Our Domestic Wild Landscape

I came across this from John Fowles, describing what travelers in the mid-18th century would think of the English countryside, and found it interesting:

It was without attraction to an age whose notion of natural beauty–in those few capable of forming such notions–was strictly confined to the French or Italian formal garden at home and the denuded but ordered (through art) landscapes of Southern Europe abroad.

To the educated English traveler then there was nothing romantic or picturesque at all in domestic wild landscapes, and less than nothing in the cramped vernacular buildings of such townlets. All this was so much desert, beneath the consideration of any who pretended to taste. The period had no sympathy with unregulated or primordial nature. It was aggressive wilderness, an ugly and all-invasive reminder of the Fall, of man’s eternal exile from the Garden of Eden; and particularly aggressive, to a nation of profit-haunted puritans, on the threshold of an age of commerce, in its flagrant uselessness. The time had equally no sense (except among a few bookworms and scholars) of the antique outside of the context of Greece and Rome; even its natural sciences, such as botany, though by now long-founded, remained essentially hostile to wild nature, seeing it only as something to be tamed, utilized, exploited. The narrow streets and alleys, the Tudor houses and crammed cottage closes of such towns conveyed nothing but an antediluvian barbarism.

It’s still dark as I’m typing this. Through the window behind me I can see the full moon sinking slowly toward the horizon behind the barn, casting moonshadows over a landscape that might offend some folks, even today in our own age of commerce, “in its flagrant uselessness.”

I am grateful this morning for the good sense to disagree with than assessment (which, thankfully, would be less common today than 250 years ago).

For our own little “domestic wild landscape,” I am grateful.

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14 comments on “Our Domestic Wild Landscape

  1. shoreacres says:

    No doubt about the truth of the description. On the other hand, the Lindheimers, Drummonds, and Englemans who were roaming America by the mid-1800s certainly were appreciative of our wild landscapes, and did so much to educate and sensitize the world around them to their beauty.

    I know this: there’s nothing that feels so stultifying to me as a formal garden. All those box hedges and lombardy poplars, surrounded by carefully constructed beds, are about as appealing (to me) as bunches of plastic flowers in a vase.

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    • shoreacres says:

      I forgot that I wanted to run something by you. I had one of those “But, wait…” moments yesterday. I was sanding along, not thinking of much of anything, when I thought, “But, wait. If sugar is contributing to obesity in this country, and most people agree that one of the best things we could do for ourselves is at least reduce the amount of refined sugar we consume….
      Why is it that we’re still so heavily subsidizing the sugar industry?”

      Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction?

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      • avwalters says:

        We’re addicted to fossil fuels, too. And that is heavily subsidized. And we’re poisoning the planet (and killing the bees) with pesticides–that’s not only heavily subsidized, but we foist it off on developing nations and make aid conditional upon their adopting “modern” agriculture. In looking at what we subsidize, remember it’s not about what people need, it’s about the money and lobbying that those companies are willing to spend.

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      • Bill says:

        We subsidize all junk food. The HFCS is heavily subsidized, along with all the corn and soy derivatives in the health-destroying food that now comprises the bulk of our diet. We’re also heavily subsidizing ethanol, which now is more expensive than gasoline but federal law requires it to be blended into gas now (as another way of channeling money to industrial corn farmers). None of it is sensible, unless the priority is enriching industrial agriculture.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Naturalism was in vogue during the Victorian era, so things had changed by then, even in the mother country.

      I agree with you about formal gardens. They’ve never done anything for me (even though I confess that I do like “ordered” gardens).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Astounding to me that there was no appreciation for natural landscapes but now that I read that passage it makes sense – especially “The narrow streets and alleys, the Tudor houses and crammed cottage closes of such towns conveyed nothing but an antediluvian barbarism.” The lack of trees and shrubs in the town squares of many European cities always surprised me – all that brick and stone, albeit beautiful architecture – seemed so desolate and would be greatly improved with some trees, vines, flowers, etc…
    I love natural and wild landscapes but have also always been a fan of the beautifully manicured English gardens and adore the formal Italian landscapes. I have lots of books and can pore over them for hours, but am glad to now have my own “domestic wild landscape” that doesn’t require constant maintenance!

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    • avwalters says:

      Having grown up rural, I’ve had difficulty adjusting to barren urban “landscapes,” whether they be American or European. I favor that intersection between wild and small scale farming/habitation. We who share that aesthetic believe that our choices are universal. However, when I introduced my land to my good friend from the city, she was appalled! What could I possibly find redeeming in that wasteland?! She nodded politely, but was visibly shaken–only to recover when we drove back into town, where she was much more comfortable in the chain-store shopping landscape. This reaction is far more common than I ever would have dreamed. The forest is beautiful but she is untidy.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I would’ve guessed that our love for natural wilderness was timeless, that we were hardwired for it. But it seems that wasn’t the case in England in the 1700’s. Reminds me of a scene in an obscure movie from the 80’s. A character is riding down a road in Texas, in the open countryside. He looks into the camera and says cheerfully, “Someday this will all be built up!”

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  3. Dearest Bill,
    And so are we! Both of us were the very first settlers on your piece of land and we made it a little less wild but still appreciate its natural beauty the most!
    It is so rare and even more so for anyone living in an overpopulated country like The Netherlands.
    So let us indulge in our surroundings for many more years I hope!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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  4. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, Terra Nova Gardens was about as wild as a vacant lot could be when I first saw it. It was not the beautiful wild landscape that you talk about. Of course being in the heart of the inner city had some effect on the land. Just the other day while preparing a raised bed for planting, I dug up a huge rod with a nut on one end. I’m not quite sure what it was used for but finding such things buried in the soil only tells me that man has touched this wild patch of weeds, vines, and sapling trees. I have to say when I took over Terra Nova Gardens, it was not a wild domestic thing of beauty. Raised beds and hardwood mulch in the pathways have definitely improved the look in my humble opinion.

    Have a great wild domestic landscape day.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s great that you’ve turned that neglected place into a productive garden. As I’ve said before, I hope you inspire lots of folks to do likewise!

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  5. Joanna says:

    A quote from my paper that I wrote for an academic journal, shows that the Latvians are also not necessarily so keen on really wild nature either. They do like their forests neat and tidy, although also full of mushrooms and berries too.

    “Research into the impacts of these interventions [re-wilding] often focuses on ecological impacts or impacts on local communities and do not investigate the combined ecological, economic and social aspects (White et al. 2009; Redpath et al. 75 2013). This is especially pertinent in Latvia where central elements of national identity rest on Latvia being a nation of farmers with a close connection to nature. The cultivated ethnoscape, however, where ‘primordial nature has never been celebrated’ means the damage incurred by wild boar is inconsistent with the ideal of well-cultivated farmsteads (Schwartz 2006, p. 55).

    And in true academic style Storie J., and Bell S., (2016) Wildlife Management Conflicts in Rural Communities: A Case-Study of Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) Management in Ērgļu Novads, Latvia. Sociologia Ruralis Available online.

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    • Bill says:

      How interesting that what you observe in Latvia so closely matches Fowles’ description of the attitude in 18th century England.

      “The period had no sympathy with unregulated or primordial nature” versus “primordial nature has never been celebrated.”

      Liked by 1 person

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