Wild Words: Place & Environment Writing

Because I’m not already ridiculously busy, I thought I’d start a writing course in January. It’s called Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing and is going to be a mix of considering texts and writing our own responses to the topics. We’ll be considering ideas such as nature, dwelling and wilderness and ahead of the course, we’ve been asked to reflect on any previous reading which relates to place and environment.

A close up photo of a grassy meady with flowering heather and unidentifiable yellow flowers

Any long term readers of this blog will probably have realised I have done a lot of this. I spent a year or so following my own loose curriculum around nature and writing and reading formed a large part of that.

There was Tarka the Otter which captures animal calls so well, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us which is a great example of her ability to translate potentially difficult, scientific ideas into a language of poetry, and there was the incredible book from Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – which makes the everyday experience of illness seem so much more inspiring.

It is hard to choose just a few as I have read so widely about nature and place and environment over the last few years. And so many different kinds of books as well. There’s the question and answer format from Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation which offers agony aunt (or should that be ant?) style help to different creatures. There’s the wonderful series from Reakion which looks at animals predominantly through a human lens and considers how we have integrated them into our cultures and beliefs.

Of course poetry has featured in my reading, including Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, The Lost Spells from Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane, and Basic Nest Architecture from the lovely Polly Atkin.

I read books about nature writing itself, and eco-criticism, and how to guides.

And diary style formats as well – such as Mile’s Richardson’s Needwood – and collections by different writers such as The Oxford Book of Nature Writing which also takes you on a journey across time.

I read articles such as Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? by Mark Cocker, and a responding article from Robert MacFarlane, Why we need nature writing. There was also a post about the two articles considered together.

And I read myths and legends. And magazines. And journals.

Essentially, there’s been a lot of reading, about different aspects of nature and environment, and I love the variety of forms and approaches. I love the many different topics that are covered, the passion of the authors and the new ways of seeing that they introduce me to. I hope that each one leaves a trace of itself in my creative mind, a glimmer of a snail’s track, and that I can weave some together to create my nature writing. Whilst I love and admire many different writers, I aspire only to be myself, to be my voice.

My outside space

I am currently doing an online course with Emergence Magazine about nature writing and last week we were thinking about place, specifically relationship to place. Normally on sunny, warm days I would be found in the local park which I treat like my garden. If I need to stay home for a delivery or whatever, I might sit out the front of my flat on the pavement. Neither park nor pavement are options right now. What follows is what I wrote about my only option, the back yard.

The back yard is not a space I am intimate with.  It isn’t a space I have made familiar.  I have avoided it as much as possible.  It comes with fear, anxiety and an unwarranted sense of trespass. 

When I first saw my flat had a yard, I filled my imagination with dreams and plans, I designed the space in my head.  And then I met the neighbours I share it with, and their two untrained dogs which bark and leap and scratch all over my allergic legs.  And I saw the dog poo that wasn’t picked up and the dryer fluff that comes out of their window and sticks to the floor.  And I got yelled at and threatened for things I hadn’t done. 

And those dreams and plans were lost.

Four years later.  We can’t spend this sunny afternoon in the park, or sit out the front by the street.  Regular habits have been put on pause by coronavirus so, instead, we snatched at a chance when my neighbours went out.  We sit in the yard.  It is lovely feeling sun on my skin and air outdoors feels twice as fresh.  But a bitter buzz deep in me can’t shake the anxiety and fear that my neighbours, or their dogs, will appear. 

The self I see out here is one who gives copious amounts of space to others, who makes herself incredibly small so they can stamp all over her more easily.

The front of my flat goes straight onto pavement, but there is a small square where the council planted a bush.  I claimed this as my garden.  A bird feeder clings to my window above it, visible from the riser recliner I reside in most of the time. 

I have built a relationship with this space.  Watching sparrows and starlings on the feeder, blackbirds on the bush and pigeons on the floor hoping for scraps of seed.  I track the light of the sky slice I can see.  Weather permitting I keep my windows open, if only a crack, so I can hear the life outside. 

Overtime I’ve ‘trained’ my carers to tell me about birds on the feeder out back that I can’t see from my chair.  They send me photos of nature they encounter on their days off; trees abundant with blossom, daffodils singing about the sun and shells seen on a beach.  These love notes, for that’s how I think of these pictures, always make me smile.  Snapshots of nature in the wider world, sent back to me in this flat, in this chair.

From this chair, I have learnt the names of species but I’ve also got to know the individuals; my friends.  The baby sparrow who could feed itself but convinced mum to feed him (and even though you couldn’t yet tell, it had to have been a boy, a mummy’s boy).  I watched a lone starling grow up and gain his or her starspots.  I have seen a blackbird courting a female and heard his songs from my bed. I have seen bees and butterflies, wagtails and magpies, pigeons and gulls.

This small slice of nature, fills my world and feels so much bigger the more intimately I know it.  A fraction of the size of the yard, yet this is mine.  This is where I grow and glow and beam so brightly that I seem bigger, not smaller.

Place in poetry

I was going to write a post about how place is used in poetry as a complementary post to place in literature, and perhaps I still will, but I feel more drawn to sharing some examples of place in contemporary poems.

Gargoyle by Bruce Barnes writes from the perspective of York from one of the gargoyles on the minster.  I tried to find a copy online as I don’t like sharing work without permission but I couldn’t so instead I’m going to point you all to the Versions of the North anthology which is a great collection of contemporary Yorkshire poetry.  Having said that, here is an excerpt:

“Stuck up here, becoming less than what I was,
the mason’s mark still, even stone gets livid,
saying, “Oh, sod this for a game of soldiers…”

expletives deleted by the roar of the street”

I thought this was an interesting angle on place poetry, the gargoyles are such a fundamental, but vastly overlooked, part of the minster and they have endured for centuries, despite become less than they were.  They have seen immense change, creation and destruction, life and death, each gargoyle looking at a slightly different part of York, a deep knowing of the small view they have.

Adrienne Rich’s Turning the Wheel (listen to her reading this and other poems ) sums up sense of place for me in the first two lines:

“The road to the great canyon always feels
like that road and no other”

Far away from the Yorkshire I am familiar with, Rich writes of the universal experience of sense of place in those lines.  Here though, she is writing politically about the history of the place, what has been erased and what later becomes icon-ised, and in turn made unreal.  The history of the land, of place, in America is one that is often fraught with tension and violence and colonialism. A history that was ignored and that more recently has been rewritten.  “Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around”, writes Rich.

A very different poem is Amanda Dalton’s Making Space about both creating a room where there was none and creating space in our lives.  From the blurb for the collection, we find that

“How to Disappear shines a torch into the dark corners and finds a world inhabited by the missing and the dead, by monsters and wounded beasts, discarded dreams and the memories of strangers – a trawl through the apparently empty spaces and what might be found there.”

“For days the builders filled the house.
They lifted wood and fibreglass
into the dark hole in the roof.
She watched their shadows lurching
in uneven shafts of artificial light
and tried to understand how anyone
could ever make a space of this.”
an excerpt, again I couldn’t find an online copy

Jessie Lendennie’s Quay Street, Galway speaks to me of the parts of us we leave behind everywhere we go.  We lose something of ourselves in the places we move though but we gain something else, something we often can’t articulate.  But we change as we move through places and the places change as we move through them.  What ghosts have you left behind?

My final look at poetry and place is an anthology which describes itself as “a book of place-awareness and companion to illness from the writings of David Dorward, CP Will and Adam Watson”.  A far-off land is a small collection which is for MacMillan Cancer Support, here are some lines from it:

“to hear a place-name is to recollect a life”

“turn for home
when your foot-
steps stop follow-
ing behind you
in the snow”

“one learns          one learns
          to die        to live       
       by dying
         to live           to die       
by living               by dying”

Place features heavily in poetry, in many ways, shapes and forms and I hope I’ve given a flavour of the different ways of approaching place and poetry.

No One Is British

No one is British

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia,


In a world that was born

Over four and a half

Billion years ago.


No one is British

In a land with a muddy,

Rain sodden history

Of raiders and invaders,

Of settlers and leavers


Rome took a chance

And Rome took charge

Then Rome retreated.


Not the first

And not the last

To dip a toe

In this archipelago.


Picti and Scotti and Attacotti

Preyed upon the shores.

Ravaged and rampaged

Looted and left.


In need of a place

To replace

Lost homes, Saxons and Angles

and Jutes showed up.

Desperately colonising

A nation of future colonialists.


No one is British.

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia.


Keep your racism.

Keep your hate.


No one is British,

Not even you.

Leaving and returning: Travel and place

“Everyone wants to travel, but no one wants to be a tourist.”
– Bani Amor

This post is a bit of a hotch potch of thoughts about travel and place.  Surface level observations and ideas which feels appropriate given you can never know a place deeply if you are only passing through.  So follow me as we pass through a few topics about travel, tourism and place.

The journey

I could have chosen to include a cheesy image with some words about it’s the journey not the destination superimposed but I trust in the power of your imagination!

Obviously when we are thinking about travel, we are thinking about journeys, literal and metaphorical and these journeys change us.  The expose us to new places with new sights, new sounds, new ways of seeing and being in the world and these inevitably transform us in some way, however small.

Buying sense of place

“Tourism is about the consumption of place.  Like every other form of consumption, it is dependant upon brands… Majorca ad Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levi’s or Calvin Klein.”
– Scott Hamilton

One way of leaning into this idea of tourism as consumption of place is to consider spiritual tourism which, according to Amor, is “what happens when you take cultural appropriation on the road and call it a self-care journey.”  The tourism she is talking of is white, rich, westerners travelling to south American to partake in ayahuasca or retreats to Thailand to engage in yoga or even “spiritual cruises” which seem to offer everything and nothing.  Instead of colonising place, we are colonising ritual, beliefs and sacred practices.  Picking and choosing what takes our fancy instead of committing to a particular path.

Just as consumption of ayahuasca or engaging in yoga in Bali are consumed as shortcuts to mystical experience, sublime spirituality or another life changing event, some versions of tourism are consumed as shortcuts to finding sense of place.  You’ll note I say “consumed as”.  I am not saying these are shortcuts.  I don’t think there can be shortcuts in either case.  But as we’re talking about place, it’s important to note that you build a relationship with place, it is not something that can be crossed off a checklist in a second.  Without the work that the short cut evades, there can be no relationship, there can be no deep connection or understanding.  Even if you buy into tours that offer a more authentic experience of place, you still cannot truly have that.  It is not something available for tourists to consume as they pass through a place.

Travelling expands how we see and understand the world, ourselves and each other.  And if we visit a place without learning about or leaning into the culture and the way of life of the inhabitants, can we really say we’ve visited?  To visit without this, are we not just travelling around a museum of landscape and architecture?  Moving from placeless space to placeless space?  This is something that is particularly on my mind when I think of sites such as the pyramids, the taj mahal, anne franks house.  These are often semi-museumified spaces, wrapped in cotton wool and kept frozen in time.

And the increased globalisation and uniformity of the world makes it easy to travel without engaging.  You can go to a unique wondrous tourist site and pop into McDonalds afterwards.  It is easy to see the sites without making much attempt at feeling the sense of a place.  We will never, as passers through, get much of a sense of place, but it is worth the effort.  The reward is that you feel you’ve known somewhere, even if it is just a little.

When I take photos, I try and get a glimpse of a different angle.  Everyone else is taking a picture of the minster?  Well, you’ll find me round the back looking at bricks or statues.  This gives me a more intimate sense of the place, a more unique and personal experience.  When I was at Angkor Wat before sunrise (not by choice), everyone was hustling and bustling to retake the iconic picture and in doing that they were missing the experience of being there. Knowing I couldn’t create that image any better than the million already online, I sat and watched the sun rise instead and then took my own, more personal photographs:

DSC_0198 e

By happy coincidence, in today’s National Geographic newsletter there was an article about a photographer who takes the reverse photo at landmarks.

Looking back on my own travels, the places I’ve felt most connected to and enjoyed the most are those where I have spent more time and which have been smaller.  I’ve been able to explore more thoroughly and had more time to sit and watch and talk and get to know the idiosyncrasies of the place.

Travel and belonging

We often think of travel as fun, enjoyable and something to aspire to, but for some people, travel is a way of escaping death.  In a conversation between Porochista Khakpour and Alexander Chee in Bitch Magazine, they discuss forced travel.

“Your story of exile makes me wonder how we’re shaped by the trips we don’t get to choose.”
– Chee

Both are writers who have travelled and the article is looking at how travel has made them into the writers, and people, they are.  They talk of trips which transformed them as well as trips taken with the intent of transformation and trips that didn’t really turn out the way they’d anticipated.  The idea of travelling to figure out where we belong and how we fit into the world is another common theme.

“There are some trips that are actually about travelling inside, a journey you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live.  The physical boundaries of our lives are also the emotional ones.”
– Chee

Alongside the idea of forced travel is the less dangerous but still unsettling travel that occurs without having a home base.  To have somewhere to return to, to call home, offers stability and anchors travel.  To travel without a home can leave us feeling untethered and insecure.  There is a novelty in this but humans often crave both the adventure and the stable.

Leaving and returning

As humans, we are driven, in part, by a need to escape and paradoxically a need to belong.  Exploration and novelty sit uncomfortably with our desire to know and feel comfortable.

“Amongst the great struggles of man, there is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey.”
– Salman Rushdie

“The lure of escape and wanderlust is just as deeply implanted as its polar opposite, the desire to anchor oneself in a particular place, to know and care for somewhere that isn’t just anywhere.”
– Alastair Bonnett

To know a place, it can be argued, we must leave.  If we only ever know one place, how can we know what makes it unique, special, distinctive?

Feeling into the character of a different place highlights similarities and differences with the place we call home.  Think about it in terms of people – we don’t do well if we have just one relationship, instead we have different people in our lives who fulfil us in different ways.  We appreciate our sister’s kindness more because we’ve experienced our manager’s cruelty.  It is like the concept that without light there cannot be dark.  Can you have home if you have never left?

Travel gives us a break from our home ground and if you are lucky, when you return, you will refind and reappreciate those things that make it special to you.  It is not quite the same, but having spent a while in hospital in the past year, coming back to my flat was so much more powerful than I could have expected. I’d forgotten how much I love my home, how great my bed is, how nice it is to have lampshades and tea in my favourite mug.  All things I take for granted when I’m here day in day out.  To leave and return reopens your eyes.

“You are here”

Terra firma.
Rock solid.
Feet on the ground.

Unreal islands litter maps,
decoy towns, sacrificed
places, abandoned in trauma.

Demolition crumbles
memories fall.

Terra firma?

Reshaped coastlines,
islands (dis)appearing.

Place creation.
Place destruction.

The Aral Sea, now desert, deserted.

Places lost to preservation,

Decay, disease, disaster.

Rock solid?

From Here Be Dragons
to No Man’s Land,
the inbetween;
limbo or liminal?

Nameless zones. Blank space. Urban void. Terrain vagueness. Gapscape. Waste ground.

Places beyond grasping
clawing feet. Not
unreachable, but unhumanable.


Empty cities. Empty streets. Empty schools.
Empty museams wait
for events to record.
Ghost towns without ghosts.
No feet on the ground.

War torn

Failed and fallen places,
air brushed from google maps.

Neglected. Discarded. Destroyed.

Lost. Invisible. Killed.

Terra firma?
Rock solid?
Feet on the ground?

You are (w)here?

“You are here”: The controversial nature of mapping

“While most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist

How we map the world reflects and influences how we see the world.  Mapping is often about ownership and boundaries, they privilege particular aspects of the landscape.  Open up an OS map and you’ll find the pubs and post offices and roads marked.  You won’t find the rock where your ancestors gathered together or the plain where marriages and funerals took place.  The dip that was known by a name which told a story has since had its meaning twisted and lost and is no longer considered map worthy.

What do we learn when we discover a road is called the A1?  Not much, but call it the Great North Road and we’re already getting some information about orientation and length.  In York, the A1036 is made up of roads which include Tadcaster Road, Nunnery Lane, Blossom Street, Malton Road, Tower Street, Barbican Road and Foss Islands Road.  Without knowing anything about York, you can start to create an image.  There is a high possibility there is, or was, a tower, some blossoming trees and a barbican, and by extension a castle or something in need of defending.  You know that you’re headed to Tadcaster in one direction and Malton in another.  You have a much better sense of where you are and what this place might be like than if you just know it’s the A1036.

“Conventional maps do not tell us what it means to be somewhere – the details of the landscapes we live in, the sounds of the trees and the birds, the long histories…”
Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

North does not have to be at the top.  Scale is not always necessary.  Where are the stories of the land?  The places that anchor us?  The history that shapes the world?  Why are most maps 2-d?

Maps do not show the life giving spring as more powerful than the pub, both are reduced to symbols and are stripped of their history.  But it isn’t always this way, in Australia there are the song lines and in America a Zuni farmer is working with Zuni artists to recreate maps that return the indigenous voice and perspective to the land.

“Modern maps don’t have a memory”
Jim Enote

Google maps, or the less popular hold in your hands version of the AA Road Map of Great Britain, have their uses, don’t get me wrong, I could happily play with maps all day.  But to  forget other ways of mapping is to forget other ways of knowing place.  The AA map clearly centres itself around roads, google maps could be said to be more focused on businesses, both are potentially mapping placeless spaces.  So with this in mind, we must also find other maps, maps which show us sense of place, show us memories and stories and sacred areas.  Maps which show us tribal boundaries instead of colonialist ones.

When I was in Ghana, years ago, the village I was staying in was part of a tribe which had been artificially split in half when the Ghana-Togo boundary was enforced by colonialists.  This boundary was inevitably ignored by the people who could walk, unchallenged, through mountain and jungle, to meet their kin.  We went with them once, to a funeral.  Hiked up a mountain, dense with vegetation and biting ants.  Lots and lots of biting ants.  We passed a small stone, less than the size of a piece of A4 paper, with an etched marking on it.  This was the boundary.  An arbitrary spot on the side of a mountain.

“A conventional map takes you to places – it will tell you how many miles and the fastest route.  But the Zuni maps show these significant places that only a Zuni would know.”
Ronnie Cachini

Maps are assumed to be factual, to be the truth.  But this is far from the case.  They portray a particular view of the land, one with particular markings and one with particular names.  As the Spanish and British invaded the Americas, we changed place names and meaning was lost, and yet it is the colonial names which survive and are marked on the maps.  Similarly, in Australia, place names were lost and replaced by those which honour murderous white men and their violent acts.

Maps are a none neutral reflection of their creators and in turn, the maps themselves create and perpetuate a way of viewing the world.  To unpick this further, you could try creating a map of your local area from memory and then comparing it to google maps.  What have you included that isn’t on google’s version?  What have you left out or consciously excluded?  Perhaps ask a friend to do this as well and compare your maps as a way of seeing through another person’s eyes.

Building a relationship with place

So we’ve defined sense of place, we’ve looked at what makes it and now I want to consider how do we, on a personal level, foster an intimate relationship with the part of the world we find ourselves in.

How we exist in time and place is an ever evolving dance between us and what is around us and seeing ourselves in nature, as opposed to apart from nature, is an important aspect in building a relationship with place.

Writing about a time 12,000 years ago, Nicholas Crane notes:

“Killing an animal was a process of transformation; the cosmos was indivisible from self.  People co-existed with the plants and the animals they foraged and managed.  They related to the pattern of the stars, to the stutter of capercaillie and to the glare of the elk.  The wild was them.”

“When talking about “humans and nature” it’s easy to forget that humans are nature.  Our bodies are the closest, most intimate experience of the natural world we can possibly have.”

Without ourselves, place does not exist as a concept.  Place is space which has human imbued meaning and so we are inseparable from place, just as we are inseparable from nature.

“All the places in which we find ourselves, along with the living and non-living entities within these places, are all connected…. ”
– Anja Claus

To build a relationship with place, you must get to know your place.

Be in your place.  Walk, or wheel, around with a deep awareness.  Get off the beaten track if you can and feel called to.  Take advice from Jeff Grygny about How to Walk on the Earth.  Be quiet.  Slow down.  Pause.  Sit.  Blend in.

Repeat and repeat.

Be patient, this is a long term process, there is no destination here.  You are building a relationship and just as you don’t go from first date to marriage, you don’t go from first visit to being at home.

Pay attention with all of your senses, do not rely on your sight.  Stop, close your eyes, pay attention to what else you can feel.

“Paradoxically, narrowing down our attention to immediate sensations opens our senses to appreciate details of things that are always there, but usually recede into the background in the press and push of our busy lives.”
– Grygny

Smell. Taste. Touch. Hear. Speak.

Engage with place through writing or art, read stories and look at paintings and photographs.  Seek out history, myths, legends, nursery rhymes and folklore.

Write a letter to your place.

Eat local, seasonal food.  Go foraging.  If there is clean, safe to drink water do that.

Offer something of yourself – relationships are two way.  Tell your hopes to the wind.  Water a flower.  Move a beetle out of harms way.  This is how you show your place your respect, this is how you honour your place.

Listen without expectation to the trees and the birds and the stories that each little blade of grass has to offer.  Think microscopic and treasure hunt for details.  This is how you know a place.

Repeat and repeat for you are both, eternally, evolving.

Place in literature

Note, I’m looking at poetry separately

Having struggled to find many examples of insects in literature last month, this time my struggle is to know what to include as so much will have to be omitted.

Place has long inspired writers as well as being described, created, represented and invented by writers and I’m going to look separately at place as inspiration and place as literary tool.

Place as inspiration

One of the aspects of place and literature I find fascinating is the eternally circular nature of it. Place inspires writers and artists and in turn, writing and art shape how we see and interact with our environment which has the consequence of altering the land. One example that springs to mind is the landscape which inspired Tarka the Otter and which now features a Tarka trail and train line. In celebrating the land that was captured in literature, we have very clearly changed the land.

I think we would all agree and understand why place has inspired so many creative endeavours for so many years so I am not going to attempt to unpick that, I think that is probably a question that belongs to philosophers and psychologists, not me. Instead I want to share a few quotes from writers about place:

“Frequently I have noticed that whatever a writer’s subject, landscape often features in the process or the product. Childhood environments, the natural world, place and memory are all part of the rich compost of prose and poetry…. Most of [the biographers Dunbar has spoken to] have said that they need to explore the personal landscapes of their subjects. Without knowing the places that have mattered to them, they can’t form a complete sense of their biographees.”
– Kay Dunbar

“The Greeks call it Artemis: the feeling of sanctity in that place you love, deep in the woods. Find a place where its spirit and yours are in tune, and you will be abundantly creative. You will have reached your homeland…The more I dig into the earth here to uncover the stories and voices, the more I find I belong to this place… I am made to see again and again what really matters – a feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, a feeling of belonging to the natural world.”
– Rosalind Brady

“The landscape means different things to different people. As a writer and landscape poet I have always been fascinated by the way that we interpret and exploit the landscape, and indeed how the term ‘landscape’ itself evolved linguistically ad culturally…. The term ‘landskip’ originated in Holland as a painter’s term to differentiate between ‘land scapes’, portraits and ‘sea scapes’… What is also interesting is the word ‘scape’ linked to the Old English word ‘gesceap’ that means to create or form, or in old Teutonic ordain. These meanings recognise that land could be made or ordained… Landscape is therefore an integral part of our language and culture. And yet is is very personal.”
– James Crowden

“The places where we make our lives, and the ways in which these spaces themselves change, impacts us irreversibly. All work is written from someplace.”
Sara Perez

Place as a literary tool

There are very few novels or stories which don’t involve place, without it there is no stage for the characters to move about in. Some literature clearly has a much stronger sense of place than others but I am struggling to think of any books which lack place all together. However place can be used differently by different authors in different novels.

Place can act as an anchor for stories, a way of holding them in the world and making them recognisable. Edward Casey noted that being is synonymous with being somewhere, being in place, and “it is by our bodies that we belong to the place-world”. Therefore, by extension, our characters must belong to a place-world, real or imagined, in order to convey the feeling of their existing to the reader. This is echoed by Dunbar above when she talks of the need to know the relationship between person and place when she is writing biographies.

Place affects interactions as well as the experiences and actions of characters. To include a walk in the woods would be very different if a character was placed in England to Africa, for example. Just by knowing location, we move our minds from a gentle, leisurely stroll to a dangerous, tense narrative.

“Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character it defines it”
– Eudora Welty

The characteristics of a place chosen by the author limit and restrict what actions the characters can take. A character in a landlocked mountain region has very different options to one at sea. An interesting exercise to explore place in literature would be to take a familiar book and try to see what would have happened in a contrasting place. Take Heidi out to sea and put Ishmael from Moby Dick in the desert.

Landscape and place do not exist in isolation. They are mediated by culture and events and as such can be used to create a short cut for the writer and reader, as in the example of the walk in the woods. Embedded with meaning, use of place can make a novel feel more real and give the reader a more powerful experience.

“Landscape is a strong character in a lot of British literature”
– Robert MacFarlane

As well as being a character, place also shows up in the language that is used by characters and by narrator. Regional dialogue can add depth to characters as well as reiterate the sense of place. Language and words tune us into the particularity of the environment we are in.

Place has been so important in literature that we have a language for it. We talk of the sublime; the experience of being overwhelmed by something powerful, being made to feel insignificant in the shadow of something great. Some of Wordsworth’s poetry (although I did say poetry was for another post…) speaks to this. Other writers, such as Jane Austen in Northhanger Abbey, focus on the beauty, the aesthetic appeal of place and the picturesque, idealised landscape. Similarly, we have pastoral writing which is nostalgic for the unreal simplicity and joy of rural life.

In sharp contrast is the gothic style, more associated with urban areas due to its architectural link, this is often focused on a more cultural nostalgia – idealising chivalry, the antique, the supernatural. In gothic literature we find ruin, decay, haunted houses, abbeys, castles, places abandoned by humans and taken over by spirits. There is a yearning for a past that never was and setting, as well as weather, are important to constructing the atmosphere.

Interestingly I’ve just finished reading an issue of Mslexia which had an article about crime novels:

“Great crime writing leaves readers with a tangible sense of the place in which the crime played out: we feel we have walked the streets of Colin Dexter’s Oxford, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles… A powerful evocation of place is key to strong crime fiction but a new trend in thrillers has pitted women against their environment.”

Place as character could be about to get a whole lot scarier…! Either way, I think it’s definitely clear that place in literature is a lot more than just a backdrop.

Once upon a time, twelve millennia ago…

“The story of Britain is a contest between space and place, between the unknown and the known, the insecure and secure, the unconfined and confined.  Space was imagined from afar; place was experienced from within.”

– Nicholas Crane

Nicolas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape is an exceptionally well told account of a country over 12,000 years.  An epic biography of place, he begins with a time when Britain was “the colourless, glacial extremity of a continuous landmass which reached east to Kamchatka and south to Table Mountain.”  The country we know as Britain had yet to be born but the land which would come to be island was a frozen tundra, battered with winds which fought with ambitious vegetation, keeping it below half a metre tall.  Weather ruled and land knew her place.

Early human visitors arrived after the climate changed, when the sun god shone on the land and birch and pines and grasses basked in his glory.  This was a green land, colonised by trees.  Different biomes came out of the ice, zones and niches of particular ecosystems and life was best where these met, the transition zones.  For our ancestors, life happened where resources were and as such, the transition zones became the places that were sought out and where the first impact of humans on this land was felt.

These stones age inhabitants were a mobile group of people and in that world, waymarks were important markers of space places, of danger and “a way of deriving social reassurance from a potentially chaotic and dangerous habitat.”  The waymarks, overtime, would become landmarks.  The other feature to come out of a mobile population was paths and informal routes across the land, refollowed and remade with the regular passing of feet.

Particular parts of the land were used over and over and through this use, they became places, not just spaces.  Britain’s earliest known house was found at one of these places, in the Carrs, dating to 9000BC.  It was at the merging of different habitats and provided the people living their with open water, wetland, edgeland, scrub and woodland as well as the numerous resources unique to each zone.  The house was set back from a lake which had become “woven into the traditions and beliefs of the people living around it’s shores.  It became part of their society, the bonds between people and place strengthened through acts and rituals of association.”

A few millennia later, 6-4,000BC, the newly formed island had been birthed, painfully and violently.  Aurochs, boar, red deer, wolves, bears, beavers, voles, moles and elk as well as a number of different bird species and a few people remained.  Britain became an insular place, cut off from the rest of Europe and isolation slowed innovation and change.  People in Britain remained hunters and gatherers whilst across the sea, villages were being formed.  Britain was being left behind in the journey towards civilisation.

Eventually people from mainland Europe began to see Britain as an opportunity and they arrived with their permanent structures and farming lifestyles, seeing the land not as part of the nature to which they belonged, but as something there for using and exploiting.  Farming requires land clearance and so the forests which had once covered the island began to disappear.  Cultivated crops were sown and domesticated animals were introduced.  Permanent and physical seemed to be what mattered in this new age.  Burial mounds, barrows and cairns were created and place became more significant.  These would grow and change, accumulate meaning and be transformed by subsequent generations. It’s worth noting that the wheel and horse had yet to arrive in Britain so all of these labours were entirely by hand or with stone tools.

As farming developed and spread, fields were laid out with boundaries and the act of farming would change the landscape.  Stones revealed by ploughing were moved, hedges were grown, ditches were dug and the land was altered to one of place within and space without.  Natural features were seen as resources and as such trees were cut, stone was quarried and lines were cast over the ground.

The next significant change to impact on the island was iron.  By using iron tools, farmers could work more efficiently and more quickly and thus the changes to the landscape were exacerbated.  As land was now seen as a commodity, and because iron made it easier to craft tools, conflicts began to break out.

Once again the climate changed and food became harder to grow and the increased population size was no longer supported by the land.  Yet more conflict was inevitable and as people grew more fearful, architecture changed to reflect that.  Defences were built, homes grew more protected and place became increasingly important to the people who lived there.  Place was a way of defining who was with you and who was against you.  For security, people lived closer together and in doing so began a long journey which would end up with urban dwellers and rural dwellers.

The Roman invasion would be the next major event to make its mark on the land, and to contribute to the evolving idea of place and the concepts we are familiar with today.

I never intended to recap the entire book – it’s over 500 pages and told in much more detail than I could ever replicate – but I did want to summarise the first 10,000 years of the story.  This is because it highlights our changing relationship with the land and nature, the different ways of seeing our country and the continuing definition of place.

Place and space are not static.  12,000 years ago, Britain was not an island and it wasn’t inhabited.  By 5000BC, we had begun altering the landscape, had experienced intense weather conditions and finally separated from the rest of what would become Europe.  Depending on their own, personal, histories and experiences, people saw the land in different ways – some as prime real estate for farms and others as a land which offered food to be gathered from nature.  How we interact with the land creates places and non-places, it leaves behind marks and stories and these are respun by different people from different times.  These stories are how we understand and relate with place and without them we have a less intimate relationship.  As Crane says:

“To care about a place, you must know its story”