Man Meets Nature: Landscape As a Creation of Culture

Historian explores how people have interpreted and shaped natural surroundings


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.

To generations of Poles, like the great 19th-century poet and patriot Adam Mickiewicz, the tameless forest embodied nationalist hopes of freedom from foreign rule. These woods were also home to Schama's ancestors: pious Jews who dealt in timber.

Ironically, the trees and bison of the Polish forest called Bialowieza were preserved under the tenure of that notorious hunter, nature-lover, and humanity-hater Hermann Goring during the Nazi occupation, even as Jews and Poles were being exterminated.

Proceeding logically to the German forest, Schama traces the long association of sylvan lifestyles with the German self-image and the ways in which the darker side of the hunter-warrior cult culminated in bloody visions of racial purity. A sunnier view of the ''greenwood'' prevails in the following chapter, where English forests like Sherwood serve as imaginary havens for the righting of wrongs.

A certain murkiness of concept and focus creeps in, however, as Schama next examines the religious metaphors used to describe the American wilderness and the survival of pagan tree-worship in the Christian reverence for the cross.

The sensation that our tour-guide is himself getting lost increases by the time we reach the book's second section: ''Water.'' Where we might have hoped for a full survey of water in its multiple manifestations from tiny drops to mighty oceans, the story instead becomes bogged down in tediously over-close examination of two phenomena: rivers and fountains.

Egyptian obelisks also manage to find their way into the picture, as Schama follows will-o'-the-wisps trails leading away from his central topic.

The prospect improves somewhat in the third section, ''Rock,'' detailing some of the history of humanity's engagement with mountains, from the Italian humanist Petrarch's pioneering ascent for the then-unheard-of purpose of seeing the view, to Rose Arnold Powell's futile campaign to add the head of Susan B. Anthony to the famous group carved on Mount Rushmore.

Schama's main thesis -- that nature lovers can take heart because love of nature is deeply embedded in Western culture -- is often undercut by the very evidence he presents:

''So,'' he remarks blithely, ''just at the time when Robin Hood's Sherwood was appearing in children's literature, stage drama, and poetic ballads, the green-wood idyll was disappearing into house beams, dye vats, ship timbers, and iron forges.''

Later, in what Schama himself calls a ''case of unembarrassed cultural schizophrenia,'' landscape painter Albert Bierstadt's ''elegy for the giant redwoods was commissioned to adorn the palatial residence of ... paper magnate Zenas Crane, who not only turned trees into pulp but saw them converted back into greenstuff -- courtesy of the U.S. Mint.''

It's all very well to congratulate ourselves on our culture's appreciation of nature, which as Schama amply illustrates, must not be overlooked as part of our Western tradition. Nevertheless, when it comes to making sure there will always be mighty forests, pure waters, and unspoiled mountaintops, feeling good about nature is no substitute for acting wisely to safeguard it.

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