‘Green Humanities’ Journal

Here’s the mission statement for a new journal: We at Green Humanities believe in the power of the humanities–a book, a poem or a work of art for example—to influence public opinion and inspire engagement with ecological issues and causes. Green Humanities aims to place the humanities on the frontlines not only of cutting edge eco-criticism, but also of the environmental debates that will shape and determine our very world. We envision varied collaborations and juxtapositions of scholarship within the humanities as well as environmental sciences and related fields–all with the overarching goal of coaxing our global society toward a more sustainable future.

And the CFP for the first issue: http://greenhumanities.org/inaugural-call-for-papers-poems

Landscape history from below

This short piece, soon to be published on the History from Below online symposium but written with CEAH in mind, offers an overview of my thoughts on landscape and position in the field. Admittedly it is a bit longer than originally intended! For those who can be bothered to wade through it, I would be extremely interested to hear your thoughts/comments.


The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core.

Following the influential work of W.G. Hoskins, traditional approaches to landscape promote the practice of reading the landscape, achieved through spatial analysis, deciphering chronological sequences and tracking the long-term impact of human activity on the landscape, activities that were in turn shaped by particular environmental conditions.  In highlighting ongoing processes of adaptation and change such studies have been recognised for their valuable contribution to current debates on environmental issues. It is widely accepted that we need to take stock of past actions in order to make informed decisions and choices about future landscape preservation and resource management. But much of this work, particularly on the early modern and post medieval landscape, has prioritised economic explanations for change while neglecting to consider how decisions were made for a number of complex and contingent reasons and purposes. Embedded in social, cultural and political relations, decisions often had unintended consequences in altering the environment. Too often it seems the people are left out unless they were the elite individuals responsible for the wholesale transformation of the landscape.

The term ‘landscape’ itself originated in the seventeenth century as a particular way of seeing the world among elites. Wealthy landowners imagined and transformed their landscapes, designing them to be viewed as a work of art, to be looked upon like one would a painting. Research in the late 1980s and 90s emphasised interpretation and introduced the notion that the wealthy were themselves engaged in ‘reading the landscape’.1 This work was important for making explicit the connections between landscape, ideology and power.  Yet, in terms of understanding the relationship between people in the past and the material worlds they inhabited, this approach is too narrowly conceived. It prioritizes the perspectives of the elite and perpetuates the notion that the landscape was viewed as a surface upon which a particular set of cultural and political values were drawn to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.  This is in more ways than one a top-down approach. Barbara Bender compares traditional writing of landscape history to a process of colonisation; both rely upon technologies of appropriation and control, such as map-making, and have the ability to distance and objectify. She offers a critique of Western elitist notions of landscape as a static scene onto which an ‘imposing/imposed viewpoint’ is drawn.2

In recent years, landscape historians and archaeologists have developed more theoretically informed approaches that place emphasis on interpretation, subjectivity and multivocality. Phenomenological scholarship, and theories of inhabitation and dwelling, have proven to be fruitful for scholars working on prehistoric and contemporary modern periods, not only in investigating the ways people perceived the landscape in the past, but also in recognising at a personal level their subjective positioning as researchers and writers.3 Much exciting and innovative research has sought to recover everyday lived experiences and the complex, contradictory, messy processes that have shaped landscapes in the past. These approaches while varied cohere around the central premise that landscapes are created through human engagement, through movement embodied practices and day-to-day experiences; they are not created from some external vantage point.  Importantly they create space for alternative experiences among the marginalised and dispossessed, the rootless and unsettled, those whose histories, memories and perceptions of landscape fit uncomfortably within the grand narrative of progress, improvement and technological change.  Surprisingly this work has been slow to gain ground in studies of landscape in the early modern period. Yet, it offers a useful point of departure for thinking through the experiences and meanings of landscape ‘from below’.

In my work on early modern court deposition evidence, I have found the experiential and subjective ‘turn’ in landscape studies particularly rewarding for offering new insights and ways of interpreting the oral testimonies given by men and women of non-elite status. While they are not to be taken at face value, and of course we cannot enter into the minds of people living in the past, these contemporary accounts of land and resources nonetheless offer valuable insights into the ways people interwove their own life-histories into a social narrative of landscape and place. They reveal for example relational networks of landmarks, names and places, as well as the material and cognitive boundaries that demarcated the ways people moved across the land. An important contextual framework is provided by understanding custom, knowledge practices, the rhythms of everyday life, movement, boundedness, spaces and places. Deposition evidence can reveal alternative, perhaps counter narratives of landscape and often oppositional viewpoints to that of the landed elites. But crucially they also reveal that alterations, interventions in the landscape were made not for purely economic reasons but rather a range of decisions stemming from socio-political and cultural relations from within the neighbourhood.

Dialogue and debate about different methodological and theoretical approaches needs to take  place if we are to realise the full potential and possibilities of interdisciplinary studies that speak to pressing modern concerns about environmental change. This requires the cross-fertilization of historical, literary and social science research with arts practice. But even within our own disciplines, greater attention needs to be paid to talking across conventional boundaries of research practice. In history, for example, studies of environment and landscape are often considered separate from social history. As I have mentioned environmental and landscape history often omit people. By contrast social historians have been concerned with class, race and gender, elucidating the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, everyday experience and practices that are by their very nature multivocal, complex, contradictory and unequal.  Indeed, landscapes are not only differently experienced, their value is measured differently. Today value accords to a set of criteria implemented by institutional and funding bodies, the heritage sector and conservation groups, whose various preservation initiatives often serve only to reinforce the culture/nature dichotomy. Landscapes are appropriated for different ends; they are inherently political. There is an important intervention to be made in current historical research, in terms of both academic debate and public engagement, through the history of everyday life and reclaiming landscape history as peoples’ history.

Finally, to highlight just a few inspiring cross-disciplinary studies. Anne Whiston Sprin (landscape architect) talks vividly and eloquently about the need for all of us to learn the language of landscape if we are to act responsibly to safeguard the future environment.  She argues that disciplinary fragmentation has led to a lack of understanding of landscape as a continuous whole. In her words: ‘Absent, false, or partial readings lead to inarticulate expression’.4 Phenomenology has influenced other studies. Alex Loftus, (geographer) has recently argued that everyday subjectivity needs to be placed at the heart of debate, for it opens up potential for a revolutionary environmental politics.5 This, he argues, can be achieved by developing the Marxist theory of praxis – the critique of everyday practices – an understanding of ‘sensory engagement’ and, drawing on Gramsci and Levebvre, a realisation of the potential invested in the moment, leading to change in the world. In these works the everyday experiential, cultural and social landscape (Loftus doesn’t use this term preferring instead ‘socio-natural’, which I interpret as landscape) is foregrounded alongside an understanding of the politics of moving through and negotiating everyday landscapes. While Dolores Hayden (architecture and urbanism) seeks to connect marginalised individuals and ethnic groups through engagement with the history of their everyday landscapes. Her work further raises questions of rootedness and rootlessness, memory and identity given expression in marginal spaces and places. Integrated studies of landscape and social history, reveal plurality of meaning and experience, as well as highlighting political tensions and conflict across the long duree. Such cross-disciplinary, deeply contextualised studies, can foreground the constraints and inefficiencies of institutional governance and policy, ‘top-down’ interventions in managing resources and heritage sites.6




Having introduced this admittedly eclectic range of works, I hope to show that there remains a strong need for historical investigations into the meanings and experiences of landscape from below. In writing landscape and environmental history, linear narratives of progress and improvement, transformation and revolution have tended to take precedence over micro-historical analyses of the everyday, quotidian, and small-scale political transformations of spaces and places within everyday landscapes. As such these narratives of change disconnect and alienate people from the past. A great number of writers from the broad field of landscape studies have impressed upon their readership the interconnections between landscape, place, memory, identity, and notion that landscapes are not neutral but are contested and unequal. There is great potential for thinking about the dynamic, unstable, evolving relations between people and everyday landscapes across time and space, through which we may engage the public with the everyday historic landscape in more creative ways.




1 D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds.) The Iconography of Landscape (1988)

2 B. Bender and M. Winer, (eds.) Contested Landscapes, Movement, Exile and Place (2001)

3 See for example, C. Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments (1994)

4 A. Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998), p. 22

5 A. Loftus, Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology (2012)

6 C. Rogers, E Straughton, A. Winchester, M. Pieraccini, Contested Commonland (2011); B. Bender, Stonehenge: Making Space (1999)

War and the Environment: Some initial thoughts…

I am, first and foremost, a social and cultural historian of war and was lucky enough to complete my PhD amongst a collective associated with the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne. This museum, and its network of historians, approaches the study of the First World War from a largely ‘revisionist’ perspective and has thus encouraged me to think in new ways about how to approach the study of conflict across time and space. In turn, while I do not claim to be a historian of the environment, I value the exploratory space the CEAH has offered to reflect and reconsider approaches to conflict studies and war-related topics.

The most obvious connection between war and the environment is the environmental impact of conflict. During the First World War alone, endless quantities of shells, bullets, and shrapnel were hammered into the land. Gas and other chemicals were released into the atmosphere. Millions of men, horses and vehicles traipsed across the globe. Bodies rotted into the ground, along with human and animal waste that resulted from the economy of sustaining massive land armies over four and a half years of fighting. In short, as post-armistice aerial photographs of the Western Front indicate, the landscape was forever changed by the conflict. There are still daily reports of ammunition and explosives being found in the fields of France and Belgium. Along with the cemeteries and memorials that carpet the former battlefields of Europe, it is unclear whether the First World War has ever really relinquished its grip on the landscape.

These are just some simple observations of a non-expert. Much more comprehensive work and analysis is being undertaken within an ever-growing subfield of environmental history that is focussing on the relationship between militaries, war and the environment. Chris Pearson’s new book, Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France (MUP, 2012) is one such example, stemming from an AHRC-funded large grant project that ran at Bristol University from 2007 – 2010 exploring ‘Militarized Landscapes in the Twentieth Century: Britain, France and the US’. In his book, the concept of mobilization strikes an important chord with the work of John Horne – one of the founding historians of the Historial – whose edited volume, State, Society and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War (CUP, 1997), focuses on one central feature: the political and cultural “mobilization” of the populations of the main belligerent countries in Europe involved in the war. Pearson has added a significant dimension to the question of mobilization by considering the use of nature and environment by militaries and civilians to prepare for, wage, and survive war. The environment is not just a passive setting for warfare (as many military historians would have us think) but is also an active agent that has been used by humans materially and symbolically. If pressed for time, I recommend Marianna Dudley’s excellent review via the IHR’s ‘Reviews in History’ (16th May 2013).

It always strikes me how surprised my students are when I get them to think about how the First World War was not really ‘seen’ by the soldiers who fought in it. Smoke and gas would have restricted their vision, as would the tactic of fighting under the cover of darkness. In many ways it was a visceral rather than visual war. Those in the trenches would have had their vision restricted to ground level, not least owing to the danger of lifting one’s head too high above the sand bag wall. As conflict archaeologist Matt Leonard (also of Bristol University) outlines in his fascinating work on subterranean warfare, ‘the lethal nature of No Man’s Land required men to live below the surface, not on it’. While numerous memorials and cemeteries dominate the landscape where the First World War raged, these represent the dead and not the lived experience of the war. For more on this, see his blog posts via the WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings website.

In a recent discussion on the International Society for First World War Studies forum, a researcher enquired about the use of trenches prior to the First World War. This sparked an energetic discussion that encouraged me to write this blog post. Christopher Schultz, a PhD candidate in History at Western University, Canada, working on ‘the Social Construction of Space and Place on the Western Front, 1914-1918’ raised the interesting point that trench systems appear around the same time as colonial powers are engaging in rationalizing or creating uniform concepts of space and time according to standardized measures. He sees links, far from coincidental, between these rigid geometric patterns in warfare and developments in irrigation projects amongst Canadian farmers, as well as other 19th century colonial case studies.  In these ‘non-wartime’ (I’m not convinced they were entirely pacifist) cases, the land was being carved up into territorial boundaries, sometimes with ditches; often with barbed wire, and had direct connections with the techniques that evolved in the trenches of the First World War. Schultz recommends Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Space and Time, 1880-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983; 2003), Michael Shapiro’s Violent Cartographies: Mapping Cultures of War (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), and Reviel Netz’s Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity (Wesleyan University Press, 2004). In summary, if we are going to think about war and the environment it has to be within a framework of reciprocity and exchange. The landscape not only provided the ‘stage’ for war’s violent performance; it also did much to shape the very nature and experience of individual conflicts.