PRINT October 1995


Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory

Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 652 pages, 250 black and white and 45 color illustrations.

ONCE, YEARS AGO, I got lost in the woods of New Milford, Connecticut. I had drifted away from a backyard party in search of Indian pipe flowers for my little daughter and lost the trail. It got darker and darker, and the more I tried to find my way out, the more I seemed to hem myself in: there were no guideposts, no markers, no signs of civilization anywhere. The land grew marshy; I had horrid visions of quicksand. Twisted trees and prickly bushes blocked my path through this wilderness of unremarkable foliage. I remembered useless bits of woodcraft, like my father’s conviction that you could always find your way out of the woods if you remembered that moss grew on the north side of tree trunks. But what good did this do when I had no idea what direction I’d set out from in the first place? Increasingly, as it got darker and the woods got denser, I felt a combination of panic and giggles: I remembered stories my father had told about strong men lost in the North Woods in winter walking in circles until they went mad or froze to death—but in New Milford? It would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so scary, and if I hadn’t been so worried about how my friends and above all my little daughter must be feeling. Suddenly, in the midst of despair, I heard, dimly in the distance, a dog bark. I barked back. More barking replied. Continuing my own barking, I moved in the direction of these ever more enthusiastic barks. The dog and I continued our dialogue—woof-woof; bow-wow—until, finally, I emerged on a country road. A house was nearby, and I was eventually united with friends and daughter. I had been lost for an hour and a half, the police had been alerted; all in all, it was a dramatic incident.

I was reminded of this long-ago experience by Simon Schama’s monumental and labyrinthine historical study of nature and its representations, Landscape and Memory, not merely because the book’s first section is devoted to an analysis of “wood”—the history and signification of forests, and of the individual trees that make them up—but because the very act of reading the book seemed to recapitulate my lost-in-the-woods-ness. I foundered in a dense underbrush of seemingly pathless information, description, and analysis, which ranged through the author’s sense of the conjunction of “landscape and memory” in northeastern Poland, site of wartime atrocities, home of his Jewish ancestors; lingered on the mythology and reality of the depleted Lithuanian bison and its fate; paused to consider the equally ominous political fate of Poland as a whole during the 18th and 19th centuries; moved on to the German heritage of Teutonic forest lore and myths; and scanted not on the symbolism of oak trees, on forest painters from the 16th-century Albrecht Altdorfer through the 19th-century Caspar David Friedrich to the contemporary Anselm Kiefer, and, finally, on English and American forest stories as well.

It all seemed rich, much of it new to me, and some of it endearingly personal. But what, I wondered as I wandered through the pages on the Celtic yew and the American redwood , was the point? Where was this leading? Would I ever escape from this historicofactual undergrowth? Fortunately, I eventually stumbled on the clearly articulated intellectual pathways that make Schama’s undertaking something more than an overcrowded jungle of odd facts and historical marginalia. Landscape and Memory, if you stick with it, has a firm conceptual structure, no matter how overgrown with interesting but peripheral data and anecdote.

This study of landscape and its meanings is divided into four grand categories based on the very materials of its subject: wood, water, rock, and, finally, all three together, synthesized in a discussion of the concept of Arcadia as materialized in the modern park. Within each section Schama deals with myth and history, theory and practice. As Baudelaire demonstrated in “Correspondances,” nature may on some levels be understood metaphorically in terms of “forests of symbols,” or as a “temple in which living pillars exude ‘confuses paroles.’” But a forest, as Schama sensibly remarks, may also be just a forest, a substantial material presence with a history, an ecology, and a considerable economic value. Schama makes clear, for instance, the relationship between forests and naval hegemony in the history of the West. Battleships, of course, were once made out of wood.

It is much to Schama’s credit that he refuses to depict the relation of nature and culture as one of unmitigated opposition, and also to separate human perception from landscape in any absolute sense. “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,” he declares. Far from playing a monolithically destructive role visa-à-vis the natural order, human need, desire, and agency are part of a rich, complex, and ancient tradition: “Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together.”

At the heart of Schama’s project is an investigation of the myths of the natural order—the basic myths of death and renewal, of magic beasts or enchanted sites, of nature as virgin to be ravished or as fierce inevitable conqueror over the puny ambitions of humans. But he clearly does not subscribe to the notion of universal archetypes. His view of nature and of the beliefs it inscribes is historically grounded, and is related to specific temporal and national contexts: “What the myths of ancient forest mean for one European national tradition may translate into something entirely different in another. In Germany, for example, the forest primeval was the site of tribal self-assertion against the Roman empire of stone and law. In England the greenwood was the place where the king disported his power in the royal hunt yet redressed the injustices of his officers.”

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Schama’s book is its demonstration of the enduring importance of landscape myths and metaphors in national institutions and identities. The Germanic mythos of forest origins, for example, of dark, mystical sources of racial virtue rooted in a prehistoric past, is quite different from the sense of New World continental expansiveness and heroic destiny in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” Yet despite the underlying clarity of its structure and the lucidity of its articulation, Landscape and Memory’s main virtue may well lie in its sheer volume and variety. One often feels that Schama was first interested in Lithuanian bison, Alpine daredevils, Gutzon Borglum’s Brobdingnagian ambitions on Mount Rushmore, early aquatic engineers and their miraculous marine gardens, and the various mythologies and representations engendering and resulting from such achievements, and that he then invented a book idea large enough to contain them. This may be a work to dip into, not to read; it is hardly possible that anyone, besides the indefatigable Mr. Schama, could be interested, in detail, in all of it, although, as a reviewer, I really tried.

One area in which Schama’s analysis is almost always provocative is that of visual representation. He has much to say about the pictorial, from the lowest popular print to the most elevated high art, and he looks at paintings rather differently from the average art historian or critic, embedding them in contexts that make us see them freshly. Moreover, his range is enormous: he has no qualms about juxtaposing works from different countries and epochs and levels of sophistication, and he deals with them skillfully and in detail.

How much more interesting, for instance, Kiefer appears when his work is examined in the context of Waldsterben, “forest-death,” and given a pedigree not just art-historical but historical, one encompassing not only Kiefer’s own postwar Germany but Tacitus’ and Arminius’ 1st-century views of Germania; the nationalist ecology of Nazism; the 19th-century forest landscapes of Friedrich and Georg Friedrich Kersting; and even the remarkable 18th-century phenomenon of the “xylothèque,” “wooden libraries” devoted to trees, their books being bound in the bark of the particular arboreal variety examined in each volume. Kiefer’s Tree with Palette, 1978, reiterates this insistence on wood’s literal substance, opposing bark’s density and texture to the weightless insubstantiality of the little palette that hovers impotently before it, a ghost emblem of human, as opposed to natural, creative power. Indeed, Schama’s most brilliant insight into Kiefer is his realization of how the artist collapses landscape and history painting, and how he reverses “abstraction’s metaphysical obligations to push the implications of painting beyond and through the picture. Where . . . Mondrian had launched himself from representation of a tree toward abstract essence, Kiefer returned to materiality. . . . Where Mondrian had transformed a tree into a grid . . . Kiefer designed his paintings to return those compositional lines back to their narrative function.”

Schama refuses to vulgarize Kiefer’s achievement as closet fascism, but he understands the suspicion generated by this work, a suspicion “attached to countless artists and anthropologists who have parted company with Enlightenment skepticism about the cultural force of myth and magic and who have seen in their complicated symbolic elaboration something more than a hoax perpetrated on the naive by the unscrupulous.” Schama, of course, is too intelligent not to see a similar problem in his own work, or indeed in that of any scholar who deals in the dense forests, high mountain peaks, and watery confluences of myth and symbol. “How much myth is good for us?” he asks, and we might add, whose myths are good for us? Certainly the innocent and high-minded Arcadianism of Frederick Law Ohnsted and Calvert Vaux, intrepidly struggling to realize their vision for the good of “hundreds of thousands of tired workers” in Manhattan’s Central Park, is quite different from the mythologies of race and sex that have condemned countless millions to oppression or worse throughout history. Landscape and Memory, overstuffed and perhaps overambitious, makes us think about these choices, and about their implications for the human as well as the natural order.