Sauntering through Landscape and Memory

Landscape and Memory, by Simon SchamaI’ve just finished reading Simon Schama’s magnum opus, Landscape and Memory.

Written in 1995, Landscape and Memory is a unique cultural and artistic history of western civilisation, looking at how our relationship with the landscape has changed over the centuries. Often, Schama argues, western modernity is presented as something existing in opposition to nature, as a break from nature, as something whose only relationship to nature is one of destructive exploitation. However, without denying the reality of this exploitation, and “the seriousness of our ecological predicament”, Schama insists that western culture retains a strong sense of landscape, embedded within our language, culture and art:

Notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in these texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away. […] The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures – of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain – are in fact alive and well and all about us if only we knew where to look for them. […]  Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together. (p.14)

So that is what Schama proceeds to do in the 578 pages (plus notes) of Landscape and Memory, across four sections dealing with Wood, Water, Rock, and the vision of “Arcadia” which combines all three. The journey takes us from the bison of the Lithuanian forests, to the sequoia of California, the rivers of the Orinico, Nile and Thames, Mount Rushmore, the Alps, Kew Gardens and Walden Pond.

Schama shows how much the same landscape features can be adopted into the mythology of different nations, or at different times, in very different ways. For example:

What the myths of ancient forest mean for one European national tradition may translate into something entirely different in another. In Germany, for example, the forest primeval was the site of tribal self-assertion against the Roman empire of stone and law. In England the greenwood was the place where the king disported his power in the royal hunt yet redressed the injustices of his officers. (p.15)

By the end, Schama is able to claim, with justice, that:

…the backyard I have walked through – sauntered through, Thoreau might exclaim – is the garden of the Western landscape imagination: the little fertile space in which our culture has envisioned its woods, waters, and rocks, and where the wildest of myths have insinuated themselves into the lie of our land.

The book that Landscape and Memory most reminded me of is, oddly enough, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: another sweeping, heartfelt, idiosyncratic cultural history driven by a message the author clearly feels compelled to share with the world. The similarities of format – wide margins, lots of pictures – and of elegiac tone help maintain this impression.

In short, I can highly recommend Landscape and Memory. It’s a long and heavy book, but by the end you’ll never look at a landscape (of either the real or the painted variety), or at western civilisation, in the same way again.

The last word in the book goes to Henry David Thoreau, who writes:

It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.


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