Archive for the ‘Landscape Forensics’ Category



(on Google Maps)


… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges,  On exactitude in science
Collected Fictions (Trans. Hurley, H.) Penguin Books.


I first encountered Borges’ short story soon after serving the only detention I ever incurred in my time at secondary school – the result of sultry disobedience following an accusation that I must have plagiarised my weekly essay because, as my teacher memorably asserted: “No scientist can write that well.”  Unsurprisingly perhaps, I was not impressed, not with him, or with Borges, who seemed to be joining him in slinging mean-spirited chimp poo at the sciences.

The bruise has faded now, and I can enjoy the story for its charm and intelligence, and for the craft with which it is put together.  There is still the tang of critique, a hint of sneering at the bygone hubris rather than just a cool editorial noting or examination, but the sly humour feels more general and not so directed towards science, or myself, in particular.

Of course, there are scientists who conform to the caricature of fuddle-headed out-of-touchness, but my experience is that they are more rare than the myth would have use believe.  Most university departments would actually benefit from a few extra impractical dreamers, but they act counter to the traits incentivised by contemporary Darwinian academetrics and they are either ruthlessly culled, or swamped by regression to the surrounding mean.  All the same, the myth is strong, and in an age of reasonably-grounded fears that our lives are controlled and monitored by an unaccountable cabal of technocrat adepts, there is a certain comfort to be drawn from the old calumny of abstraction beyond all practical purposes, and the peripheral absurdities necessarily generated when any concept is driven to its logical conclusion.




In science itself, ‘exactitude’ has a precise, technical meaning, and it joins other words such as ‘power’ and ‘toughness’ in both gaining and losing nuances in the transition to popular use.  More often termed ‘accuracy’, exactitude expresses how closely the answer provided by your instrument approaches the true value of the thing you are trying to measure.  This begs the question of how you know the deviation from perfection if your imperfect instrument is the only way you have of estimating the true value, but there are practical techniques for handling that issue, although they usually involve suspect inelegancies such as statistics and probability theory.  Two other sibling aspects of technical measurement are also called in to help the process: precision, the ability to make the same measurement more than once; and resolution, the fundamental graininess or blurriness of the world as seen by your instrument.  This trinity of concepts informs scientific empiricism, but the distinctions between them are only hazily grasped by the lay public, even when discussing the technical issues they govern.

Despite most appearances to the contrary, our eyes are wholly imprecise, inexact, and lacking in resolution.  They are bad instruments by any numerical measure.  This usually doesn’t bother us until we try to compare their results with more exact optical devices.  The differences can lead to both quantitative and qualitative errors, and since we learn to see long before we learn to use measuring instruments, there is always a temptation to regard the obvious as true.  Nonlinearities and imperfections in our vision actively create false positives, and the authoritative force of the impressions they foist upon our consciousness means that numerically precise external measurements start out at a rhetorical disadvantage.

Far from being a window on the soul, our eyes are over-protective nannies, and they conspire with the brain to coddle our consciousness with the impression of a comprehensible smooth continuity, producing in our uncritical minds an excellent, detailed, full-colour image of what we expect the world to look like.  Cameras see in an entirely different way, because they are unencumbered by perception.  The difference between how a camera sees and how we do is not just an annoyance, or a workaday crack in the plaster which apprentice photographers must learn how to smooth over, it is central to the process of taking photographs for any purpose other than mechanical recording.

The interaction between what we see and what we perceive is guided by models and expectations built up before the act of looking takes place.  To me, now, the main lesson highlighted by the Borges story is not the impractical hubris of an exalted caste; nor is it how technical obsessions may be carried well beyond the point where returns have diminished to nothing.  Instead, the story warns of the foolishness of valuing the model over the thing modelled, and of substituting an interrogation of the world which is open to empirical amendment with a simplistic, smug apriorism.



Edward Burtynsky Dryland Farming #12
Monegros County, Aragon, Spain


I love maps.  I pore over them even when there is little or no chance of my ever visiting the places they show.  I am, and always have been, fascinated by the combination of dense information, coded symbolism and fine printing on quality paper.  All the same, maps suffer from an unavoidable catastrophic failure which is inherent to their very nature: they do not show everything.  It is possible to mitigate this failure with a suitably comprehensive collection of maps at different scales.  Add in historical maps – in the UK at least, the older one inch maps have more information of value to fossicking antiquarians – and geological maps, cadastral surveys, and airspace charts for good measure and, given a large enough table, you have assembled the beginnings of an understanding.  However, even in the aggregate there will still be things which are missed.

Whether you are looking for specific features which the map makers did not regard as being within their remit, or trying to understand a structure on the ground which does not seem to correspond to any of the little pictograms in the legend, you will, with almost any measure of curiosity and observation, quickly find that maps need to be annotated, revised, or completely redrawn with new, personal priorities encoded into the graphical representation.

There is a greater danger here than a simple mismatch between the desired and supplied collections of symbols.  The danger is of accepting the map’s predetermined ideas about the hierarchy of described features, and of seeing the world as a collection of conventional wisdoms, without perceiving the bias with which they were selected and ranked, and without asking whether there is anything worth attending to which is not on the list.  When a map shows a path and a series of well-marked features alongside it, the temptation to tick them off one by one is so irresistible that we often do not even notice that a choice has been made.  By ticking them off we confirm and reinforce their dominance, and we incur an opportunity cost made up of all the things we did not notice because we were so busy looking for the next designated waymark to tick.



Eric Fischer, The Geotagger’s World Atlas #48, Kyoto


Either we overlook things not marked on the map, or if we do see them, we do not accord them worth unless they fit neatly into existing categorisations of value.  Even giants of empirical wisdom and observation can be blinded by pre-existing hierarchies.  Charles Darwin complains in his diaries that his youthful geologising lacked the benefit of Agassiz’s elucidations of post-glacial landforms, and of how much richer an early visit to Cwm Idwal would have been had he been able to recognise the plainly-visible moraines, striations and erratic boulders for what they were.  Samuel Johnson on his tour of the Hebrides is taken to admire a pair of large glacial erratics on the island of Coll, and dutifully marvels at them and speculates on their provenance.  They are, however, quickly defined as but one of many interesting but intractable phenomena, and they are abandoned to sink out of sight in the narrative’s wake.

The danger of not seeing what isn’t on the map is just as real and omnipresent if we consider any mental model of the world and what is ranked as important within it.  Which is not to say that models are bad, or useless, or doomed to lead us astray, but rather that we should be on our guard against complacency.  This danger is especially prevalent in photography, where there are immensely strong conventions as to what is worth photographing, and why, and in what style.  These conventions operate as a map, and a timeline, where certain subjects, events and places are marked with a convenient iconic symbol denoting that they are suitable to be photographed, while most others are not.  In the translation from the entire complexity of the real world to the family album or project portfolio there is a touristification of human experience, in which key highlights – often defined in advance – are heavily overrepresented.

I often photograph plants, or interconnected communities of plants and their environments.  As such, I find myself squeezed between the twin sloughs of convention: Garden Photography and Nature Photography.  Plug either capitalised phrase into a Google image search, and an eye-catching cascade of thumbnails quickly fills the screen.  Both genres are fond of an over-saturated, warm-n-cosy view of the world, and it is not an accident that the images look great in small sizes.  The subjects, the presentation and the composition are all deliberately, if not consciously, presented as easily read truisms.  Although both fetishize a wealth of detail, that detail is only there to reassure the viewer that the scene is real – it is not used to communicate, but to establish authority.  The purpose of most such Garden and Nature photography is to confirm, not to inform or reveal.



GardenGarden PhotographyNature PhotographyNature


An interesting thing happens if you drop the ‘Photography’ from the Google searches.  The ‘Garden’ images become somewhat more interesting, certainly more complex, as if relinquishing the need to demonstrate self-consciousness has freed the photographer from stylistic conventions.  I have also seen this effect in books on landscape ecology and landscape history, where the photographs accompanying the chapter headings, which aim at a more artistic, reflective mood than the purposeful illustrations of the main text, are far more dated, stilted and forgettable than the artless art they supposedly surpass.  ‘Nature’ images, on the other hand, turn the dial up to eleven.  Everything a thinking photographer might complain about in the page of ‘Nature Photography’ thumbnails is enhanced and exaggerated to an almost painful extent when Googling plain ‘Nature’.

There is therefore, and here the irony is of industrial strength, a spectrum of observational blindness and restrictive conformation to predetermined type, from the relatively free world of the pure garden, through self-aware photography of both gardens and nature, to the exponentially-compounded conventions of pure nature work.  Not all of the constriction comes from photography, but the desire to make a photograph regarded as good by the prevailing, commonly agreed-upon laws of assessment certainly provides a useful tourniquet.

Conventions are not necessarily bad, but they blind and restrict us.  They promote seeing the world as a collection of established pigeonholes to be stuffed, and they discourage curiosity and creativity.   They privilege the mean over the outlier, and the long term, area-integrated, average trend over the specific particularity of This, Here, and Now.  The specificity of photography, the very thing that makes it most unique and powerful as a medium, is actively subverted as photographers and viewers wrap themselves in a mutual comfort blanket.



Balnagleck, Mull of Kintyre
From Scotland’s Landscapes


Daniel Simberloff puts it nicely in a warning against physics envy in ecology, and against the valuing of elegant predictive models of over messy collections of field observations:

What physicists view as noise is music to the ecologist; the individuality of populations and communities is their most striking, intrinsic and inspiring characteristic, and the apparent indeterminacy of ecological systems does not make their study a less valid pursuit.

David Simberloff.  A succession of paradigms in Ecology: Essentialism to Materialism and Probabilism.  Synthese, 43, 3-39 (1980)

Simberloff’s article does not just support empiricism as a worthwhile activity in its own right.  He is concerned to point out the dangers and dead ends created by idealist models and by systems of intellectual valuation which place theories above the experimental observations they should be attempting to explain and predict.  Model worship can get out of hand in any field, but it is particularly strong in the sciences because of the overwhelming mythological status of great predictive theorists such as Newton or Einstein.  Their success, however, should not blind us to the long term value of detailed, unbiased empirical observation: the stimulus for a stunning new theoretical breakthrough has often been a mundane, but undeniably valid, experimental fact.

The unbiased empiricist is, however, not a commonly encountered being.  In particular, preconceptions are remarkably persistent – and sneaky.  There will always be a tension between the twin poles of looking for the thing you expect to find and assembling a collection of entirely uncorrelated flotsam.  To some degree, empiricism must always contain an unavoidable element of apriorism – you can’t note down everything – and there are also times when your purpose is from the outset to say something coherent, systematic, and particular within the framework of existing conceptions.  On occasion, opening your mind only serves to empty your head: rejecting any form of preparation or planning can lead to nothing more than self-indulgent noodling.  In a world of adequate perfection though, the ideas will guide, not lead, and there will be room to accommodate revisions occasioned by surprises and serendipity.

The tension is quite general.  Even physicists suffer from physics envy, in that there is a continual pressure to relate observations to a prevailing theoretical understanding.  The most childlike woolgatherer has taken a more or less conscious decision to gather wool, and not litter, or casts of animal footprints, or dry leaves.  The trick, I think, is to be consciously aware of biases and models, to indulge them to the extent that they permit a useful and interesting synthesis to be made, but not to internalise them so deeply that they dictate your entire attention.



Noah Devereaux, Overhead, Middle America


There is one further aspect of maps and models which intrigues me, not so much because it relates to the process and practice of photography, but more because it provides such fascinating subject matter.  Maps do not only influence the mental and conceptual aspects of cultural interactions with an unchanging landscape, they also act as determinants for the landscape’s physical development.  There is feedback, and it works both ways.  A ‘model’ may be an abstracted representation of something, but in most European languages it can also mean a pattern from which something is constructed.

Political and economic maps in particular have a way of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.  The world evolves to conform with the map, rather than the other way round.  A persistent canard from pre-revolutionary Russia was that the engineering-motivated loop followed around a pair of steep gradients by the Moscow to Saint Petersburg railway was the result of the Tsar drawing around his finger by accident when ruling the otherwise straight-line path of the proposed railway onto the map.  This story was too good to die with the revolution, and mutated into a similar bulbosity in the Russian-Finnish border, supposedly drafted around Stalin’s thumb by a deferential aide.  Railways and borders both exert influence on local land use and patterns of development, and so the curves representing the pre and post-revolutionary leader’s digits are now indelibly imprinted onto the landscape, regardless of whether the foundation myth is real or not.

However, perhaps the single most extensive example of the determinant power of maps and models is the Public Land Survey of the continental USA.  Originally intended to facilitate the selling of land that neither the seller nor the buyer had set eyes on, this divided the country up into nested sets of square parcels, and the marks and spaces of the reticulated pattern of allocated land are now written so deeply into the physical and conceptual landscape that they are unlikely ever to be erased.  The conceptual rigidity extends from homespun tales of forty-acres and a mule to ingrained resistance – on purely practical grounds – to the introduction of the metric system into the USA.  I confess to a smirk when I imagine sun-hardened farmers negotiating with snake-eyed land agents over the disposition of ‘aliquots’, a word I otherwise associate with the recherché delicacies of quantitative analytical chemistry.  The squares of land themselves form the boundaries of zoning in urban and suburban areas, and of ploughing, irrigation, fertiliser use and grazing in the countryside.  Around their perimeters are threaded roads, artificial watercourses, utility cables and pipelines.  Even in the event of a rapture-like removal of all human presence, it is a fair bet that the lattice of physical and chemical changes laid out on the ground will persist for thousands of years.



(on Google Maps)


The brute doggedness of the Survey’s implementation is revealed in all its rectilinear magnificence when flying (or Googling) across the central Great Plains.  There are hiccups, such as at the boundaries between two States whose grids are based on different starting meridians, where half-sized and wedge-shaped plots are squeezed up against the state line, and all the minor roads are forced to lurch through a dogleg as they traverse the misalignment.  There are also odd insertions and adjustments made necessary by the adamantine laws of geometry – a square grid on a spherical surface cannot fit exactly, and the accumulated errors are swept by law into the western and northern edges of the larger squares.

Perhaps the most impressively Borgesian element of the Survey is what happens when it crosses the Continental Divide and enters land where the convoluted topography simply refuses to accommodate horizontal straight lines.  The Survey proceeds impassively as if nothing had changed, laying out its patchwork of imaginary squares all the way to the Pacific.  The individual square as a legal entity, and as property, exists independently of any practical considerations as to its suitability for use.  Thus in the loess farmland of the Palouse the reticulations of the survey are further decorated by the dictates of topography and drainage, to produce what from the top down looks like a distinctly cubist conception of the farming landscape.  A little further west, in the marvellously named Channelled Scablands, ice-age mega-floods have scoured braided paths through the loess and down into the bedrock, but the Survey lays out its little squares undaunted, and farmers have planted wheat in whichever portions of their squares actually contain enough level soil to make tillage practicable.



(on Google Maps)


There are other cases where the map becomes the territory, including extreme examples such as the large scale model of the Aksai Chin dug into the Ningxia desert by the Chinese army so that they could practice tank battles.  However, my life as an idling Googlenaut has turned up just one other example of a 1:1 scale map engraved into the land itself, and it is a sad one.  Closer to Borges’ birthplace of Buenos Aires, in the interior of the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, I came across odd patches of country which on the satellite image look exactly like maps, complete with contour lines, geodetic grids and colour-coded land types.  Part of the pattern results from a grid of land allocations, and the subsequent parcelling up of land use and its typical resulting vegetation types.  The contour lines, however, are at first baffling, not least because they are often continuous across the comprehensible linear boundaries and therefore must predate the patterns of growth, which now reveal them to an overhead eye.



(on Google Maps)


At first I thought I had enabled some kind of topographical overlay within Google’s satellite view, but I checked, and I had not.  The terrain did not seem steep enough for terraced farming to make any kind of sense, as a virtual drive along nearby roads covered by Google Street View confirmed.  Street View also made it clear that the lines are fairly subtle as physical features on the ground.  The contours seen on the satellite image are more akin to crop marks than well-defined embankments or earthworks.  They represent structures written into the landscape with enough force to make themselves visible in patterns of growth, but which are not disruptive enough of the terrain to prevent any particular land use.

The answer, as far as I can make out, is that these are fossil logging roads, laid out along contour lines to facilitate the removal of timber as this area was successively cleared from over 80% tree cover in 1845, to 58% in 1907, 18% in 1952, 8% in 1973 and an estimated 3% today.  Sugar cane, then coffee, then ranching, and then sugar cane again, have dispatched the original forest as if it had never been.  What is left, is not stumps, or even small memento-mori remnants of the wildwood, but instead a ghostly etching of the topology into itself.  This reflexive scribing will endure far longer than any human memories of what was removed, and, in a millennium or so, historians will add it to the list of incomprehensible but charming rituals, like galloping white horses dug through chalkland turf.

My elegiac tone is conventional, but, I think, justified by the sheer scale of the clearance.  In other parts of the world there are limits, as in Malaysian Borneo, where similar contouring road networks stop dead at the border with Brunei, whose royalty and government strenuously protect their forests.  In South East Brazil however, you find the contour lines almost everywhere you take the trouble to look.  You think you have reached the end, and then a new set pops up in an isolated field and you realise that you are still traversing the clear cut.  The wood was vast, and it is gone.

In this case, the landscape has come to resemble a map which nobody actually drew.  The unique thing in South East Brazil is that the enduring marks left upon the land are not clues or remnant reminders as to what once was ubiquitous, but an enduring record of the process by which change was effected.  This is a Meta-Borges, or, in keeping with the Malthusian despair lurking just below the surface, Borges exponentiated.



Bernhard Edmaier  Reef, Conception Island, Bahamas

When I am asked what super-power I would wish for (a question that comes up surprisingly often) I always chose the ability to fly.  X-ray vision, super-strength or infinite flexibility have a certain novelty charm, but flying would satisfy a deep pleasure that has been with me since childhood.  I love literally looking down.

There are aesthetic and intellectual pleasures to be had from a high viewpoint, as well as the sheer physical thrill of defying a natural law as fundamental as gravity.  The world is reduced to pure patterns, and those patterns can be read, puzzled over, wondered at, and understood.  Structures and relationships which are only vaguely grasped on the ground become self-evident once you see them from above, and the puzzling exceptions let you play at being an NSA imagery analyst as you figure them out.



Nadar  Nadar and his wife in a balloon

From the Metropolitan Museum


Aerial photographs have been popular and newsworthy at least since Nadar and his wife crashed their balloon. Yann Arthus-Bertrand has created a commercial juggernaut out of his easy on the eye views, and there is a regular flood of “XXXX From The Air” books covering every location and price point.  I love them all, unreservedly, but in addition to the purely commercial photographers there are those who use the ‘wow’ factor of aerial photography to draw the viewer into a more subtle world.

Arthus-Bertrand, for example, seems incapable of shaking off an invisible little camera club judge, and habitually places a dollop of human interest exactly where the rule-of-thirds would dictate.  It gets tiresome after a while, and I prefer photographers like Bernhard Edmaier or my favourite Swedish nature photographer Hans Strand who stick with the gorgeous palette and sublime mood of mainstream commercial aerials, but have the nerve to create truly abstract images.



Emmet Gowin  Dry Watering Hole, Magdalena, New Mexico 1998

From Changing the Earth

And then there are the self-aware Art photographers.  Often, their work suffers from a somewhat negative categorisation as issue driven, a labelling process helped by today’s universal need to back up a project with a predetermined concept, but for me at least the attraction is as much aesthetic as idealistic.  Photographers like Emmet Gowin and David Maisel have indeed found ways to be critically interested in land use without the self-indulgence of a strident hatchet job, but they also use composition and form in less than obvious ways, and Maisel’s sense of colour, strong yet nuanced, never fails to impress.



David Maisel  Mining Project 5 (Butte Montana)

From The Mining Project

As photography though, even the art aerials are stuck in the early 1860s: everything in focus, everything comprehensible (if a little abstract), and all the emphasis on the thing photographed, not on the process of photography, or the mental state of the photographer, or any of the other favoured tropes of the contemporary schools.  In many ways it is a relief to enjoy such uncomplicated depiction, but it would also be interesting to see counter examples.  My own memories of the insides of small planes and helicopters are heavily coloured by noise and vibration and it would be instructive to incorporate the photographic environment into the resulting photographs.  Aerial photographs remind me in many ways of those wildlife films where the world’s most honed predator stares straight into the camera while the script doggedly pretends to observe without influencing.  I suspect most people feel helicopter time is just too expensive to waste on blurry pictures, but that, in a sense, is my point.

In any case, barring a lottery win or an encounter with a radioactive insect my work is unlikely to pose a challenge to any of these photographers for the foreseeable future.  However, I can play at least some of their games with the help of online mapping websites.  Google is the biggest, but until recently their datasets placed no less than three of my favourite places under heavy cloud cover, so local variants like or the UK’s Multimap have also received heavy use.

It began when I spotted a jewel of a star fort while somewhere over The Netherlands on a flight to the UK.  Pre-internet I would have enjoyed the view, perhaps asked a few of my Dutch colleagues if they knew what I had been looking at, and left it at that.  However, I can now re-trace my route in Google Maps, find the fort, look at ground-based photos, and having deduced its name from the photo captions, check out its Wikipedia entry and look for articles in learned journals about its history and use.  Oh brave new world.  The only inefficiency in the process is finding the proper names of things once you have their coordinates.

Things can get out of hand.  When reading Simon Schama on Hermann the German and his slaughter of three Roman legions I ended up bingeing on a two-day trawl through Teutoburger Wald ephemera.  Still, with the help of wiki-hindsight the facts on the ground are easily tallied with grim historical reality, and the fatal bog that hemmed in the doomed Roman column is still clearly visible as a rosette of post-drainage field boundaries.



Oxbows, kettle holes and pingos

Click the image, or go to Google Maps


It is no accident that many of the most fascinating aerial views involve hydrology.  Perhaps more than any other common landscape feature, water takes on an engaging combination of beauty and comprehensibility when seen from the air.  Whether it is the disappearing waterways of Schleswig Holstein, the overwhelmingly superfluous abundance of oxbow curlicues on the Ob river, or doomed Himalayan meltwater flowing north into the Taklamakan Desert, water always puts on an impressive show for the intrepid googlenaut.  The Lena delta has been quite literally a poster child for this phenomenon since early Landsat days, but a casual browse along the Siberian or Alaskan coasts reveals a lifetime’s supply of braided streams, kettle holes and pingos.  Selection suddenly seems superfluous.

And therin lies the problem: if everything is beautiful and fascinating, nothing is.  If there is no benefit to selection, there is no reason to abstract individual views, no reason to indulge in the activity of making photographs rather than simply browsing Google Earth.  Personally, I revolt at the idea of a hierarchy of landscape forms, especially the travel industry’s aristocracy of Most Awesome Destinations, but there must be some metric that makes the photographic or selective act worthwhile.



Braque in Utah

Click the image, or go to Google Maps


The answer lies in individuality.  First the individuality of process: some people are simply better at winnowing interesting facts from large datasets, or are more motivated to do so.  Whatever the hype about collaborative cultures on the web, authoritative and popular editors and curators persist, and will continue to do so as long as the general public is averse to research using primary sources.  Second, there is an individuality of taste: it is simple enough to find views that look like the usual populist nature aerials, or even to re-visit the sites of established art projects, but if your tastes run to less recognised schools of photography and art, you are unlikely to find the work done for you. 

Fortunately, such issues are largely inconsequential, in the same way that looking at pictures of supermodels or high performance sports cars is inconsequential.  It’s just window shopping, and if Ferrari don’t make a model in my preferred shade of turquoise, there’s no harm done.   Armchair geographising only becomes pernicious if you allow it to mould your thought: for example, if you sit around moping that your local brook isn’t as wonderful as the mighty Yukon, or if you neglect your own beach because it doesn’t have a thousand mile coral reef just offshore.



Scumbles, river and farm

Click the image, or go to Google Maps



Drainage and peat burns

Click the image, or go to Google Maps


However, there is at least one consequential problem of aerial photography, and that is complacency.  It is too easy to believe that you have understood a landscape seen from above when all you have really done is fit it into a tidy set of predetermined categories.  When you walk over a landscape it has the chance to confront you with a reality different from your expectations, but pictures from space have only limited power to oppose interpretation in terms of what you already know, or, worse, confirmation of what you set out to find.

Trees illustrate the problem perfectly.  Looking at them only from above makes it very hard to see their general form, especially if they are in leaf.  Mountains have a similar problem, but height mapping and a three-dimensional perspective can resolve some of the ambiguity of a bird’s-eye view.  With a tree a straight-down single viewpoint simply does not record enough information.  The hedged fields of the Breton bocage are a perfect example.  From above, in early summer, the trees look much like any others: a googlenaut has no clue that they are in fact the weird and wonderful ragosses, a pollard form driven to extremes by local custom and tax laws.



Bocage near Rennes in Brittany, France – Google Maps



Les Ragosses seen from the side

Picture by Alain Amet from Philippe Bardel’s paper at the First European Colloquium on Pollards


To be fair, until recently Google Maps had a more traditional analyst’s view, taken in spring before the leaves emerge, and with low, slanting sunlight so that shadows reveal much about the terrain and the trees which is hidden in the summer view.  Google Earth does have the older data, but you have to explicitly go looking for it.   The tendency of Google’s primary data set to tend towards a summer holiday view of the landscape is an amusing analogue of the commercial landscape photograph, but highly frustrating for those who cannot afford their own plane or satellite.

Cartographers talk about establishing ‘ground truth’: visiting sites to correlate the deductions of remote sensing with fieldwork.  The phrase should not be confused with the now slightly shop-worn military expression ‘the truth on the ground’, which has become a tool to browbeat civilians asking impertinent questions.  The mapper’s term is an intellectually respectable reminder that landscapes hold truths on many length scales, that restricting yourself to a single viewpoint is necessarily limiting, and that it pays to be humbly empirical when faced with the World’s extraordinary diversity of landforms.



Tobey in Henan and Hubai

Click the image, or go to Google Maps


I am sure the professional image analysts are more expert than this autodidact Google gawper, but unless the NSA start offering classes in image interpretation for Everyman the fastest way to learn is to spend time comparing available imagery with how it feels to walk across the same landscape.  The superficially similar stripes of drainage ditches, medieval plough marks, water meadows, and post-clearances runrig tell very different stories to the botanist, the historian and the social scientist – and to the informed photographer.  A photographic response to such places is welcome of course to take a naive view, but my own preference is for photographers who pay attention to the messages written into the landscape.

Stillman Wagstaff, in a handy guide to reading the landscape written by William Cronon’s students, reinforces this point, that you should ‘toggle the scale at which you frame your attention’.  It’s a lovely phrase for an important process, one which I try to keep in mind while working as a photographer immersed in the here and now.  Toggling between timescales can be equally rewarding, and is as important, but that is perhaps a subject for another post.


Warm weather around Easter put an abrupt stop to the woodcutting season here, and I have been noting this year’s effects on the town and the surrounding countryside.  Two much-loved smaller trees are gone, but there are also comforting signs that the neglect of some of my favourite places is of a benign sort, and not the mark of abandonment or – worse – imminent redevelopment.  It has been fascinating to see decisions being made which will have aesthetic consequences well past my children’s lifetimes.  

Lund is finally getting round to taking down some of the standing dead trees within the town boundaries, prompted by a large poplar which nearly crushed a baby and toddler as it fell over.  After much wailing and anguish in the local paper money has been found for some long-needed preventative medicine, albeit at the cost of adding rotten willows and poplars to the already extensive inventory of diseased elms needing attention. 

The gardeners in the large nineteenth century graveyard which abuts our house on two sides came and took out their last few remaining elms, but gratuitously saw fit to also chop down a harmless but lovely thirty-four year old hornbeam.  We are hoping they will lack the resources or the determination to come and grind out the stump, giving the tree a chance to send up shoots and live on.  There is hope: a similar-sized maple cut down outside my office last year managed to put on five feet of new growth in as many months before the groundsmen got round to grubbing it out for good.

Nobody really knows why trees in the temperate zones evolved the ability to recover from trauma by starting new growth from dormant buds hidden under the bark, but the same mechanism that is thought to have saved early trees from the depredations of megafauna, disease, and windthrow now serves to frustrate the tidy gardener, just as it frustrated clearance-minded settlers from the Stone Age to colonial times.  Before American landscape painters discovered the barren West, their tame foregrounds were almost always populated by a field of stumps.  The difficulty of eradicating ironbark eucalypts in Australia meant their remains were employed as markers in the landscape long after agrarian use had been established.  The phrase ‘back of the Black Stump’ is still used to indicate land beyond the outer rim of civilisation.

Sometimes a tree’s resilience is used to advantage: without it, garden favourites like knotted limes, formal topiary, and espaliered fruit trees would not exist.  Mostly though, woodcutting is seen as a necessary evil, a winter chore to keep gardens and parks looking as planned, or a way of dealing with trees which have become inconveniently large, unstable, or old.

This attitude is a consequence of a deeper-held misconception: that deciduous hardwoods cannot be a continuously productive asset.  In the contemporary urban imagination to ‘use’, say, an oak, means to let it grow to the desired size, and then to cut it down entirely, planting a new tree – or a housing estate – where it stood, and leaving no trace of the original tree.  Woodcutting indicates an emotional, end-of-times event, associated with the destruction of something known since childhood; an irreversible step along a path that leads away from the diversity and complexity of free nature to the monotony of ordered domestication.

Quite apart from the fact that no tree in Western Europe has been free of human influence for at least two thousand years – there is no ‘free’ nature here – this way of looking at trees ignores the existence of a once extensive industry based upon regular cycles of cutting and re-growth for the production of small-scale timber, firewood and leaf fodder.  Like working dogs, these working trees look different to their domesticated pet cousins such as pruned garden trees, or trees subjected to a crown reduction late in life, and their physical structure and ecology, and the knock-on effects on the surrounding landscape, are all characteristic.



Jacob Epstein Glade in Epping Forest c. 1945


There are two main shapes to regularly-cut trees.  The first is the coppice, where the tree is cut down to the ground, and the new shoots form a ring that grows outward with each cutting.  The second is the pollard, where the tree is cut back to a level above the teeth of grazing animals so as to protect the new shoots.  Cutting can be as often as every two or three years to produce sticks for weaving or other craft use, or up to fifteen or twenty years for small-scale timber and long-burning firewood.  There is also ‘shredding’, a catchall word describing any cutting back of side branches that stops short of outright pollarding.

All these forms of cutting keep the tree in a juvenile state.  For pollards, this can prolong its life to two or three times the span of uncut, ‘standard’ trees, and a coppiced tree can live essentially forever.  Allowing the limbs to grow too thick makes it harder or impossible for the tree to recover from the cutting, and the top-heavy tree becomes susceptible to rot and wind, so ancient pollards and coppices are indicators of long periods of continuous human care.  The decline of traditional underwood management since the Second World War has meant that many woodlands which have been in dynamic equilibrium since the Middle Ages or earlier are now full of ‘overstood’ coppice, or ‘candelabra’ pollards with top-heavy, thick-boughed crowns.  Re-starting the cutting cycle risks simply killing the tree, which leaves owners with an interesting dilemma: renovating the aspect of the woodland which is truly ancient risks losing it altogether.



Stephen Thompson After the Storm 

From the British Library


Individual ancient pollards are celebrated for their size, odd shapes and sheer age.  The life-prolonging effects of pollarding means that the oldest trees with the largest girths are often pollards, or ex pollards grown out.  A celebrity worship has built up around individual trees – the Thomas Pakenham “Remarkable Trees” franchise is one notable aspect – but that harvesting from entire stands of pollards was once relatively common is poorly appreciated, even in places like Epping Forest which penetrates deep into metropolitan London, and where large stands of pollard hornbeams and beeches are still to be found.

Coppices have if anything fared even worse.  ‘Copse’ has come to mean any small wood, and attempts to re-start the coppice cycle in ancient woods are seen as pure vandalism.  North of Lund, where the underlying moraine turns from lime to acid is a band running across the country once known as ‘risbygden’ – the withy lands.  Here, sandwiched between the rich southern farmland and the true evergreen woods further north, was a region that provided the wood-poor farmers further south with the underwood products – particularly fencing and dead hedging – they did not grow for themselves.  Vast areas of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps are covered with ‘surskog’, word for a type of wood whose meaning and etymology is unknown, which is almost certainly coppice, although nobody knows for sure.  Even more remarkably, it is not even known which species of tree were grown in these woods.



Felled Hornbeam


The odd man out is willow.  Historically, pollard willows and coppiced osier for basketry were exceptional in laws and customs compared to other trees, and that exception continues today.  In my county, Skåne, pollard willows are everywhere: with rows of old, flayed handlike ones marking the fields, roads and watercourses as they were one to two hundred years ago, and livid-stemmed new ones around houses, paddocks and estates of new builds.  Osier is still grown on a small scale for basket making, but it is also farmed like an arable crop in dense stands of ‘short rotation coppice’ to produce biofuel.  However, new pollards of other species are very hard or impossible to find, and non-willow coppices are almost entirely accidentals.

There is a class aspect to the neglect of pollards and coppices.  The spreading oak tree is a rich man’s tree.  It symbolises stability, reliability and longevity, but also wealth.  You have to be rich to allow the tree room to grow, and to forego the income from regular cutting.  Cut trees represent the poor commoner, so except for Versailles-derived models, they do not figure in the aspirational gardens of the growing urban classes.  They are mostly ignored in literature and art too, a prejudice which has been inherited wholesale by photography.

There is also a utilitarian logic to this forgetfulness: although traditional practices do live on in the form of craft-fayre handicrafts like wickerwork baskets or cleftwood fencing, plastics and cheap steel have taken over the roles of most traditional woodland products, and burning wood as fuel is now for the most part either a secondary way to heat a home or purely decorative.  Cutting leaf fodder for grazing animals is regarded as a hopelessly backward practice, suitable only for feeding third world goats in lands with no grass.  In Northern Europe, we simply no longer have any practical need that can be serviced by economically viable cyclical harvesting.

However, nobody seems to have told the trees: not only do the older ones retain the mark of our vanished attitudes in the patterns of their branches and the spacings of their annual rings, but trees of all ages carry on reviving and sprouting wherever they are given the chance.  Low-maintenance verges on roads and railways are the new coppices in the landscape, as they favour quick-growing trees which can survive hacking down by mechanical flail every few years or so.  Deliberately created modern pollards are rare, and tend to be in gardens or parks, but the need to maintain free passage for delivery lorries and fire engines past the spandrels of the suburban road system can also lead to regular pruning back to the stem.

My personal interest in these trees is twofold.  First, the older trees are telltales of a change in land use.  Grown-out windbreak pollards around a farmhouse tell a story of changing fashions as well as the shift from on-site to off-site energy production.  Groups of similar trees amid housing developments show graphically how the town has swallowed up the surrounding farmland, and the thickness of their candelabra boughs dates the estate as surely as architectural styles or papers in the local records office.  Coppices are largely eradicated, but the few old stools I have found are unmistakable signs of human activity in the nominal wild.



Woodcut by ‘BB‘ from Brendon Chase


Secondly, current attitudes betray a wealth of unspoken assumptions about the landscape, the purpose and value we put upon it, and how we see ourselves within it.  These include the aspirational habit of only growing – or photographing – prestigious standard trees; the selective nature of a so-called tradition which only remembers one species, willow; and the modern cult of self-centred nature worship, with it’s highly codified rules about beauty and how it should be portrayed.

Trees are the part of the landscape which most closely matches the timescales of human memory and myth making.  They show their history in their structure and distribution, and they preserve in visible form the consequences of decisions made by many previous generations.  Their survival, unchanged yet ever changing, can be regarded as a minor miracle, or an accidental by-product of the art of the possible compounded over centuries.  Either way, they are signs that deserve to be read and understood, at the intuitive level, and the intellectual.

Flying into Copenhagen or my local airport, Sturup, is a fascinating exercise in landscape history.  Away from urban areas the ground you look down on is divided into roughly evenly spaced farms, which form a semi-regular patchwork spread right across this southernmost tip of Sweden and on over the Danish islands.

It is tempting to read into these patterns a heart-warming lesson of cooperation and collaboration in early agriculture, but they are almost entirely the result of C18th and C19th land reforms, often imposed from above by an ruling class bent on higher profits.  They are the equivalent of – and were in fact inspired by – the Enclosure Acts in Britain and similar wholesale reforms on the European continent.  Instead of piecemeal working of thin strips scattered across a variety of communal fields, individual farmers and families were allocated a contiguous parcel of land equivalent in area and quality to their previous holdings.  Histories of the reforms tend to emphasise the rational, more productive agriculture that resulted, but the human cost and the social upheavals were vast.  I do not know of a Swedish poet to match John Clare in England in lamenting what was lost in the changes, but before and after maps make clear the immensity of the disruption and effort.  It is remarkable in today’s world of drawn-out planning permissions and zoned development to contemplate the audacity and determination of the reformers.

In Sweden the reforms included breaking up the old village centres and rebuilding many of the farmhouses out in the middle of their newly allocated land.  Ghost village squares can be found where all the farms simply evaporated, and it is quite common to find older parish churches in baffling isolation with no obvious community to attend them.  Another aspect of the Swedish enclosures was that there was no obligation to actually enclose the newly divided land.  To this English observer, the lack of hedges and mature boundary trees is one the most striking aspects of the Swedish agrarian landscape.  The difference is obvious even from the air.  Over Skåne the eye picks out block-like patterns of field shapes, whereas in a similar area of, say, the Welsh marches, it is the linear boundaries of the fields which dominate.  One thing however is common to both landscapes: the way that the most open fields often have a tree-ringed blob at their centre.


Slättåker, north of Lund

Maelor Saesneg, in the Welsh Marches

Further north in Sweden, such blobs are almost always an “åkerholm” or “field skerry”; a pile of stones laboriously cleared from the cultivated earth by hand and built up over the centuries as a monument to drudge and hard graft.  It is no accident that these features are largest and most common in the areas of Sweden that saw the greatest emigration to the USA.  Around Lund however, the farmland is the best in the country, and a closer look at the aerial views shows that most of the blobs are not heaps, but holes, usually filled with water.

Popularly, the holes are known as “duck ponds”, but their ubiquity suggests that either this is a misnomer, or earlier generations of Swedes had an unusually close and all-encompassing relationship with their web-footed friends.  Ducks and other aquatic fauna and flora do indeed love these handily placed mini-lakes, and today’s farmers are bribed to retain the holes as refuges for species whose normal habitat of marshes and meanders has been obliterated by drainage and canalisation.


An archetypical pit

The classic form has a squared-off end opposite a rounded one, and if the field is on an incline the rounded end is almost always on the upslope side.  If you are tempted to swim with the ducks you will find that the squared off end usually has a gradual slope into the water, while the rounded end is steep-sided.  Were it not for the green soup of algae and duckweed that thickens the water in any weather warm enough for skinny dipping, you might imagine the holes had be designed for swimming in.

Here, as is often the case in the utilitarian world of farming, form is a good guide to function.  The holes were not dug to provide a charming recreational water feature; in fact, they are usually sited so as to minimise water infill, which is why they turn so soupy in the summer.  Instead, they are the remnants of an early and extensive form of soil improvement called “marling”, in which chalky clays were dug out of the subsoil and mixed with the surface layer to improve its consistency and chemical balance.  The slope into the marl pit was there to allow a horse and cart to approach the steep workface.

In areas of easy waterborne transportation marl was mined on a large scale and distributed to farms some distance away, but the amount required is exceedingly bulky and heavy, and in most areas cartage fees could easily triple the basic price even for journeys as short as a few miles.  Where the subsoil was of the right type, it made sense simply to dig a hole in the middle of the field and thus to move the marl over the shortest possible distance. 


From Nordisk familjbok – a Swedish book on husbandry, 1913

The amount of marl dug out of a pit varied widely, which is not surprising considering variations in the clay’s composition and on the type and quality of soil on which it would be spread.  Figures range from a few tens of cartloads per acre up to several hundred, and either amount represents an almost unbelievable level of backbreaking toil.  It is no surprise that marling was an unpopular activity among those who actually had to do the work, not least because it usually took place in the summer between haymaking and harvest-time, just when custom demanded a period of rest leavened by dancing around the maypole and a relaxed attitude to public drunkeness.

Marling was practiced by the Romans, and has left sporadic traces in the European archaeological record for at least two thousand years.  Its great heyday was in the C18th and C19th when land reform, population growth and the early glimmerings of the science of soil chemistry combined to give purpose and intellectual respectability to an old country practice.  At best, marling could double the productivity of light acid soils, and because it was slow acting it needed only to be applied every ten to fifteen years.  A C16th saying put it: 

“a man doth sande for himself, lyme for his sonne, and marle for his graunde child”

However, marling was unpredictable: the principle effect of marl is to counter acidity and raise the soil pH, and until reliable chemical assays were available, marls could only be judged by crude measures such as their colour or consistency.  In the worst cases, marl could impoverish a soil by promoting the rapid breakdown and leaching of all its organic material, which led to the contradictory C16th saw:

“..ground enriched with chalke makes a fiche father and a beggarly sonne”

In Swedish there is a saying that is an almost literal translation:

“kalk skapar rika föräldrar men fattiga barn”

Once transport links improved, marling gave way to more frequent applications of lime from kiln-fired limestone or shell deposits, and later authors tend to be unusually dismissive about what had once been a widespread and productive agricultural practice.  Condescension to the supposed idiocy of the past is nothing new, but the tone in which marling is described as primitive and crude is more than usually supercilious.

Today, we have the scientific tools to understand marl as a fertiliser, but we rarely apply them because mechanisation and oil-based fertilisers have made the questions irrelevant.  Some marls especially rich in phosphate or potassium are still mined, but small-scale local use has completely disappeared.  The history of agricultural chemistry has generated many curios, and marling has joined others like the guano and coprolite fevers in leaving clues written in the landscape, but little in the memory.  The ducks at least seem grateful.