In Search of the Essence of Place

Petr Král. First published as ‘Enquête sur des lieux’ (Flammarion, 2007); translated by Christopher Moncrieff (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Recommended by Jon Stevens

Petr Král was a Czech writer, who died in 2020. ‘In Search of the Essence of Place’ was one of his last books, published in 2007. Král was born in German occupied Prague and grew up under Communism. After the ‘Prague Spring’, like many writers and intellectuals, he fled to Paris where he spent the next thirty years, apart from a short period in North America. He returned to Prague in 2006.

‘In Search of the Essence of Place’ is an elliptical and fragmented journey through Král’s life. It is a tale of exile and of displacement, in which primacy is given to the places he experienced rather than the people he met.  Král was a member of the Czech surrealist movement and, on his first visit to Paris, he wanders the streets searching for the home of André Breton (who he refers to obliquely as ‘the prophet’). Following the example of Breton’s autofiction Nadja, Král’s text is interspersed with commonplace black and white photographs; and like Breton he is preoccupied by the ‘strangeness of things and places’.

The most unsettling aspect of places is their lack of clear boundaries…even their frontiers are hidden from our eyes by their deceptive drifting motion…(as in) the distinctive way in which the decoration of the most ornate palaces breathes in and out…and then suddenly ceases, when we study it too closely, leaving us with an inanimate lump of masonry.

The Natural History of Oxfordshire

Robert Plot, 1677

Recommended by Martin Stott

Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire examines and describes the flora, fauna, palaeontology, geology, and landscape of the county; it includes a large map, which Plot claims is more comprehensive than those of ’Saxton, Speed &c’, as well as describing unusual features of the area. Controversy about the origin of fossils was growing at the time, and Plot engages with the subject in some detail. He believed that experimentation was essential in understanding the natural world and gives a rational, evidence-based description of the objects and phenomena he comes across, including the first known picture of a dinosaur bone, Plate VIII, which he incorrectly concludes to be the bone of a giant. The impact of the book was immediate and far reaching, and he was elected to the Royal Society on the basis of its publication. It may also have confirmed Elias Ashmole in his belief that Oxford was the appropriate place for his collection. He persuaded the University authorities both to accept the collection and provide a fine building in which to house it. Plot went on to become the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

The Making of the English Landscape

W.G. Hoskins, 1955.

Recommended by Martin Stott

I discovered this book as a teenager while studying for A levels in geography and geology. It opened my eyes to the landscape of my childhood, the north Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and gave me the tools to explore what became with its publication a new discipline: landscape history.  Through it, over a distance of a few miles, it was possible to chart centuries of England’s history by close observation of the landscape. Hoskins’ attention to the significance of ancient hedgerows, water meadows, green lanes, copses, and deserted medieval villages challenged the received wisdom that contemporary landscapes had  been shaped largely by the great eighteenth-century landowners and their technologies. The Making of the English Landscape is not so much about the geography, local history, or landscape archaeology of a particular place, but rather the intellectual underpinning of a way of seeing, interpreting, and integrating the interaction between human activity – sometimes over millennia – and the landscape of every place.  Its publication almost 70 years ago was revolutionary, and its impact on our understanding of the English landscape remains profound.

The Heart of the Country

By James and Robin Ravilious, foreword by Ronald Blythe (Scholar Press, 1980)

Recommended by Martin Stott

The Heart of the Country captures — in the words of Robin Ravilious and the photographs of James Ravilious — a slice of rural north Devon between the Taw and Torridge rivers. Structured around four themes (The Land, Farming, Village Life, and Occasions), each with a short introduction by Robin, James records in over a hundred photographs what Ronald Blythe calls ‘the poetry of the commonplace’.  Taken over a six-year period in the 1970s within a ten-mile radius of Beaford (covering three towns and about thirty villages), the photographs have an immersive quality which Blythe describes as ‘saying something very memorable about the deeper actuality of rural experience’. Forty years later, they evoke a romantic, almost wistful, air of a community where the threads of people’s lives—the Post Office, the village shops and pubs, hedge laying, foxhunting, the village forge, and winter snows with all the challenges they brought for farmers and their livestock—entwine to create a record of a rural society to which the authors themselves belong, connecting a lingering yesterday to the present.

On the Black Hill

Bruce Chatwin, 1982.

Recommended by Ellen Addis.

Set in the border regions of Herefordshire, in England, and Radnorshire, in Wales, the story follows two identical twin brothers and their lives on a farm called ‘The Vision’. Never leaving home, sleeping in the same bed, and working the rural soil, On the Black Hill tells the beautiful but quietly sad tale of the brothers’ unique bond to each other which is as strong as their tie to the land.

The cover of Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill.

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold, 1949.

Recommended by Tom Dobbins

A simply beautiful collection of stories and essays on land. Leopold has a wonderful knack of inspiring ecological stewardship through his intimate descriptions of place, while also managing to capture what it is to have an honest, evolving relationship with the world around us. His joyous month-by-month assessment of rural Wisconsin is backed up by sharp ecological critique, which continues to inspire a place-based management practice rooted in community and inhabitation.

The Mushroom at the End of the World

On the Possibility of Life In Capitalist Ruins

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press, 2015)

Recommended by Tom Dobbins


Whether at the scale of a building, a material or an ecology, viewing place through a non-human lens is a necessary act towards an empathetic management of its character. It makes space for under-represented qualities and characteristics to gain value, which in turn can expand what is deserving of protection, rehabilitation or praise. Anna Tsing’s observations of the world in relation to the matsutake mushroom are one fascinating example of this. The book exposes a web of hidden global narratives, sited across a series of forests, where place is read in the spaces between ecology, commodity and community.

An Oxfordshire Market Gardener

The Diary of Joseph Turrill of Garsington 1863-67

Edited by E. Dawson & S.R. Royal (Alan Sutton, 1993)

Recommended by Martin Stott

Joseph Turrill was a young man working as a market gardener in the Oxfordshire village of Garsington when he kept his diary. As a working-class lad, he experienced the landscape less through the views and more by what he could grow. His detailed observations of the seasons, the weather, the wildlife, and what would sell, as well as the habits and quirks of his neighbours, customers, family and girlfriend, reflect a very different experience of life and locality from contemporary diarists such as Francis Kilvert in Clyro, or earlier natural historians such as Gilbert White in Selborne, let alone his neighbour in Garsington Manor, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the galaxy of literary stars that she entertained there. Whether it is the progress of a row of beans, gathering walnuts for pickling, or gardening by moonlight (’the parish lantern’) after a late shift in his mother’s pub, the diaries shed a fascinating and distinctive light on a much written about locality.

Diary of Joseph Turill

 

Collected Poems, 1956-2001

Thomas Kinsella (Wake Forest University Press, 2006)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

Thomas Kinsella (born 1928, Inchicore, Dublin) is a poet of the random and of restoration: ‘order’ is one of his most-used words, though he uses it in the sense of reconciliation rather than of restriction.

Kinsella came from a family of stone cutters and this inheritance somehow comes across in his writing: he puts shape to the stone but doesn’t always dress it. Similarly, his explorations of nature and his recollections of his native Dublin are neither bucolic nor nostalgic, and even more rarely are they consolatory. Kinsella often savagely satirises contemporary Dublin city planning, especially with reference to Ireland’s frequently catastrophic lack of conservation.

His other great recurring interest is the exploration of the physical similarities and differences across generations of his family. While his thoughts are often rooted in the sensuous and tactile (‘His Father’s Hands’, for example), he frequently describes hands which stroke, twist, clench and work, but which also touch to communicate when words fall short or as a silent assurance of trust.  These poems are vivid fragments: they possess the quality of memories bursting upon the mind, like light cast into a room by a door suddenly thrown open.

Kinsella is not interested in tidiness or pat conclusions: there is rarely a sense of an ending in his work; even his later (much shorter) poems end by creating ripples of thoughts and evoke other times and places.

The Poetics of Space

Gaston Bachelard (1958)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

This book is difficult to categorise but this is where, to me, the joy of it dwells. In describing the domestic spaces that both give us shelter and provide an untrammelled place in which to think and feel, Bachelard explores poetry, philosophy, observation and memory (sometimes simultaneously). He offers reflections on drawers, chests, nests, wardrobes and corners; there is also a seemingly contradictory but completely revelatory chapter on what Bachelard terms ‘intimate immensity’.

I especially love this latter chapter and the one on corners. Somehow I never realised that I most comfortably read, think and work in the shelter of a corner, either a naturally occurring one or one I have managed to construct. Bachelard removes entirely the negative connotation of being “cornered” and in these chapters beautifully aligns the absence of claustrophobic thinking with its opposite of being present in vast exterior spaces: on the sea or in forests. It summons to my mind Woolf’s recognition of the need for the ‘queer amalgamation of dream and reality, the perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow’.

‘Housed everywhere but nowhere shut in’, writes Bachelard, ‘is the motto of the dreamer of dwellings… A daydream of elsewhere should be left open therefore, at all times’. This also puts one in mind of anchoresses or of William Cowper in his beloved alcove at Olney. In both cases their bodies are sheltered by a small space and their external vision is only fixed on one point, yet this provides their internal vision with endless space to explore.