On my bookshelf is a book which I have never read all the way through – not because it isn’t good, but because it is so rich and dense that I so far haven’t been able to digest all of it – but which I take down and dip into when time allows. Every time I return to it I’m reminded of the acuity of the mind that wrote it, and the beauty and poetry of the ideas within it and how they are expressed.
The book is called The Language Of Landscape, by Anne Whiston Spirn, in which she suggest that landscape has a language all its own, with features or concepts analagous to grammar, vocabulary, construction, idiom, semantics as well as those already shared with language such as the vernacular. Spirn argues that in fact landscape was our ‘native language… original dwelling… Humans evolved among plants and animals, under the sky, upon the earth, near water’. Humans experienced and acted upon landscape in a sensory and bodily way before we had words to describe it. She argues that this process gave birth to a shared collective memory in body and mind, but that this language is, to many, as dead as Latin or as esoteric as Esperanto.
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is that people have a lost a connection with the land itself through work, and have increasingly moved to cities. When people worked on the land and lived in villages and smaller towns which had a more human scale, they could not help but be deeply connected to the landscape and know its features through common usage – a copse, for instance, wouldn’t just be the name of a patch of woodland on an Ordnance Survey map, but a patch of hazel or chestnut woodland generating a huge variety of products for many common uses, and being a source of employment for many. Those who spent most of their lives outside would have ‘read’ the sky for signs of weather far more fluently than we do now, and ‘read’ the landscape to locate water and food, find refuge and shelter, or find warnings of predators.
Spirn argues that we need to re-learn this language, and if we are to work in the field (metaphors of landscape are unavoidable) of landscape design, we have a duty to become conversant and ultimately fluent, in it. Interestingly, Spirn does not exclude cities and buildings from her definition of landscape, seeing all as a whole, and she asserts that those who achieve the greatest success in landscape (and pure) architecture, are fluent, eloquent and poetic masters of this particular language – from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Frederick Law Olmsted, Thomas Church, Jeffrey Jellicoe and countless others.
The book also contains poignant accounts of instances where ignorance or illiteracy in this language has caused unforeseen negative consequences, ranging from the death of a tree that used to shade a university courtyard, through to the collapse of whole neighbourhoods due to the imposition of a strict city grid over a buried river which could never quite be contained. These are some of the most affecting passages in the book, but every chapter listed in the contents draws you further in – take just the subheadings of the first chapter: Landscape is Language; Landscape is Meaningful and Expressive; Landscape Has Consequences.
Spirn’s bibliography is daunting and her reading more far-ranging than most could achieve in a lifetime, but her writing keeps drawing me back, and her book can act as a springboard to many other sources. Her writing is infused with poetry and is at its best (e.g. in the prologue and epilogue) where she allows herself a more journalistic and personal, rather than academic, tone. Like both Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard, she brings her subjects alive with a vividness, vibrancy and clarity, and the book is clearly a labour of love, 12 years in the writing.