The River is the Hearth

River-lineNote: When I first became interested in the mysteries of the British landscape and cityscape there was an element of dread to it. There were ideas and writers, beliefs, art and especially some aspects of the associated music, that brought with them warning signs and, occasionally, aspects of outright fascism. I rarely write about politics directly – there are people far, far better equipped to do so. But there have been of late too many subtle, and not-so-subtle, attempts to coerce the landscape, and the interpretations of its mysteries, into such ideology. I’ve tried to bring some of my philosophies of the magical technology we call ‘landscape’ together. Not sure I’ve succeeded. But it’ll do for now.

Others have done their own work on the topic this week, each more direct than is, at least currently, my forte. The artist Paul Watson has resubmitted to the world his essay on ‘Deep England‘. Richard Smyth recently contributed to New Humanist with an essay on the dark connections of nature writing. The work of Melissa Harrison, Helen Macdonald, Tom Bolton, Gary Budden and David Southwell, among many others, reminds us that – as Southwell says – ‘Re-enchantment is resistance,’ whether that enchantment comes from the cultural, historical or natural side of our experience of place.

The River is the Hearth

The river is the hearth of my landscape. It is the centrepiece, around which everything else is built. The stretches of plain either side attend the river; the hills that form the Vale’s sides accentuate it, and the fields full of skylarks and bees and corn and cattle all jigsaw out from it in reckless patterns. I see it this way, and know it to be true. The soil, too, is like the river: unfathomably old and yet constantly new again – an element so hearty we can each tuck our memories inside, and resilient enough to still return each summer’s bounty.

Historically, as the river of my landscape runs from Europe into Britain and onwards to its inevitable petering out near the centre of the island, it has acted in a role as connector and catalyst – an ancient highway. That is the river of my landscape: one of bringing people together, of hearth and heart, of picturesque valleys; of calm.

But I know it is also this other river, in the landscape of others – a border; the place where Essex officially becomes Suffolk, though many will tell you Suffolk begins long before you can see the water. It split Angles from Saxons; before that, the Romans thought it might protect them from the Warrior Queen. Foolish, of course, for rivers and borders and especially river-borders are always in flex, and now we are all of Beaker-Celtic-Roman-Saxon-Norman-Caribbean-Polish-and-onwards blood.

The soil, the same: what I see as an earthen tape that keeps my footprints and holds them dear, just as it did my ancestors a thousand years before me, others may see imprinted permanently with a single story. The landscape is subjective. It is the first augmented-reality technology: we see the world through the lens of our beliefs, our art, our history, our love.

St. Augustine defined a ‘nation’ as, ‘a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of our love’. That’s how I think of it, and it’s not dissimilar to the way I understand landscape, borrowing from the writings of Tim Ingold: ‘the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit its places and journey along the paths that connect them.’ It is a tool that we, as a ‘multitude of rational beings’, use to mediate our relationship to a place and to the nature of time. All of us. Those who dwell and those who journey.

Landscape is, in a way, a magical instrument; a magic that embraces rather than excludes. Lately – and, indeed, frequently – other ideas of landscape and its magic have made themselves heard.

Michael Freeden once defined ideology to me thusly: imagine you’re decorating a room. Every ideology contains the same pieces of furniture, but each one will arrange them differently. Landscape is like that: Is it magical to you that this hill has a rich and unique biogeography? Or do you find more magic in the folktale that lingers in the air around that same spot? Is a city its top-layer of ongoing economic trade, or a summation of its layers of archaeologies – ‘all the rooms, they smell like diesel, and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept there’?

Each is true – what do you emphasize in the landscape you envision?

Tree-line_JustinHopperMy ideology of landscape is one of embrace; of welcome. It includes a multitude – of biogeographies and ruinous tales and man-made structures and inexplicable mysteries alike. I strongly believe that the landscape holds all these stories: living in an old country has made me appreciate more than I thought possible about the capacity for the landscape to heal, to cradle, to unite. I, as an ‘outsider’ – as some of my less-enlightened neighbours have, indeed, put it – feel my story surging through the water and soil of the river and fields. I am not ‘from’ this place, but I feel increasingly ‘of’ it. I hope, even without having feet planted in its soil, my son will feel the same about the urban landscapes of my hometown in America; will feel its embrace, just as I did there and do here. As soon as we place our feet in these places, they take us on – there is no litmus test for participation.

I am part of the multitude of rational beings in Britain, and I think – at least, I hope – we share common loves. Those who arrive tomorrow can share that love, of the countryside, of the cities, of the ancient and modern and, perhaps more important than either, of the strange space in between all of these. I often think that’s where I ‘dwell therein’ – in a Europe, a Britain, an England and an Essex that lies in between each of its attendant divisions. There are plenty of us, those who stalk these in-between stations. But we are not purgatorial – that’s our home and hearth; we live in borderlands because they afford us greater access to our own vision of a place – and, therefore, ourselves.

Those who deny us sanctuary, or vision, or love, are not sharing in the commonality – are not part of the multitude. They have their own vision of the landscape, but in its exclusion it becomes less powerful: they are not part of our ‘nation’. The nation is held in the landscape, and it is one that embraces each of its infinite visionary apparitions – it is the ‘sacred demon of ungovernableness’. The flame, as the vision says, is in our hands. Those who doubt that flame, that vision, that ‘sacred demon’ of our landscape – those who don’t believe it capable of holding all of our multitude’s memories and dreams – those of narrow landscapes are not worthy of participation in our nation.

We are riverine and the estuary is our flag. The alleyway and the corner of a field are our temple: there we store our memories, draw our power, share with each other and welcome newcomers.

The river is the hearth of my landscape and you are welcome to sit beside it with me.


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