It occurred to me the other day, while I was walking up a hill through long grass beneath shady birch trees, that the most important and enduring relationship we have in our lives is the one we have with the land we live on. It then occurred to me that this should always have been much more obvious. As individuals, and as a society, the landscape is the one presence in our lives that will absolutely always be there. People will come and go; the land will always remain. It is the same land, the same places our ancestors lived in. It is the same land and the same places in which our descendants will dwell. Even if you live in the middle of the biggest city on earth, still is is the land that underlies you, and the land that surrounds you, that also sustains you.
As usual, I was led to these thoughts through the prism of photography, seeking out those moments of intimacy with the landscape through which I express the depth and meaning of my own relationship with it. But it was the word relationship that I kept coming back to. And I realised that our relationship with the landscape is so one sided it is nothing less than abusive.
Imagine that we could embody the landscape as a human. Take all that soil and air and water, and time and patience and silence and colour, and wrap it all up in a human shape. Land the Person. Imagine Land the Person is a member of your family, or your spouse. Imagine that in every single interaction with this person, you are only concerned with what you can take from them. You take things whenever it suits you. You never interact with them for any other reason. You take the things you need, of course, and you also take the things you want. You take your fuel, your food, your building materials. You also take your life experiences, you take your wellbeing, your leisure, your development opportunities. You take your moments of beauty and wonder and happiness, and maybe you even feel grateful, but take you do. You and the rest of the family never consider any other reason to spend time with that Land the Person except for the purpose of taking something from them. What do you give them in return?
Imagine Land got sick. Some of the family realise this and want to help. Some don’t see it at all. But even those of you in the family who care about the health of Land the Person have no choice but to argue with the rest of the family, because they’re still asking Land to give them everything. And those of you who argue that you should leave Land alone, let them recover, let them get their health back, even you have no choice but to argue in the language of those who want to take more. You have no choice but to say that Land can do more for you if left alone for a while; Land can give you other things instead; Land needs to be there to give your kids nice things too. Land can give us more biodiversity. My children deserve the opportunity to take from Land.
Has anyone ever considered what Land the Person wants to do? Has anyone considered maybe they want the next generation to take less? Maybe they would feel better if just once in a while someone gave something back?
So imagine that relationship, where all you do is take. What do you ever give? What do you ever give of yourself?
Now, here is where I’m going to start talking about photography. What has that got to do with it? Everything, for me.
I’m a landscape photographer. It’s the moments of natural beauty that I want to take from Land. But, I don’t really want to take them, I just want to see them. I want to present there and then, and remember. And I want to share that. I want us all to see how wonderful Land is, and persuade everyone (myself included) that we have to be more gentle with them. More understanding. We have to talk the same language as Land, because Land can’t speak ours. Land can’t talk about economics and production targets. Land can only talk to our hearts.
I get really fed up sometimes because often the only aspect of Land that people want to see is the sensational. But Land is not sensational most of the time. Like any other person, the relationship of love between us is built on a million points of nuance, which is why I shoot the same things again and again and again in nature. The colour of a cloud, the texture of a tree’s bark, the exact tone of silence. These to me are secret half smile, the twinkle in the eye, and the comfort in each other’s company that comes through years of companionship. It’s all about nuance, and those minute expressions and details that are in fact drenched in meaning and significance. It’s very much the same way that a relationship with any another person is the conglomerate of thousands of shared moments, big and small and laced with meaning for those who share in that relationship.
Maybe, just perhaps, things could be different. Maybe our world would not be so messed up if we could just stop and listen to Land for a change, and ask what they want to do. Maybe if we let ourselves build that relationship, and feel that mutual love, then we would feel less embarrassed about why we should not let Land the Person slip away from us. Not for what they can do for us in the future. Not for the benefits we need today and tomorrow. Just for Land’s own sake. For love.
Thoughts for the future: was it always like this? Did things change with the arrival of industry and enlightenment that so profoundly altered our way of thinking? Maybe we were always this way? Ideas to ponder for another day.