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6 June 2018updated 09 Jun 2018 8:16am

How humans claim – and change – the landscape

In recent years, writing about landscape has begun to confront troublesome human drive to own nature.

By Erica Wagner

Some years ago, when my mother was dying but I didn’t know it, I left her apartment on the Upper West Side of New York to walk by the Hudson River. All of my childhood, from the windows of our apartment on the 25th floor, the river had been in my eyeline. The tugs and tankers heading north towards Albany or south towards the great Atlantic Ocean; the old wooden piers that would, periodically, be set alight by arsonists and burn all night in ferocious spectacle. Craning my neck to see the silver span of the George Washington Bridge. And the river itself, silver or grey or green, lifted into white lace curls by the wind or glittering in the summer sun. And this was a summer morning, the river bright as I walked uptown and discovered a roped-off basin where you could kayak on the river. The kayaks were free, or at least, that’s what I remember. I took a paddle, a red plastic boat, and set off on to the water.

It was only then that I looked back at the land from my new vantage point a couple of feet above the river’s surface and thought: Manhattan island. Ridiculous, the force of this revelation. I held my paddle still and dripping and let the river carry me as I looked up at the buildings walling the shoreline, TRUMP in huge gold letters across the face of one of them. The remnants of those old piers, the crowded edifice of progress, as Manhattan was once called. And then it all fell away from my sight: and just for a moment it was as if I could see a green place, a sandy shoreline, the smoke of small fires burning here and there. Manahatta still there, underneath it all. Or vanished forever, obliterated. Take your pick. I began to paddle back to shore.

“What is place, anyway?” John Burnside asks in his essay in Tim Dee’s anthology, Ground Work. “How do we know where one place ends and another begins? Where is America? Mexico? Do we find place, or do we make it?… We plant a flag. We draw up deeds. A man says, ‘This is mine,’ and does not even consider the absurdity of such a position.”

In recent years, writing about landscape has begun to confront this absurdity, a development to be welcomed. Philip Marsden, in his essay here, draws attention to WG Hoskins’s seminal book, The Making of the English Landscape, published in 1955. Hoskins, writes Marsden, “suggested that what we see of the country’s land surface is now almost entirely man-made. Rather than viewing it as something spoilt, a vulgarised version of pure Nature, he presented it instead as endlessly revealing, a storybook, a storehouse of memory, an archive waiting to be dusted off and read.”

But in much of what is sometimes called “the new nature writing” that storybook looks as if it’s heading to a gloomy ending. Mark Cocker’s piece is entitled “Spring Gentians”, in fine pastoral style, but that image is quickly undercut as Cocker sits and watches a scrap of black plastic, “the defining foliage of the oil age”, flutter in the tines of a barbed-wire fence.

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Most of the pieces here recognise the cost of human intervention in the Earth’s long business; Nick Davies, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Cambridge, notes bluntly that in the last 30 years two-thirds of English cuckoos have gone; their winter habitats in the Congo rainforests have declined dramatically. The flip-side of the bird’s disappearance is that the population of reed-warblers – whose nests, on Cambridgeshire’s Wicken Fen, the shameless cuckoo once ravaged – has begun to recover. But it’s hard to get away from the sense that the wind blows only one way.

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The poet Andrew McNellie writes of his love of a plot of land just north of the Chilterns: love has to be enough. “I cannot save the planet,” he says, “nor contribute significantly to doing so. It is too late for that, and the scale of the problem too vast.” This has echoes of the Dark Mountain Project, “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”.

There is a great deal that is beautiful, and thought-provoking, in this collection, including Andrew Motion’s long poem and Marina Warner’s recollection of Binsey, in Oxfordshire, and her connection with the place and with Peter Levi, former Jesuit and professor of poetry at Oxford. There are 31 writers here, and one might almost say there was something for everyone, but that’s not quite true. It’s too bad that only seven of their number are women. (Dee might be interested in Katherine Norbury’s forthcoming anthology, Women on Nature.) Furthermore, as Dee admits, “I failed to find anything other than white contributors.” That quick statement asks for interrogation, although it is at least an admission. 

Dee’s book is (thankfully) not merely rural: Paul Farley writes lyrically of Liverpool, Tessa Hadley’s wonderful essay regards London with fresh eyes after a mid-life move from Somerset, where “the sky can seem almost dirty with its swathes of stars, like a sublime cosmic pollution”.

But British life is urban life now, as Benjamin Myers recognises at the beginning of his compelling new book, Under the Rock. Census figures reveal a striking shift in population: in 1801 just 17 per cent of the English lived in cities; by the end of the 19th century, that figure stood at 72 per cent. “Eighty-three per cent of us now live in urbanised areas,” Myers writes, “while a mere 7 per cent of the population live in rural communities that qualify as villages or hamlets.” So this book begins as a reverse migration, when Myers and his wife Della abandon London for the north. “It was the height of the recession, and London was no city in which to be poor.”

They choose Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire: the rock of the title is Scout Rock, which hangs over the town huddled in the Calder Valley. The rock itself, a cliff rising 130 metres high, looms over the book, as does the presence of another writer, Ted Hughes. Hughes was born in the place, and in Remains of Elmet – a collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, published in 1979 – memorialised the Calder Valley as “the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles”. Under the Rock is a conversation with Hughes as much as it is an inhabiting of a landscape, but that literary dialogue never overshadows Myers’s real, and not untroubled, connection to his new home.

The book is divided into four sections: Wood, Earth, Water, Rock. This may look like an author’s conceit, but it gives Myers’s writing focus – a focus which sharpens dramatically halfway through the book. The third section begins with a drench: “In early November it begins to rain and it doesn’t stop.” This is the rain that will lead to the Boxing Day floods of 2015 – the worst in living memory, in which at least 2,000 homes and 200 businesses in the valley were badly affected. Myers writes of the rain with a poet’s eye worthy of Hughes. “I watch it from my window, inching along the valley, a hodden-grey scrim drawn close. At other times it falls in tall columns like the old stone chimneys that rise, periscope-like, up above the trees, or it spits sideways, wet flecks flying like sparks from a farrier’s furnace.”

Myers and his wife huddle in their cold, wet house as black mould blooms on the walls; the floods uncover deadly asbestos long-buried in a hillside, re-emerging like a menacing, cottony ghost. Myers’s attempt to truly look and to truly feel, to follow the scent of the place, is both admirable and engrossing. It may even make you long for a cup of “Yespresso”, “twice-brewed tea with the bag left in to mash for an hour or two in advance, then drunk black and sugarless in short, flask-cup shots.” Under the Rock will certainly make you want to head to the Calder Valley and regard its great cliff with your own eyes. The greyscale photographs in this book – like those in Ground Work – won’t help your vision much. They are largely just that: grey, which is a shame.

Under the Rock recognises what Burnside calls the absurdity of the planted flag; but, like him, also acknowledges the troublesome human drive to stake a claim. The land that you claim may turn on you: and you may still love it, nonetheless. 

Erica Wagner is the author of “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Ground Work: Writings on Places and People
Edited by Tim Dee
Jonathan Cape, 275pp, £16.99

Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place
Benjamin Myers
Elliott and Thompson, 372pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family