The Living Land

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Reading Robert McFarlane’s Landscape left me with a list of titles noted for future investigation (which is I think one of the main points of his book). In looking for books to read on the loose subject of landscape I’m hoping for authors (from any age) who will prompt me to look at the land in different ways. Every year I walk the same set of cliffs in North Cornwall, for example, but every year they look different, partly because of the passing of the years but mainly because I’ve read some more since my last visit and having read some more look a little differently at the rocks, the plants and the sea. Not being a writer I can’t really put into words what I see, but there’s a deep joy in finding writers who can, and who can bring me to see differently.

Which brings me to Jacquetta Hawkes and her book A Land, published in 1951. For many, this will be an established classic that they’ve read and re-read, for me it’s a new discovery. When Collins published a new edition there was an excellent discussion of it in The Guardian by (who else) Robert McFarlane that’s well worth reading. He also contributes the introduction to the new edition and it’s an expanded version of that which made its way into ‘Landscape’.

In essence A Land is a kind of prose poem, a recounting of a dream of the creation of the British Isles. Hawkes describes it as ‘a memoir’ and that’s a clever description, because while it follows a historical trajectory it’s not a history, and while it provides much geological detail it’s not a textbook, and while it talks about the development of human society it’s not anthropology or sociology in any conventional sense. What it is, is a meditation on how the land came to be the way it is, and how we came to be the way we are. Hawkes describes the geological formation of the British Isles in an accessible way and then overlays the development of our society in terms of its impact on the land. Once we get to the Industrial Revolution onwards it’s not, as you might expect, a pretty picture. Having said that, Hawkes locates the shift from working with the landscape to breaking through it somewhere around the arrival of the Romans and their straight roads, which are contrasted with the original green lanes that wind through the contours of the landscape.

Hawkes also describes the shift from the use of local building materials to their transport across the country and the attendant breaking of the connection between the local landscape and human settlement. Hawkes was writing in 1951 and I can’t help seeing the extension of her description rolling forward sixty years and covering the building of houses in places that traditional builders would have avoided and other practices of today that mark our shift from working with the landscape to imposing ourselves on it and dealing with any implications by yet more interventions such as flood defences and so on. Having said that, climate change is also threatening ancient settlements where the builders were in harmony with the elements once, but not any more. Hawkes however would no doubt say that seeing change as a natural process our ancestors would have simply moved to safer ground rather than trying to hold back the tide (so to speak). The world, of course, isn’t that simple any more, and today A Land reads in part as a lament for that fact.

Hawkes describes a point of balance between humans and the land and then shows us passing through it and pushing on into the age of concrete and the covering of our fields and hillsides with industry, pollution and waste. It’s a depressing picture at the end of an uplifting meditation on the forming, folding and eroding of the rocks that make up our country and it’s Hawkes’ wonder at this process and the picture of her lying in her garden in London feeling the living earth stretching out around her that I want to hold on to after reading this book. The science may no longer be current and society may be very different now (although that just makes Hawkes look prophetic) but the beauty of the prose and the magic of her vision of a living land make this an absolute classic and a must for anyone who wants to see the country through fresh eyes.

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