The Diversity of landscape experience


By Andy Flack – University of Bristol

Throughout last week’s workshop in the Quantock Hills, I was struck by the way in which the landscape is so often spoken of in predominantly visual terms; terms which seem to imply, and even encourage, a certain detachment from the physical land itself.

As I focussed my gaze upon what I deemed to be a particularly beautiful part of the landscape on our jaunt on Wednesday afternoon, (one which I knew we would shortly be walking through) I wondered whether my appreciation of its beauty would be enhanced or diminished by increased proximity to the particular area of land itself. Was it beautiful to me, at that time, precisely because I was detached from it, looking upon its apparent wholeness? Would I still think it beautiful as I trudged in the shade of the trees, squishing about in the mud? In hindsight, whether or not I thought the land more or less beautiful, I’m unsure.  I do know, however, that the nature of my encounter with the land changed as my relative proximity to it shifted. This provoked me to think about the range of experiences that one could have in the countryside (actually, in any environment) and, in particular, about the way in which experience is usually the result of the combination of immediate sounds, smells, tastes, textures as well as  sights. One suspects that the role of memory and emotion must surely add to such experiences, but I’ll leave that particular burrow of eels alone, for now.

Peter’s article entitled ‘The Strange Stillness of the Past’ and other works such as John M. Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes, Alain Corbin’s: The Foul and the Fragrant and Mark M. Smith’s Hearing History have sought to encourage a recognition of the essential multisensory composition of experiences within our environments and have urged historians to recognise the role of other senses in a discipline which is largely grounded in the visual.

During the walk on Wednesday afternoon, I listened to the sounds produced by animals in the landscape, the breeze amongst the leaves and the sounds that I was making as I walked the contours of the land. I realised that I often seem to censor such sounds from my experience. I don’t remember the sound of a landscape as well as I remember the image of it. At Kilve I could not help but acknowledge the sound of the sea rhythmically sweeping against the rocks and the feel of the coastal winds upon my face. I spent time, too, fiddling around beneath the coastal vegetation in search of crabs, and examining the feel of fossils which had appeared on the cliff face. How often, I wondered, do I stop and touch the land? Let’s not forget, too, the importance of personal scentscapes (flowers, smoke from an open fire) and stinkscapes (manure, fumes from motor vehicles) upon our experience of environments. Taste, too, might add to such an experience – might the taste of Peter’s fabled Bicknoller cake have enhanced, or broadened, our overall experience of the landscape.

Tim’s Thursday afternoon paper raised interesting questions about the ways in which landscapes can be experienced within the confines of the motor vehicle. One might suggest that the act of driving within, or through, a landscape might create a purely visual experience; the windows serving as the frame for fleeting glimpses of the picturesque. On the other hand, the motion of the car, windows wound down and a favourite CD playing might create a distinct yet nevertheless multisensory experience. Moreover, the idea of moving through the landscape raises important questions about our perceptions of beauty; is the aesthetic of beauty magnified through stationary positioning of the body, looking out at a landscape, framed by our field of vision? Is a landscape any less beautiful when we can’t quite, through perpetual motion, achieve such a static framing? Moving through the landscape perched upon a motorbike, or a pedal bike, or traversing the landscape by ski might produce distinct experiences. And what is the nature of landscape experience as we peer out of the window of an aeroplane; perhaps the least proximal of all landscape experiences? (or, alternatively, immersion in just another aspect of a particular landscape – its air/sky-scape?)

An increased recognition of the variety of landscape experiences on offer might serve a number of ends. Firstly, it may lead us toward a different conception of landscape evaluation. I’m no expert this area, but I wonder to what extent smells, sounds and textures are taken into account when environments, and aspects of environments, are assigned ‘values’?

There are also important opportunities for academics to strengthen links with organisations such as AONBs and National Parks in terms of the provision of equal access to such places. A turn away from the predominantly visual towards the multisensory might encourage such organisations to innovate methods of enhancing access to the land for people who might not be able to experience the landscape in a primarily visual manner. Perhaps the production of leaflets which draw attention to sounds the visitor is likely to hear, smells they might encounter, the variety of textures that might be experienced within the landscape and the culinary experiences available within the parameters of the place would be valuable. In so doing visitors might be encouraged to experience landscapes in a variety of ways, thereby avoiding the privileging of sight and encouraging participation in the landscape of people who might perceive themselves to be marginalised. Some 1.3 million people have a variety of disabilities in the United Kingdom and the RNIB suggests that around two million people are living with sight loss. To them, multisensory experiences and the recognition of diverse landscape experiences by the tourist and related industries are important, not just desirable.

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  1. Peter Coates says:

    Yes, take a deep breath. Is there anything more evocative of places past and present than their smells? I can still smell the congealed, lukewarm custard that pooled around the spotted dick at school, circa. 1969 (plain old-fashioned grammar school, I hasten to point out, in case you leap to any conclusions). The dank smell of the muskeg and the aroma of black spruce that greets you at Fairbanks airport. The scent of resin mixed with solar-heated bark in the sugar pine forests of California’s Sierra Nevada. The unmistakeable sour-sharp odour of urban fox piss that burns my nostrils on the walk to work in the morning.

    As for textures, am I the only person out there who relishes the subtle difference between treading in mud and cowflop, whether booted or barefoot?