“Landscape is history in slow motion”
The introduction to the new edition of the wonderful Atlas of the Rural Irish Landscape coins a nice epigram, ”Landscape is history in slow motion”, which neatly sums up the constant circle of interaction between physical environment, geography, and the human activities that depend on it, overlay it, change it, and are changed by it. The most important point is that these processes are slow, almost imperceptible. Shifts in climate and terrain, geological constraints such as rivers or mountains, the slow drift of wealth in agriculture and architecture, all channel the evolution of societies, but over deep time, rather than individual lives.
Take an outline map of Ireland. It is almost impossible not to see Irish history as a natural outcome of the shape of the island. The West coast is fractured and ragged, shattered into inlets and cliffs by war between the Atlantic and the mountains. The East coast is unindented, facing the relative calm of the Irish Sea. The contrasts flow naturally: West versus East; rough versus smooth; natural versus artificial; wild versus calm; margin versus centre. History certainly provides some basis for these oppositions – the poorest areas along the Atlantic coast seem to have been settled later than the South and East. They are certainly the least well-documented. All the major population and trade centres have evolved in the East, making Ireland extraordinarily lopsided. But extending that series of contrasts shows just how tainted such a reading of geography can become. Poor versus rich? Irish versus English? Savage versus civilised?
Such a notion of history as the “natural” outcome of geography is acutely political, an unanswerable argument for an inevitable status quo. What the Atlas shows again and again is just how false this notion is, by disentangling the countless human choices that have accumulated in our landscapes, century after century, millennium after millennium.