Book: Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama


For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.


Ansel Adams talking to ‘the director of the National Park Service, in 1952,’:

he wrote, “Half Dome is just a piece of rock… There is some deeply personal distillation of spirit and concept which moulds these earthly facts into some transcendental emotional and spiritual experience.” To protect Yosemite’s “spiritual potential,” he believed, meant keeping the wilderness pure; “unfortunately, in order to keep it pure we have to occupy it.”


The book argues that we should celebrate that our wild places are inextricably linked to human culture. Instead of disliking that and trying to reverse it.

It is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape.


Landscape and Memory is constructed as an excavation below our conventional sight-level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surface.


I love the language in this book. ‘the veins of myth… that lie beneath the surface.’ – lovely imagery that sits so well with images in my head of atmospheric, mystical, abstract landscape paintings.

Beneath the commonplace is a long, rich, and significant history of associations between the pagan primitive grove and its tree idolatry, and the distinctive forms of Gothic architecture.



‘metropolital alienation’ P.16 – hmm interesting phrasing.

Sir James Hall, who tied willow rods together in a primitive arch to prove that the pointed Gothic style had begun with the interlaced boughs of trees.


^ Look at this dude and the illustrations associated with him online.

Part One: Woods, Chapter One

The enlightenment brought forests to be seen as ‘an immense capital asset’ for something to be done and got out of them. This happened to Poland’s great forests at the start of the 18th c. Pp.45-6.

This chapter talks about the Białowieża forest in Poland. I want to visit it! You can get there by train… It is the remaining ancient forest that used to cover much of ‘the European plain’.

[the trees] verticle columns everywhere intersected by horizontal fallen trunks; curved and bent boughs and branches suggesting arched portals to some grandiose vaulted hall.


at the threshold of this primeval no-man’s-land it stops, the light dying, and the silence absolute, broken only by the woodpeckers (which in Bialowieza have the violence and echo of gunshot), and the hurried scampering of a squirrel,


the “innermost recess,” a place of death and darkness. Anthills, hornets’ nests, vicious thorns and brambles protect a terrain that the poet presents as deformed: “…stunted, worm-like trees/ Are reft of leaves and bark by foul disease. /With branches tangled up in mossy knots…
These barriers culminate in a dense fog beyond which, “fables so declare,” is a kind of primitive paradise: an ark of species, animal and vegetable; some of every kind.


this secret cradle-world


The writing is very vivid, it conjures paintings and imagery in my mind.

A poem by Mickiewicz that compares trees to buildings:

A fallen oak thrusts branches to the sky,
Like a huge building, from which overgrown
Protrude the broken shafts and walls o’erthrown


Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.


^ I am painting this construct of this imagination!! I am materialising it. Or am I? Or am I portraying the opposite- the forest for what it really is to me, which is a combination of senses.

Chapter Two

He discusses ‘Germania’ and the people that lived in the forests at the same time as the Romans. Their religion was based around great trees. Pp.84-7

by the time the German forest was being identified as the authentically native German scenery, much of it was fast disappearing under the axe. So the geographers who wanted to celebrate the organically living world of the German woods… needed to replant it with their literary and visual imagination…. [A] cultural reforestation,


As part of this ‘cultural reforestation’, Germania was seen in a new light and ‘wild men were made over into exemplars of the virtuous and natural life.’ This began towards the end of the fifteenth century. P.97

These people went from barbarians, the opposite to good Christians, to families of gentle, wholesome and good nature. The imagery of foliage covering parts of their naked bodies became common in art work. <So that’s where that’s from!

The painting St George and the Dragon by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1510 is highlighted on p.100 (and on the front cover) as representing the forest as history, as the main character. The colours and intensity of the painting is amazing. It is inspiring my own painting. The man, horse and dragon in the scene are side parts to the main attraction. The sense of depth from the gap in the trees allowing the mountain to show through is highlighted.

What he [Anselm Kiefer] did was to collapse the one [landscape painting] into the other [history painting], exactly reversing abstraction’s metaphysical obligations to push the implications of painting… Where Piet Mondrian had launched himself from the representation of a trees toward abstract essence, Kiefer returned to materiality… Where Mondrian had transformed a tree into a grid whose lines extended toward infinity, Kiefer designed his paintings to return those compositional lines back to their narrative function… Abstraction prized lightness, flatness, the airy, and the cerebral. Very well, Kiefer turned back to German expressionism, for the raw texture, the gritty materiality, of historical truth.


Kiefer was concerned with… that of the undisguised storyteller, the orchestrator of a visual Gestamtkunstwerk: a total experience, at once operatic, poetic, and epic. So he pushed the plane back down, using agressively deep perspective to create the big operatic spaces in which his histories could be enacted.


^ I need to look at Kiefer more! This idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk speaks to me and my work, so do the terms in bold. I think that’s why sci-fi connects with my work too; sci-fi uses vast spaces, ideas, epic storylines, operatic-ness, to convey the storylines, which usually involves great stretches of time and space, and dramatic storylines. It all CONNECTS.

It’s really interesting to read about a location from ancient times to now in history. I don’t find all of it gripping to read, but it’s cool to see what happened in history and link that to 20th c. artists such as Kiefer. I have never read about art/artists in this way before. Thinking about an artwork in relation to hundreds of years of history. Seeing the artist as someone of their time, responding to the history they have been presented with.

Chapter Three

English woods are presented as very different from Germanic woods. In Germania the woods are intense, dark, scary, outside the laws of man, places for battle for hunting etc. In England, hunting is seen to unwantedly step on the way of life in the woods. Where it is always summer, where the forest is ‘the place where one found oneself’, and where an ‘old religious man’ is the wise and ancient judge of the forest.
Shakespeare uses woods in his plays, as revealers of truth. Robin Hood is a tale that links the wood to ‘fellowship’. The wood is also royal and loyal. These themes can be seen in The Lord of The Rings, with Lord Bombadil, and the woods revealing magical, mystical, ancient creatures and ways that assist the main characters.

To imagine early medieval England blanketed with vast and immemorially ancient deciduous forest, broken only by stretches of scrubby moor and precarious patches of grainfields and pasture, is to get things the wrong way round. By the time William the Conqueror arrived on the Sussex coast, no more than 15 percent of English territory would have been wooded. … Well before the the arrival of the Romans, Britain’s earliest settled cultures, principally Celtic, had undertaken major clearances.


Roman demands for heated water then sped up this deforestation.

When the Anlgo-Saxon kings were ruling in Britain (410-1066 AC), ‘broad tracts of cultivated field and pasture punctuated with copses and limtied strands of trees – had already been established.’

it would be … mistaken to imagine the medieval English forests as vast green tanks of silence: dense, impenetrable, and deserted places populated only by bandits and hermits… For there were people in the woods: settled, active, making a livelihood out of its resources, a robust society with its own seasonal rhythms of movement, communication, religion, work and pleasure.


There was a ‘network of tracks’ that ‘ran through’ the landscape.

Much of the forest, even in the early Middle Ages, was already being managed as a special kind of micro-economy for its inhabitants.


Forest law was put in place with William the Conqueror’s reign that came as a shock to the societies that lived within it: ‘vast areas of the country could have been annexed simply to protect royal recreation’. This was hunting ground for the Kings. P.144

The word forest comes from a latin word that ‘signified… a particular kind of administration,’

The protection of forests as royal leisure grounds peaked ‘at the end of the sixteenth century’, the penalty for supposedly killing a deer, for example, was having eyes and testicles removed.

Increasingly, in the 12th c. ‘the royal forests were managed for business, not pleasure’ not through ‘farming the produce of the forests’ but by allegedly protecting them, which meant taking fees from people for doing things like taking wood for fire, something people had done freely in the past. This was lucrative for the royal court. P.148

By the 14th c. ‘the forest, legal and topographical*, had come to mean two glaringly contradictory things in English culture. As royal greenwood it was governed sternly but impartially for the hunt. … But the legal forest was also a place of profit for noble entrepreneurs whose decision about whether to work with, or against, the royal system was governed by hard economic calculation’. Pp.148-9.

*meaning: relating to the arrangement or accurate representation of the physical features of an area (dictionary)
^ I need to use this word in my dissertation!

In the 16th c., ‘just at the time when Robin Hood’s Sherwood was appearing in children’s literature, stage drama, and poetic ballads, the greenwood idyll was disappearing into house beams, dye vats, ship timbers, and iron forges.’ p.154

Arguments for whether to conserve the forests or use them for economic gain have continued since the 16th century, for 500 years! The idea of ‘sustainable resources’ is ‘only the latest edition of debates that have been continuing for’ 500 years.

It’s interesting that Schama refers to British forests as ‘greenwood’. In the dictionary this means ‘a wood or forest in leaf (regarded as the typical scene of medieval outlaw life)’. Interesting!

Thinking of the history of forests entangled with administration:

In England the medieval administration of the royal forests had, over the centuries of the Tudors and Stuarts, effectively abdicated real economic power to contractors and aristocratic landowners.


Triangular contest in 18th c. for timber. One corner was ‘merchants, contractors,… tenant farmers’ who saw trees and standing profit, another corner was ‘the landless poor’ who wanted to defend their rights to gather and crop the land, and the third corner was ‘the officials of the state’, worried about the shortage of timber for building was ships etc.

It’s clear to me now how different forest cultures are in different countries, because of the history each country has, that is inextricably linked to natural landscape, of which forests, for the countries in this book and I am thinking of, are very present.

Casper David Friedrich’s famous Cross in the Mountains, the alterpiece that so provoked the anger of German critics by negating the difference between sacred art and landscape.


^ This is so interesting, that landscape and sacred art should be thought to be separated. I could look into the dislike for this painting. Maybe there is some writing to defend those opinions that would be of some interest.

It was quite possible… for industrial capitalism and forest veneration to co-exist within the same personality.


^ Referring to the success of American landscape painters Cole and Church with the same business men that were making their money from destroying the American wilderness Cole and Church were painting. And does this still co-exist today?

Robertson Smith believed that myths in Britain added more power to religious belief, and they generated and determined ‘social behaviour’ (Whilst other scholars thought the opposite). < Could look at him? P.209

The indeterminate, boundless forest, then, was Europe’s version of the Hebraic desert wilderness (to which it was often compared)… a site of miracles where stags would appear bearing the holy cross in their antlers, and the leprous and the lame could be suddenly cured with a root or a bough.


The (non-english) essay by Karl Oettinger points out the plant forms started appearing in 15th c. churches in Europe. Although ‘pointed arches, rib vaults, and trefoil windows had been in existence for centuries before this highly self-conscious turn towards a theory of origins’ in the 15th c. P.229
Oettinger says the aim to ‘dissolve the boundaries between nature and architecture’ as ‘revolutionary’.

Bishop Warburton made ‘the most powerful reinforcement for the connection between the forest and sacred architecture.’ Book from 1751 see if I can read. He makes a big point about Gothic architecture in relation to forests. He finds connection between European cathedrals and ‘ancient Germanic groves’.

James Hall and the essay Essay on the Origins, History and Principles of Gothic Architecture is really important on the connections made between gothic cathedrals and trees. Pp.234-5 show this in detail.

Where there was gothic form there was always light, Hall concluded.


^ This is relevant to the light I am adding to my paintings.

Painters in the past such as Freidrich Edwin Church linked nature to religion (P.238), but has this been done in painting from an atheist point of view? Linking nature, forests, and religion/spirituality/myth/magic, in a way that is removed from the belief of it? How does this affect a painting?

All my notes from the parts of the book that are most relevant to me. I haven’t read the final, concluding part.

This book has been so useful for thinking about the history of forests and how that related to my painting. I am dealing with ideas of religion and nature, and how they link in history, so this book was great for deepening my understanding of that.
The language in this book has provoked some interesting imagery, and I think my painting is going to develop because of it.

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