Archive for May, 2010

Mindmapping landscape

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Lying there on the drifted sand, under the white stars, I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys -inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself. No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland, and no such myth of purity can hold. Thousands of years of human living and dying have destroyed the possibility of the pristine wild. Every islet and mountain-top, every secret valley or woodland, has been visited, dwelled in, worked, or marked at some point in the past five millennia. The human and the wild cannot be partitioned.  Robert McFarlane, 2007  

An Anglo Indian Perspective 

The rise of the English novel during the 18th century coincided with a growing pride in the landscape of Britain. As novels portrayed rural society in its environment, so maps and topographical views delineated the grandeur of Nature and the man-made elegance of new urban streets and squares. Town and country often provide the travelling backdrop to novels and poems, sometimes exerting such a strong presence they seem to become players in the plot.  Poets in particular were inclined to idealize nature, and their treatment of it in poetry was often symbolic and literary.  Keats’ nightingale was a creature of the imagination, Greek myth, and poetic tradition, not of observation.  From this point of view, the question is to what extent a person’s response to landscape is conditioned by education or environment.  This was an issue explored by Edward Thompson writing about the Europeanised Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore who spent fourteen months in England at the age of sixteen, staying in Brighton and London. Thompson contrasted the impact of the two environments of England and India as follows. 

“His father brought him for a short stay at Bolpur. This Bengal is a dry uplifted country. The villages are scattered, and there are great spaces of jungle. The landscape of the jungle is of quiet loveliness, such as wins a man slowly yet for ever. At first sight it is disappointing. There are few great trees, and absolutely nothing of the savage luxuriance of a Burmese rattan-chained sky-towering forest or of the ever-climbing dripping might of Himalayan woods; the one good timber tree, the sal, is polled and cut away by the people for fuel. The mass of the jungle is a shrub, rarely ten feet high, called kurchi; bright green, with milky juice and sweet white flowers. Intermixed with this are thorns; zizyphst and pink-blossomed mimosas. The soil is poor and hard. Where there is a tank, you have a tall simul (silk-cotton tree), lifting in spring a scarlet head of trumpet-shaped flowers; or a wild mango. Often the soil cracks into nullas, fringed with crackling zizyph, the wild plum, or crowded with palas trees. These last, and simul, furnish in spring the only masses of wild flowers. Palas flowers before the leaves come; twisted ungainly trees, holding up walls of leguminous, red flowers, which the Emperor Jahangir thought ‘so beautiful that one cannot take one’s eyes off them’. After these, before the spring quite shrivels in the summer heats, nim and sal blossom; but their flowers, though exquisitely scented, make no show, being pale green-white and very small. 

But the jungle has a peaceful charm, which even the great forests cannot surpass. At evening, seek out one of the rare groves of tall trees-possibly preserved as a sacred grove, and with multitudes of crude clay horses round their bases, that the thakur may ride abroad-or plunge deep into the whispering wilderness. Wait as the sun sinks, as the leaves awaken. Through the trees you see the evening quietness touching all life. You are not alone, for many scores of eyes are watching you; but of them you catch no glimpse, unless a jackal slinks by or a tiny flock of screaming parrots races overhead. In the distance, the cattle are coming back to the village, the buffaloes are lazily and unwillingly climbing out of the tank. It is ‘cow-dust,the Greek ox-loosing time’. 

Loken Palit’-told me that what he missed, on return from England to India, was our profusion; our hedges crammed with shining beauty, our glades and meadows ; after blackthorn, the ponds netted with crowfoot, the water-violets and kingcups and lady-smocks, the riot of gorse and may and wild rose, avenues of chestnut, the undergrowth of stitchworts, the sheets of primroses, violets, anemones, cowslips and bluebells ; and, when summer is ending, heaths and heather and bramble-roses pleached deep’. Rabindranath himself has spoken to me of this variety in landscape, and also of the beauty of autumn foliage in England”. 

With a mindset in the English countryside, Tagore was influenced to express his feelings about landscape by the poetry of Keats.  Keats is one of the greatest admirers of the sensuality of nature. In his poetry, we come across exquisitely beautiful descriptions of the wonder, sights and senses of nature. He looks with child-like delight at the small elements of English landscape and his whole being is thrilled by what he sees and hears. Everything in the outdoors is for him full of wonder and mystery – the rising sun, the moving cloud, the growing bud and the swimming fish. 

However, in the slow changing Ganges Valley there is a lack of variety that does not speak to English minds.  At the age of 30, Tagore undertook the management of his father’s country estates in the Bengal Ganges landscape, a place of vast flow-moving rivers, great reed beds and mud-banks where the population is almost amphibious. Plying his houseboat up and down the broad reaches of a tributary of the great mother river, living among the rural poor, he grew acutely sensitive to their hardships in the face of an uncompromising nature of their natural surroundings.  

“Why is there such a deep note of mourning in the fields, ghats, sky and sunshine of our country? I think perhaps the reason is that nature is constantly before our eyes. The wide open sky, flat and endless land, shimmering sunshine-and in the midst of this men come and go, crossing to and fro like a ferryboat. The little noises that they make, the ups and downs of their happy or sad efforts, seem in the context of this endlessly reaching, huge, aloof nature so small, so fleeting, so futile and full of suffering. We feel in nature’s effortless stillness and serenity a vast, beautiful, undistorted generous peace; and compared to that, such an agonised, tormented, petty, unstable lack of peace inside ourselves, that when we look at the distant blue line of the shady woods on the river bank, we are strangely unsettled.”  

For many, the world of matter and nature, conceived as a created whole, is the best, clearest and most universal evidence for the knowledge of creation. In India, Tagore wrote, “circumstances almost compel us to learn English, and this lucky accident has given us the opportunity of access into the richest of all poetical literatures of the world.”  He made an appraisal of Western culture in an open-minded way in order to see what uses could be made of it in a Bengali environment. 

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!

Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.

He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust.  

Landscape and culture 

The vastness of the Ganges river system is resilient to human intervention.  But how a society shapes its physical environment is a fundamental reflection of its culture.  In this respect Tagore’s writings remind us that now, most of Earth’s terrestrial surface is a patchwork of cultural landscapes and as such has to be managed as a human resource according to the principles that define human cultural ecology. Landscape comprises the visible features of a field of view.  These include the physical elements of landforms, water bodies such as rivers, lakes and the sea, living elements of land-cover, particularly the indigenous vegetation, human elements expressed in land uses, buildings and infrastructures, together with the visible impact of climatic elements such as sun, wind and rain. The key ecological parameters which determine the landscape character of a particular view are the number of its human inhabitants, their demands on the local natural resources and the amount of resources that have to be imported, over and above local productivity, to sustain the population. At a global level, the conservatively calculated Ecological Footprint Indicator suggests that the Earth can sustain about 2.1 billion high-income individuals (one third of the present population) or 6.2 billion middle-income individuals or 13.6 billion low-income individuals.  This assumes all of Earth’s biocapacity is used for humans. No matter what the size of the population, an increasingly important feature of human well-being is the quality of the landscape and its definition within an area small enough to give people a feeling of belonging to a ‘neighbourhood’. 

Landscape’ as neighbourhood, defines the human visual response to a locality in terms of its physical origins and the cultural overlay of human presence, often created over millennia.  It reflects the living synthesis of people and place vital to local identity. Through their perceived character and quality landscapes help define the self-image of individuals and groups.  It is this local sense of place that differentiates an area from other areas and is the dynamic backdrop to people’s lives. 

Idiosyncratic responses to places are one of the most common human emotional experiences.  However, the complex of biological, cultural and psychological reasons that shape our feelings toward landscape are rarely explored to establish why, as individuals, we like or dislike particular scenes.  Historically, landscape quality assessment has been approached on the basis of two contrasting models.  One regards quality as inherent in the physical landscape. The other regards quality as a product of the mind; the eye of the beholder. These are termed, respectively, the objectivist and subjectivist models.  

All measures of quality rest on the definition of beauty. Such definitions are local cultural conventions resulting from the pattern-seeking/forming behaviours which have evolved in human primates to remember and understand the environment. They involve making sense of repetitive elements received through eyes and ears.  In music, they are repeated sequences of notes and in environmental scenes are taken in as repeated patterns of form.  Both responses have to be within the limitations in what the human brain can handle. To fully appreciate these rhythms in music we have to move from hearing them to listening to them.  In the environment we have to move from seeing them to visualising them.  Through listening and visualising we gain emotional and spiritual understanding.   

These beauty-paradigms underlie surveys of the physical landscape and its human structures.  Studies of observer preferences are expressed in generally agreed designations, such as ‘degraded landscapes’, ‘world heritage sites’, ‘wilderness’, ‘nature reserves’ and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’. 

Examination of these paradigms through the approaches taken by philosophers from Plato to modern times demonstrates their ubiquity underlying a person’s perception of his/her surroundings. Until recent centuries, the objectivist paradigm provided philosophers with the basis for understanding beauty, including landscape beauty. However, Locke, Hume, Burke and particularly Immanuel Kant identified beauty as lying in the eyes of the beholder rather than in the intrinsic properties of the object. Most philosophers over recent centuries have adopted the subjectivist view of aesthetics in researching landscape beauty. As Simon Schama puts it in his monumental Landscape and Memory, “it is culture, convention and cognition…that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty”. Beauty in this context seems to be best defined as the quality of something that has been given a new meaning, which transcends its primary form or purpose. 

Regarding the subjectivist view, Steven C. Bourassa has attempted to resolve the conflict between biological and cultural explanations of aesthetic behaviour by combining the biological, cultural, and personal bases for aesthetics in a comprehensive paradigm. This paradigm is based on Vygotsky’s developmental approach to understanding the human mind and its behavioural expressions. Vygotsky identifies three fundamental processes of development: phylogenesis (biological evolution), sociogenesis (cultural history), and ontogenesis (individual development). These in turn correspond to three modes of aesthetic experience: biological, cultural, and personal. Bourassa concludes that each mode has distinct qualities that justify its separate inclusion within a subjectivist paradigm of environmental aesthetics.   

Environmental aesthetics was comprehensively developed in the second half of the twentieth century. However, it has roots in earlier 18th century traditions concerning the aesthetic experience of nature together with notions such as the ‘sublime’ and the ‘picturesque’ qualities of scenery.  It led to landscape gardening/design as a profession.  This movement reached a climax at the end of that century when its practical objectives were mostly defined through the philosophy of art.  

From the twentieth century, development of environmental aesthetics virtually began anew. On the one hand, the landscape gardening movement was strongly influenced by the focus on aesthetics of art.  But it was also bound up with growing public concern for the aesthetic quality of the real green environment. Both factors helped, first, to broaden the scope of environmental aesthetics beyond that of earlier picture-aesthetics, particularly regarding public concern for the state of the environment.  The latter was not simply about preserving natural scenery, but also about the aesthetic condition of the everyday human environment and the practical needs to preserve outstanding natural beauty and beautify degraded landscapes. Thereby, the central modernist philosophical issue of producing a comprehensive ‘environmental aesthetics’ was the contrast between the quality of the everyday environment and the cannon of beauty expressed in landscape paintings.  Beauty in landscape painting was for the most part associated with the depiction of a rural environment characterised by a great richness of elements, which were small, natural, or embedded in nature.  They were perceived by people as a comprehensive whole.  Urban dwellers who compare today’s rural environment with that of pre-modern and early modern time, see that their surroundings have not only lost their wealth of elements but also their sense of unity which gave form to that variety.   

This loss is not only perceived visually when travelling or on holiday, but also through the contemplation of maps, which play a critical role in supporting the visualisation of landscape.  Indeed, in recent years it has become widely recognized that the visualisation of aesthetic information is critical in the domain of cartography, where there has been a long-standing interest in issues of communication effectiveness. In a practical sense, by incorporating cartographic aesthetics with landscape aesthetics, the cartographic design process can be strengthened and effective tourist maps can be generated. At this cultural junction of environment with mapping, asethetic visualisation of the countryside may be described as a mental process in the minds of urban dwellers, facilitated by maps. Cartography also alerts us to beauty in the urban setting, where it is difficult to gain an overview from street level.

With regards urbanisation, by the end of the nineteenth century the functional and aesthetic failings of the large-sized industrial city had been recognised.  In the United States, for instance, the ‘City Beautiful Movement’ from the early-1890s until the 1920s sought to create modern beauty in the urban environment, frequently through the use of architectural principles like proportion, symmetry and scale in large-sized Classically-styled buildings and civic center schemes. 

Although these projects were driven by the injection into the planning process of 18th century aesthetics of grassy spaces, tree-line avenues and classical architecture, it is now evident that there is a significant health benefit associated with urban beautification.  For example, city dwellers living near parks are healthier and suffer fewer bouts of depression.  When socio-economic background is taken into account it is found that this effect of green surroundings is greatest for people with low levels of education and income. One recent study showed that in urban zones where 90 per cent of the area is green space the incidence of anxiety disorders or depression in this group was 18 people per thousand. In areas with only 10 per cent greenery the incidence was 26 per thousand. 

These beauty paradigms may be assemble as a mindmap, which encompasses human evolution in relation to the use of landscape as a resource.  This map is a subset of cultural ecology and may be used to make analytical bridges between the key topics.   

Mindmap of landscape and culture 

Mindmap of landscape and culture