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Landscape and Memory

by on October 7, 2011

In his introduction to the book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama argues that nature and human culture have always been intertwined; that they are not separate entities.  He states, “For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perceptions into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible” (6).  This connection they share finds deep roots in the religious though mythology, art, and other spiritual aspects.  Schama first uses an example of his Jewish community planting a tree as a yearly religious ceremony.  The planted tree is symbolic of past tradition, the cycles of life, and alludes to the Garden of Eden.  By planting these trees, however, the Jewish participants have tampered with the original environment.

He goes on by explaining that there wouldn’t be a concept of nature and wilderness without a human conception of it.  “It seems right to acknowledge”, says Schama, “that it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape” (10). A rock is just a rock, but when a human attaches some spiritual value to it, it transforms into a marvelous spectacle, like Half Dome.  It seems that nature and everything it encompasses is an aftermath of our conception. Because of our presence, nature turns into something with meaning, with a name, with a spiritual essence.  Our feelings toward nature have engrained themselves in the religious part of our psyche because of this.

Schama also claims that culture is the bi-product of nature’s presence, just as much as its image depends on us.  For instance, the landscape of our country is one of the first things that come into mind when we think of our culture.  “America the Beautiful” is an entire song dedicated to the different terrains of the US.  The bald eagle is our quintessential cultural identity.  It’s obvious that American Culture wouldn’t exist without natural influence. Schama goes as far to state that it is poor to suggest that western society has been built solely on reason, because nature and unreason are so ubiquitous within its culture (18).

With his argument, Schama doesn’t necessarily call us to action, as much as he calls us to reflect upon cultures close ties with nature.  Ironically, one cannot exist without the other.  He implies, however, that we can look to the past; to the time when nature became a part of our spiritual and cultural identities, to guide us into our future interactions with nature.

I think Schama is correct in stating how intertwined we are with the environment.  The examples he brought up were new to me, and helped me form concrete connections.  I feel like his call to reflection, however, is only relevant in a perfect world.  In short, I think it’s a little outdated to say we should look to the past to change the future when looking at this topic.  The world today is simply not the same as world that created the concept of the Garden of Eden.

 

Questions

 

Do you think nature is a man made concept? Can you think of any habitat that has not been influenced by human beings?  What does that mean in the context of Schama’s argument?  If unreason is an attribute of nature, how much nature do you see in the decisions you make every day?  Do you agree with Schama’s call to reflection, and why would he gingerly call it reflection when it’s really a call to action?  If nature is engrained in our spiritual psyche, what does that imply about Schama’s call to action?

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8 Comments
  1. I thought Schama had a lot of really good points that you touched on here. To answer one of the main question that you ask, I don’t think that there is any environment not effected by human beings. Schama makes the argument that taking photos is in and of itself a certain level of “presence” that influences that habitat. You can’t enter a landscape without bending a blade of grass or killing an ant. As human beings, we are involved in the ecology of the world and our every move effects some type of environment, even if it isn’t one that we see personally.

  2. amygraceaustin permalink

    Schama’s article perpetuates the discussion we’ve been having in class regarding the nature/culture question. He certainly fuels the argument that nature and culture are interdependent and that nature is only defined through cultural terms and contexts. However, Schama takes this discussion to a new level by incorporating the dimension of spirituality.

    I find it very interesting that Schama believes that there is a common assumption in Western society that nature and culture are “mutually exclusive” meaning contradictory or unable to exist together. He later perpetuates this viewpoint by addressing the habitual “urge toward domination over nature – said to be signature of the West”.

    I think it’s very easy to turn to other societies and draw on beautiful examples of their nature and landscape myths, of which Schama says not all societies have. However, I believe there is a disproportionate emphasis on other societies knowing and/or embracing something that Western society does not. As Schama says, these values have often become commonplace in Western society and need to be unburied from the monotony of every day life. I like Schama’s article, because, while pointing out shortcomings, Schama addresses the capacity of Western civilization to embrace a different ideology with regards to the nature/culture continuum.

    He emphasizes the universalism of this discourse by stating how “it in fact goes directly to the heart of one of our most powerful yearnings: the craving to find in nature a consolation for our morality.” While spiritual connections with nature are often linked solely to Eastern mysticism or indigenous cosmology, Schama addresses the universal human craving of connecting with nature.

  3. Kelsey Snyder permalink

    I certainly think nature is a man made concept. After all, the idea of nature is ambiguous and changes depending on who is asked. There is no habitat I can think of that has not in some way been influenced by human beings today. I think this could either help or hurt Schama’s argument. It could help it by demonstrating how closely intertwined we are, but it can also hurt it if one sees it as there being a once pristine nature that has since been affected by human interaction such as pollution. In that case, it is hard to view nature as simply a man-made concept and not the Earth’s original state of being before human impact.

    • I agree with you, I think that nature is a man made concept that varies depending on the individual who is conceptualizing the natural characteristics of the environment. During one of my field studies I first hand experience this theory. I was asking questions to better understand the interviewee;s relationship with the environment and found how she categorizes what is natural and constitutes land stewardship is completely different then my conceptions.

  4. In response to the questions, I do not think nature is a man made concept. I think that though nature and culture are intertwined, as Schama argues, nature is what shapes culture not the other way around. Nature has existed concretely throughout time and the evolution of many cultures. Though humans have recently had a bigger impact on nature more recently as a species, I don’t think this changes the fact that nature has always existed, and many cultures have developed and shaped themselves around their perceptions of nature. I think this goes well with Schama’s article because I feel that he was arguing that cultures are heavily impacted by nature, being that they are indivisible. I think his goal was to show how the two were so heavily interwined, and how nature is impacted by us, but not shaped by us. We may alter nature, but that does not change was nature is in its essence and what it has been throughout the past before our culture and other cultures cohabitated with it. I agree with Schama, I think that though we are strongly bonded with nature through our culture. I also think that nature is something that shapes our cultures because it is such a strong, everlasting and bare part of life. Though we impact nature, we do not change what it is, and it shapes many aspects of our culture because of its existence.

  5. Although I agree that Schama made his point and argued it well with his examples, I will always be uncomfortable with the idea that man ‘creates’ or ‘defines’ nature. To me the concept of nature as a whole is limitless and in many ways, its capabilites in comparison to man are unfathomable. However, I do agree with Schama when he argues that the Western world has expolited and exhausted nature. I also agree that Western Cultures have been losing their respect for ‘sacralized’ nature, and that it should be rediscovered and celebrated. Maybe it is Schama’s use of the word ‘domiante’ that makes this concept hard for me to grasp, because I think it is near impossible to determine a single ‘ruler’ in the man vs. nature relationship.

  6. I agree with “allanadore”‘s comment about the argument on whether or not nature is a man made concept. Even though we have impacted the environment in one way or another throughout our existence, there is no question that a natural world existed long before we came along. Nature has remained a constant in history while adapting to human impacts along the way. However, i also agree that nature has become a cultural concept and it will never be separate from us. Today, the idea of nature has morphed into a man-made concept because we have impacted our environment so much that there is no place on Earth left that has been untouched.

  7. I thought that Simon Schama’s introduction of his book, Landscape and Memory, was very interesting. I also agree that nature and culture are in fact, “indivisible.” I also agree that humans conceptualize nature and wilderness. Although these statements seem to be rational, I think that the relationship is far more complex than that. Yes, the concepts of nature and wilderness are fabricated through individual’s perceptions. Culture defines nature, just as Schama explains, that nature molds culture. While culture and nature seem to have a symbiotic relationship, I don’t think that culture can exist without nature while nature can without culture. This alters the dynamics of the relationship making Schama’s argument somewhat limiting. When both entities exist they have an indivisible relationship. The power of nature is far greater than that of humans and can alter this relationship at any moment.

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