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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 12, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    “Landscape is history in slow motion”

    John Grenham

    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.

    • Gerry Oates says:

      This brief but stimulating introduction reminds me of the time I was in correspondence with Barbara Bender who was teaching at a London University and she explained that her geographical studies included the relationship between
      Man and Landscape which have been revolutionised by encountering the Aboriginal concept of Songlines.
      In his book of this same title Bruce Chatwin introduced this cultural observation to English speaking readers
      Recently I read that a composer and exponent of the Uilleann pipes took some inspiration from this idea and what
      better instrument could be found with which to sing to the land that is talking -in its own inimitable fashion -to anyone
      not deafened by greed and materialism

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Map != territory. Does it show this: http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/oct2006/routes.gif
      ?
      Sorry. Kynic. I’ll buy this atlas I think.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Bought. EUR67.85 including shipping. Whew. Still. Only the price of 7 packs of Marly Lites. When I give up again next week I’ll have it back the following. Interesting to read about songlines. Strikes me once again the parallels between cultures that could never have known about each other in any conventional, physical sense. Songlines are ancient routes followed by Aboriginal people as they navigate across the trackless wastes of their environment. Containing as they do the names and descriptions conferred by the World Creators (akin to Adam naming the birds and beasts) they serve as ancient Tom-Toms and I don’t mean the drum I mean the global positioning system devices. Anyway, by naming things in the world encountered the Aboriginals obtain power (at least in terms of making them useful) over those things. In ancient Celtic myth and legend, to reveal your true name to someone else (a thing Cú Chulainn was reluctant to do ever) you gave them power over you.

      Likewise, the destruction of the ancient lines of the Boyne Valley complex, violated by the tarmacadamed scian dubh known as the M3 that was thrust through them in defiance of other, properly sensitive and more cost-effective routes simply to ensure the maximum of Fianna Fail crony landowners benefitted from being able to sell their lands at inflated prices as the M3 crossed them, might be seen by those of a metaphysical bent as having taken a very real vengeance against a Nation of people so utterly detached and contemptuous of their own history, spiritual inheritance, values, and so forth. All eye-wash to those who measure value in exclusively monetary terms of course. Ironic and gratifying in a schadenfreude kind of way to see how now no value can reasonably be attributed to any properties nowadays. Anyway. Thanks for the tip-off I’ll let you know what I think of the Atlas when it arrives.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Oh. My. God. What a piece of work. I was in England all week at a funeral so just got back tonight and the parcel was waiting for me. What a beautiful, beautiful book this is. The QUALITY of it. Even when you gently rub the back of your finger across a page you can feel the changing textures of the incredibly detailed and beautiful illustrations, photos, graphs. It even smells beautiful. 422 pages and every sentence freighted with so much information. LIsten to this:
      ”On the Nnorthern and western edges of the Central Lowlands, the drift is moulded into a tightly packed mas of rounded hillocks, called drumlins, interspersed witha multutde of diminutive lakes and bog patches. This distinctive drumlin topography is most evident in a broad collar across the country from Strangford Lough in north-east Ulster to Sligo and Donegal bays on the Atlantic coast. Owing to its irregular terrain and poor drainage, as, for example, in the archipelagic confusion of the Erne basin, the drumlin belt has been a barrier to communication and a cultural divide in the country since prehistoric times.”
      Well. How many questions does that short passage alone answer? It answers a few for me. Like why there’s always been the ”Us and Them” (the I-It relationship rather than the I-Thou as the great Martin Buber would put it.). Why The North/Northern Ireland has always seemed like such a different place (to me anyway) from the South. It’s not just political, nor just cultural, it’s TOPOGRAPHICAL. This is a fabulous book. I’m going to get hours of enjoyment and knowledge from it.
      Nobody who wants to consider themselves educated about Ireland can afford not to have this book. Thanks very very much for the tip-off, Irish Times. THanks very much indeed.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      ”The French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache once observed that man and his enviroment are more intimate than a snail and his shell” while his British equivalent Sir Halford Mackinder remared that ‘man is part of his own environment, as cheese mites are part of the cheese.” That reciprocal relationship between culture and nature is worked out and embodied in the landscape.” (p4)
      As I stood in Silkestone Church yesterday, near Barnsley, mentioned in the Doomsday Book as it is, mourning my dear departed cousin Maura (cancer, from asbestos, we can only surmise she must have inhaled some working for a year at a builder’s providers back in the Sixties as a young woman), I looked at the ancient yellow sandstone walls and remembered how as a boy in hospital for a year I devoured the books of James Herriot (the vet) and how he used talk about the yellow sandstone of his beloved Yorkshire. I always liked Yorkshire people, blunt and honest as they are. I’d have thought perhaps their stone should have been flint, not the soft, luminous, yellow sandstone. But there we go. Whether we know it or not, we are creatures of our environment, moulded by it, made by it, we leave our tracks upon it like a snail leaves a trail, and we leave it changed by our presence as it leaves us changed by its. Anyway. Enuf barstool philosophising I’m going to fall into this book tonight. Thanks again for the tip. Cheap at twice the price it would be.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      (Feckin mesothelioma’ll probably get me too. I worked in the US as a young lad demolishing condos that were lined with asbestos. ‘Cos we were illegal aliens we weren’t covered by the rules and regulations that pervade the US building industry and could earn huge money working for fly-by-night paddy contractors never mind yer facemasks or yer breathing apparatus all we needed was a sledgehammer and a few good ditties to sing as we swung. Yeah environment affects us surely. Anyway now’s not the time for moaning about stuff that might never happen. I hope this book really sells all over the world it’s a fantastic advertisment for Ireland.)