Tag Archives: picturesque

Nature, silence and quiet

Silence isn’t especially natural. In most places where there is life, water or wind, there will be sound – deep caves may be silent, and there may be silence in very thick fog, but that’s about it. However, in an insulated human home, it can be truly silent. I find this disconcerting, and it is always an issue for me at the point in the year when I have to close windows at night. Sometimes I can still hear the owls, but I have to be incredibly quiet and paying attention.

Nature tends to offer us quiet and subtle soundscapes. Some things are loud and raucous – seagulls, high winds, fox songs… but many wild things are subtle and easily missed. For me, the soundscape is as much a part of the experience of being outside as the visual appearance of the landscape is. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this – interested in the picturesque, but oblivious to a lot of what is around them. I say this with confidence having observed other people out walking in parks and at beauty spots.

I’m always amazed by people who go out into ‘nature’ and are then so busy with themselves that they don’t seem to see, and most assuredly cannot hear whatever is around them. People for whom landscape is aerobic exercise, parental guilt appeased, or post-lunch attempts at virtue. I see them not seeing the wild things – where I have paused for a buzzard, raven or deer and they walk on by with no sense of what’s looking at them.

When you talk loudly with other humans, the sounds of the landscape are drowned out. The subtle tinkle of a small stream. The rustle of small rodents in the undergrowth. The calls of small birds – and larger ones. Sound is often the best clue for spotting wild beings and the person intent on a good conversation won’t pick up these clues. What frustrates me is the number of people who are really loud in beautiful places, not just wiping out their own scope for hearing anything other than their own voices, but filling the landscape with their banality. Perhaps they can’t hear how quiet it is. Perhaps the quiet unsettles them, so they fill it with noise. There’s nothing quite like walking in a beautiful place and having the landscape filled with someone’s loud and wholly tedious conversation about some TV show.

At this time of year, if you are quiet, you can hear the leaves falling. You can hear them as they brush against other leaves on the way down. You can hear them as they meet the undergrowth, or land gently on the earth. It is a soft, subtle sound, and it is beautiful, and enchanting, and not available when people are talking loudly. Life is full of such opportunities for small beauty and magic, but often we’re too busy talking over it to even notice.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Spring Views

In a landscape dominated by deciduous woodland, the views change with the season. Once the leaves are on the trees, it can become harder to see any great distance. Views are caught occasionally, through the gaps.

We have a history of cutting down trees to create views. The eighteenth century notion of the picturesque landscape had landowners creating views by cutting down trees. This movement has informed landscape art and is part of the story of what we tell ourselves a good view means. We expect distance, drama, and plenty of scope for looking at it. Where the views are to be enjoyed, and where the trees are to grow for being viewed distorts the landscape itself. If we’re trying to make it something pretty to look at, if we want to see the dramatic shape of the land, we take out nature to replace it with human ideas of beauty.

We may see beauty in landscapes that are ravaged. If we come to them not knowing what should be living there and how they might look if we’d not pared them back to a few inches of closely cropped grass, we may perceive the drama and not the damage. The Lake District in the UK is an example of a close grazed landscape revealing the drama and views of big landforms. It is a landscape that should have a lot more trees in it. That we want to have a certain kind of experience when looking at it has an impact on the land.

Seeing a long way should, I think, be treated as a seasonal activity. It’s a pleasure available in spring before the leaves emerge and in autumn after they are gone. We can have the trees and the views, if we don’t insist on having the views all year round.