Red Kite over the Common. Photo by me.
I’ve been looking through the noun ‘landscape,’ as if it were a clear window to times past. The views have been sculpted like soft clay, utterances as form, receding to early human roots.
The earliest scene glimpsed through the word-window seems to be an area of open heath, stemming from the ancient proto indo-european word, lendh. There are no particular human-value connotations, though ‘open’ may imply an area wooded then cleared. Scape is derived from proto-germanic skapiz, meaning shape or condition. Old English sciepe, skipe, to Middle English, re-sculpted, maybe due to accent and pronunciation, to shippe. We now suffix words with ‘ship’ to mean something shaped or crafted. Land, shaped. But by whom? The Dutch use of schap and schape became influential in the art world, hence our more modern return to the ‘ape’ sound rather an ‘ip.’
Lendh Skapiz ~ Lant Scap ~ Land Schippe ~ Landscape.
So, as of today, the word landscape manifests all the visible features of an area of land, mainly in human aesthetic and cultural contexts. It can be poetic, artistic and passionately emotive. Landscape is also an adjective, a kind of socio-political policy, a designation, and with a sense of scale often circumscribed on a map. At this scale, organised planning can take place. Design. Land management shaped to meet whichever goals agreed between (human) stakeholders. All at once, ‘landscape’ is packed with human value systems, sometimes in competition.
In attempting to be value-neutral ~ reductionist ~ I may describe an existential ‘landscape’ as complexity of organic and inorganic assemblages, in and around geological features and anthropogenic constructions, perhaps bounded by 360-degree view to the horizon, but specifically from a human point of view. There is no heart in this description, of course; it does not reflect the reality of life, the intrinsic fluministic interconnectedness between species. Here’s where I begin my challenge. Landscape is anthropocentrism. It is, therefore, loaded with the potential to erode organic flows, causal to planetary harm, the corollary to our proven misconceptions of a functional biosphere to date (The Anthropocene).
If we plan all at our own scale from human-eye-level, we are, ipso facto, co-ordinating actions for our own means. Such designations set boundaries defined by humans alone. Where does a landscape begin and end? How much is in our minds, derived from our sensibilities, experiences and memories? A line on the map delineates both beginning and end, similarly, National Park, SACs, SSSI and MCZ designations. Who are we to assume beginnings and ends? My research into ecological interconnectivity has blown apart the mere idea of such fabrications. We may perceive an edge, but species bind and overlap habitats as naturally as they do metabolise. There is ‘magic at the edges.’ Even the word ‘ecosystem’ falls away by the reality of life’s expansive porosity, both within us and without. Since the human imprint on this Earth has already reached such levels as to cause a global Heat Age, with extinctions and depauperations that will ensue for the next few thousand years, isn’t it about time we became a little more humble?
And yet landscapes exist to us, and we are nature. What about the cultural values of the landscape? Yes, of course, they count. I cannot disregard them. As nature, we bring our pluralistic cultures to bear upon the world in which we live and the words that we use. There are good and bad when it comes to biodiversity and abundance. To find fault with ‘good’ kinds of the landscape is at odds with my own views on wildlife interconnectivity ~ advocating interconnected corridors and riparian buffers in the face of unfettered human development. There is a strong case for forcing the pace, at the landscape, nay, bioregional scale, to allow wild beings place for genetic diversity, foraging, climate refuge and resilience by abundance. But it is the word ‘allow’ that grates upon my fluministic tendencies and ‘landscape’ is way too generic.
Imagine a cake on a plate. We take a slice. The rest of the cake remains for others to share. Now imagine an empty plate, and it is our choice to add back a slice, when and how we see fit. First, fill the plate with cake. And this will require self-restraint. But remember, we have also imagined the size of the plate! That we can map, but then model future outcomes on that map connotes intense anthropocentric ‘stewardship.’ Stewardship remains an intense form of dominion and human value conflicts clash as to what good and bad stewardship actually are. Again, the same human chauvinism manifests at the root of so many problems upon this good Earth ~ even if we choose to fill any sized plate with cake, it remains our choice alone.
Now, this goes to the heart of a key debate in environmental ethics ~ is anthropocentrism ever a good thing, or are there other ways to understand and value life? We are human, after all, and cannot pretend to be anything else. To value anything intrinsically is also a human value. But I argue (with others), it is also a universal value beyond human existence. All species have worth because all are interconnected and this is life. It is the interconnections that create the complex organic life in our biosphere, and perhaps even beyond.
Many rationalists impress there is no other way to perceive this world ~ that’s it. We have our senses, a brain and the ability to create tools to enhance those senses. If this is so, we have little choice but to acknowledge landscape as a human construct and tailor it to our own desires.
But wait. We have evolved with imagination and empathy. Combine our ecological understanding with these key evolutionary traits and we may stand away from making such human-oriented decisions. We can imagine and empathise with a fly pollinating a flower, or a bat hunting for moths, or a scrub trying to succeed into woodland. And then we can let these things ‘be.’ I think I answer my own question, at least in part, by the idea that passivity in conservation and preservation is just as important to a fluministic world view, as hands-on proactivity. Any pro-activity primarily needs to be in stopping the anti-fluministic world view, instead, working along the grain of nature in what we need to flourish, and no more. The rest may run wild, Earth’s biosphere being the ultimate plate-size.
More. New science and technological tools now inform we are holobionts, with symbionts within and outside of us, a community of mind microbial/viral and sometimes parasitic metamorphosing species. With the discovery of the microbiome-gut-brain axis, ego-boundaries are somewhat of an incomplete picture, our selves being more porous as part of the dynamic flows of life process. When we refer to ourselves as “I” we really mean “we.” Humans have not always had the technical ability to create tools to extensively enhance our senses in trying to understand nature, even the nature within us. In the absence of such tools, other cultures, often older cultures, unify with the natural world in spiritual modalities. Some assume(d) animistic perspectives, sometimes gained in trance-like or spiritual states that may restructure prior knowledge, breaking down mental and ego boundaries. These moments are often induced by ingesting chemicals found in the natural world; hallucinogens, psychedelics. Those experiences are just as culturally valid an aspect to ‘being’ nature as using an electron microscope or involving oneself deeply in reading profound ‘nature writing,’ especially if they induce planetary wellbeing, of course.
There is a difference between land condition, as found, and land craft as a human skill. But if we also imagine early human cultures as intensely connected in natural flows of life, we might guess old or lost words may have implied the craft of all life, not just simian, not just human. Of course, we now use landscape as a verb to describe human action ~ we “landscape” this world, with either soils or astroturf. All are at our mercy, and that’s a problem.
Interpreting the world from multi-species points of view, using imagination and empathy, I impress, is an important form of knowing. And that understanding feeds back in reflexivity to our own perceptions of existence.
Ponder for a moment, that new insight is emerging into ecological symbiosis and interconnected relationships as flow to an enhanced level of understanding organic participation in living processes. Imagining perspectives of other species in relation to flow surely is a prerequisite. Some may argue that we are going beyond our remit in imagining the perspectives of other species in order to manage our own behaviours. Others say we would only anthropomorphise, regardless, especially those of a more reductionist perspective on life. From a human point of view, landscape is generally seen to the horizon. What if one was a migratory bird or a soil microbe? The views alter and, therefore, the best actions for the dynamic flows that exist between the two.
One can orientate by the Sun and the Moon, assess unique aspects of place, such as prevailing winds, humidity, to be celebrated, and be mindful of the connectivity of living systems. Each view we take in during our lives is unique. Even if our feet were bound in concrete, the scene around us to the horizon would shapeshift through seasons, through death and also new life. Now climate change is upon us, to add even more uncertainty to the dynamism. Memories, imprints, now linger in our grey matter. And sometimes we embellish in a form of nostalgia or psychological fusing according to our emotions. Often, ghostly images or sounds merge in our minds to overlay a vision of a landscape, so that it is familiar. We may never have even experienced such landscapes.
The Dutch idea of landscape, a format in art lessons, a caricature of the Gilpinesque picturesque*, with golden rules of thirds, illusions of depth and a hint of the wilderness is still a prominent cultural influence. It has a frame around it, like a window, and I think we’ve framed the word ‘ecosystem,’ similarly. I now find the word landscape a kind of detachment. I would rather leave it in a Dutch gallery.
How does a blind person respond to a vista, seen through a lens, within a frame, flattened to two dimensions? When I am in that landscape, the word landscape falls sharply away. Whether this is home or somewhere new, there is a community of living (and dead), beings. I may feel a part of that ecological community, or not, but it always affects my viscera, like a shockwave. I call it sanguimund, a feeling or emotion. It may well be that my sensibilities are receiving signals from the life within that community. It may well be those lives are perceiving my presence and responding. Perhaps, it is the consciousness of love. But I am glad I am aware of it, at least. I think all can find that awareness, even if all the questions are not answered.
So I offer floloca, in perceiving ‘place as flowing’, not simply as human, but conscious imagination along with the dynamic matrix of life and death, and at a spectrum of scales. I also think it is a lovely word to say, adaptable, with no beginning, middle or end, and with the potential for plenty of reflexivities. But perhaps this is just me. Try saying it aloud and see what you think. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
* Gilipin’s influential 18th Century vision “Observations on the River Wye” published 1872.