Simon Schama, born in London and educated in England, is one of the most provocative and evocative historians of the late twentieth century. His brilliant study of the Netherlands during its golden age (The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, 1987) was followed by the best-selling and revisionist Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). His Dead Certainties (1991), combining history and speculation, was dismissed by some members of the historical profession as a fictional hybrid. In Landscape and Memory, Schama explores the impact of history, specifically the history of Western civilization, on the natural world, and the corresponding influence of nature on humanity. The author contends that it is human imagination that turns nature into landscape, but once memory in the form of an idea, a belief, or a myth becomes attached to nature in the creation of a landscape—to wood, water, or rock, the three broad categories explored by Schama—that belief or myth in turn affects the interpretations and memories of later generations. Schama’s is an ambitious quest, and his work, enriched by many illustrations and color plates, largely succeeds.
Throughout history, Schama postulates, there has been a symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. At times this relationship has been destructive, at other times beneficial, but even after the Industrial Revolution fundamentally transformed both society and the world, nature—through landscape—necessarily has had a continuing effect upon humanity. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau claimed that in the wilderness was the preservation of the world, a statement with which many environmentalists would concur. For Schama, however, there is no pure wilderness unaffected by human connections and perceptions. Nature has been profoundly changed by human endeavor, but in turn the lives and beliefs—and the myths—of society have equally been affected by nature. If nature can be thought of as a kind of “text,” then throughout history humanity has read and interpreted that text. Yet paradoxically, Western society has also been a text to be “read” by nature. Thoreau’s Walden and John Muir’s Yosemite are not wildernesses and never can be: Human perception and the resulting myths long ago transformed such pristine nature.
Schama’s peripatetic journey through the garden of Western civilization is fascinating and at times overwhelming. The reader cannot help but be impressed by the abundance of knowledge exhibited in Landscape and Memory. Not only is it a scholarly discussion and analysis of the Western garden through the venues of history, literature, art, and sociology; it also incorporates the author’s biography and his family’s history. Beginning with his childhood along the lower reaches of London’s River Thames, the author turns to Poland, where his mother’s family were woodsmen in the great forests of northeastern Europe, and finally to his own children’s mixed reaction to encountering California’s coastal redwoods. Schama himself is a participant in the story he relates: the impact of humanity on nature and nature on humanity.
Landscape and Memory ranges widely in time and place, and many people walk through its pages, not only painters and poets but also popes and politicians. From a discussion of his family’s background in Poland Schama turns to Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth century poet and politician who saw in the forests of the Polish and Lithuanian landscape not only Poland’s past but also its future. Yet those forests were ruled by Russians and then, after a brief interlude, by Nazi Germany and Hermann Göring. The Germans had long had their own landscape myths of the transcending significance of primeval forest.
Traceable back to Tacitus, the historian of the first century who related the defeat of the Roman general Varus by the German chief Arminius, or Hermann, the forest myth took particular form during the Romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries under the inspiration of writers and of artists such as Casper David Friedrich. As Schama notes, “Religion and patriotism, antiquity and the future—all came together in the Teutonic romance of the woods.” It was Göring’s aim to replicate that old Germanic myth in the Lithuanian forests. To achieve that myth, to re-create that...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)