Proceedings of the second meeting of the Workshop for the implementation
of the European
Landscape Convention / Actes de la deuxieme reunion des Ateliers pour la mise en reuvre de
la Convention europeenne du paysage
Strasbourg, 27-28 November/novembre 2003
Mental landscape. Landscape as idea and concept /
Paysage mental. Le paysage comme idee et concept
Chair of the Archaeological Spessart-Project and European Pathways to Cultural
President du Projet archeologique Spessart et des Chemins europeens du paysage culturel
Landscape, often with the addition of "cultural" or "natural",
has become a most popular word or
slogan during the last 10 years. Who ever visits the internet and types in "cultural landscape" or
"natural landscape" into a research engine will be rewarded with tens of thousands of sites. Many
of these are tourist sites, using those terms as a brand mark for the outstanding quality of their
particular region. But what is landscape, what defines a landscape? Even this basic term is often
understood in quite different ways or no thought into its true meaning has been invested at all.
About two centuries ago Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the great researcher,
and diplomat, defined landscape as the "totality of all aspects of a region, as perceived by man".
This, abbreviated, definition still is the best and telling one can find. It describes landscape as the
sum of all aspects, natural, cultural, geographic, geologic, biologic, artistic, whatever one can
think of and it stresses the human perception as a defining element of the landscape. When we
define a cultural landscape, as any landscape that has been changed and formed by man
(intentionally or unintentionally), then Humboldt's definition carries the thought even further: just
the fact that a human being perceives a landscape and forms his ideas about his environ turns the
environment into a landscape. Therefore any landscape study, and in consequence any landscape
management, has to start with the human ideas and concepts of a certain landscape. Otherwise
one should speak about environment or use any other terms, but landscape implies the human as
its key element.
This definition is not only holistic, but it also stresses, how important
it is, to understand the
human perception of a landscape to understand the landscape itself. How people think has a great
influence on the shaping of a landscape, on the way man treats the landscape and how he reacts
on the landscape. These facts shall be shown on a few examples.
Architecture and monuments define the picture of a landscape and inhabitants
like visitors tend to
specially acknowledge them. Their appearance and their character depend on natural resources,
like local building materials, the economic power of a region in certain epoques, social structures
and ideas. For example wayside shrines with the plastic image of the crucified Christ play an
important role in catholic regions, while you will not find them in protestant areas. In Trentino in
Northern Italy, a forested region with a long tradition of wood works, they are mostly made from
wood, while in the Spessart in Southern Germany, they are built from the typical local coloured
sandstone. In Southwest England one will find highly decorated churches dominating the villages
and the surrounding landscape. Not far away in Northern Wales the nonconformist Methodist
church became most powerful during the 19th century with its barn like chapels. This was the
great period of slate quarrying in the area, with slate as the dominating building material. The
grey colour of the slate strengthens the bleak appearance of the buildings, which due to the
ascetic streak of the Methodist church, are often not painted or painted in
grey. On the English
side of the border the houses are painted in bright white, the doors coloured in red, blue or green.
A quite similar landscape nevertheless does appear quite different to the observer.
The social and economic situation of the Welsh quarry men also started the squatter
with quarry men occupying the uncultivated heather and marshlands, building their small houses,
miles and miles of field walls to enclose the land, which could just sustain a few goats or a cow.
Today many of these houses are abandoned and are bought by English tourists, who change them
into holiday cottages - painting them white and introducing their beloved colourful doors and
window frames to the Welsh landscape.
If we go back in history a few centuries, we can find in Northern Wales another
towards landscape change. The noble families ruling the country built their halls into the fertile
valleys, changing them completely to their taste and wishes. So the Oakeley family built their
manor house Plas Tan y Bwlch on the slope of the valley of the River Dwyryd, changing this
slope into a garden and planting the opposite slope with a forest. The river, originally flowing
straight through the valley, used for transporting wood, was artificially shaped into meanders, as
it looked nicer this way. An interesting example of reverse canalisation, compared to later
common use. A village was erected at the valleys end, in the same materials and style as the
manor house, but situated in a way, that it only could be seen from the manor house by standing
at specific points, while otherwise it did not disturb the view. A complete valley so was
remodelled according to the will and needs of the owner.
Another example of socially and economically induced landscape one can find
Bohemia. This area was owned by a number of aristocratic families in Medieval times, giving rise
to a great number of monastery foundations. The monks and nuns were subdue to very strict
regulations, specially concerning their diet. The many periods of Lent and the regular days of
fasting, where all consumption of meet was forbidden, led to a great need for fresh fish supplies.
So many fishponds were created, the density of brooks allowing to feed them. Carp was the main
fish bred, but here were also invented the first fresh water ponds, allowing for a crop of trout and
other fresh water fish. Still today the ponds dominate the landscape and give it its typical
appearance. The idyllic water landscape was forcefully disturbed by the great flood in autumn
2002, when the tranquil ponds and brooks changed into a huge lake, drowning the land. For the
inhabitants this was a great shock, which also goes to show, that the way we treat the landscape is
only really reflected when it backfires on us.
There are the outstanding events, the "century" or even "millennia"
floods of the last years, or
this years astonishing drought in Europe, which add flesh and blood to the great terms like
"climatic change" or global warming" for the average news customer. Simple truths are presented
as fleshy new insights, like the importance of canalising brooks and rivers, deforesting the
mountains or sealing the surface for the great effect such events can have. We often are proud
about the growth of knowledge during the last two centuries, but sometimes one might wonder, if
we should not be even more astonished about the knowledge we could easily forget. As early as
in the 8th century Charles the Great issued an edict to protect the high mountain forests,
threatening with sever punishment those who would cut them down. He even issued an
explanation for those harsh punishments: because the high mountain forests prevented avalanches
and protected the settlements on lower ground. In the year 1300 a Dominican friar in the Alsatian
city of Colmar wrote, how many people were wondering about the increased number of floods,
their severity and horrible results. He continues, while looking around, he would see the hills
denuded of forests, which a century ago had still covered them, and that therefore the water
would not be kept in the hills anymore but flow straight into the river, making
the floods more
So we can see, how human ideas influence and shape the landscape. Religious
wealth, social structures all are reflected in architecture as well as in the traces left in the
landscape. Technology has a great influence on the way we treat the landscape. Not just because
it defines our abilities to change the landscape, but also because it influences the way we think
and react towards our environment. If we look at the paintings of Dutch artists of the 16th and 17th
century, providing us with wonderful pictures of landscape and daily live, we can see harvesters
cutting wheat with their sickles. The wheat is as tall as the men, raised intentionally so high,
because the straw was a valuable source, covering the floors of the stables and cow sheds just as
the roofs of barns and houses. A man cutting those towering stems by hand has got a very
different perspective in any sense, then a farmer sitting high in his modern air conditioned
harvester with built in navigation system, automatically cutting the short stemmed wheat bred
today for the only purpose of rich crops. The influence our own ideas and sentiments have on the
landscape was well perceived by many in the past. The senators of Siena had the famous painter
Pietro Lorenzetti decorate their main assembly chamber in the early 14th century depicting the
consequences of good and bad government to both, the city and the surrounding landscape. The
big holes left by surface mining in the coal areas might serve as a symbol for the destroying
capacity of money driven exploitation.
Since the industrialisation the change of the landscape has increased and
become ever faster.
What has been a landscape of industrialisation a century ago can become a natural resort today.
The slate mining areas of North Wales were the stage for bone braking and dangerous labour, for
people slaving in the mines for 12 hours a day with only a break on Sunday to attend the service
in the Chapel. The vast spoil heaps, flooded holes and abandoned mines today are a tourist resort
and even a UNESCO world heritage site. Perspective changes with the change of technology and
the course of history.
Today windmill farms belong to the most controversially discussed features
in our landscape.
They are a big business for some, not the least because of politically initiated funding schemes, an
ecological revolution for others, stressing the importance of sustainable energy production, when
the emission from coal fuelled power plants adds to global warming, but they are also a changing
factor in our landscape. The ever higher towers and wings of the wind mills, clustering in wind
farms on the flat coast lands and more and more in off shore farms in the sea, change the
character of the landscape. The towers of village churches, wide visible landmarks in the flat
lands of Northern Germany e.g., are cowered by the many windmills even higher than the old
towers. For many people their picture of the landscape is destroyed. Even stronger debates rise, as
the windmills move more and more inland, new types of windmills allowing wind farms even
under the much less stable conditions in alpine regions.
At least windmills were a common feature in Northern Europe centuries ago.
When the Dutch
engineers developed highly efficient types in the 16th century to drain the fields and help to win
new arable land, windmills spread far over Northern Europe, moving water as well as grinding
corn. People were proud about the new technology, which allowed them to harness the wind, this
uncontrollable natural power, and use it for their own good. So windmills feature prominently in
many contemporary Dutch paintings, not only as metaphors and symbols, but also because they
were an important and valued feature in the landscape. Windmills were not only standing alone,
but could cluster to real wind farms. On the island of Saaremaa in Estonia many farmhouses had
their own windmills in the 19th century, and often more then one. In a small village there could be
up to 24 windmills working at the same time. Only one of these clusters has survived, at least in
parts, until today. The skeletons of many small windmills can be seen scattered
landscape. But some are built in stone as heavy towers, their remains looking more like ruined
fortifications than civil buildings. When restored they are major tourist attractions, around which
restaurants and bars develop.
The industrialisation of transport accelerated the rate of change in the landscape.
rivers, the new railway systems and the new types of roads intersected the landscape and powered
the change through exploitation, new industries, urbanisation and sub-urbanisation of the
countryside. Again people were quite proud of the new technologies, when they emerged. Even in
the delicate paintings of French Impressionists one can see railway bridges and trains under full
steam. Others painted industrial plants like cathedrals and showed cities with every single
chimney billowing smoke as a symbol of growing wealth and progress. Today we are much more
reluctant to celebrate such developments, as they have gained such a speed, that changes have
become frightening to many people.
As we can observe the change of perception of change and progress, we can
also state that image
is one of the most powerful forces. This is also true for landscapes. The image a landscape has
determines very much the way it is perceived, observed and treated. Many landscapes are viewed
as purely natural landscapes, the average observer not realising the great impact of human
activities on these landscapes. The Bowland Forest and Lune Valley in Lancashire can serve as a
good example. The Lune Valley is a fertile area with green meadows, villages, churches and
castles, everybody concedes of great value and worth protecting. The adjoining Bowland Forest is
mostly seen as a bleak moor land, only good for grouse hunting. But the many field walls as well
as its heather show the influence gracing once had on this land, which as a Royal forest has a
most fascinating history of its own.
In Dowris in Ireland we can see a flat landscape of peat bog, which partly
has been stripped
recently for the production of peat fuelling a nearby power plant. This is a landscape which
nobody would call beautiful and many see as natural. But in fact the growing of the peat itself
was instigated by human activities, albeit unintentionally, and the stripping of the peat is a human
activity, which is not sustainable and not even economic any more, but still is done for - cultural
and social reasons. Because after Ireland became politically independent the 1920s it tried to
become independent economically as well, substituting British coal by Irish turf. Burning peat is
therefore seen as part of the Irish tradition and identity.
The Spessart, a large woodland in the heart of Germany, has the image of poverty,
other upland regions in Europe. Poverty often is associated in peoples mind with a lack of history.
Although this landscape has been settled by men since the beginning of the Neolithic about 8
millennia ago, and had times of great prosperity as well as times of trouble, the more recent
history of poverty in the 19th and early 20th century dominates the memory. Therefore many
historic structures and buildings are still erased, even during a time of growing interest in ones
cultural heritage, because they are viewed as mere testimonies of poverty. Poverty is experienced
as shameful and modern wealth shall be shown to the public. Even more important new
developments of settlement structures influence the way people feel about their landscape. During
the last decades many people from the surrounding urban centres settled in the Spessart,
sometimes buying old farm houses, more often building new houses in new "suburbs". Today
many villages consist of about 50% indigenous inhabitants and 50% new settlers. These still
make their living in the cities, spend most of their money in the cities where they consume
entertainment and culture, while they raise their children in the "healthy, green and natural"
environment far from sex, drugs and violence. An idyllic picture of the landscape is created,
which is far from real, but serves the needs and interests of the people who decided to live here.
It therefore is most important to know the concepts of people about the landscape
they live in, but
as well the concepts of people who visit the landscape to seek recreation. If one wants to
influence the process of change, then peoples ideas and visions are crucial. Not understanding
them will ruin every scheme of landscape management. Of course we live in times of rapid
change - and therefore also of rapid change of the landscape. Saying that, one has as well to state,
that landscape in itself is never static. Landscape is a living canvas, and just as nature will change
even without any human influence, every landscape will always change and develop. Having both
natural and cultural components this is even more true for the landscape as for the mere
environment. Landscape therefore is a process. To manage landscape one has also to understand
the process, because again, otherwise every clever plan of management will go astray. Therefore
it is important to view the landscape not only as 3-dimensional, but as 4-dimensional. It is
important to understand its history and how it developed, not just during the last decades, but
during a longer span of time. For landscape as such it is important to understand the interaction
between nature and man, how man reacts on nature, influences his environment and reacts on the
emerging changes. Therefore landscape management should not only be left to developers,
planners, engineers and landscape architects, but must as well include historians and
archaeologists. Ecological features are well integrated into landscape planning, but cultural
features still are underestimated.
But why is it so important to understand the process and manage the landscape
when it is
changing anyway and permanently, as stated above? One answer lies in the speed and track of
change we observe at present. We are in danger to loose all the specific character of different
landscapes, move towards a uniformity of landscapes. We see many devastated landscapes, which
have lost all attraction to their inhabitants - and to people from outside. Economic and social
problems are the inevitable consequence. Rich and divers landscapes have a great social value.
The different character of landscapes make them valuable for tourists, because only the
differences make them interesting to visit and experiencing the differences is a great part of the
recreational factor of holidays. A positive identification with the local landscape is an important
factor for social well being. So we can state, that the diversity of landscapes and their proper
management have a great socio-economic value. Neglect or wrong management, destroying the
positive identification with ones landscape, can lead to economic decline of an area, increased
violence, alcoholism and criminality and so cause higher costs in the long line than an intelligent
management would have cost in short terms.
The importance of biodiversity has been well accepted during the last years.
This is not only
because of the good lobbying of ecological pressure groups, but also because powerful companies
have realised the enormous value of biodiversity. It is a never ending source of new patents, bio-
technology or pharmacy are just two branches, which make great profit out of this rich pool -
which provides substances as well as ideas. Since aircrafts save petrol by using a "shark-skin" or
hard cash is saved on cleaning windows through specific surfaces derived from certain blossoms
nobody can doubt the economic value of natures treasure house any more. The same
understanding needs to be raised for the cultural diversity as a similarly rich source which needs
the same close interest. Its socio-economic importance has to be stressed and it has to be much
more closely studied. The setting in which this diversity takes place is the landscape - where
natural and cultural factors meet and unite.
So the main tasks for future landscape management, to my opinion, are:
- to better understand the process forming the present landscape, so we can model the
future changes and what results can be expected from specific actions ;
to involve the people, the civic society, into the process, not just at
a late stage, but from
the beginning, including their ideas and concepts into the process of managing the landscape and
make them wardens of the landscape ;
to better evaluate the true value of the diversity of landscapes, biodiversity
as well as
cultural diversity, to make it easier to argue for an intelligent and sustainable management.
And most important: to allow for individual strategies for individual landscapes.
This is difficult
to achieve in a time of pressing need for standardisation and easy to apply methods in a
globalising world and enlarging European Union, but diversity needs diverse methods - or it will
inevitably change to uniformity.