Cultural maps of meaning

Our ancestors of 4 Myr ago lived in a world as they found it and left it intact.  Since these primeval times it is through culture that we have irreversibly transformed our physical, biological, social and informational environments to define human ecology. Humans of one generation bequeath a constructed world to the next generation, who, on average, alter it further before transmitting it to their successors.  With the evolution of this new human ‘ecology of construction’, a transformation occurred in hominin morphology and life history. Humans are less sexually dimorphic than australopithecines, but we are larger, with relatively bigger brains. Our cortical regions, especially, have expanded and we pay the metabolic cost of these vital tissues and the long learning curve they promote.  But we are still part of nature in everything we do.

Mindmap of ‘ecology of construction’


Humankind now has to face managing the dynamics of being an indivisible part of nature from shopping to kissing.  This is the scope of cultural ecology, which developed at the interface between biology, geography and anthropology in the early 1970s.  It was a time when applied ecology emerged as a profession aimed at understanding how plants, animals, microbes and people coexist spatially. The aim was to discover how the environment can be constructed socially and organised technically and ethically for sustainable production of all species. This requires a major cultural change by adopting a progressive sense of space, where place is the intersection of sets of social relations over particular spaces and the connections they make to elsewhere.  

The first ecological models of the progressive relationship between environment and culture were native subsistence societies in Central America and Papua New Guinea.  They illustrated the shift from local cultural beliefs and practices, developed in a pristine environment, to encompass external economic relations.  New cultures were created based on commodity production with the adoption of wage labour and the pursuit of cash. Now that ancient cultures of self-sufficiency are extinct, all levels of education are increasingly focused on the ecology of construction expressed in the spatiality of human and other life forms.  Spatiality is the outcome of the act of dwelling in or living permanently in a place comprising the habitats of all living things.  Appropriate synomyms are inhabitancy, inhabitation; the hypernyms are occupancy, tenancy; and the hyponyms are cohabitation, living together.

 To illustrate the generality of this habitat dynamic I have taken two Western cultural entities, the East Anglian village of Flixton and the farm of Rhos Llawr Crwt in West Wales.  I came to know these places through a series of random geographical collisions in my work as an applied ecologist.  To me they present examples of what is called ‘third space’. These are spaces where two or more cultures have and are interacting with the production of place through a blending of historicality with sociality. They show that the study of ‘third space’ has to involve the perception of place, time, habitancy and ecological development as equal participants in the ecology of human existence.  Third space is produced by the incorporation of spatial awareness into social processes based on a deep cultural understanding that we are one among many species. It is a space for the imagination to link humanity across generational and temporal boundaries. 

Space is understood as ‘a creation’, ‘a site of production’ and ‘a site to be experienced and consumed’.  In order to define a space, first we locate objects; we relate them to other objects and make spatial patterns; then we see how the objects and relationships are established by social processes to become part of a local culture.  Finally, spaces become hybrids when it is realised that they are subject to contestation from different groups who want to redefine the meaning and boundaries. This blending occurs through socio-ecological management by people investing a place with social and spiritual power.  In so doing they produce a ‘cultural map of meaning’.  Such luminal islands of the spirit are used to make sense of the local environment in which natives and visitors are immersed practically and notionally. At any time, the primary factor changing a cultural map to deepen the spatiality of human life is the input of money beyond that which can be generated from the land itself.  In the simplest possible terms, money is anything that can be exchanged for goods and services.

We cannot help making each place we encounter distinctive.   Its part of our genetic endowment to embed ourselves in our immediate surroundings, often imposing idiosyncratic romantic and literary clichés on spaces with no claims to accuracy.   It is this evolved property of humankind that impels us endow every being and every place with a particular spirit, known from ancient times as a ‘genius loci’.  We cannot help giving beings and places a unique character.  These personal endowments, together with all other personal choices we make contribute to what has been defined as an individual’s ‘existential essence’.  Existential philosophy is interested in how human beings live, and make sense of where they live given the limitations of what it is to be human.


US Airforce personnel* at Flixton Hall circa 1943

 US Airmen at Flixton Hall

The above snapshot was taken by one of a group of off-duty American airmen stationed at an airfield constructed in the village of Flixton at the outbreak of World War 2.  They are posed in the deer park against a northern portion of the garden wall surrounding Flixton Hall.  In this position they are situated at one of the many social boundaries of the village, which gave everyone living in Flixton at that time, their human identity. Until the coming of the military, the population of Flixton, since records began, had remained stable at around 100 individuals.  The operation of the airfield increased its populace about thirty-fold.  The base was a temporary addition, which emptied after the War when the village returned to its pre-war size.  It was not until the 1960s that plans were imposed by the local authority to deliberately increase the housing stock to make space for incomers arising from an increase in the UK population. 

Sand and gravel to build the airfield was excavated from valley pastoral lands and this industrial activity continues to this day.  The current operations and the old abandoned flooded workings have created a new barren and derelict landscape of sand, gravel, flints and water along the northern boundary of the village with the River Waveney. Attempts are being made to beautify this legacy of wartime expediency through planting hedgerows.  These boundary features delineate a new space within the village but from which people are excluded. Although the airfield was vacated in 1956 the concrete runways and military infrastructure remained and attracted some new commercial investment and activities with jobs which employ people who live outside the village. 

The Second World War was therefore a turning point in compartmentation of the village.  Before the upheaval brought by the airfield. Flixton as a place was rooted and bounded by physical features of hill and water. It had a fixed set of economic and social characteristics that had equilibrated with the fortunes of the dominant landowning family, the Adairs.  As a third space its internal social skeleton was visible in the footpaths, roads, ponds, moats, woods, field boundaries, gates, farmsteads, and houses, all interwoven with the continuous metal fence of its large deer park.  The latter was a statement of the Adair’s economic and political power, which had lasted for over three hundred years.  During the Adair’s time and well before, Flixton’s social hierarchy was a steady state; a dynamic equilibrium where families came and went but the village was in thrall to a top-weighted manorial system.  At first the peak was represented by St Felix and his ecclesiastical mission to Christianise the pagan Angles, then there was the prioress of the local Augustinian nunnery.   The Tasburgh family acquired their power base by taking over the rights, privileges and properties of the nuns. 

In this long run of historicality the Adairs were the last to assume overlordship of the village.  Somewhere along this time line of sociality the common rights of the villagers were extinguished and tenant farms created, so shifting the third space duality of ‘observable’ to ‘hidden’, as the affairs of the village retreated into numerous spaces of private property.  This process was accelerated after the War by the breakup of the Adair’s vast estate to pay inheritance tax.  The neglected woods are currently the assets of distant bankers and the old deer pasture is a grass monoculture supporting an intensive dairy unit. Mechanisation of farming removed communal figures from the fields and the church lost its role as a social focus.  Now the parkland, which was one huge no-go area for the villagers, has been fragmented into numerous private places as barns and their outbuildings have been converted into middle-class homes. Society has become steadily more privatised with cars, computers, and shopping centres, so extinguishing the public component of village life.

 Flixton Hall today


Flixton Hall has a long history as a complex space given ideological meaning by male dominance in rural architectural form-making.  Since the 1950s it has been a forlorn ruin awaiting redevelopment.  Like all ruins, the few remains of carved stone, cracked floor tiles and cow-grazed curves of the ornamental garden are redolent of the dualities of past and present, growth and decay, myth and history.  They evoke deep emotional, philosophical, and literary responses against which modernity can be measured. In this respect, the Hall’s monumentality is key to Flixton as a third space because it immediately affects our notions of place, of self and the need to ensure ruins are kept ‘alive’.  Flixton Hall in the 18th century was at the forefront of expressing the English country house concept of ‘the picturesque’.  Its ruination reminds us that reason kills everything, that place and space are both social constructs which are culturally mediated and intermeshed.    The exclusion of ‘felt life’, by which we evaluate the spirit of place, strips away mystery, religion and even art.  Nowhere is this more evident that in one of Flixton’s latest social constructs, its aviation museum.  This is a thriving enterprise with free entry, supported by volunteers who come regularly from far and wide.  The annual visitor numbers are in the tens of thousands.  It is both a technical history of aviation and a memorial to those who flew the bombing missions from East Anglia’s military bases in World War 2.  To understand Flixton’s symbolic role in this conflict one has to walk from the museum in the valley to a flat treeless hilltop above the village; to a luminal island of the spirit where the old runways are lost to view each year in acres of vigorous crops of cereals.  Walking allows new spaces to be discovered, which are physical, in this case a concrete runway, and which are also epistemological, an understanding of the runway and the personal meaning it holds. A narrative with transcendental overtones emerges that might not have been uncovered in a stationary investigation. It is from the undistinguished hill top, in the space of three years, that hundreds of men took to the air with their deadly cargoes never to return.  This spot becomes a third space and is yet another reminder that we unthinkingly accept the premise that because of globalisation, all places are becoming the same, rather than assuming that all places are different.  

Rhos Llawr Cwrt 

Rhos Llawr Cwrt can be accurately described as an absolute distinct physical reality. Its topography can be traced back ten thousand years or more to when the Welsh ice sheet melted revealing the outcomes of climate change in a complex surface of permafrost depressions and moraine ridges. As a geographical space it consists of 25 ha of  wet, unimproved grassland, which goes under the generic name of ‘rhos pastures’.  This habitat is the outcome of a regional combination of high rainfall, thin soils, glacial topography and history of subsistence livestock-farming and was once abundant in the Ceredigion hills of West Wales. As the crow flies, the reserve is only about 10km from Cardigan Bay. The land rises steeply from the sea, and the dough-like folds of the hills, cut by the occasional ice-gouged valley, form an amphitheatre to the north and west.. The land which rises at the south-western end of the reserve is now bright green with improved grass swards, but it once belonged to the farm as seminatural rhos pasture.  

Rhos pasture below improved hill grazing


The reserve was singled out as a special place when it was notified as an SSSI in 1979 and declared a National Nature Reserve in 1986, Wales’ only grassland ecological treasure. Owned and managed by the Countryside Council for Wales, it is also the site of one of the most exciting experiments in habitat restoration in Wales, which has the aim of converting the surrounding 25 ha of semi-improved rushy grassland back to rhos pasture. Because of its carefully researched action plan the site is used widely for training conservation managers. It is a candidate Special Area of Conservation, designated under the EU Habitats Directive for its populations of Marsh Fritillary and Slender Green Feather-moss.  At the time of its discovery by a roving scientist it was a rare wildlife habitat, part of a 230 acre farm called Llawrcwrt.  Since 1983 it has been subjected to scientific study.  Now, with its huge population of butterflies Rhos Llawr Cwrt is a small ecological island and a superlative example of the biodiversity that subsistence farmers could produce without actually knowing it! The nature reserve, with its tracts of butterfly- and flower-rich wet meadows, and the evidence of glacial activity, feels timeless and ancient. With foreground of ancient banks and woods, the approaches to Llawrcwrt Farm yield only glimpses of the humps and bumps of the glacial landscape through which you are passing. Arrival at the farm itself is a moment to savour. Ancient stone built buildings, straddle a small rise in the valley floor.  This is where two cultures, the old self-sufficent family hill farm and the modern government-backed national conservation agency; the farmers and the applied ecologists, meet and blend.  History and natural history are deeply entwined at Rhos Llawr Cwrt. However, one glance at the surrounding hills destroys this sense of an unchanged landscape. They are bright green, gashed with plough lines and fences of intensive pastoral farming. The space of Rhos Llawr Cwrt reserve probes the hill in a tongue of textured browns and greens, an indication of what the surrounding hills would once have been like.   In theory, an understanding of ecology can help the historian to read the management history of a site like the pages of a book. Similarly, knowledge of a site’s management history can explain its ecology. The theory usually breaks down in practice, partly from a lack of information, and the need for interdisciplinary skills that can put history and ecology together, but also because the 20th century has so comprehensively torn and scribbled all over the pages of ecological information which plant and animal communities represent.   First mentioned in 1214 in a charter granted to the Cistercian monks of Whitland by King John, Llawrcwrt combines the word ‘court’, which was often attached to monastic lands, and ‘Llawr’, meaning ‘floor’, or in this case the flat valley bottom. Although the fortunes of the monks declined, the foundations of the 13th century farm economy, based on sheep and cattle, have remained to this day. The human population was almost completely dependent on farming, and on the natural resources available to them in the immediate area. Brown trout  and even the odd Atlantic salmon could be caught in the streams; wood provided furniture, fuel and footwear (clog-making was an important local industry); and rushes were gathered for bedding, to make ropes and for rush lights. Until the 19th century, much of the Clettwr valley and its surrounding hills was unenclosed. The reserve occupies what was originally the large ‘unenclosed’ part of the farm, although even this has been split into smaller compartments in recent times.  The pattern of farms and smallholdings, dotted along and above the valley and circled by small fields, has not changed all that much. However, the boundaries and methods of farming adapted to them have completely changed.  The first Ordnance Survey map of 1834 shows a great sweep of land to the east and west of the Clettwr valley free from roads, with only farm tracks for access. The track to Llawrcwrt also gave access to two further farms. These and other neighbouring farms appear on the 1844 tithe map in the midst of clusters of small, inbye fields, the boundaries of which have long since disappeared. These were mostly on gravel out-washes or had field drains, so they could be ploughed to grow ‘black oats’, barley and potatoes, or they were cut for hay or kept for lambing and calving. Surrounding these farms were large, unfenced areas, with tapers of land connecting these ‘wastes’ with the farms. These areas are now all fenced, drained and ploughed. Level land was ‘improved’ first, but much of the steeper, hilly land was not ploughed until as recently as the 1970s. Local people well remember the heathery hills, coconut-scented with the bright yellow blooms of gorse. Unless you take an imaginative leap back in time, and capture some sense of what life was like on farms like Llawrcwrt, it is hard to appreciate why the reserve is as it is. There were many people living off the land a century or more ago. Peat-cutting shaped the reserve in a direct, physical way. It continued on a part of the reserve known as Gors Las, or the ‘green bog’, as late as 1950. The peat here is many feet thick. Dragonflies circle the peaty pools where it was last cut, and here Crowberry is at the most southern edge of its range in Wales, a natural biological monitor of climate change.  The land around Llawrcwrt represents the last vestige of this ancient farming pattern. Most of the present field boundaries can be seen on the 1844 tithe map and also on the plan prepared for the sale of Llawrcwrt in 1875, when the farm and 285 acres were sold as one lot. The 1881 census shows 21 people living at the farm or other cottages, mostly described as labourers or farm servants.  

Historically, rhos pastures were grazed by livestock, and this has been central to conserving the habitat that we value today. Conservation management at Rhos Llawr Cwrt is based on a controlled grazing regime using cattle during the spring and summer. The grazing programme is designed to maintain the marshy grassland, wet-heath, neutral-grassland and mire communities that are present as a fine-scale mosaic over the majority of the site; this also maintains the habitat in the condition required by the Marsh Fritillary butterfly. The conservation and the livestock production objectives for vegetation structure are the same.  The target is best described as a patchwork of tall, often tussocky, grasses and rushes with a moderate amount of litter and areas of short turf with little or no litter. The foodplant of the butterfly, Devil’s-bit Scabious, will thrive in these conditions, in its prostrate form. The stock keeper does not have to monitor the visual outcome by counting species or measuring the average gap between tussocks; the pattern of vegetation either looks right or wrong.  Stocking rates to achieve this structure are normally within the recommended range of 0.3-0.5 livestock units per ha per annum, but it is sometimes necessary to raise or lower the level of grazing. The main reason for this dynamic is variation in the weather. A warm, wet summer will result in greater biomass production in the sward, necessitating higher stocking rates to achieve the required structure. The reverse is, of course, true for a cold, dry summer.  The stock keeper is an artist and the glacial topography of Rhos Lawr Cwrt is his studio. Currently, the majority of the grazing stock are Welsh Black cattle belonging to an adjacent farm.   The availability of farm-owned stock for grazing on what is in agricultural terms ‘poor-quality’ grassland is uncertain in the long term.    Stocking rates used on the reserve are too low to prevent scrub development, particularly of Common Gorse Ulex europaeus and Grey Willow Salix cinerea.  These are controlled by periodic cutting and use of selective herbicides. This raises the paradox of livestock management to maintain and extend the biodiversity of rhos pasture in that it partially follows the chemical path of extensive farming.  Nevertheless, walking through Rhos Lawr Crwt is to make contact with a living textured and coloured space that has not changed in centuries.

Like viewing an abstract work of art or a ruined monument the visual experience involves a spatial emotion of a ‘felt life’.  In this context, it is profitable to use synonyms with subjective attributes to describe the experience of depth as a penetration into layers of things more distant.  When we wish to express the experience of intensity of feeling for instance, we say ‘depth of feeling’ or ‘penetration into knowledge’ or ‘having a revelation’.  The mind is bringing a mental state of contemplation out of the depths of a partially seen phenomenon into a frontal understanding. The rhos pasture thus becomes a portrait of an idea. In contemporary parlance people increasingly speak of spirituality rather than religion when trying to express what moves them most deeply; and many consider the two to be distinctly different. Most of the characteristics associated with religion, however, are found whether people consider themselves spiritual or religious. Therefore, there is little analytical reason to assume these are different kinds of social phenomena. The two ways of forming a sense of  place can certainly come together when viewing rhos pasture.  It is important, however, to understand what most see the distinction to entail, especially because the term spirituality is more often than the term religion associated with nature and nature-loving.  Spirituality is often thought to be about personal growth and gaining a proper understanding of one’s place in the cosmos, and to be intertwined with environmentalist concern and action.  This contrasts markedly with the world’s predominant religions, which are generally concerned with escaping this world or obtaining divine rescue from it to enter a space that is out of this world. At Lawrcwrt the outcome resulting from a blending of management with ecology is raised to the same cultural level of intensity and emotion as music and poetry.   Walking through Flixton or Rhos Lawr Cwrt at the interface of ecology and culture we can let the unseen and the external govern our enthusiasm for the phenomenal and passing.  This perspective crosses continents and ethnicity.  The Indian poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore expressed this awareness of another way of thinking when raw logic fails in a word picture of his place in the streaming cosmic life process of his Bengali homeland.   

“No one realises that in his blood the waves of thy sea dance, the forest-restlessness trembles.  This thought fills my mind today, that I have come, from age to age dropping silently from form to form, from life to life.  I have come, using up in gift after gift, in song after song, whatever my hand has gained in night and morning”.

So we go our ways, drawn

“to the great stream, from the tumult of the past which lies behind, to the bottomless dark, to the shoreless light!

 Without this transcendent mode of cultural ecology we shall find ourselves unable sooner or later to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.  This was an important standpoint of the author, John Steinbeck.   To see nature with great clarity was important to Steinbeck. To see beyond the physical to an underlying cultural pattern and larger significance was equally essential. He wrote this in 1948: “There are good things to see in the tidepools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing. Every new eye applied to the peep hole which looks out at the world may fish in some new beauty and some new pattern, and the world of the human mind must be enriched by such fishing”. (“Preface ,Between Pacific Tides) 

Steinbeck, in Sea of Cortez, asks his readers to shift perspective because Nature yields more than simple beauty.

 “[A] man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world, if he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL”.  

References and Acknowledgements

 *Men of Ordnance Section of the 705th Squadron, 446th Bomb Group.  Left to right: top row – Phil Schenker, Fred Mahnken, Leonard Mayer; bottom row Vincent DeAngeles, Alex Cote (Suffolk RO)

Reserve Focus: Rhos LLawr Cwrt (2002) James Robertson & David Wheeler, British Wildlife 13, 171-176

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Rhos Llawr Cwrt:

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