Imagining Future Landscapes

On Tuesday evening I spoke to a local heritage group about local landscapes and how the area has changed over the past 1000 years or so. Being based on the coastal periphery, it is perhaps little wonder that marine ‘seascapes’ and the sea’s influence on land and human culture played such a significant part in the discussion. My agenda was based on encouraging those attending to think of landscape change over much broader time and, by looking back at landscape history, envision future changes in landscape and the resultant influence on human settlement, ways of thinking, economy, culture and society. In short, I was encouraging blue sky thinking.

We are so busy living our lives, thinking ahead maybe a week at most, or, in the context of farming, planning and undertaking seasonal work, that we very rarely take a step back and do big, blue sky thinking, of the type encouraged in the humanities. What is more, the cynics in this world often look down on it, arguing that modern life is not akin to such thinking or use of time, and that the economy, scientific endeavour and technocratic thinking are the only true way to gain respect in society. Reflection, appreciation of the natural world, even spirituality, are seen as things we can do ‘on the side’, ‘in our spare time’, away from the real importance of making a living by trading goods and services.

However, I have come to learn that in constructing a society that thinks in this way, we remove a good deal of idealism from the world; those who are undertaking blue sky thinking, with alternative visions for the world, are silenced or at the very least not given voice by the great conventional media machine. On a local level we have ‘local plans’ for development that think maybe 20 years ahead. We talk of sustainability but we rarely think about the kind of world we would like to live in, if we were in the place of future generations. We soldier on regardless, politicians and economists sweeping alternative ideas under the carpet as something that endangers stability and therefore their own security.

When it comes to landscape change we need to see it in context. I write from the perspective of somebody who has lived in and studied a place that lies below sea level and is ‘under threat’ from coastal erosion. What is under threat is really the status quo. Landscapes change significnatly over the long-term, but because in our short lifetime we have only known it a certain way, even with rapidly changing landscapes such as the Naze (the subject of my talk on Tuesday), we want to ‘protect’ the landscape as we know it, and find it difficult to imagine how it might change in the future and how we might adapt to it.

In the technocratic world in which we live we are obsessed with quantification. We are much less good (and indeed many turn their nose up at it) at respecting the social, cultural and spiritual side of landscape, that I believe goes hand in hand with an acceptance that landscape is dynamic and ever-changing.

In his book, The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane spoke of landscapes and the effects they have on people:

”I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we use within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains…As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickering unmappable in its plays, yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.”

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (London, Penguin, 2012) pp.26-27

We would do well to respect reflection on how landscapes have shaped our way of thinking and the way we live our lives, and also respect the action of reflection in the first place. The world needs to slow down and look around itself. The task of the writer of landscapes is to encourage people to do so, think differently, always question the status quo and think for the long-term.

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