Saturday, August 21, 2010

Names and landscape

Oliver Rackham is a researcher in the Botany Department at Cambridge University. His book The History of the Countryside (1986) is indispensable for anyone who loves -- as I do -- the English landscape. His purpose is to show us how the landscape we enjoy today evolved over centuries through the interaction of humans and non-human nature. Certainly the book enormously enhanced my walk along the Prime Meridian (Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian), and the walk I did last year with sons Tom and Dan along the Ridgeway (recounted on this blog, in nine parts, beginning here).

For an American, the English system of public footpaths, rights to roam, and countryside preservation is a thing of wonder. So extensive are the rural rights-of-way, that on my Prime Meridian walk -- 200 miles from the Channel to the Wash -- I never had to stray more than a few miles from "the line," and seldom put foot on tarmac except as I made my way through London. So deep and rich is the history of the landscape that any extended walk is not just though cosmic space and time, but also through the history books and stories we have read since childhood. I recorded here the way our Ridgeway walk evoked the trek in Tolkein's Fellowship of the Ring. My Meridian walk took me close by the habitat of Winnie the Pooh (the Pooh-sticks bridge is still to be seen).

As I say, to American eyes, the degree of preservation seems remarkable. But even in 1986 Rackham was worried about preservation:
It is not just trough the rosy spectacles of childhood that we remember the landscape of the 1940s to have been richer in beauty, wildlife, and meaning than that of the 1980s. It was, and the Luftwaffe aerial photographs prove it. The landscape of the 1800s was richer still…There are four kinds of loss. There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and the complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of highways and open spaces…There is the loss of historic vegetation and wildlife, most of which once lost is gone forever…In this book I am especially concerned with the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us.
As I look out the window of my studio here in the west of Ireland, I see broad fields where only a decade ago there were maybe a dozen smaller fields whose hedged and ditched borders went back centuries, each field with a name (Gort na cearc, the Field of the Hen, for example). The hedges have been grubbed out to make mechanical farming more efficient, the old borders erased, and with them so much history. The big new consolidated fields have no names, at least none that carry a weight of meaning, none that tell us who we are and where we have come from.

Of course, there is no going back, to the 1990s, the 1940s, or the 1800s, but we should at least recognize that we only love what we can name, and names can be as endangered as frog-orchids, sundews and dragonflies.