The Beholding Eye

In the first of two pieces about landscape and perception, Jane Lovell explores geographer W.S. Meinig's work on the ways we look at and have relationship with the land – from the fields of Cambridgeshire to a devastated Kent orchard to a 'wild' Sussex estuary.
is an award-winning poet whose work focuses on our relationship with the planet and its wildlife. She is Writer-in-Residence at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Her new collection The God of Lost Ways is forthcoming later this year from Indigo Dreams Press.

Broadway. Peterborough Old Cemetery, Cambridgeshire

Let me start here: a tract of land set aside for past lives. Gravel paths. Rows of stones. Sky. 

As a child, I lived between the Old Cemetery and the city park. Once a week I’d walk with my mother into town. She’d buy pigeon breasts or a slab of anaemic fish wrapped in brown paper. On the way back, I would hold tightly to her hand and skip along the top of the cemetery wall, jumping over the stumps of black metal jutting from its hollows of pitted stone. I didn’t know the stumps were the remains of railings sawn off to be used for steel during the Second World War. I didn’t know that rain could wash away stone. I didn’t think about the bones below the gravel on the other side of the wall. My understanding of this and other childhood landscapes was perfunctory. They were places to climb and run and hide. They had always been there. 

At the end of the cemetery wall, I would jump down. Our street began at the next corner: a line of trees rising from runkled tarmac, a hotchpotch of houses. The old lady who lived opposite had flocks of budgerigars in cages at the far end of her garden and a pond of looming goldfish that I was allowed occasionally to feed. None of these creatures knew the world of leaves and wind and sky or rushing water. Just dark, damp corners. Wire, concrete, gravel and algae.

Rutted fields of churned clay, dark as fudge, piles of beet and that sickly sweet smell from the sugar factories …This was John Clare country

When I think about it now, my childhood was built on lives and landscapes that had been modified or constrained. Even the fens where we’d walk on frosty Sundays. Rutted fields of churned clay, dark as fudge, piles of beet and that sickly sweet smell from the sugar factories. Tracts of land that was carved into growing spaces, its stretch to the horizon only broken by hedges or clumps of spindly trees. This was John Clare country, once a vibrant place where people existed as part of the land, living and working alongside its wildlife: shepherds, herdsmen, haymakers, their only boundary the sky. The Enclosures Acts of the early 1800s changed these landscapes forever. And things have not improved. George Monbiot recently described the land around Helpston as ‘among the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe’.

In Clare’s own words:

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,

There once were paths that every valley wound-

Enclosure came, and every path was stopt…  

from ‘Enclosure’ by John Clare

At the time that I walked the edges of these fields, my shoes claggy with clay and a lark tweedling above, I thought it was the countryside. I had no knowledge of its previous existence. Farmland, when you live in the city, is the countryside.

Forty years ago, American geographer and research professor, D.W. Meinig, wrote a compelling essay exploring the definition of landscape through an analysis of our relationship with it. He described a spectrum of ten perspectives: from those who see its natural beauty and wildness to those that mourn its destruction; from those who decipher the hidden scripts of its history to those who consider only its wealth in relation to need or greed.

To Meinig, a landscape was ‘composed of not only what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads’. We each view a scene through a personal frame of reference. The person standing next to you will have their  own perspective on the land, one that is defined by knowledge and experience, by beliefs and values, by a perceived connection with nature and planet. They might see well-maintained farmland, a bucolic patchwork of fields and hedges, coppiced tree lines, rutted tracks and gateways. Organised, well-maintained, pleasing to the eye. You might see lost forests, controlled vegetation and squares of land contained in wire boundaries that challenge the wildlife that roams to feed.

 

From Sutton Valence to Langley, Kent

I have in my mind a landscape. Let me share it with you before it disappears. It is late summer and the countryside is vibrant with bird, leaf and fruit. We climb across a stile through a blackthorn hedge into an orchard that has no visible perimeter: just rows and rows of trees supported by columns of wooden poles, wire and irrigation systems stretching as far as the eye can see. Every tree is weighted down with an impossible burden of fruit. Tractor ruts lead across the orchard to small rushy lakes, an ancient crack willow, ditches overgrown with elder and bramble. I live among farmed landscapes. Even as an adult, I think of this as ‘countryside’. In reality, this is far from the truth.

We pause to pick damsons from the hedge. It is many weeks before the fieldfares will barrel down from the North bringing their squabbling and clacking to the treetops. The orchards until their arrival are strangely silent, even in spring, but we no longer wonder at the lack of insects, the sparsity of birds. Plastic tanks of urine-coloured chemicals sit in open-sided sheds at the lakeside. There are days we cannot walk here, when the tractors growl up and down the lines of trees and the air is filled with a haze of toxic mist. In the past, orchards were havens for bats, badgers, owls and woodpeckers. Today we see little wildlife amongst the trees and hedges.

We climb over the stile and through the hedge to be met by a scene of devastation. The land in every direction up to the Greensand Ridge and along to the fishing lakes is a wasteland of rutted mud.

One morning in late November, long after the harvest, we climb over the stile and through the hedge to be met by a scene of devastation. The land in every direction up to the Greensand Ridge and along to the fishing lakes is a wasteland of rutted mud. Charred heaps of burnt branches send thin trails of smoke into the air. Not one tree remains standing. The land resembles a battleground: a Somme of mud and twisted wire. The scrub around the lake has been scraped away down to its roots. The willow still stands, a lone figure on the skyline. This is not our land, we have to remind ourselves. We have no right to question. These are spaces we can cross simply because of long established paths. Still the sense of loss runs deep.

Kent has lost over 85 per cent of its orchards in the past 50 years. Half of Britain’s pear orchards and two thirds of Britain’s apple orchards have disappeared since 1970. As I write this, six months later, I am still unsure what is planned for this stretch of what is, essentially, farmland. It has not been replanted. So far, it has not been developed in any other way. I allude, of course, to housing.

One of Meinig’s ‘perspectives’ is to see a landscape in terms of its wealth. We see it all around us in this part of Kent: farming land and greenfield areas being purchased for housing, for supermarkets, out of town shopping centres. There seems little distinction between green belt and brown fill as far as the Council planners are concerned.

Thousands of new homes have been built or are planned for our immediate area, despite figures for empty housing in the county reported at over six thousand. A large roadside sign on the A274 between the old village of Langley and the county town of Maidstone invites buyers to ‘find your new countryside home in Kent’. Children skip happily through meadows while their proud parents look on. In the background, stands their 2020s dream home.

Behind the sign, acres of mudscape stretch to the horizon. Diggers and metal barriers are dotted randomly across the site. All that remains of its past is a thin line of young trees where previously there had been hundreds. Again, this was not a natural landscape but a tree nursery yet, as such, it was certainly closer to Nature than brick and tarmac, and an established home to many thousands of birds, insects and plants.

Knowing that landscapes are transient doesn’t stop our sense of loss. One particular corner of land I used to walk past, an unkempt and untended orchard of a dozen gnarled and leaning apple trees, part of a neighbouring farm, seemed timeless. It had certainly been there for a hundred years. When the farm changed hands in 2016, it was retained for a while and used as a summer paddock for a beautiful, spirited horse. In the winter of 2017, the horse was rehoused in a cow shed and every tree was chopped down and the corner ploughed for maize. In fact, the entire landscape was ploughed for maize. Hedges disappeared, trees were coppiced or felled, even boundary fences disappeared.


 a corner of land raced by a spirited horse,

the old farmer gone and the fields like a sea

stretching away to the lip of the hill

 

a corner of land, lopped stumps and

limbs stacked to burn;

an owl in the chimney, all feather and bone

 

a corner of land ploughed to the wire

a sadness of land: no bird nor hare

nor leaf

from ‘Orchard’

If I had never known the trees in the old orchard, or heard the blackcap and chaffinches in the hedgerow, or glimpsed a hare speeding along its grassy edge, I probably would not have noticed the dense wall of maize strung in by wire as I walked this lane. It fits perfectly the landscape of industrial farming of which it is a very small part.

The loss of trees is ancient. Standing on the Greensand Ridge, on any ridge, I am often reminded that Britain was once almost entirely covered in woodland and forest. But how easy it is not to mourn those trees; they are not in living memory.

The question arises. What will be ‘in living memory’ in 50  years time? How will our landscapes look to our grandchildren, to their children?

Meinig puts forward the idea of landscape ‘as problem’. This is where many of us now find ourselves. We are looking out over a scene for which we share the same sense of dismay, grief, hopelessness. On our planet, the ‘space’ is changing, becoming more volatile. Water replaces ice. Dust, earth. Fire, heat. In this future landscape of rising seas, submerged or barren soil, salinity and drought, it is easy to feel a sense of helplessness and the resulting inertia. 

 

Rye Harbour, East Sussex

Let me leave you here: a broad-sky landscape of gravel pits, saltwater lagoons, reedbeds, saltmarsh, shingle and a wide expanse of rolling sea. I have walked this track through the Nature Reserve to the sea so many times, past its lakes and ponds, the tidal water rushing in to a feeding frenzy of herring gulls and oystercatchers, the pools of reflected sky, without ever questioning its wildness. Yes, there are fences. They are there to protect the fauna and flora. There are manmade gravel pits. There are tracks and paths, hides and old pill boxes. But it feels wild and has an incredible diversity of wildlife.

This is, in fact, a very carefully-managed landscape. It has been created through the construction of sea defences, of systems that allow the high water table to drain away into the rivers, of sluices that flood the lagoons with water from the River Rother each high tide and by the extraction of shingle ridges to create pits and reedbeds. If you visit in winter, you’ll see a convoy of lorries going back and fore along the coast road, moving thousands of tonnes of flint stones westward each year against longshore drift.

In Meinig’s catalogue of perspectives, this landscape could be perceived as system, as habitat, even as aesthetic. There is a further interpretation. Landscape as ideology. Left alone, the Rother would gather silt and shingle, the landscape would flood and eventually return to tidal mudflats. It would not be a home to such a diversity of wildlife. But there is a long term vision here: to restore, to support, to regenerate. It has created an oasis for thousands of species, some very rare. Perhaps this is how we now need to treat our planet. Not for our own benefit, but for the wildlife that survives despite us.[

Perhaps this is how we now need to treat our planet. Not for our own benefit, but for the wildlife that survives despite us.

At the Nature Reserve, it’s business as usual post lockdown. Work continues at the new Discovery Centre that, once completed, will encourage people to engage with wildlife, ecosystems, habitats. The bird hides remain open with visitors requested to maintain a safe distance. It’s a beautiful blue and blowy day. I look out over this wild, watery landscape, its paths and ridges vibrant with viper’s bugloss, red valerian and yellow horned-poppy and, for a moment, imagine our world unspoilt, unharmed.

I shall finish here, on this tract of land set aside for wildlife, its conservation and protection, this place of calm.

As I make my way towards the coast, something catches my eye. On a shingle island in the Ternery Pool, an oystercatcher has found a safe nest site. Her chicks, speckled like fluffy pebbles, explore the water’s edge learning to forage. I watch them picking their way along the salty shallows. Their perspective is perfect, unspoilt. A world with no perceivable boundaries, just an uninterrupted landscape of sky, pools, shingle and sea.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

Read more

 

References

  1. W. Meinig, ‘The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene’, in D. W. Meinig, ed., The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

 

Links:

https://www.elementumjournal.com/elementum-online/writing/rye-harbour

https://ryeharbourdiscoverycentre.org.uk/news/2019-05-01-interview-with-jane-lovell-poet

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.