When Alexandra Harris describes, in Weatherland, the slow introduction of real skies in English paintings, leading up to the cloud obsession of Constable in 1821-22, I cannot help but think of the Falkland Islands. My first trip I spent looking at the landscape, at large scales and small. This time, I was captivated by skies. As any visitor to the prairies knows, a lack of trees makes for big skies. But nothing is quite like the skies of the Falklands. No filters needed, or photographic skill. (It was hard to choose road trip music to suit such majesty, but I settled on London Grammar’s 2013 If You Wait.) The experience begged the question of where ‘landscape’ – my chosen research topic – ends: these skies are likely as fundamental to local identity as terrestrial (or marine) properties. A small sample of my pictures follows, in which land plays a very minor role indeed.
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.”
NB Power’s preferred Mactaquac Dam decision was handed down near Fredericton this morning. That decision is the late entrant among the options: to prolong the life of the dam as close to its original 100-year life as possible through maintenance and replacement in situ. Discussed today as the cheapest of the four options ($2.9 to $3.6 billion), the project has been given the oddly Soviet title of the Mactaquac Life Achievement Project. A new web experience awaits the curious who visit mactaquac.ca today, including backgrounders such as a paltry two-pager on First Nations engagement, the first output we have seen from that consultation other than this under-the-radar announcement via the NB Media Co-op. Kingsclear First Nation, whose land is a long sliver pointing directly at the dam, is deeply disappointed. Improvement is planned in multi-species fish passage, though not to the satisfaction of WWF, but the problem of inadequate upstream flow will still challenge any fish that survive the trip. No new river crossing for vehicles will be required, as the dam wall will continue to serve as a bridge. Many upriver locals will be pleased at this outcome, though expect frustration to be voiced at the the stress and disruption of the debate given such a status quo result. Let’s watch the budget evolve, and do it all again in a few decades. There is unlikely to be much money available to invest in renewables until then.
A quick note to thank Australian Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey for the candid discussion yesterday about grazing policy. I was following up on the source of a single initiative in the 2015 Australian budget, Mr. Hockey’s last as the Treasurer of Australia. In announcing the opportunity for accelerated depreciation for farmers to install fencing and water infrastructure, Mr. Hockey asserted their value for cell grazing, which is “far more productive and is actually better for the environment”. In discussion yesterday, Ambassador Hockey linked his statement, indeed the initiative, to his own experiences as then-owner of a grazing property in the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland. I am grateful to the Ambassador for his willingness to reveal the inner workings of policy.
Thanks to Lenore Fahrig and her team at Carleton, as well as funding from NSERC, for the opportunity to participate yesterday in a meeting of minds about sustainable agricultural landscapes and ecosystem services. Significant snowfall created a cloistered feel and a productive mindset. While numbers were dominated by ecologists, agricultural and spatial scientists from universities, government and NGOs, it was a welcoming and collaborative environment, and ideas about the integration of social science research and stakeholder engagement were greeted enthusiastically.