You can see the Black Mountains from Hereford, or at least from part of it. When all three of us were little and staying down there with our paternal grandparents, we would often walk up to a park that overlooked the city and which had good views of the surrounding countryside. Nan would sometimes point out that the range of hills – distant and faint but still quite imposing – to the west were the Black Mountains and that she had grown up on the other side of them long ago. The name sounded interesting and the view was pretty, and so I remembered.
Landscape is a longterm interest of mine, and when I write ‘interest’ I mean in multiple senses of interest. Landscape history is interesting, the way in which perceptions of landscape alter is interesting, and actual landscapes themselves are interesting: both aesthetically and on a functional geographical, environment, and geological level.*
Until about two hundred years ago or so there was, at least in Europe, a very close relationship between the economic value of a given landscape and the extent to which that landscape was valued in aesthetic terms, at least by the literate minority of the population.** Generally speaking a beautiful landscape was a well-settled and well-stocked agricultural district; prosperous, ordered and productive. The classic term for this is ‘pastoral’,*** an aesthetic tendency that reached perverted excesses in the contrived landscapes of the country estates of the aristocracy and landed gentry. In contrast, landscapes of less economic value (predominantly upland ones, but also unproductive lowland landscapes like those of the the Landes in southern France) were regarded in rather hostile terms: words like ‘waste’, ‘desolate’, ‘barren’ and ‘desert’ have a tendency to reoccur with tedious predictability in contemporary accounts.
And then everything changes: a slow revolution in aesthetic perspective spreads – admittedly at different speeds – across Europe (and to its now burgeoning and exploited colonial possessions), as fundamentals of the world seem to shift in the face of the weird Triple Alliance of Modernity formed loosely by the Romantic Movement, the Industrial Revolution and the latest and largest wave of mass urbanisation. One of the many by-products of this was tourism.
It would be wrong to suggest that the resulting change in the ‘valuing’ of landscapes was an inversion, however tempting that might be. The dramatic landscape might now be automatically read as a beautiful one – while the idea that there might be any connection between agricultural productivity and beauty seems frankly laughable – but the pastoral idyll, for instance, is very much not dead. It has changed, of course, from obnoxiously ‘Classical’ to brazenly twee, but I’d argue that that is a very minor shift indeed. Economic – if not agricultural – value has also sort-of accrued to many beautiful landscapes thanks to the money brought by tourism, which adds a mildly ironic twist to matters.
It should also be noted (and deplored) that there is also life in the noxious flipside of the pastoral idyll. Certain seriously bleak landscapes came under pressure from idiotic government policies and the hare brained schemes of even more idiotic private landlords (often working in tandem) across Europe in the twentieth century; always on the grounds that these places were/are ‘wastelands’, ‘desolate’ or (in the case of the great moorlands of the British Isles) ‘wet deserts’, and always with catastrophic environmental consequences for (almost always) negligible economic returns. What happened largely did so because these landscapes were held to lack value. Depressingly enough, and despite their near uniform failure, these deranged policies retain their advocates (but then crass stupidity often does). Lamentably, pathetically and predictably, many of these foolish people like to describe themselves as ‘environmentalists’.
I could write some sort of conclusion, but on balance I would rather just add a photo of a lost landscape:
*Urban landscapes are a source of fascination as well, so it’s possible to add a lot of other words here: architectural, say.
**But what did the illiterate majority think? It would certainly be a mistake – and an extraordinarily obnoxious one at that – to assume that the concept of beauty never crossed their minds.
***Which is a little bit ironic given the sort of landscapes where actual pastoralism tends to predominate.