Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: environmental history (page 1 of 3)

Weatherland (2015)

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris' Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

Becalmed in Heathrow after a cancelled flight returning from Portugal this fall, I picked up Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland (2015) to ease the wait. Last night I finished it. Why so long? Well, it was a busy time, and I dipped in and out between work travel and renovations. Frankly, at times like that, nothing other than fiction gets more than a page read at bedtime before oblivion. But I also savoured it. This is not a book to be rushed. It’s a beautifully written liberal arts education in paperback.

Harris goes back centuries to track the influence of weather and seasonal cycles on art and literature, and in doing so, tracks changes in awareness as well as public preferences fads in scenery. For instance she records Robert Burton’s observation in the early 1600s, in Anatomy of Melancholy, how “thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes and muckhills” (p. 120) uniformly lower spirits. (Rod Giblett would say not much has changed in public perceptions of wetlands.)

Later, in the 1700s, the English idealize the Italian landscape, and painters like Richard Wilson tried to capture those moments when the English light matched that of the Mediterranean, like the paintings of Claude Lorrain from the previous century. I loved Harris’ description of the ‘Claude glass’ which was a small mirror carried to help late 18th century tourists get the painterly effect on a dreary day. Comically, users turned their back on the landscape and viewed it in reflection, the light changing toward the sublime thanks to the mirror backing. We cannot look back in anything like superiority given the popularity of the selfie stick.

Fast-forward a hundred years to the Victorian tourist for whom the fad was not light but shade, and public ferneries and the miniature, dappled, dripping landscapes they foster. I can relate. This attention to small scale makes me think of Macfarlane’s revelation in The Wild Places, as well one of my favourite quotes about Sable Island, in the Introduction of McLaren’s 1981 Birds of Sable Island:

A much travelled colleague has remarked that he has been in places more beautiful than Sable Island, but has seen more beauty there than anywhere else. The expansive seascapes and dunescapes, magnificent yet ‘dreary’ to some 19th century writers, soon force one’s attention to the smaller scale.

Harris moves forward to the poetry of Ted Hughes in the 20th century, for a distinct lack of the romantic in weather. Rather, life and death, as well as livelihood: of mending a tractor in the cold: “Hands are wounds already / Inside armour gloves” and “Between the weather and the rock / Farmers make a little heat”. She finishes in this century, as was inevitable, on climate change and how we should respond. There is little art and literature yet to draw upon here, but again scale is evoked (p. 386): “small alterations in familiar places can disturb us more than dystopian visions”. She invites us to savour and record now for remembering later: “certain plants in certain places, the light in the street after rain”, what she calls ‘intimate elegies’, reminding us that “in the sadness there is room for celebration.”

UNB lecture on dam removal

Jeff Duda, USGS research ecologist, has been studying the effects of dam removal in the Pacific Northwest, such as on the Elwha River. He is in New Brunswick this week to give lectures on the process of dam removal and its ecological impacts, a topic very much front-of-mind as a result of the pending Mactaquac decision. He is also on the Science Advisory Board for the Mactaquac Aquatic Ecosystem Study (MAES) being undertaken by Canadian Rivers Institute. Duda was interviewed on CBC about his planned talks on March 22 and 23. We have a long list of dam removal videos, collected by Larissa Holman for the Energy Transitions team during her summer internship with the project in 2014. Some of these were from the Elwha River, showing the dam removal, with time-series photography, changing sediments in former lakebeds, salmon coming immediately back, and the impact on sandbars at the river’s mouth.

 

Akenfield

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

Another second-hand bookstore treasure from someone who knows me well, Akenfield (1969) is a remarkably engrossing (and surprisingly undated) study of an anonymized rural Suffolk village, in the voice of fifty or so local residents. It tells the story of post-war England, agricultural modernization, social liberalization but also lingering fealty and class boundaries. The author, Ronald Blythe, interviewed and synthesized each voice, sometimes adding a sympathetic preamble of description and context. Surprises abound, such the description of WWII as a boon: conditions were so mean pre-war, that young men worked to the bone on farms found war service easy (with more food), and even bad farmers grew rich to supply that food. Some of the most compelling parts for me related to the farm landscape and how it was perceived and used. For instance, in the Introduction:

“…its hedges – now being slaughtered – were planted in the eighteenth century and, where they remain, shelter all the wild life of the particular fields they surround. Earlier field boundaries can be easily traced by ridges and ditches, and here and there a great tree spreads itself out in Time, making no sense at all. The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written … I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.” (p. 14)

About the taciturn field workers, the last holdout of peasantry, working over generations for the same farmer, for compensations that keep him bound – a farm cottage, etc – Blythe writes: “Science is a footnote to what he really believes. And what he knows is often incommunicable “ (p. 15) . That younger generations continue to look to farming is described such: “perhaps, they have inherited the small residual static quality in all village life, that thing which is either condemned as apathy or praised and envied as contentment, but yet which is really neither of these. The attitude contains something determined and enduring, and also incorporates some kind of duty or loyalty to the village fields” (p. 91). For instance, a young ploughman bemoans the loss of the hedges, being undertaken to expand farms and enable increased mechanization, which make it difficult for a ploughman to keep his bearings:

“A well-kept hedge is a good sight and tells you where you are. The hedges belong to the village. You get used to seeing them standing there – they are like buildings and you miss them when they are knocked down. Some hedges are important and when they go you feel as bad as if a wood had been taken away. I think that there are certain hedges which the farmer’s shouldn’t touch without asking the people – although I can’t see this happening.” (p. 279).

An older farmer, an emigrant from Scotland, gives an outsider’s perspective on the impact of landscape on long-time residents, reminiscent of Swift’s observations in Waterland of what flat fenlands make of fenlanders: “The big skies leave the East Anglians empty. The skies are nothing. The horizons are too wide. There is nothing for a man to measure himself by here. In Scotland you have the hills, the mountains. They diminish a man. They make him think. … they last and he doesn’t.” (p. 320)

Blythe’s anthropology is thorough and generous, but does not shrink from difficulty. I do not know how he negotiated access and approval within such a small village given the blunt assessments many interviewees make of one another, individually and collectively, but it is a true gift that he made this record. It was made into an eponymous film in 1974 and is still in print – I just saw a new edition in Bookmark last week. This book is of a piece with early and modern tales of shepherding by Hardy and Rebanks discussed last year, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways. A recording of Blythe and Macfarlane on the dais together at the Charleston Festival in 2013 for a celebration of rural life and sense of place is worth a listen.

Waterland

The cover of my copy of Waterland, picked up by someone who knows me well at a secondhand book sale.

The cover of my copy of Waterland, picked up by someone who knows me well at a secondhand book sale.

I recently re-read Waterland, by Graham Swift, which won the Booker Prize in 1983. It’s a remarkable combination of fenland geography, biographical mythology, environmental/industrial history, and thriller. I think you may need to be into wetlands to get through some of his passages, and certainly be comfortable with a fragmented temporal axis, but it is my kind of storytelling. It is funny – there’s this wonderful bit where he discusses how flat landscapes like the fenlands encourage lustiness – and the main characters are solid. As with much of what I record here, I also see parallels between my recreational reading and my research. This is a book about place, cultural landscapes, and adaptation. In the wake of my more recent research on dykelands, for instance, a late passage seemed particularly interesting upon this second read:

There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. (p. 291)

 

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