Landscaping Nature

I would like to take you on a walk through the Cotswold's picturesque landscape. After all, in the Cotswolds can be found the definition of 'picturesque'. Follow, if you will, a narrow path wound tight against the golden walls of a wool church. Take care not to tread on the crumbling gravestone stacked alongside each other as jigsaw pieces slotting in a puzzle, out to the edges of a neat little walled enclosure. Swing open the rusted ‘kissing gate’ and step out as it creaks shut behind you, startling the nearby roost and sending wrens and blackbirds spiraling above you. Head towards the neat fields of sheep, poppies and wheat, along the careful tumbling stone walls that crisscross and divide them. Gaze out towards the grander estates fed by lazy rivers easing along meadows and lime tree avenues.

This scene is a far cry from the forest covered carpet that would once have rolled out over these very same hills. Today’s landscape is, as Bill Bryson puts it, ‘one of the least wild' on earth. Millennia of human grooming since the first Neolithic settlers has transformed the land, through toil and farming, from a wilderness of trees towards our modern managed landscape.

This is not a criticism; there is much to please the eye here. Most often, and in the tradition of the picturesque, we try and view a landscape from above. From a high hill down a valley; from a peak over a descent. We raise ourselves above the land and, aloof, look upon it to admire its beauty. Often paths lead to a particular viewpoint, the pinnacle of both walk and climb being an enlightened mastery of the land below. As an elevated spectator, it is easy to appreciate the magnitude of the land and its wider movement, the features that characterise it and, on a clear day, the lands or seas it borders.

Perhaps more by chance than intent we have crafted the English landscape into one of the most pleasant and picturesque landscapes anywhere on this earth (obviously I'm a little biased...). Like parks, we use much this land for recreation: in parks we re-create nature, and in re-creating nature what we experience is not the land in its natural form, but the sculpted land we have shaped and worked over centuries. The ‘picturesque’ was one of the first artistic movements to celebrate this recreation and, as Jonathan Bate describes, ‘[threw] out the Classical premise that art should imitate nature and propose[d] instead that nature should imitate art’.

What we are doing when we stop to take a photo of a landscape - when we reach the top of the hill and look out over the land, or when we see an especially fine view - is confirming our aesthetic relationship with nature. We are ‘subject’, our environment the ‘object’; the human observer holds the point of view, not the land itself.

Cotswold dry stone walls

Advertising landscapes as aesthetically pleasing places to visit contains a conundrum as the value we place on a landscape is tied to its preservation, something tourism can threaten. Wordsworth’s experience more than any other illustrates the irony picturesque tourism. His guide to the lakes popularised the landscapes that he loved and encouraged tourists to flock there, in the process turning his native home into a commodity and causing him concern that they might destroy the place. It was Wordsworth too who insisted on ‘giving up on the picturesque quest for mastery over a landscape, submitting instead to an inner vision which enables one to ‘see into the life of things’. There are no guidebooks on how to achieve this but I suspect it has something to do with dwelling in a place and appreciating it for its own value, for its own sake; not from above, but from the ground up.

In one of my favorite landscape books, The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd finds the real mountain not through scaling its peaks but in walking along its plateau; traversing along the mountains and around them, not necessarily up them. We do not have to look down from the highest point of a mountain to know what the mountain is. Sometimes there is more to gain from simply wandering around it. Perhaps this is true of all landscapes. You do not need to gaze aloof above a landscape to know it. In moving through it, living on it, wandering along it you might just learn more; both about the land and yourself.