The Harz Journey

Heinrich Heine (1826)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson

Die Harzreise is an account of a trip from the German town of Göttingen (‘famous for its sausages and university’) into the Harz mountains. You couldn’t want a more entertaining travel companion than Heine, whose voice is by turns sarcastic and lyrical, sentimental and ironic, curious and bored. Along the way are encounters with grotesque tourists, records of hallucinatory dreams, a descent into a coal mine, poems and songs in celebration of the quiet life, an ascent of the Brocken, and passages of unaffected pleasure in nature. The book ends, in a moment typical of its witty self-awareness, with Heine ‘lost in thought’ on top of a rock in the Ilse Valley, almost tumbling into a ravine under the influence of his own giddy delight in the surroundings.

On the Making of Gardens (first published 1909)

George Reresby Sitwell (1951, Charles Scribner’s & Sons)

Recommended by Hattie Walters

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Sir George Reresby Sitwell could frequently be found in analytic concentration within great Italian gardens, making meditative notes that would form a large part of On the Making of Gardens—his personal design treatise. It is a curious text, devoid of  plants—made up instead as part rhapsodic commentary on derelict garden architecture, part summary of garden historical progression, part examination of the effects of the Renaissance garden, part rules for good design—and was painstakingly constructed in his attempt to revitalise the modern English garden. Initially, his endeavours had limited success (Sir George blamed the book cover design), and yet his text provides an intriguing insight into his planning of the gardens at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire; his particular understanding of Renaissance formalisms, and his tantalising descriptions of old gardens in states of solitude inaccessible to the modern visitor.

Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories (first published 1904)

Gertrude Jekyll (1999, The History Press Ltd)

Recommended by Hattie Walters

Old West Surrey by Gertrude JekyllUnlike Gertrude Jekyll’s numerous other “garden books”, which are predominately dedicated to the planning and maintenance of a garden over the year, Old West Surrey was intended to memorialise the elements of rural working-class life that she saw rapidly disappearing from her beloved late nineteenth-century stomping-grounds. Roving from the architectural features of specific properties to characters remembered from childhood church sermons, fragments of dialect, dress, custom, and house ornament; and peppered with her own photographs and illustrations, Jekyll’s text is devoted to recording her impressions of local culture, used to promote her own Arts and Crafts sensitivity to place. This work is an important example of the twentieth-century reclamation of the distinctiveness of local village life, and Jekyll’s prime concern is the countryside included in her personal definition of Old West Surrey.

Common Land in English Painting, 1700-1850

Ian Waites (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Common Land in English Painting 1700-1850Examining how artists such as Peter DeWint and John Constable depicted common land during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Waites sketches a picture of a little-known, unenclosed landscape from England’s past. While enclosures had been impacting the countryside since the fifteenth century, this book charts a period of fast-paced parliamentary enclosure activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which transformed many remaining common field systems. Waites examines cultural artistic developments, such as the Picturesque, Naturalism and rural nostalgia, alongside socioeconomic debates surrounding parliamentary enclosures, including ideologies of improvement and the independence of the commoner. Studying the landscape art, literature and contemporary commentary of the period c.1700-1850, this book makes a strong case for the importance of common land in English landscape painting, wider culture and history.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, 1850, oil on panel, Birmingham Museums Trust

Image: public domain.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, oil on panel, 1850, Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, oil on panel, 1850, Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

David Cox’s (1783-1859) atmospheric painting of an unspecified location is one of a number of artworks analysed by Waites in his chapter on English Naturalism. In a scene dominated by tempestuous sky and an unbounded expanse of apparently common land, figures and their animals trudge onwards into the wind guided by a time-worn signpost. As Waites highlights, Cox memorialised an open, common field landscape becoming increasingly rare with parliamentary enclosures during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity

Paul Readman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Storied Ground - Paul ReadmanFrom the cliffs of Dover to the industrial city of Manchester, Readman highlights the significance of connections between landscape and heritage in the construction of a modern, popular form of English national identity. This work explores how landscapes are ‘storied’ with countless human histories and memories bound up with place. Through the history, literature and art of the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, Storied Ground traces a varied and widespread engagement with landscapes in English culture. Expanding a marginal, conservative and anti-modern understanding of rural Englishness, Readman demonstrates how a ‘topography’ of English national identity accommodated industrial landscapes and diverse political perspectives in a rapidly urbanising and democratising modern Britain.

Our Common Land and Other Short Essays (1877)

Octavia Hill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Our Common Land and Other Short Essays (1877)Octavia Hill was a housing reformer, active campaigner for open space preservation, and co-founder of the National Trust. This collection of Hill’s public-facing lectures and articles covers topics ranging from her principles on charity to commons preservation, largely stemming from her housing work in London’s poor neighbourhoods. In her papers on open spaces, Hill described how paths and commons were being closed to the public, just as people increasingly depended on open space in the context of a rising urban population. The collection captures a crucial period in the history of public access to green spaces, and can be read in the context of a broader open space preservation movement which led to the establishment of the National Trust in 1895.

Hill’s papers combined legal, political acumen and practicality with a humanity and appreciation for the value of beauty, leisure and rest in people’s lives. While some of Hill’s approach was of its time, a spirit of commonality nonetheless permeates her work; green, open spaces were for Hill a common possession of rich and poor alike. She urgently called on public and parliamentary opinion to protect commons from enclosure and provide accessible green space in cities, for the health and soul of present and future generations.

Ditch Vision: Essays on Poetry, Nature and Place

Jeremy Hooker (Awen Publications, 2017)

Recommended by Isabel Galleymore

Ditch Vision: Essays on Poetry, Nature and PlaceThis book provides a useful way to conceptualise the differing scales of British and American landscapes in the context of nature writing from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century. Hooker suggests that many British writers demonstrate ‘ditch vision’ in their portrayals of environments. Rather than grand expanses, this approach studies microcosms of the wild in landscapes otherwise deemed increasingly urban. Hooker takes his lead from Richard Jefferies who in ‘The Pageant of Summer’ finds a ditch overflowing with ‘Green rushes, long and thick … the white pollen of early grasses … hawthorn boughs … briars … buds’ ([1884] 2011: 41–2). The observation leads him to remark, ‘So much greater is this green and common rush than all the Alps’ (ibid.: 43). Hooker applies his concept of ‘ditch vision’ to writers including Edward Thomas, John Cowper Powys and Frances Bellerby.

‘Beachy Head’

Charlotte Smith, Beachy Head and Other Poems (London, 1807)

Beachy Head with Other Poems by Charlotte SmithRecommended by Bethan Roberts

This is a poem about a place like no other. It opens ‘On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!’, atop the vast East Sussex chalk headland it takes as its subject, before roving through a startling range of aspects pertaining to Beachy Head: its light, its weather, its geology, its flora and fauna, its inhabitants (largely hermits and shepherds). Smith zooms in and out not only on the landscape itself but the various histories that are embedded within it (personal, geological, European, global). The contexts, parameters and timescales of the poem – and of place – are ever-shifting, and diversify further (and are complicated) through Smith’s huge footnotes to the poem. The poem is incomplete (it was published posthumously), and at its end appears, peculiarly, to have been chiseled into the chalk headland itself by a hermit who lives beneath it.

Frankenstein (1818)

Mary Shelley ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford, 1993)

Mary Shelley, FrankensteinRecommended by Jimmy Packham

Mary Shelley’s ubiquitous novel might seem like an obvious choice: “not this one again!” But I want to use this novel to gesture towards what I think is one of the most exciting – and what I believe is currently one of the most urgent – strands of landscape and environmental thinking: the ecogothic. Frankenstein straddles the Romantic and gothic traditions, and nowhere more so than in its portrait of the various (the myriad!) landscapes through which Victor and his creation travel. As a representative ecogothic text, the novel departs from the vision of nature generally associated with conventional Romanticism, and asks us to see nature as strange and estranging, unfamiliar and disquieting. More than this, however, this is a book that wants us to think ethically about our engagement with the natural world: the creature (himself a horrifying amalgam of nature and culture) works hard to establish a compassionate ethics, rooted in his experiences of nature and animal life. Frankenstein also reminds us how natural the apparently unnatural monsters that haunt our horror stories truly are: from The Odyssey and Beowulf, through Frankenstein, to more recent fare like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (2014) and the Godzilla franchise (1954-present). Indeed, in Godzilla I think we have a contemporary creature that rivals Frankenstein’s monster as the most compelling modern myth to illuminate humanity’s ambivalent relationship with the natural world: Godzilla returns to us at moments of ecological and global crisis, to restore a kind of harmony to the natural world, but does so while wreaking terrible destruction on human civilisation.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

Sarah Orne Jewett ed. Alison Easton (London, 1995)

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed FirsRecommended by Jimmy Packham

Poised on the very edge of the land, the quiet and dilapidated coastal village of Dunnet Landing, Maine and its surrounding geography is the real protagonist at the heart of Sarah Orne Jewett’s collection of sketches – a masterpiece of what has been called “local colour writing”, so-called for the genre’s unassuming but perceptive attention to a very particular locale. I love these brief sketches for the portraits they paint of eccentric townsfolk, the goings-on of their small, out-of-the-way community, the unshowy but knowledgeable relationship between humans and the natural world (such as the tales’ herb woman, Almira Todd); at times, these tales teeter on the allegorical or the mythic, and celebrate the power of storytelling, especially female storytelling, in keeping a community and its histories alive. But we make a mistake, I think, in taking these romantic, nostalgic sketches of a town seemingly out-of-kilter with the chaos and energy of the modern world wholly at face value. There are darker and more radical undercurrents eddying in these waters. The legacy of New England’s profound gothic tradition impinges on Jewett’s world, in the witch-like figure of Almira Todd, for instance. The relationship between women and the landscape looks ahead to the more overtly queer landscape writing of another writer of the US’s eastern seaboard, the poet H.D; and the intertwining here of the paean to a fast-passing way of life and the cosmic resonance of this observation finds its successor in a poem like Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’.