The beautiful and the global


By Petra van Dam

I would like to reflect on a few of the questions that turned up during our meeting in the Quantock Hills. First the question of ‘natural beauty’, raised by the fact that the Quantocks are England’s first ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. Is beauty an intrinsic aspect of the landscape or is it simply in the eye of the beholder?, a question raised by Chris Smout.  The comparison between the sublime and the simply beautiful may help us here, an approach Peter Coates proposed in his opening paper. Also the appreciation of lowlands as compared to hills, may be useful, a comparison that arose in the discussion of Jenny Graham’s landscape paintings. Then I move on to a question that may add a global touch to the debate: how does our (childhood/native) experience with particular landscapes affect our appreciation of other landscapes?


Beauty and meaning

Our discussions revealed that people value landscape in different manners. We met several professional land managers and artists whose interests shaped their perceptions of landscape. The appreciation of the painter was probably the closest to what we generally call beauty. She saw colours, light and forms. Jenny Graham said that when there is beauty, there is balance. I did not get a chance to ask Jenny if there can also be beauty in tension and contrast as well. She also suggested that not everybody sees in the same way, some people are born with a higher sensitivity for light and colours than others.

The landscape architect, Emma-Jane Preece, sought out the characteristic assemblies of landscapes, through her assessment process. This seeing was not merely visual, it was also informed by ‘stories’ about elements in the landscape, for example a tanning barn or a group of trees planted in a bare area. So in the landscape there is both a visual layer and a layer of meaning. Some elements are pure form; others stand for a meaning or a value that only the informed observer can see. Beauty seems to arise from the way small areas represent landscape types (among others).

The environmental biologist or ecologist has an eye for biodiversity. This type of seeing is more professionally informed than the former ones. Tim Russell found beauty both in the whole ecosystem and in its individual elements, including looking up to spot a rare species of red deer standing at the rim of the hills in the bright sunlight. In this seeing it seems essential that here, in the Quantock Hills, it is different from other places. The consciousness of the larger whole sharpens the appreciation of the local.

The historian can share experiences with all these specialists (as art historian, landscape historian or environmental historian), but in all capacities he or she specializes in stories: researching stories and telling stories. Here, beauty is in the story.  So the story is primary: landscape is ‘seen’ through the story. Maybe it is not too much to say that a historian adds a layer of meaning to the landscape. In this way historians resemble the landscape archaeologist, who does a similar thing, but begins with the objects in the landscape, the material remains of a time before written sources. Historians more often follow stories that leave no or few landscape traces, or traces that have yet to emerge. Their stories may also connect landscape elements across time and place. For instance, the observation of the tanning barn, the forest and the road between them might raise a question for the historian: where did the tannin go? Did it go to a leather production site, saddles for the local farmers, or maybe further away, to cities, for lady shoes? In which period was this particular tannin production important and how did competition from production elsewhere influence the possibilities for profit? Or he or she could consider the environmental question (with a touch of politics): What species of trees provided the best tannin? Was that a local species? Who decided to plant or promote those trees?

In my examples, I have moved away from the pure, aesthetic beauty towards meaning. And I made that depend on the type of landscape observer, but that is a (narrative) trick. I think each of us can move between beauty and meaning, even in a single landscape observation. Jenny emphasized her personal abilities of aesthetic analysis, yet she also mentioned the art school she visited and her graphic design experience, so she is aware of the way training has added meaning to her appreciations.

And the other way round, we can all appreciate aesthetic beauty in the landscape, its stark colours, and its rhythmic forms. Beauty and meaning are different concepts but there is an overlapping area that I am trying to elucidate here. Because we can move in the border zone, I think we can understand each other’s differing (professional) appreciations of the landscape.


Sublime and simply beautiful

Lane from Halsway Manor

Lane that snakes south from Halsway Manor: Sublime or simply beautiful? (Photo: Peter Coates)

Peter tried to identify the difference between sublime and (merely) beautiful. He argued that beautiful alludes to smooth, soft, gentle and visual dimensions. Sublime has connotations of infinity, deity, delightful horror, terrible cliffs and affects all the senses. An agricultural (working) landscape seems closer to simply beautiful, whereas the (American) idea of pristine wilderness is closer to sublime.

We heard about the early English Romantic poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth, who crossed the Quantocks as the first ‘literary landscape’ travellers. They saw the Quantock landscape not as a working landscape, but as a painting, as ‘picturesque’. We talked about our intuition that high country is more sublime than lowlands. We discussed the difference between the Quantock Hills and the Somerset Levels, and between the bigger mountains in the Scottish Highlands as opposed to the gentle hills of England. Also we read in Anderson’s articles that, statistically, most National Parks are situated in areas of higher altitude than AONBs.  This seems to express the widely-held appreciation that hilly areas are more beautiful than flat landscapes, and very high mountains are closer to sublime. Now here is a thought experiment I would like to put forward: if in our time (as it was in prehistory, according to Quantock archaeologist Hazel Riley), the hilly landscapes had been the agricultural landscapes, and the flats inaccessible wild marshes, would this have changed our appreciation of beauty? In short, what is more important for the label sublime, high or wild?

At this point I’d like to quote an important father of Romanticism, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In this text he expresses two different appreciations of natural beauty, at the root of the differences we discussed between beauty and the sublime.

‘… Moreover, what I mean by fine scenery must by now be clear. A flat landscape, however beautiful, has never seemed so to my eye. I need rushing streams, rocks, pine trees, dark woods, mountains, rugged tracks to scramble up and down, precipices on either side to fill me with fear.’[1]

Rousseau introduces the personal, emotional and physical experience of landscape. It contributes to the greatness of the experience that it is difficult and tiring to reach this higher landscape, and emotions of fear enhance the experience. Flat landscapes do not provide these emotions and therefore are not sublime, but merely beautiful. But apart from that, to me it seems there is also a quality in the landscape which comes from emotions attributed to the landscape, of speed and dynamics (as in the rushing of the streams), or of natural movements (falling rocks, maybe even avalanches?). I feel that the image of a precipice stands in the border zone; it may act as a connection between the individual and the landscape. For precipices are only dangerous because one imagines one may fall down into them. So fear aroused by a precipice is an emotion about the possibility of falling heightened when one identifies oneself with a falling stone. And where there are falling stones all around, this might stimulate the imagination further. I find it easy to interpret this text fragment in this way, because I know that fear very well, being a lowlander with lots of experience in highlands.


Beautiful lowlands and sublime highlands

I continue with the next question that follows from the previous logically to my opinion, how does our experience with particular landscapes affect our appreciation of and experience with other landscapes? And how did this change over time, or how should we conceive of this in a historical way?

Large countries like Great Britain and France contain both highlands and lowlands. My country, the Netherlands, is part of the lowlands of Europe and is so small that it contains only lowlands and some hilly areas, but no highlands at all. Our nearest highlands are the Alps. One finds a surprising number of inhabitants of the lowlands of Europe among the Alpine tourists, both Germans and Dutch. I suppose we are all a bit like Rousseau, we find the Alps sublime and majestic and we appreciate the Alps for the terrific and contrasting landscape experience they provide. We really need to struggle to reach the tops to take in the sublime views. And because we are real lowlanders, this also demands a strong physiological experience: before we can access a real mountain we have to wait a couple of days until our blood has adapted to the thinner air. (Unfortunately, that experience has been compromised by the numerous lifts, but that is a different story).

My personal landscape experience was very much influenced by the highlands. I spent summer holidays in the Alps from age 10. That was beautiful and sublime. In contrast, my own country was only moderately beautiful. It was good enough to do a week’s cycling tour, a cheap holiday for a student. Our preference was for the slightly elevated eastern areas, which contain also forests, closed fields and cut in old country roads with hedges, not unlike the lower parts of the Quantocks and many agricultural areas in Britain.

Only many decades later did I begin to appreciate the beauty of the flat areas of my country, the famous polder landscape. I cannot say exactly how this happened, but Jenny Graham’s remarks made me think about this. She said it took her a long time to appreciate the landscape beauty of the Somerset Levels. I think it has much to do with the light on the water on one hand, and the graphic characteristics of the (reclaimed) wetlands on the other hand (as expressed in rows of trees lining canals, which seems to me stronger in Holland than in England’s Wicken Fen, as Jan Oosthoek and I both noticed). It may be a rather abstract beauty, more for the eye than for the other senses. Maybe it is for this reason that David Moon feels the appreciation of lowlands are an acquired tast as he noted in his reaction to Pauls comments on the network website.

David asked Jenny how she made the water in her paintings shiny (“by adding white” was her technical answer!), and that points to the experience that the landscape derives its quality from the effect of light on water. A flat wetland landscape without sun is very dreary; the land becomes as grey as the mists that sometimes rise from the waters. By contrast, when the sun reflects in the water, everything takes on a new aspect. The water reflects the sky and the clouds, and the ‘shine’ in the landscape is further enhanced when the sun breaks through dark clouds after rain and uncountable drops refract the light in all directions. Without the poetic means to describe this more convincingly, I return to history and to Rousseau.

Rousseau was a lowlander. He contrasted the Alps with Paris, which is situated in a flat plain part of France. Let us turn this round: if Paris had been a city in the mountains, would Rousseau have ventured out in the marshy lowlands of France, in the deltas of the Rhone and the Loire, where we find flat wetlands similar to the English levels and the Dutch polder landscape? Would he have liked the landscape differently, where the precipices were replaced by rivers and canals? He could have experienced just as great a sense of danger, particularly if he could not swim, and did not feel comfortable in a boat. If you replace rugged climbing tracks with muddy tracks in the swamps, the landscape could be just as tiring. Replace the view from the top of the mountain by a view looking up into the sky and contemplating cloud massifs. Hmmmm, does it work? I find it difficult to judge, being a lowlander myself. For the comparison of these two experiences in two very opposite landscapes, we may need the judgement from a person who is more objective, someone who originates from an in-between landscape of low hills. (Old tourist guidebooks and historical travel diaries, published in high tempo all over Europe recently, may contribute to the answer.)


The global

Moving up to the present, I finally want to turn to an item that Iain Porter raised in his presentation. He told us that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a set of criteria to categorize parks. The Quantock Hills AONB classifies as category V, multi-purpose areas. Incidentally, all other nature reserves in Britain, including all National Parks as I understood, fall into this category.  If we make such bureaucratic tools, we have moved far away from the intuitive approach of sublime and outstanding beauty of Rousseau, Coleridge and Wordsworth. I got the impression that the IUCN standards are much influenced by ‘real wild nature’ in the developing countries. Yet what does it say about natural landscape and beauty in our time? Why is the IUCN important for the managers of the Quantocks? What does a change of category imply?  This is a reality, as Iain noted, but he did not discuss the consequences. Does the British landscape policy derive more from global appreciations and developments than local ones?

I hope these remarks contribute to developing questions for our third workshop in the Kielder water and forest park.

(With thanks to Libby Robin for language advice.)

Read Peter Coates’ response “From Somerset to the Serengeti: low and high, rich and poor“.

[1] Rousseau, J.-J., Confessions Scholar, A. (trans.) OUP, Oxford 2000, 168.



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