Landscape And Memory, by Simon Schama
This is a deeply interesting book. That does not mean that I have any particular agreement about the author’s thoughts about the relationship of landscape and religion, because the author seems to view Christian as being related to the syncretic faiths that combine with heathen religious beliefs. The author has a lot to say about the complexity of how we view the environment and how it is that people can seek to use the same accounts of the relationship of people and their landscape both to, for example, celebrate cultured civilization as well as primitivism. The author finds himself arguing for both a consistently important place of terrain in the worldview of people throughout Western civilization while also showing the nuance of different landscapes and their role. Frequently the author finds that appeals to freedom and appeals to authority are similar in their nature, demonstrating an essential tension between our ideals of seeking freedom in terrain and our use of terrain as a means of establishing and demonstrating authority. Impressively, the author manages to deal with a complex and interesting subject without resorting to facile dualities, seeking to demonstrate complexity by pointing on the details of fascinating and not always well known stories about the origins of the view of landscape within Western cultures.
This book is a large one at almost 600 pages, divided into four parts and nine chapters. The book begins with an introduction and then gets into its main material after some twenty pages or so. The book then discusses the importance of wood–trees–to Western civilization (I), with chapters that discuss the vital importance of trees and the creatures and people within them in Lithuania (1), the look of the forests of Germania (2) and their role in the politics of difference between Latin culture and Germanic primitivism, which has remained important for millennia, as well as the question of the freedoms of the greenwood of England and France (3) and the verdant crosses of American forest history (4). The second part of the book is a discussion of water (II), specifically the question of rivers and their importance (5) and also the bloodstreams and currents and their role in history and science (6). After that the author discusses rock (III) with a look at mountains and high places (7) as well as the nature of rock and its role in imperialism (8). Finally, the author discusses the relationship between wood, water, and rock (IV), and the issue of the redesign of Arcadia (9), after which there are notes, a bibliographic guide, acknowledgements, and an index.
The only real criticism I have about this book is its heft. As a library reader, this book was by no means an easy one to get through in a timely fashion. The book is pretty dense in terms of its material even though what it talks about is interesting. It would have been a bit easier to deal with the material of this work had it been divided into three books, but that is more a question of how the material is collected than about the stellar quality of the material to begin with. If the chapters of this book are very long, they are divided into shorter essays that give the reader a sense of the impressionistic approach of the author. It is to the author’s credit that this work is more about in depth stories of a wide variety of different cultures as well as symbolic landscapes that demonstrate in an inductive way the author’s goal of showing how it is that the human mind seems to be drawn to creating meaning from one’s surroundings. If the reader might think of different examples than the author chooses, this is a work that certainly offers a great deal of opportunities for further reading and research.