Landscape and Memory

by Simon Schama
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816

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.

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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 landscape in the twentieth century, Poles, many of them Jews, were driven out and destroyed. Humanity’s landscape of nature is not always benign—and not only for non-Germans, as Schama points out in his analysis of the modern German painter Anselm Kiefer, whose works reflect the darker aspect of the forest’s influence.

The forests also helped make the myth of what it meant to be English. Liberty itself seemed to be intimately connected with the enduring medieval myths associated with the green woods of Robin Hood and his merry band. In nineteenth century America the giant redwoods represented both the nation’s expanse and an alternative to the corruption and even the landscape of the old world. Earlier, some equated the forest with the story of Christianity: Trees were the cross on which Christ was crucified, and in the eighteenth century, England’s James Hall argued that medieval Gothic architecture had evolved from and been inspired by those forest trees. Hall was not alone in seeing the woods as a spiritual tabernacle.

In the second part of Landscape and Memory, Schama moves from wood to water. Using examples from many times and places, he notes that crucial roles in the formation of landscape have been played by rivers and their resulting myths, such as the rivers flowing from Paradise in the Judaic-Christian traditions, the resurrection myth of Osiris, and the Nile River of ancient Egypt. One of the most readable of the many vignettes that make up this study is that of Sir Walter Ralegh, courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and one of the more notable examples of the English Renaissance.

Ralegh was captivated by the legends of the fabled land of El Dorado, supposedly to be found in the upper reaches of the Amazon River basin. In 1595 he sought that long-rumored city of Incan, leading an expedition to the Orinoco River and the Guiana Highlands. He found no city of gold, of course, but Ralegh, like his contemporary William Shakespeare, was a captivating storyteller and stylist and readily publicized what he did not find, emphasizing how close he had come. His fascination with El Dorado continued, even during a long period of incarceration in the Tower of London. Always the fantasist, Ralegh argued in his eight-volume history of the world, which only reached 168 b.c.e., that the biblical Garden of Eden could found if one followed the course of the proper rivers upstream to their Edenic origins, just as he had envisioned discovering his own Eden, his golden city, at the headwaters of a South American river. In 1616 he was released from prison and mounted another quest for El Dorado. Again, he failed. Returning to England, he was rearrested, convicted, and beheaded in October, 1618. As Schama notes, Ralegh’s fascination with rivers ended with his own blood forming “ponds and streams between the cobbles, before draining finally into the moist, Thames-side earth.”

“Rock” is the third section of Landscape and Memory. Once more the reader is swept along from place to place over the centuries, from Gutzon Borglum’s massive presidential sculptures on Mount Rushmore back to one of the earliest stories of carved mountain figures. In the fourth century b.c.e., Dinocrates proposed to Alexander the Great that the latter’s effigy be carved on Mount Athos—an effigy so gigantic that its right hand would contain an entire city. Alexander dismissed the idea, but the myth of giant carved figures continued to inspire dreamers through the centuries. In a too-brief departure from his focus on Western civilization, Schama notes a Jesuit missionary’s encounter with massive stone statues of Buddha in China. He argues that in the Far East mountains were a place of mysticism, of sacredness, reflecting the inconsequence and impermanence of humanity. In contrast, in the West mountains were to be experienced. They might be suspected to be populated by dragons to be slain, or they might reflect some aspect of the Christian tradition, but they were to be embraced and conquered, in paint, in poetry, and in reality—climbed by Petrarch and carved by Borglum.

In recent centuries, mountainous Switzerland with its Alps has often been perceived as a utopia of virtuous liberty. Artists such as John Robert Cozens painted the mountains, poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about them, and others climbed them and then wrote about them. One of the latter was Horace Saussure, who reached the top of Mont Blanc in 1787; his writings on his climbs inspired the young John Ruskin, one of the most important art critics of the nineteenth century. The Alps as landscape and myth also entered popular culture, thanks to such entrepreneurs as Albert Smith, who climbed Mont Blanc in 1851 and then turned his experience into a traveling show that made him a rich man. Inevitably, Thomas Cook and his burgeoning tour business were soon a part of the Swiss landscape.

In his concluding section Schama combines wood, water, and rock and tells the story of Claude François Denecourt. From a humble background, this onetime soldier in the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte did more to preserve and popularize the French Forest of Fontainebleau than any other individual. After long personal exploration of the forest, in the 1830’s he began devising trails—creating the landscape, so to speak—and soon writers and artists were following his planned walks. By 1860, trains from Paris were bringing a hundred thousand tourists each year to the Fontainebleau woods. Nature, through landscape, had become big business.

At the end of Landscape and Memory, Schama brings the reader to Walden. The author, however, is not as pessimistic as Thoreau and Muir about the incompatibility between nature and human history. Thoreau and Muir fled history—civilization and society—to find salvation in the wilderness. Schama, however, doubts the fixed frontiers between the wilderness and the garden landscape or between past and present. “Whether we scramble the slopes or ramble the woods, our Western sensibilities carry a bulging backpack of myth and recollection.” One hopes that it is this backpack with its myths of woods, rivers, and mountains that will militate against the ultimate destruction of the wilderness, of nature, of landscape, at the hands of humanity.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. April 27, 1995, p. B1.

Civilization. II, May-June, 1995, p. 77.

London Review of Books. XVII, August 24, 1995, p. 21.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 16, 1995, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLX, May 22, 1995, p. 727.

Nature. CCCLXXIV, April 27, 1995, p. 825.

The New Republic. CCXIII, August 7, 1995, 37.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 7, 1995, p. 15.

Time. CXLV, April 24, 1995, p. 73.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 7, 1995, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. May 31, 1995, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 4, 1995, p. 4.

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