Man Meets Nature: Landscape As a Creation of Culture
Historian explores how people have interpreted and shaped natural surroundings
LANDSCAPE AND MEMORYSkip to next paragraph
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By Simon Schama
Alfred A. Knopf, 652 pp. illustrated, $40.00
SIMON SCHAMA operates in the civilized tradition of historians who write, not just for other historians, but for all readers interested in understanding the human past.
His two best-known books, ''The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture'' (1987) and ''Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution'' (1989), revealed a scholar erudite enough to pass muster among his peers, lively enough to entice a much wider audience as well.
Indeed, the London-born professor, who currently holds a chair at Columbia University in New York, is also a writer-presenter of documentaries for the BBC. His latest book, ''Landscape and Memory,'' has been made into a five-part television series, which one hopes will eventually find its way across the Atlantic.
''Landscape and Memory'' is an intensely visual book about the complicated relationship between culture and nature. It is amply and intelligently illustrated with drawings, photographs, and striking color plates of landscape paintings from Turner and Bierstadt to Margritte and Anselm Keifer.
It is also a somewhat self-consciously personal book, offering stories from the author's own childhood and family history woven into the much larger tapestry of American and European history.
Professor Schama's stance as informative yet informal guide to the past bears a certain resemblance to that of Kenneth Clark in his brilliant ''Civilization'' series: the historian as urbane raconteur. Comparison in this case, however, invites criticism. Schama simply does not write as well as Clark. He strains too hard at personal charm, and aspiring to a loftier elegance, he lacks the requisite lucidity of thought as well as style. Despite his considerable learning, at times he lacks intellectual rigor.
''Landscape and Memory'' has an announced thesis, stated in its introduction: ''Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together.... I have tried to show, ... that the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature.... So that to take the many and several ills of the environment seriously does not, I think, require that we trade in our cultural heritage or its posterity.''
This is surely sensible advice, but proffered in a way that implies the existence of environmental zealots busily protesting, not against the building of nuclear power plants or the destruction of tropical rain forests, but against opera, ballet, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Great Books discussion groups. In short, Schama is attacking -- or attempting to differentiate himself from -- a straw man.
Fortunately, most of the book is about history rather than theory. The reader is soon immersed in a wonderfully rich assortment of materials illustrating the many ways in which men and women have perceived, interpreted, or in some cases half-created, their surrounding landscapes.
Schama divides landscape into three categories: wood, water, and rock.
In the first and longest section, he takes us on a tour of forest, from the boggy, primeval ''realm of the Lithuanian bison,'' to the wooded wilds of Germania where hardy savages fought off Roman legions, to the merry green world of Shakespeare's Arden and Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, to the vast splendors of Yosemite's giant redwoods.