapes as a result of their shared system of beliefs and ideologies. In this way landscape is a cultural construct, a mirror of our memories and myths encoded with meanings which can be read and interpreted. In effect landscape is human culture on display, telling a story of events, people and places through time. As JB Jackson so eloquently encapsulated the essential meaning of landscape as summarised by his pithy comment ( Jackson 1951:5):
A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn how to read it.
Cosgrove, D. E. (1984) Social formation and Symbolic Landscape, London & Sydney: Croom Helm.
Howard, P. (2011) An Introduction to Landscape, Farnham: Ashgate.
Jackson, J. B. (1951) Landscape 1 (Spring 1951).
Lewis, P. (1979) ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene’, in
Meinig, D.W. (ed.) The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 11-32.
Relph, E. (2008, first published 1976), Place and Placelessness, London: Pion.
Wylie, J. (2007) Landscape, Abingdon UK & New York: Routledge.
Professor Ken Taylor, Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, Research Centre for Humanities and Arts, The Australia National University, Canberra, Australia.
(c) Text by Ken Taylor
¹Swiss philosopher and poet, 1821-1881.