Forest, Rocks, Torrents

ADDENDUM - Nov 2011

Realism and revealing nature


Being an advocate for wild nature in Britain is hard work. Last May, I criticised the research findings from a professor at Liverpool University that labelled brambles, bracken and ivy as “thugs”, and which equated their impact on British woodland with alien plants like rhododendron, sycamore and Himalayan balsam. It seemed a familiar pattern, first demonise what you want to destroy, as is so often the case for the “highly invasive” and infinitely disposable self-seeded birch, a native tree. It was a silly piece of research that just played into the hands of the conservation industry in justifying their intervention management of woodland. Always their choices, never wild natures. The response I got from Professor Rob Marrs was typical of the dogma that gets thrown back at me (1):
“There's no such thing as wild nature in Great Britain - we have a managed, cultural landscape, sorry but there it is”

This dogma is based on the premise that our wildlife has evolved alongside and is adapted to thousands of years of farming activities. Thus it is too late to expect wildlife to look after itself, and that much would be lost if we were to allow nature its free will. The slamming of doors to any other reality is a consistent and unappealing if not highly illogical stance from the conservation industry, and the academics that connive with it. Conveniently, it overlooks the historical loss of so much wild nature, an ecological simplification brought about by the very activities that are said to sustain the wildlife that we do have. Perversely, many locations that have seen an ecological restoration over the last 50-100 years as they fell out of agricultural use, are regarded as failures in maintaining that culturally driven “biodiversity”, and have had that awakening of wild nature destroyed as control is reasserted. Nothing is allowed to exist outside of the dogma, even though it is plain that where in the few places the reign of the conservation industry does not rule, that a wilder nature can exist away from their grasp. Why do they not acknowledge those places? Why do they keep you in ignorance?

Is wilderness the "wrong nature"?

It is ironic then, when seeking to dismiss the notion of a wilderness state in Britain, that those self-serving interests often invoke the article The trouble with wilderness by William Cronon, an American historian, because it trashes the concept of wilderness in the country that has done so much to give life to it (2). For a particularly one-eyed usage of Cronon's article in this way, a paper by Andrew Warren of St Andrews University spuriously conflates arguments about alien versus native species with what he purports to be the "discredited nature/culture duality", resting that latter claim on the outcome of "social constructivism critique" rather than on any ecological consideration of whether human action is always compatible with wild nature (3 - and see later).

The irony is that Cronon’s aim in the article, other than seeking the exposure that he knew attacking wilderness in his polemic would achieve, was to argue for a plurality in nature protection. He wanted to see consideration of the wildlife in farmed areas as well as the smaller, less wild spaces closer to people, which he thought were overlooked because of the national emphasis in America on wilderness as the yardstick for nature protection. He too, rightly or wrongly, felt the prevailing dogma in America allowed for no other reality. Cronon and I were contemporaries at the same university as graduate students, he as a Rhodes Scholar, but our paths did not cross. It would seem that our other connection is a parallel aim for plurality in nature protection, albeit that I am arguing from the other end of the continuum in seeking a plurality in Britain that includes wild land.

A more focussed reading than those who bend his article to their purpose shows that Cronon doesn’t ultimately seek to deny the existence of areas of physical wilderness in America (2):
“By now I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called “wilderness””

Instead, Cronon makes his case by demonising the thing that he thinks stands in the way of there being that plurality, the concept of wilderness, or as Cronon says “what we ourselves mean when we use that label”. Wilderness to Cronon was derived from two cultural constructs: the aesthetic of the Sublime popularised by European Romanticism, a notion that contemplation of immensity in nature can produce pleasure; and the attraction to primitivism through the myth of the frontier, which represented the edge of civilisation to the expansionist European settlers (2):
Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create”

Cronon links the Sublime back to the philosophers Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and his treatise on aesthetics from 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who wrote in 1764  Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. For Burke, the opposition of the Beautiful with the Sublime was about the conflicting emotions of attraction and fear. Thus the causal structures of our ideas of the Beautiful are the passion of love, aspects of objects such as smallness, smoothness, delicacy; and the calming of our nerves. The causal structures for the Sublime are the passion of fear (especially the fear of death); the aspects of objects such as vastness, infinity, magnificence; and the tension of our nerves. Kant states that feelings of enjoyment are subjective. Feelings of the Beautiful "occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling". On the other hand, feelings of the Sublime "arouse enjoyment but with horror". Feelings of the Sublime are the result of seeing mountain peaks, raging storms, and night. Cronon makes clear that sublime or sacred landscapes were those places on earth that were vast, powerful landscapes where people would feel insignificant. Thus Cronon says that “among the best proofs that one had entered a sublime landscape was the emotion it evoked” and that “God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset”. Cronon also points to William Gilpin (1724–1804) who defined the picturesque as "that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" and who set out "principles of picturesque beauty" based largely on his knowledge of landscape painting. A "correctly picturesque" scene thus conformed to his set of rules for depicting nature.

Cronon thus lays the blame for wilderness being the “wrong nature” on European Romanticism, imported into America in the 19th century. A European cultural movement of the late 18th century, when feeling began to be considered more important than reason, it was exemplified by a sometimes falsified or exaggerated and dramatic notion of wild nature in landscape painting, a sublimity that Cronon asserts was recruited in portraying wilderness in America as an idealized wild nature. Cronon had an itch that he wanted to scratch about the emblematic use of paintings. In Telling Tales on Canvas, an earlier article from 1992, he gave an account of how to read 19th century paintings from that western frontier as historical narratives for America. Many of the paintings and sketches from the 1830’s depicted Native Americans, such as those from George Catlin, Alfred Miller and Karl Bodmer. However, as the century wore on, explorers and artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran were painting the big landscapes of locations that were later to become the first National Parks, like Yellowstone and Yosemite. Cronon points out that Native Americans were not to be seen in those paintings (4):
“They carry us backward, not to a prefrontier Indian landscape, but to a prehuman wilderness one, fresh in the morning of God’s creation. They move us out of history and into myth. In this wilful erasure of Indians and whites alike, we see the historical invention of the depopulated sacred places that would emerge as the national parks and wilderness areas we know today”

Cronon has admitted that his discussion of "the sublime" and "the frontier" was only a guess at an answer to the history behind American cultural values about wild nature (5). He has also admitted that his article had been provocative and polemical. I think he was wrong to traduce those later paintings and sketches as being retrospective, as I believe them to be mostly honest attempts at a realistic, photographic-like recording of the quality of those landscapes. Thus Moran and photographer William Jackson accompanied Ferdinand Hayden, head of the US government's geological survey, on an official exploration of the Yellowstone region in 1871. The 500-page report submitted to Congress, plus Moran's images together with Jackson's photographs, began the lobbying to make Yellowstone the first national park in America (6, 7). Moran’s sketches were thus not about divorcing human history from the landscape, the “wilful erasure”, but for making the case to protect it from the dangers of the coming Euro-American westward expansionism. Bierstadt may be more problematical. Some say the paintings of this German born artist “granted a privileged role for an American elite and enobled the white discovery and settlement of the wilderness by evoking images of classical painting” (8). Beginning in 1859, he made three trips west, each time making oil sketches on paper which he later in his studio turned into detailed panoramic views. Perhaps he did sometimes exaggerate what he had seen and changed a few details to make the scene more interesting (6) but his intention was to convey the magnificence of those “sublime” landscapes to residents from the east, and he did join with Frederic Church and Thomas Moran to jointly found a school of American art which freed itself of European conventions by painting the rough beauty and uniqueness of wilderness for its own sake (8).

The aesthetic pleasure in landscape

The accusation by Cronon that the concept of wilderness in America is an imported product of the European Romanticism of the Sublime in landscape painting has always annoyed me. While no expert, I have never bought in to the notion of people like Cosgrove in his book Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape that our experience of landscape is only a social, cultural and economic construct that emerged in Western capitalist societies between 1400–1900 (9):
“Landscape is a way of seeing that has its own history, but a history that can be understood only as part of a wider history of economy and society”

This is the very stuff of Cronon’s polemic, and his requirement that landscapes must be a historical narrative of a human presence (see earlier). Cosgrove gives him more justification (9):
“landscape denotes the external world mediated through subjective human experience in a way that neither region nor area immediately suggest. Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of that world. Landscape is a way of seeing the world…….The frequent association in geographical writing of landscape with studies of the impact of human agency in altering the physical environment serves to remind us that landscape is a social product, the consequence of a collective human transformation of nature"

Do cultural symbols and art forms create the aesthetic experience of landscapes? The extreme in this outlook is that the study of aesthetics is viewed as the domain of artists and philosophers alone, and any attempt to explore the biophysical basis of aesthetic responses to the environment is both “futile and ideologically dangerous” (10). This would also seem to be the blinkered view of social constructionists (see above) that an external world cannot exist independently of human representations of it (relativism) and that realism or other realities do not exist (11). This view contends that knowledge is primarily man-made, socio-culturally constructed,  and not imparted by nature: it is thus about the social history of nature, rather than the natural history of the human species (12). My research, however, with Rob Pheasant on landscape perception shows that there is a more immediate human dimension than the mental gymnastics of social constructionists (13). Through it, I came across the prospect-refuge theory that offers one of the clearer approaches to understanding landscape experience. The theory was initially elaborated by Appleton in his book The Experience of Landscape, 1975, as a response to those who looked at landscape paintings and inferred human preference for landscapes only in aesthetic terms (14). Appleton’s explanation of why an aesthetic experience of landscape is pleasurable today is that it is a version of habitat selection - “that aesthetic pleasure in landscape derives from the observer experiencing an environment favourable to satisfaction of his biological needs”. We exhibit a landscape preference through a remnant primitive reaction from the many millennia that humans were hunter-gathers. While it is not essential to our physiological survival now, it satisfies our "inner needs" of mental well being. It provides an ability to explain such preferences associated with biophilia, phytophilia, topophila, hydrophylia. Gibson extended it further in his book The ecological approach to visual perception through describing “places and hiding places” as affordances, the offerings of nature, the possibilities and opportunities (15).

I very much concur with these approaches to landscape experience of Appleton and Gibson as it makes so much sense for my own experiences of wilder landscapes. It made me think anew about landscape paintings and whether they are social representations, or if they could be reliable indices for biophysical composition. Thus George Peterken considers the depiction of wooded wilderness in paintings in his book “Natural Woodland” (16) and comes up with a surprising example from 1598 - Waldlandschaft (Forest landscape) painted by Dutchman Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1607) and currently in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, Austria (17). I  can see a few people in the wood, one sitting below a large tree on an island bank, others on a small, double arched bridge over a dry stream to the right. There is a lapwing on the right bank of the dry stream in the foreground. Trees are reflected in the water to the left of the bank, and some iris is growing in the foreground. Overall it is a view of an opening within a closed canopy oakwood that has ground flora and fallen, dead wood. Peterken also mentions the works of Russian painter Ivan Shiskin (1832–1898) who, during the 19th century, established the theme of forest landscape in Russian art, striving for “the ultimate honesty in the depiction of nature”, and some of his works can be seen at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (18).

Reference points for realism in landscapes

Over a month ago, I took the opportunity to go to the Forests, Rocks, Torrents exhibition of 19th century Norwegian and Swiss landscape paintings at the National Gallery in London (19). The paintings in the exhibition were from the collection of Asbjørn Lunde, a New Yorker who obviously admires technical virtuosity as well as high realism. The exhibition achieved what I thought it might, in giving me a reference point for that realism in landscapes, and a counterpoint to the accusation of Cronon. As with the importance of the early history of strictly protected areas in Europe (Swiss National Park, Lagodehki State Reserve, Sasso Fratini State Reserve) there is an unexplored parallel in the artistic realism of these Swiss and Nordic landscape paintings that gets away from the aesthetic and in to biophysicality. I was excited by this. It is a visual historic record of known and recognisable locations - not a fantasy mash up that is presumed of much else in European landscape painting.

I was particularly taken with the order and precision of the work of Swiss painter Alexandre Calame (1810-1864). Fast-moving water (torrents) were a central theme in Calame’s work, with many of his paintings depicting the Aare, the largest river in Switzerland, which he sketched in the uninhabited uplands of the Bernese Oberland (20). The painting by Calame of Mountain Torrent before a Storm (The Aare River, Haslital) (1850) shows the forces of nature strongly acting within the landscape, and especially in its bending and shaping of the montane conifer forest. The painting was commissioned by Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov, a Russian patron of the arts who, because of poor health, would likely not have been able to view the scene in person. As it is, Calame included a couple of very small human figures standing besides the river on its right bank, and at the point where the river first appears. It was some time before I noticed them even in the full scale of the painting. Perhaps it is Yusupov accompanied by Calame, put into the landscape by Calame so that Yusupov sees what Calame has seen.

I know that landscape paintings were sometimes “humanized” with a sign of civilization, an area of grassland within a forest that could only exist from grazing, or a hut or other structure (16) but Calame did not add anything in the other torrent paintings in the exhibition – Torrent in the Alps (1849) or Mountain Torrent (1850-60) nor in his more proximate views such as At Handbeck (1860) Riverbed at Rosenlaui (1862) or The River Lutschine near Lauterbrunnen (1862).  Beech Grove, Rocky Foreground (about 1850-5) is another close-up view by Calame, and it is suggested that its composition is reminiscent of the studies of the Barbizon painters (who he met in during his visit to Paris in 1842) of rocks in the forest of Fontainebleau, but certainly not of their rough and ready style. It shows the textures of rocks and bark, of mosses and lichens, and is an intimate corner of nature with nothing of the dramatic. It is this very lack of sublimity that is thought to signal a new direction of realism for Calame at that time. It perhaps is also evidence of Calame’s approach of plein-air or open air, on location studies, as he often painted outdoors with his subjects in front of him.

Other paintings in the exhibition that eschewed this sublimity, and some of which also had an intimacy coming from their proximity to the woodland or rocky landscape of their scene were Lake Brienz (1865) and the Hintersee, near Berchtesgarden (1871) by Johann Gottfried Stefan (Swiss, 1812-1905); and Tree study, by a Stream, Granvin (1839) and View over Romsdal with Romsdalshorn in the Background (1837) both in Norway by Thomas Fearnley (Norwegian, 1802-1842). The latter painting of Fearnley shows a slight humanization with a short section of rude/rustic fencing in the bottom left foreground, a couple of very small figures (one on horseback) and a hawk sitting on a branch, the hawk being a bit of a painters mark for him. Fearnley was a pupil of fellow Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) who in spite of overlapping with the Romantic era was able to go from the drama of The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827 – small hut and felled logs in the river) to the closeness of Study of a Rock from Nysttuen on Filefjell (1850).

Shortly after visiting the exhibition, I bought a book Authenticity in Nature by Nigel Dudley, in which the author had also walked a similar route in looking at what paintings may reveal about landscape (21). I met Nigel earlier this year at a meeting in Cardiff on protected areas, but he didn't then mention his interest in art. To my delight, he explains in his book that he always tries to drop into art galleries in the countries in Europe that he has worked in, and can often find paintings from the 19th century of the landscapes that are now protected areas. He gives the example of Triglav National Park in Slovenia, which I have visited a couple of times. He found paintings in the Ljubjana National Gallery of the park area in the mid-19th century by painters like Marko Pernhart. One of these is Špikova skupina (Špik group, 1849) which is a view of the wall-like mountain range in the Julian Alps that has the Martuljek Forest in the foreground. The sharp, pyramid-shaped peak in the mountain range is Špik, at 2472m. The whole range is instantly recognizable to me as the view I would have on entering the national park near Gozd Martuljek, on a walk up through the forest following the Martuljek river to Spodnji Martuljek Slap (the lower Martuljek waterfall).

There is also a reference in the book to a work in the National Gallery in Prague that he considered to be the earliest example of a state commission that was an explicit attempt to paint an ancient forest in a realistic way so that it became a visual record. While he named the Czech landscape painter as Julius Mařák (1832-1899) it took me a little while to find the painting – Šumavský prales (Šumava forest, 1891-1892). Both of Mařák’s two sketching visits staying in the Upper Vltavice and Satavě, close to where the Šumava National Park is now, were marked by persistent rain over the late summer and early autumn, so that the two canvases he completed for his contract with the Ministry of Education express the typical Šumava mood of damp and foggy (22).

In searching for Mařák’s painting, I came across an article in the Šumava National Park magazine from 2008 that identifies many of the forest locations in Mařák’s sketches and paintings as being inside what is now the national park area, and not of the Boubínský Prales as was thought (23). Boubínský Prales – Boubín Primeval Forest - is one of the earliest protected areas in Europe, dating from 1858, but it is about 20 miles away from the national park boundary. The whole mountainous area is anyway covered in the Šumava (Bohemian) Forest. The article gives a detailed analysis of the biophysical reality in Mařák’s paintings, especially Šumavský prales, and concludes that he captured evidence of the effects of the natural course of bark beetle infestation through the standing and fallen dead wood in his compositions. As the article says, if Mařák was accurately portraying what he saw, then he has gifted us a realisation of the original Bohemian forests - “Forests tested by storms and bark beetles, forests full of dead wood, and rare survivors of green spruce”. There is a contemporary tragedy in recognising this authenticity in the paintings by Mařák, when set against the recent senseless logging of trees by the new park administration of the Šumava National Park in a futile attempt to control bark beetle (24).

The history of forests in Europe shows that primary forest without human impact has only survived in areas that are either inaccessible or are unsuitable for agricultural use, because of their difficult terrain and soil conditions, such as in Scandinavia, the Alps and the inaccessible mountains of the Carpathians and the Balkan range (25). It is not surprising therefore that sublimity would be a characteristic of these landscapes since these are where the wild forests survived. They are landscapes of mountain peaks, chasms, torrents, thunderstorms, danger, vastness, infinity, magnificence. They are also landscapes without many people or structures; places where modern human society does not, cannot or struggles to inhabit, except temporarily as a visitor. Painted today, their scenic composition would owe nothing to a cultural movement such as Romanticism, and everything to do with a wild state that even Cronon could recognise as wilderness.

I will return later to the primary forest in Europe. There are 29 countries in Europe that report that they have primary forest, which is defined as wooded land where there are the natural forest dynamics of native tree composition, occurrence of dead wood, natural age structure and natural regeneration processes, and where there has been no known significant human intervention or where the last significant human intervention was long enough ago to have allowed the natural species composition and processes to have become re-established (26). It will surely tell us much about naturalness in Europe and the attitude towards protection of the wild.

Mark Fisher 13 October 2011, 14 November 2011


Realism and revealing nature

The exploration of landscape in paintings is proving to be a rich vein of interest. While at the National Gallery, I had sought out a work by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) of Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk  (1748 (27)) as a cultural landscape that would give me a contrast to the paintings in the Forests, Rocks and Torrents exhibition. It is a predominantly woodland scene that Gainsborough is said to have viewed from the grounds of Abbas Hall in Great Cornard. Some of the mature oaks in the woodland are growing on earth banks, and others are mirrored in a pool to the right. There is a scrubby ground layer but no dead or fallen wood. The latter is no surprise since this was a worked woodland, as the variety of people in the painting shows. A man is tying a faggot of sticks. Next to him are neat piles of timber. Another man is walking through the woodland on a well-used, wheel-rutted track accompanied by his dog and toting a bag on his back, and a third is leaning on his spade in a pose that seems to impress the women sitting next to him. There is an area of excavation into the earth bank behind him. There is one cow, peeping from behind a tree, a couple of donkeys, a few other dogs, and a horse rider further up the track. This level of humanisation is likely to have been very realistic, even if it is a montage of events that Gainsborough accumulated from his observations. A woodland still exists there today as Abbas Hall Wood. It is small, apparently unworked now, but surrounded by ploughed fields.

A few weeks after seeing this painting, I went to a specialist brick works at Bulmer near Sudbury, and only a few miles from Great Cornard. It was like stepping back in time, as the bricks and tiles are made by hand from clay dug from the field at the edge of the works. The circular kiln buildings resembled pre-historic round houses, and there were many lines of bricks and tiles drying before firing. The trip to the brick works explained something for me that I had seen in the Gainsborough painting - the excavation of the bank was for clay that would have been used in making bricks, tiles and pottery, and the faggots of wood were used to fire the kiln.

I corresponded with Nigel Dudley about my impressions of the Forests, Rocks and Torrents exhibition, and the rationale behind our aesthetic pleasure in landscape. He was very clear in rejecting Cosgrove’s theory, that landscape aesthetics only emerge in developed, affluent societies, although he allowed that they may have more time for expression. He thought that there was scope for much work to be done in using older paintings to show changes in vegetation up to today.

Karelian wild woods and lakes

I got a similarly interested response about the emblematic use of art from Olli Ojala, who recognised that it could be a powerful tool for promoting natural processes. Olli is seconded to the Nature Unit of the EU Environment Directorate in Brussels, working on incorporating wilderness into the implementation of EU nature conservation policy. I met Olli at a couple of conferences last year, and I would have again if I had been able to get to the European Wilderness Days conference in Estonia this September. However, I watched a video of his presentation there, and saw that he was using landscape paintings to illustrate his talk (28). He explains that he had seen others use “national romantic” paintings from his native Finland, a style of realism in nature painting that catalogued the “precious things” that were part of the national character of the Finnish people.

His first was an astonishing painting of wild wood and lakes by Pekka Halonen (1865–1933) entitled Erämaa (Wilderness, 1899, Turku Art Museum). Olli described the woodland scene as including many aspects of wilderness, such as the vastness of the landscape; the lack of obvious human influence; and the natural structures of the woodland that portray function, such as the deadwood and the presence of burnt wood indicating that a natural forest fire has been there sometime in the past. OIlli saw a tie-in between this depiction of natural processes and the approach to nature conservation in EU legislation and policy that sees functioning ecosystems as being essential for the protection of biodiversity.

Halonen was a Finnish painter whose themes were the Finnish landscape and people, and whose artistic approach was always rooted in Realism through plein-air painting. Perhaps this is why his painting of a woodland wilderness is so arresting, but it is also because it seems surprisingly modern in style. Halonen set up his home and studio on Lake Tuusula in southern Finland, after visiting it often as a source of views for his art. However, the woodland of the painting is likely to be somewhere in Karelia, where Halonen stayed with his brother in the summer of 1899 (29). He was interviewed in 1932, a year before his death, and eloquently described his relationship with nature (30):
“Nature is my inspiration. For over 30 years, I have lived in the same place, surrounded by woodlands. I often feel as if I have the whole Louvre and the world’s most precious art treasures right here on my doorstep. I need but step into the forest to see the most wonderful works of art ever created – and I ask for nothing else”

Karelia was the inspiration for another of Olli’s choice of paintings. The landscape in the painting Palokärki (The Great Black Woodpecker, 1892-94, Ateneum Art Museum ) by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen- Kallela (1865 – 1931) is Lake Paanajärvi, which used to be in northern Finland but is now in the Paanajärvi National Park in Russia. It shows a great black woodpecker, perched on a dead tree amongst the mass of wild woodland surrounding the lake. The woodpecker represented a symbol of loneliness and freedom for the artist. He described the red splash on the bird's head as "the cry of an individual's life in the silence of the wilderness" (31).

Two more of Olli’s choices came from the Finnish realist painter, Eero Järnefelt (1863 – 1937). In 1886, Järnefelt went to study in Paris at the Académie Julian, where he became friends with Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who was also studying there (32). They were united by the notion of a Finnish national identity and the desire to create a naturalistic depiction of the life of the Finnish people. After the 1890s, Järnefelt concentrated on detailed depictions of scenery and natural landscapes, and his painting Metsämaisema (Forest Landscape, 1895, Ateneum Art Museum) again shows a wild, forested landscape encircling lakes. Olli’s second choice from Järnefelt is a much later painting that was inspired by the wild nature in the Koli area, which nowadays is in the Koli National Park in Eastern Finland. The painting Koli (1935) is of a view from a cliff-top lookout across forested hills and over Lake Pielinen.

Simplified ecology of a landscape

I went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford last week, and found the favourite painting of my student days - Winter Scene (1855) by Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) an atmospheric view of a landscape of scattered trees under snow, inspired by the countryside of his native Franche-Comté. Next to it was another painting by Courbet - The Banks of a Stream  (1873). Its a delightful, close-up view of a relatively inaccessible shaded stream running through a wooded ravine, with a rock scarp rising up to the right. You could probably find the same view today along the river valleys near Ornans, the artist's home town in the Franche-Comté. The picture is said to have been painted in the studio, but I agree with the description which suggests that extensive use of the palette knife to spread and smudge the paint, gives it the rough spontaneity of a sketch done out-of-doors (33).

The Ashmolean also yielded up a contrasting cultural landscape in a technically superb painting of the Scottish Highlands on Skye by John William Inchbold (1830 - 1888). Inchbold was born in Leeds, trained at the Royal Academy, and came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, amongst whom he established himself as a leading landscape painter. The view in Cuillin Ridge, Skye, from Sligachan (1856) is from Sligachan, looking southwards over the Sligachan Burn in the foreground towards the Cuillin Hills. It was painted on a visit to Skye in the autumn of 1855, and was praised by Ruskin as the “exquisite painting of withered heather and rock” (34). Unfortunately, online reproductions of the painting are poor, but the realism of moorland landscape is seen in water flowing and cascading over rocks and into the burn, the remnant flowerings of heather and taller perennials around the burn, and in its depiction of the chill, sharp light of a November day in North-West Scotland when the sun hardly rises above the horizon. Snow can be seen on the Cullin Hills in the background, and there are sheep grazing in the middle ground, but there are no trees in this landscape. It is the snow that predicts a notional tree-line for the potential natural vegetation of this landscape, and the presence of sheep is why there are no trees to fulfil this potential. This is a literal transcription of the nature that was before Inchbold, a stern fidelity by the measure of Ruskin’s praise, but the realism depicted here is the simplified ecology of a landscape that has had its woodland elements removed and natural processes lost. Woodland loss on Skye started 5,000 years ago, but sustained overgrazing has led to the complete loss of woodland habitat in many areas within the two hundred years since the introduction of an Caorach Mór (The Big Sheep) after the Highland Clearances (35).This is the evidence of a modification by human action, the reality of which defies social constructivism critique.

14 November 2011

(1) Native thugs as bad for woodlands as foreign invaders. Planet Earth Online 19 May 2011

(2) Warren, CR (2007) Progress in Human Geography 31: 427-446

(3) Cronon, W (1996). The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Environmental History 1:7-28

(4) Cronon, W (1992) Telling Tales on Canvas: Landscapes of Frontier Change In: Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West, 36-87 (New Haven: Yale University Press)

(5) Cronon, W (1996). The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response. Environmental History 1: 47-55

(6) American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880, Review by Janet Whitmore. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide Volume 2, Issue 1, Winter 2003

(7) Thomas Moran and the American landscape, Joshua Johns 1996

(8) A Brief History of Nature and the American Consciousness, Joshua Johns 1996

(9) Cosgrove, DE (1984) Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. University of Wisconsin Press (New edition, 1998)

(10) Heerwagen, JH and Orians, HO. “Humans, Habitats and Aesthetics”. In Kellert, SR and Wilson EO, eds, The Biophilia Hypothesis, 138-172 (Island Press, 1995)

(11) Nightingale, DJ and Cromby, J. What's wrong with social constructionism? In Social Constructionist Psychology: A Critical Analysis of Theory and Practice. Eds. Nightingale, DJ and Cromby, OUP 1999's%20wrong%20with%20constructionism.pdf

(12) Crist, E. (2004) Against the Social Construction of Nature and Wilderness. Environmental Ethics 26: 5-24

(13) Pheasant, RJ, Fisher, MN, Watts, GR, Whitaker, DJ, Horoshenkov, K (2010). The importance of auditory-visual interaction in the construction of ‘tranquil space’. Journal of Environmental Psychology 30: 501-509

(14) Appleton, J (1975) The Experience of Landscape. John Wiley, London

(15) Gibson, JJ (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

(16) Peterken, G (1996) Natural Woodland - Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions. Cambridge Uni. Press

(17) Waldlandschaft, Gillis van Coninxloo, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Austria

(18) Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

(19) Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss landscapes from the Lunde Collection, national Gallery, London

(20) Riopelle, c and Herring, S. (2011) Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings from the Lunde Collection, Exhibition catalogue, National Gallery Company Ltd.

(21) Dudley, N (2011) Authenticity in Nature: Making Choices about the Naturalness of Ecosystems. Routledge

(22) Šumavský prales, Czech 19th-century painting: catalogue of the permanent exhibition Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia

(23) Pavel Hubený (2008) Julius Mařák: Šumava Forest - A little unconventional look at the work of capturing the Šumava bark beetle calamity from the 1870s. In Šumava magazine, Šumava National Park

(24) Threats to wild land in Šumava National Park, Self-willed land August 2011

(25) Carlwelzholz, J & Johann, E. History of Protected Forest Areas in Europe. In Protected Forest Areas in Europe - Analysis and Harmonisation (PROFOR): Results, Conclusions and Recommendations. Frank, G., Parviainen, J., Vanderkerhove, K., Latham, J., Schuck, A., Little, D. (Eds). 2007

(26) Terms and definitions, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, Forestry Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

(27) Gainsborough, T (1784) Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk, National Gallery, London

(28) Olli Ojala - Wilderness on the new European biodiversity agenda_EWD 2011

(29) Pekka Halonen, YEARS OF LIFE 1899, Halosenniemi

(30) Halonen's appreciation of nature, Halosenniemi

(31) The Great Black Woodpecker (1892-94). Akseli Gallen-Kallela. A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910

(32) Eero Järnefelt, A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910

(33) The Banks of a Stream (1873) Jean-Desire-Gustave Courbet, Asmolean Museum

(34) Cuillin Ridge, Skye, from Sligachan, John William Inchbold, Ashmolean Museum

(35) The Skye & Lochalsh Biodiversity Action Plan, The Highland Council December 2003