Layers of history in the land

Watching a neighbour climbing the hill-pasture with his dog, I sometimes wonder how it seems to him, this landscape we share

Watching a neighbour climbing the hill-pasture with his dog, I sometimes wonder how it seems to him, this landscape we share. He has a purpose, of course, or he wouldn't be up there: an errand to do with ewes, lambs, the state of the grass or a fence: the hill is his workplace. Whereas I put an artist's frame around it all, composing subliminally for film, camera or paintbrush, arranging intersections of colours and textures, punctuations of shadows and rocks. He possesses the land in one way; I in another.

This is not to claim any special sensibility. There is another neighbour who, out after sheep, sits long on a favourite rock on the headland, contemplating the islands (he should also be shaving a plug of tobacco and filling and lighting a pipe, but that's all gone). Along with the sea wind he breathes in beauty - a word he doesn't mind at all - in ways uncomplicated by my own aesthetic baggage.

So there are many eyes, many beholders and agendas. To a property developer, I suppose, the hillside is just so many sites.

Of all the ways to experience landscape and nature, one I would find most exciting now seems quite beyond reach, unless some magic mushroom could transport me to the tribal unconscious for an afternoon. I would love to feel the landscape as truly alive - not in the distancing sense of modern ecology, with its menu of habitats and species, but as a continuum of life shared with plants and animals: a spirit world of woods and waters.


Some glimmer of what it might have been like emerges from Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland by UCD archaeologist Gabriel Cooney (Routledge, £17.99 UK). Scholarly books about prehistoric Ireland have long since advanced from dry classifications of tombtypes and axe-shapes, and speculations about the mental world of the Stone Age are entirely respectable. This one, devoted to the Neolithic hunter-foragers and farmers, carries special warmth and conviction.

Prof Cooney is, for example, an authority on Irish Neolithic axes and strokes a smooth edge of porcellanite from Tievebulliagh with a connoisseur's fingertips. Stone axe studies have concentrated on technology and trade, but he wants to talk about the spiritual side of it all: how extracting stone from the earth could offer contact with the ancestral world, how axe-factories high on mountains or on small islands were sacred places, removed from the routine landscape. A rockfall or a bad axe day meant you'd got your magic wrong.

Death was very much a part of Neolithic life: few people lived past 30 (perhaps, since they walked everywhere, it felt longer). But lifelong landscapes were local and could be whole worlds of experience. Down into the earth or up into the sky where the mountains touched was where you went after that.

By the latest indications, Neolithic people were widespread across Ireland, living mostly in kinship groups of a couple of hundred, and 1,500 years (4000 to 2500 BC) was quite long enough to develop regional differences in lifestyle. Resisting the people-on-the-move-with-cattle scenarios now dominating British Neolithic research, Dr Cooney zeroes in on the local scale of daily and ceremonial life, on settled homes and fields and neighbourhood tombs and rituals up the hill.

If woods and the rocks were alive, then some fairly expedient magic must have gone into the massive tree-felling and wall-building that created the landscape of the Ceide Fields in north Mayo, now firmly dated to the Neolithic. But even stone walls could be sacred and immemorial in a world still full of mystery and symbolism. And if you think we're now entirely impervious to natural magic, why did we all get so upset at the way RTE messed up the Bru na Boinne sunrise?

The many layers to landscape are also the concern of a richly visual publication, Fraoch Mor Mhaigh Rechet, or, more familiarly, The Great Heath, outside Portlaoise. This is a substantial and handsome booklet, written by ecologist John Feehan and produced by UCD's Department of Resource Management, with help from the Heritage Council and the local golf club. It's the first of a series of "community environmental heritage studies", focusing on small but special areas with problems of erosion or degradation.

Even photographed by satellite, The Great Heath clearly has a different vegetation from anything in the surrounding area. Along with the Curragh, it's the only sizeable area of ecologically diverse natural grassland left in the Midlands - a survival astonishingly demonstrated by medieval cultivation ridges rippling under the short turf.

They were ploughed for wheatfields when the Normans settled in the 13th Century castle on the rock of Dunamase. The scene makes one of Monica McCormick's wonderfully animated paintings for the book. That was the last time the land was ploughed, and in the cooler and wetter climate that followed the Great Heath became one of the last areas of heathland to develop in Europe - indeed, one of the few examples to mature anywhere in Ireland.

As common land it has long been a focus for communal sport and horse-racing, very much like the Curragh, and 650 years of grazing have produced a grassland dominated by the hardy and resilient sheep's fescue and sprouting a remarkably colourful autumn array of waxcap mushrooms. Away from the golfcourse it is also, at this time, a sheet of golden furze blossom rattling with nesting stonechats.

This, apparently, is one of the Great Heath's problems, the others being erosion and a distinctly dilapidated look when the furze is burned back. The shrub always grew there, but recent grazing changes have let it take over the greater part of the heath. A "management strategy" has been devised to curb it and bring the traditional acid grassland sward back into its own.

The booklet, in its scope and visual imagination, is a model of how to wake any community to the meaning of a special landscape.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author