Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: What I’m reading (page 2 of 3)

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)

 

More dam fiction

The edition of The Winter Vault I borrowed from Halifax's new Central Public Library.

The edition of The Winter Vault I borrowed from Halifax’s new Central Public Library.

I was moved to borrow Anne Michael’s second novel, The Winter Vault, from the Halifax Public Library after Graeme Wynne’s mention of the book (along with The Sentimentalists) in his introduction to Daniel Macfarlane’s Negotiating a River about the building of the  St. Lawrence Seaway. The book is poetry, really, so do not read it with the expectation of being able to recognize the pattern of kitchen banter from your own life. However, it fits remarkably well in my informal collection of books in which water inundation stands as shorthand for loss, grief and the difficulty of an authentic recovery (whether you cling to the past or invent anew without an eye to that past).

A young engineer is apprenticed to the art of dam-building by his father, and his work on the St. Lawrence Seaway after the loss of that father is a tribute to the older man. He meets his wife-to-be in the dry once-riverbed as she collects plant species, and starts to feel the violation of his work, ecologically but also for residents of the seven Lost Villages. He atones by takes a job relocating the Abu Simbel temples in the erstwhile Nubia, to save them from the rising waters of the Nile during construction of the High Aswan Dam. This, too, feels like a violation, as most certainly do the sterile villages constructed for the displaced Nubians. For the Nubian culture, the Nile was the lifeline, and the inundation severed it and scattered this nation in all directions. Of one of the soon-to-be lost Nubian villages, the heroine, Jane, observes:

Here was a human love of place so freely expressed, alive with meaning; houses so perfectly adapted to their context in materials and design that they could never be moved. It was an integrity of art, domestic life, landscape … it was Ashkeit they should be salvaging; though it could never exist anywhere else, and if moved, would crumble, like a dream. …no landscape alone could arouse such feeling.  (p. 131-133).

In the final act of the book, these two erasures are juxtaposed with the destruction and reconstruction of Warsaw in the Second World War, as remembered by Polish-Canadian survivors. Of the reconstruction of the ‘Old Town’, in cartoon form, the guerilla artist Lucjan describes:

Walking for the first time into the replica of the Old Town, said Lucjan, the rebuilt market square – it was humiliating. Your delirium made you ashamed – you knew it was a trick, a brainwashing, and yet you wanted it so badly. … It was a brutality, a mockery – at first completely sickening, as if time could be turned back, as even the truth of our misery could be taken from us. And yet the more you walked, the more your feelings changed … you began to remember more and more. Childhood memories, memories of youth and love … (p. 309)

The characters are not quite people, but ideas. Despite the difficulty this brought for my complete immersion and empathy, the ideas themselves were engrossing, especially for those interested in the impacts of dam construction and removal.

Feral is as feral does

The Canadian edition of Monbiot's book Feral has a new introduction with harsh words for Canada's environmental trajectory.

The Canadian edition of Monbiot’s book Feral has a new introduction with harsh words for Canada’s environmental trajectory.

Few books have stimulated so much thinking, and coalesced so many of my existing ideas, as George Monbiot’s book Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life. I owe a debt to Simon Greenland-Smith, who gave it to me after his thesis defense as a thank you. Monbiot makes a many-faceted argument for re-wilding of a new (and sometimes radical) kind. He is not for restoration that turns back the clock, holding a landscape in a nostalgic level of human modification, suppressing succession or ignoring the changing global conditions. Rather, he’d like to see us take a chance and remove such pressures and see what new ecosystems emerge (barring introducing an elephant or two). In his own words (p. 10):

…I have no desire to try to re-create the landscapes or ecosystems that existed in the past, to reconstruct – as if that were possible – primordial wilderness. Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way. It involves reintroducing absent plants and animals (and in a few cases culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife), pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back. At sea, it means excluding commercial fishing and other forms of exploitation. The ecosystems that result are best described not as wilderness, but as self-willed: governed not by human management but their own processes. Rewilding has no end points, no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem or a ‘right’ assemblage of species looks like. … It lets nature decide.

The ecosystems that will emerge, in our changed climates, on our depleted soils, will not be the same as those which prevailed in the past. … While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.

The Common Agricultural Policy is given scathing treatment, for incentivizing continued grazing and mowing land even where production is not needed or even productive. He lambasts conservation groups for maintaining grazing in parks to retain the species that existed under that pressure. He draws on shifting baseline syndrome, which we recently used in the Mactaquac Dam case work, to reveal the landscape impacts of otherwise benign generational forgetting. He describes re-wilding as re-introducing humans to landscape as much as native species (although he leans heavily on the economic benefits of tourists to replace production, an economy that will have limits in terms of scale, especially for places with a long winter). But he seeks to keep people like farmers in the picture; increase their options rather than erase them (p. 11-12):

I do not think that extensive rewilding should take place on productive land. It is better deployed in the places – especially in the uplands – in which production is so low that farming continues only as a result of the taxpayer’s generosity. … It should happen only with the consent and enthusiasm of those who work on the land. It must never be used as an instrument of expropriation or dispossession.

The Wizard of Place

Our stunningly illustrated edition is by Charles Santore

Our stunningly illustrated edition is by Charles Santore

You notice lots of new things re-reading children’s books as an adult. A word about place attachment from Dorothy in tonight’s bedtime story:

The scarecrow could not understand why she wished to leave this beautiful country and go back to the gray place called Kansas.

“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, people would rather live there than anywhere else. There is no place like home.”

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