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Tucson Weekly European Views

Simon Schama Grasps, If Not Quite Holds, The World In His Hands In 'Landscape And Memory.'

By Gregory McNamee

NOVEMBER 2, 1998: 

Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama (Vintage Books). Paper, $23.

SIMON SCHAMA IS no fan of short books. He's given us sprawling treatments of the golden (or better, the tobacco and chocolate) age of Dutch culture, of the French Revolution as it was played out in bygone alleys, of the formation of modern European finance. And the 650-plus pages of Landscape and Memory are just as broad-ranging, as Schama sets about determining the role of the land in the human mind.

"Landscapes," Schama writes, "are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock." The branch crashing to the ground in the proverbial forest makes no sound without human ears to mark its fall.

Schama's vision of the land is fundamentally European. It defines the natural environment, with some nostalgia, as a collection of not only forests, rivers, and mountains--Schama's wood, water, and rock, the parts by which he groups his text--but also of thatch-roofed farmhouses in sylvan glens, a curl of smoke rising from the chimneys and lambs bleating in clovery meadows full of swarming bees; fair-haired children dancing around a maypole and strong elders smoking their Meerschaums.

I exaggerate, but not much. The point is that there can be little or no unmanaged nature in such a conception of the land, and for good reason: Only in the wilds of highland Scotland and pockets of the Balkans, among a few other places, has Europe left much of its land alone. "It is...difficult," Schama writes, "to think of a single natural system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture."

Difficult for a European observer, perhaps, but not difficult at all from where I sit, looking out at desert and mountains pockmarked by evidence of human enterprise but not yet substantially remade in the way that, for instance, Holland has been dredged from the sea. A vision of the land that reaches beyond well-settled Europe must necessarily include truly wild lands; places defined, as Doug Peacock puts it, by the presence of "something that can kill you and eat you." In that dangerous unpeopled landscape, falling trees make plenty of noise.

But the European countryside has long been, as Schama admits, "ribboned with trails, like Ariadne's thread, that guaranteed to deliver the walker from savagery and get him back to the station in time for the next train to Paris." In this difference lies the chief problem with Schama's book: His universalizing thesis is really only narrowly applicable, and then only within the Western European tradition, and then only with many qualifications. His vast range of reference--and it is clear that Schama has devoured whole libraries in shaping this and his other books--does not take in Asian, Native American, and African ways of considering and living on the land, rich sources that if nothing else provide a tuning fork against which to sound the European ideas Schama discusses.

From the outset, then, Schama makes too generous claims for his case. But if we take Landscape and Memory for what it really is, we find a book on certain localized European attitudes toward the land. And that book is a rich study of the adaptation of place to the European imagination, of places that have generated literary, historical, and especially artistic ideas, a book that makes a nice across-the-pond rejoinder to Roderick Nash's classic Wilderness and the American Mind.

Schama moves easily into and out of little-known pockets of history, discussing the hydraulic enterprises of absolutist France, the fascination of the English Romantics with mountains, and above all the attachment that artists and intellectuals have felt for the places they have known. He is at his best when he discusses landscapes that've played formative roles in his own memory, personal and ancestral: Few historians have made ancient places come alive so well as he has with his evocation of the forbidding forests of Poland's Bialowecza region, where his forebears were Jewish woodcutters who sent its logs floating down great rivers to the Baltic Sea, there to be built into the great sailing ships that would send Europe off in search of still more exotic landscapes--the Asian kingdom of Prester John, the Northwest Passage, El Dorado.

Those ancient forests and wilderness areas like them, Schama writes, eventually entered into the modern European consciousness as something like ancestral-memory theme parks, becoming the European equivalent of the Hebrew wilderness: a place "where the faith of the true believer would be put to the severest tests." In Bialowecza, the memory of ancient Sarmatia and its bearskin-clad warriors could fuel the dreams of the true believers of pan-Slavic nationalism; only in such unsettled margins of civilization could the Romantic obsession with returning to, and simultaneously mystifying, "the Source" be played out, so that Eden could be located in the Cotswolds, paradise in the Alps.

Landscape and Memory takes us into strange, beguiling discussions of ancient Egyptian thought, and Schama doesn't bother glancing over his shoulder to see that we're keeping up. He regales us at length with the story of one Rose Powell's quest to have Susan B. Anthony's likeness engraved alongside the four presidents on Mount Rushmore--and piled on that, he offers a sidelong view of the career of its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In considering several especially spectacular hydraulic monuments of Renaissance Europe, he offers a kind of art history that's remarkably entertaining.

Marcel Proust once observed, "The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space...None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that compose our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years." And as fugitive, alas, as are places themselves in this chewed-up world.

Simon Schama's assertion that "the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature" does not easily bear up in our time, when nature has become commodity and byword. If in the end Schama does not deliver quite all that he promises, it's surely not for want of trying. His reach has merely exceeded his grasp--just like humankind's relationship with the land.

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