Futures Forum: Wilderness vs farming: How can we produce enough food for both humans and life on the planet to survive?
Although it doesn't have to be:
Futures Forum: 'Tapping into a new appreciation for the countryside'
Moreover, landscape has a seriously political point:
Futures Forum: Literature and Landscape in East Devon: book launch: Friday 12th December ... The West Country is 'the third best place to visit in Europe'
Futures Forum: Literature and Landscape in East Devon >>> National Trust talk in Sidmouth > Thursday 18th February
The latest from Anna Pavord of the Independent explores much of this from her home in Dorset:
Landskipping, by Anna Pavord - book review: An evocative but unsentimental picture of Britain | The Independent
Landskipping by Anna Pavord review – why we should not treat the countryside as a theme park
This varied book – part memoir, part history, part polemic – investigates why there are some places we love best and considers the future of the British landscape
Views from the top of the Jurassic Coast Road looking down onto the village of Abbotsbury, Dorset. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/REX/Shutterstock
If I were asked to describe James Ward’s 1814 painting Gordale Scar, I’d launch straight in with exclamations about the height of the limestone cliffs, the deep shadow in the ravine, the sense of the earth shuddering, the theatre of it: the sublime. But then, as Anna Pavord points out in her rangey, deeply felt and sometimes luminous book about our responses to landscape, there’s the bull. Lord Ribblesdale, who commissioned the picture, wanted to celebrate his prize herd and great white bull as much as the dramatic topography of his estate. And the bull is, frankly, just as likely to produce feelings of terror in walkers on the East Malham estate.
The relationship between the beauty (or sublimity) of landscape and down-to-earth husbandry is the most fascinating subject in Landskipping. It’s also an important one as we consider the future of the British countryside. Before we get to the bulls, sheep, ploughmen and agricultural theorists, however, we’re asked to consider the more familiar scenery of picturesque tourism. The late 18th century saw a rapid development and fixing of ideas about scenery. (“It’s odd that it didn’t happen before,” Pavord writes – that’s another book I’d like to read.) Guidebooks explained the correct disposition of mountains in a view, and crosses in the turf marked the right places to stand. The phenomenon was intensified by the fact that wealthy young people, prevented by Napoleon from going to Tivoli via the Alps, set out on Grand Tours through the Lakes and down the Wye Valley, and made these places the testing grounds of taste.
Pavord salutes pioneers such as Richard Wilson and Thomas Gray, though she has little patience with those whose habits of landscape appreciation were detached from all consideration of practical land use. Such tourists collected the correct view of a place and hurried on to the next. Overheard in a boat on Windermere in 1773: “Good God! How delightful! How charming! – I could live here forever – row on, row on.” Pavord’s sympathies are generally with the boatmen who must row to the best vantage points whatever the currents, or with “the Boy that held the horses at the waterfall” while Paul Sandby explored the cascades.
Yet many of the leading thinkers about scenery also had agricultural interests, and Pavord writes about their efforts to unite the two. I wish I’d known, as I made my way from chasm to precipice along the sensational “Gentleman’s Walk” at Hafod in Cardiganshire, the story she pieces together of how, for sheer love of the place, Thomas Johnes battled to make these rocky prospects yield viable crops and how, though he built a model dairy, he found no market for his cheeses.
Pavord’s real heroes are those whose sense of beauty is deeply connected with their understanding of the land – such as William Cobbett, who loved wooded places because firewood sustains life. “Where [William] Gilpin saw pictures to be painted,” she writes, “Cobbett saw swedes.” Among his favourite views were cornfields with their less-fertile edges turned over to hay: here were the well-tended, abundantly productive landscapes about which he could rhapsodise: “Talk of pleasure-grounds indeed!”
For anyone interested in landscape history, this shifting of our attention from the elevated viewpoint to the hedge, the plough and the effects of enclosure may feel rather like old news. Gilpin, the originator of the idea of the picturesque, and his followers have been criticised since they first lifted their Claude glasses. There have been many reassessments of the picturesque, especially since John Barrell’s view-changing studies in the 1980s.
But Pavord uses a personal and subjective approach to readdress, with attractive honesty, questions that are far from resolved. She is moved by mountainous views (no swedes in sight) and she wants to know why. She finds solace in hilly country, and though she attributes this largely to her childhood in Herefordshire, she wonders how far this can be rationalised. “This is my taste”, said Cobbett of Hampshire, but was that because the fields were efficiently farmed or because he was born there?
Pavord conducts the experiment of going somewhere she doesn’t find beautiful and writing about it. Hoping for conversion, she visits the North Norfolk coast, but as she pads miserably along the boardwalk to Burnham Deepdale she feels like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube. There are probably several hundred people right now who are longing to be walking that path, and who are imagining the light this winter morning on the marshes and flints. So why can’t Pavord like it? It’s the notice boards and neat paths, she supposes, and of course the absence of hills.
In our mobile times, when few of us live where we grew up, these things matter. So I rather wish she had pushed her investigation further by asking, for example, whether any amount of reading changed her responses, or the passage of time (how long does it take to love a place?), or the presence of some other person or association. But perhaps it’s enough that she brings attention to the psychology of our feelings for place.
Among the many kinds of writing in this heterogeneous book – historical, autobiographical, descriptive – there is a strain of polemic. Pavord campaigns for the rights of farmers and for an end to our treatment of landscapes as theme parks. I didn’t always agree, but was glad of the debate. “The way we respond to landscape doesn’t have anything to do with rules,” she writes, but I’m not sure that Gilpin’s formalism can be abandoned so completely; we each have proportions we find satisfying, as Pavord finds hills more pleasing than flats. She loathes instructions for correct viewing, but she has her own ideas about right and wrong ways to go for a walk: ignore the viewpoints marked on the OS map, ignore the interpretation boards, find your own way in. She resents the “insidious notion that landscapes should be adapted to suit the visitor”, whereas I find beauty in a well-made boardwalk along which a wheelchair can be pushed.
Pavord takes for one of her chapter headings the words of John Constable: “I should paint my own places best.” She honours the kinds of slow appreciation that build over decades, and after much travelling she returns, in the wonderful last chapters of her book, to write her own places best. Here, all her investigations of pictures and ploughs, hedging and shepherding, come together in an appreciation of the Dorset parish that has been her home for 40 years. From tithe maps and census records, she learns the intricate patterns of local land use: the fact, for example, that the basket makers did not own the willow-beds, but bought harvesting rights from the man who rented them, who paid the woman who owned them – and so the web goes on. Like the raking light that exposes ancient lynchets at sunset, such knowledge brings out new detail in the one particular view over a gate which Pavord has loved in all seasons, and which she now evokes for us as it changes through a full year. From the vantage point of this ending, I look back and find that the mixed landscape of the whole book is cast in very beautiful light.
Landskipping by Anna Pavord review – why we should not treat the countryside as a theme park | Books | The Guardian
With a view from the States:
God Speed the Plow: The British and Their Relationship to the Land - The New York Times