Saturday, November 19, 2011
The emotional landscape
This morning I went to the village of Helpstone, birthplace of John Clare: poet, naturalist, lover of landscape. His grave is in the churchyard, his family cottage restored to a museum. I was there for a meeting of writers and artists, but slipped away to look at what's become of the place that had so inspired him.
There's been a surge of interest in Clare, elevating his status from 'the chap who wrote about birds', to that of a more significant poet whose environmental message is about as contemporary as it gets. Clare dismayed at the loss of species as the enclosure act started a process that would change irreparably the landscape he loved.
I'm no expert on Clare, but I was struck by how prescient his message was. The loss of biodiversity and the broader environmental agenda is universally acknowledged as one of the most important issues facing the world - by comparison, the recent Euro-zone crisis pales into insignificance.
But perhaps less obvious is Clare's emotional connection with the countryside that has become commonplace too. The concept of landscape, as we know it now, was barely conceived at the time he was writing. Yet today, it seems to me, we care deeply for those places that are most familiar and hold personal significance. And there's no objectivity to our passions - there's scarcely a region I've visited where the locals don't claim it be the most beautiful in the country.
I'm no different. The places that matter to me most, and which I regard as most splendid, are those I know best. It's my intimate association with Wales and Northumberland - rather than any objective assessment of their scenery - which shapes my view that they're our finest landscapes. And this emotional connection shows in other ways too. My loathing of windfarms is unashamedly visceral; an instinctive desire to protect our wild spaces from a desecration that I 'feel' almost as a physical pain.
This afternoon I was hurrying home through Leicestershire, not a county I'd put high on my list, despite three years at university there. But as I passed through Uppingham I stopped by a small pub to read the map, and suddenly realised I'd been there many times before - it was on the route I'd cycle to visit my girlfriend in Peterborough. Driving on I thought about those rides, remembered days when my body was strong, felt the gentle ache of nostalgia... And as I did so, the sun came out (or did I just notice it), the views got wider, the trees more golden - and the landscape changed in a way I think John Clare would have deeply understood.