Jane Rusbridge Author of The Devils Music and Rook

PIECE on PLACE: ‘Landscape Biography’ by Melissa Harrison

This month’s guest writer is fellow Bloomsbury author, Melissa Harrison. In 2010, Melissa won the John Muir Trust’s ‘Wild Writing’ award and I’m thrilled that she has agreed to contribute a PIECE on PLACE. I highly recommend a regular visit to  her Tales of the City  blog


Melissa’s debut novel Clay was published to great critical acclaim last year. Not only did Clay win the Portsmouth First Fiction award for 2013, it was also selected for  Amazon’s ‘Rising Stars’ programme and chosen by Ali Smith as a Book Of The Year. So, now over to Melissa:

Landscape Biography

‘I have looked long on this land/Trying to understand/My place in it’

~ RS Thomas


If place is about identity, landscape is about memory.  As a people, our past is written into the land we’ve inhabited for so long; it is a living record of the way we’ve lived and the decisions we’ve made. If we find it hard to decipher, it’s not because the clues landscape offers are unreliable; it’s because we have forgotten how to read it.


Similarly, each of us wears the scars of our past decisions and experiences: blind spots, bad dreams, sensitivities, strengths. Creating characters, in fiction, can be hard without imagining their pasts and knowing how they were formed. In life, we read one other for clues to the past – sometimes deliberately, sometimes hardly knowing that we do so. In fiction, real, felt characters come from doing the same.


So to really know a place is to understand how it was formed, and why it looks the way it does. That’s true in cities, of course, where (for the most part) the clues, often relatively recent, give up their secrets easily: written history, street names, the architecture itself. Out in the wild, though, it’s often a different story.


I say ‘wild’, but nowhere in these islands really is wild any more: it’s all been shaped by human hands. And not just our worked-over, pastoral landscapes: even our uplands, featureless to some, owe their current identity to decisions made by gamekeepers and sheep farmers and, latterly, conservationists. Little here is truly self-willed.


And yet that long use is what fascinates. To see, everywhere, clues to a place’s past is to understand its current character. To know, for instance, that the gentle ‘S’ curve of a modern field’s boundary is due to centuries of horse-drawn ploughs turning at the field’s end – that is like finding out an old man’s former profession. To look for, and find, the hollies planted in the hedgerows to show the plough-boy where to start the turn is to see how that profession has shaped his character and seamed his face.


A patch of dark-stained soil may mark the place where a walnut tree once stood: tannins from the shells soak into the earth each year when they fall. Walnuts were once planted by yeomen’s houses as it was believed their shade kept flies off tethered horses; a good farmer might also plant one for his descendants to make gun-stocks from, just as rich landowners planted limes in their rolling estates to create avenues that they would never see.


Look a little further from the lost yeoman’s house and a patch of nettles may mark the spot where once there was a midden; Urtica dioica needs nitrogen, which persists in the soil around long-gone human (and animal) habitations. The old tracks that still radiate from the dwelling may include ancient holloways, driven deep by wheel ruts into the land, or high coffin paths used to take the dead for burial, like the one from Grasmere to Rydal Mount. Even modern, metalled roads may still bend where a wrecked cart, or a mire, altered the route 300 years ago.


A line of mature trees with kinks in their trunks is a grown-out hedge: when young they were half-cut and turned at right angles to form a dense stockade and maintained with billhooks every year, but now they are merely the memory of a boundary whose purpose has since been lost.


In the woods, ditches mark their old perimeters, or divide up one area of timber trees from another. The form of ancient trees may show evidence of coppicing, while pollards, with their vastly extended life spans, were often used as boundary markers for that reason. Some smaller copses may have been planted, not as a crop, but as cover for foxes; good ‘country’ for the sport was encouraged at a time when pride in the local hunt ran high. Long-lost woods, though, may persist in patches of bluebells and other shade-loving plants in otherwise open country, as on Dartmoor; whereas oxlips, which spread in ancient woodland at a rate of about a metre a year, provide good clues to a surviving forest’s age.


Landscape provides the record that allows us to interpret the identity of place, and so understand our relationship with it: both as individuals, and as communities. In this small and long-peopled island, the deep past is all around us: in the line of our streets, the location of our settlements and the patchwork character of the farmland so familiar to us today. It informs our character, as the pioneer spirit and the wide open spaces of the West inform the American dream today: part of our collective memory, our understanding of ourselves, and our dreams for the future, too.


Further reading:

The Illustrated History of the Countryside (Oliver Rackham)

Weeds: the Story of Outlaw Plants (Richard Mabey)

The Shell Country Alphabet (Geoffrey Grigson)

England in Particular (Sue Clifford & Angela King)

Roads and Tracks of Britain (Christopher Taylor)

The Silt Road: the Story of a Lost River (Charles Rangeley-Wilson)

Along the Green Roads of Britain (JHB Peel)

The Making of the English Landscape (WG Hoskins)

The Making of the British Landscape (Francis Pryor)

“The most powerful and original debut novel I’ve read for years” – A.N. Wilson

Buy Clay from Waterstones

*For more authors On Location, visit Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa, where you can read Naomi Wood on Hemingway’s Havana.*

Posted in General | Written By April 11, 2014