I know no one better to give us an introduction on 'reading the landscape' than Karen Ray. Karen is a Doctoral Researcher in Planning and Sustainable Development at University College Cork. She is involved in the development of a new MA in Landscape, Built Heritage and Design as part of the planning school at UCC, commencing in the Autumn 2013.
Her research explores interpretations and communications of landscape and landscape issues within the contemporary planning domain.
In advance of writing this piece, I asked Gregor to provide me with a list of the places on his UK route – that is, the context within which this extract is set, and a fitting one at that in accommodating the theme of landscape. Packed within its literary and artistic memory, Britain holds histories of intense relationships between her authors, poets and painters and the landscapes they experienced – some typically sublime and pastoral, and some surprisingly ordinary and mundane. It is the latter in
particular which is teased out in this extract – by no means ranking it above those undoubtedly outstanding landscapes of Britain, but more so for the purpose of exposing the intricacies of articulating and interpreting the ‘ordinary’, and thereby throwing Gregor’s list away (figuratively speaking Gregor!)
Let’s begin with a quote by Herman Melville: “It is not down in any map: true places never are”. without getting bogged down in the philosophies of landscape meaning, Melville’s observation has relevance in the appreciation of the seemingly ordinary as something worthwhile to explore, reflecting discussions of several key landscape theorists. It is these ‘in-between’ landscapes that are only really uncovered by the serendipitous sustainable steps of a wanderer en route from oh…say Dresden to Cork – to give an example. This is not to say that ‘mapped’ places are in fact devoid of ‘placeness’, and it is unlikely Melville meant it this way. It is perhaps better to interpret the “true” of his quote as those less experienced areas that expose hidden secrets to the curious adventurer; who by wandering off the motorway uncovers both the delights and indeed blemishes of the ‘in-between’ landscapes. And from this particular German adventurer’s documented experiences to date, it is these places which undoubtedly define the value of ‘The Conscious Commute’.
Interpreting the ordinary then becomes the trick. It is easy to cast an eye on the Lake District, breathing in its magnificence in a self-assured confidence of its undeniable beauty, certain of its timeless value to a national heritage, and this further confirmed in the poetic triumphs of purists such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. But what about an informal industrial edgeland without any clear context; a product of haphazard urban sprawl extending from a more notable ‘mapped’
location; a landscape seemingly suffering from ‘placelessness’ in a typical sense? Such ‘ordinary’ landscapes are not often found in great literary triumphs, and yet what if the powers of observation which gave rise to the fame of these figures were applied to such landscapes? What if the observer was to linger in these often commuter landscapes, just as these figures lingered in the sublime, taking time to savour their many flavours – whether sweet or sour? Our ‘conscious commuter’ in this
instance puts a different meaning to the concept of commuting. The ‘blur landscapes’, let’s call them, of a commuter culture, can be paused, observed, and even ‘read’. It is the ordinary landscapes which often tell more stories about our culture and social history, and this links to the popular concept in landscape studies of approaching landscape as a narrative. The poet, John Montague expressed this aspect in The Rough Fields (1972), conveying the landscape as “a manuscript we had lost the skill to read”.
In this way, using the ‘narrative’ perspective when exploring a particular landscape exposes cultures operating at any one time, as well as evidence of past landscape histories. This narrative approach works well for landscape. It accommodates for the holistic nature of landscape and is free from restrictions of scientific logic by allowing the observer to surrender to sensory impressions. The narrative transcends the visual, allowing olfactory, auditory and tactile forms of imagery to aid
conclusions on landscape character. The observer may not see initially see evidence of a turf cutting culture affecting the landscape, but it may be carried in the scent of the air. I refuse to use the ridiculous term ‘smellscape’– but you know what I mean. Even tasting a fine wine of a particular region can – to the skilled tester – reveal nuances of the landscape’s narrative. A bit far-fetched for more practical uses for interpreting ordinary landscapes – but there is truth in it nonetheless.
July 31 st 2013