In Ireland we are pre-occupied with land; few are immune to its pull. Our agricultural background explains this but it is not the full explanation. Wrapped up with the experience of land is the view of land. As a society revealed to have great failings, one is the astonishing lack of regard to the history of Ireland’s changing appearance since the end of the last ice age.
Our trees have gone. The first people to arrive here would have found an impenetrable forest of trees and bush. Now, thanks to the good fortune of a style of marking of field boundaries by trees and bushes, we retain a tenuous link with that primeval forest in those fields. Nonetheless, nobody would now consciously feel a hankering for the landscape of post-glacial Ireland. I say this against the possibility that the forest was not to be found everywhere and that some early uplands remain, the spell of which draws some hardy souls to look at them; a residual terrain analogous to Arctic Char.
To know what we did, in fact, do, I suggest you imagine a scene; a field of sugar beet. The field is three acres in extent and must be cared for. It must be cared for because its crop is not a choice on a whim and the sugar potential determines its value and the value is conditional on the care lavished on it. In short, its plant rivals must be suppressed and thrown away by careful and methodical weeding.
We are lucky in having people talented in gardening; people who actually like weeding their gardens. But even those admirable people would quail as they start on the first row of sugar beet in a field of three acres. The first row is in fact the first two rows; one starts, on one’s knees, in what is revealed to be a tunnel of greenery, between rows, weeding first to the left, then to the right. You have wrapped your knees in sacking to protect you, and soon, clods of soil weigh you down as you move forward. Your hands quickly have green stains from the juices of uprooted weeds, spreading into every crack and crevice from your broken fingernails to your wrists.
This is a scene of practical farming. The practicalities of life have an unseen and powerful, often determining, effect on history. Deep in the tunnels of beet we may not be able to see our own field in its landscape any more.
Possibly we never saw it because some of us cannot see such things. Landscape exists in the human mind. It exists separate to the management of land; we speak of “a lunar landscape”, never having even conceived of such a thing until Galileo looked at the mountains of the Moon in 1609. With photographs we can see what Neil Armstrong saw, but in truth, we knew it, from telescopes and imagination before he, or we, saw it.
The management of land is important; Egyptian geometry developed to re-define land boundaries after the annual flooding of the Nile. But it may not be the most important part of our knowledge of land. Before we act, we must imagine. Before lawyers draw up contracts and title deeds, before builders build hotels we must see what is in our mind and what should be in our mind is a view of society.
To have such a view is a thing of great value, but a thing difficult to grasp or hold. Generations of philosophers have tried to tell us about society, each, as it were, describing an elephant from a particular point of view but the best place for that elephant is in our mind.
Consider New York. It’s very big and very old. We can go there and learn nothing. (This writer went North to Doncaster and spent fifteen minutes looking at the late evening skyline of that place from its brick-built railway station, before leaving on the next train South; was I in Doncaster?). Or, we can learn something ineffable about New York from a book. We know that tourists miss a lot about the places they visit. Try as they might, they are often condemned to an experience equivalent to living in an airport hotel. If they could live with the inhabitants for a while, we know the understanding gained would be incomparable to that.
We cannot, all of us, live with a New Yorker for a while; and, likewise, every New Yorker cannot live with us, but we can tell the truth of our lives, if we but see that truth, and convey it to the people of New York. Because they have done it for us, or rather, one of them has.
In 1955 J. D. Salinger’s book, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” was published. Its protagonist, Buddy Glass, has gone to his brother’s 1942 wedding. His brother, Seymour Glass, has jilted his bride, failing to turn up at the wedding. We know something of the Glass family; they are, each of them, geniuses; but emotionally fragile. Seymour, because he loves his bride-to-be so much, flinches from marriage and the inescapable pain of life he feels lies there – for his bride.
The bride and the wedding guests leave the house and Buddy finds himself sharing a car on a journey going up town in Manhattan. Buddy is, it appears, the only guest from the groom’s side and the occupants, knowing none of those absent persons carry on conversation about Seymour in properly critical, but mistaken, terms.
Suffice to say that the journey is delineated to perfection. That imaginary Manhattan of 1942 will live forever and will defeat all other versions of Manhattan from any time. We are taken to know of the streetscape; we meet a traffic jam for instance. Nonetheless, we are in a landscape.
A landscape can show hills or flat country. It can show huge skies or lowering clouds. It can show a forest or a plain with clumps of trees and perhaps a few scattered white clouds.
We have attached meanings to these images. Who could not have been struck by the recent vision of Ireland covered in snow and who could fail to see how it mirrored our political condition?
We need to treasure a hunger for landscape, not a hunger for land.