To borrow Alan Bennett’s formula from The History Boys, the thing about landscape is that it’s everywhere. Look around you, what do you see? Nothing but landscape. So what does it mean to be a landscape writer? Is it as simple as having landscape feature prominently in your fiction? Is it the cinematic sweep of Hardy as he scans the landscape before zeroing in on the puny protagonist at the mercy of the elements that makes his writing so affecting?
The first time I was told that I wrote about landscape it left me puzzled. Was I some sort of Robert Macfarlane manqué, fetishising the natural world, commodifying it, turning it into bite-size tablets of morality? Or had I veered into Clare Balding territory, breathless banality gushing forth at every turn? I checked and I don’t think it’s that.
For me, landscape is the repository of stories. My first foray into fiction was inspired by the landscape of the west coast of the US, where I lived at the time. The jagged mountain ranges pushing up to the ocean seemed to be urging me to write, to tell their stories; it was as if the land itself was full of drama – which, of course, it was.
Laid out before me like a relief map from my vantage point high in the mountains, the ripple of ridges stretching up the Pacific coast exposed the fault lines that lent life there its air of fragility, of an improbable duel with the elements and with the landscape. A trail slicing through the red rocks near my home in a mountain range outside Los Angeles revealed the secrets of the land, sea creatures entombed in the stone miles inland from the coast told of the passage of time, of the movement of mountains and oceans, of ice ages and droughts. Scrabbling in the red dust at my feet I would find relics of Native American lives, spirits forever present, transcending the comings and goings around them, like the landscape. The stories I wrote there were tales of immigration, of people and animals following ancient paths, routes transcribed in the landscape, the patterns of passage invisible on the ground but visible to the birds high above as their routes echoed the trails followed by the migrant labourers below chasing crops from south to north and back again, propelled by seasons and harvests and the promise of work.
I returned to England to find that the landscape had again left its calling card: two names on a map near where I lived, Purgatory and Paradise, one a dense thicket, a dismal, impenetrable place surrounded by thorns guarding a desolate copse of fallen trees, reeking of decay; the other, just a few miles distant, a sunny pasture blessed with sweeping views across a majestic valley. As Charles I noted, “This truly must be Paradise”; hence the name.
Now I live in Gloucestershire, close to another west coast, dramatic but in a different way. Where there were tectonic plates and the very real sense of the ground moving beneath my feet, here there is the Cotswolds escarpment and the plunge to the flatlands of the Severn estuary. Here, too, there are stories secreted in the landscape, tales from the past and the future, waiting patiently to be released. Fish lurk in the hills, fossilised as rivers have moved and land has slipped over thousands of years. The steep valleys that criss-cross this landscape hide their own stories, of canals and railways and progress carving through the land before being abandoned, of drovers’ routes and Roman roads, of dry stone walls, their exposed spines testament to the futility of trying to tame immutable nature, the stone taken from the ground, chiselled and shaped to serve a purpose, flopping back down, exhausted, to spread out once more on the soil, to return.
My novel, A Melancholy Event, takes one of the tales buried in the soil and resurrects it, dragging the past into the present. It is a story rooted in the landscape, of a duel between two friends, of the futility of honour, of bravery and its twin, cowardice, and of the power of the written word. It is also a story of possession, of a young girl bewitched by the past, intoxicated by the world around her and seduced by its power. She is open to that power, she sees flashes of the past in the world around her, and welcomes its influence. But mostly it is about the landscape, about something greater than the puny figures that strut across its stage. The landscape that surrounds my protagonist is watching, mindful of her actions, waiting to draw her into its realm. Its power is irresistible and when all is said and done, when shots have been fired and the battle fought, all is as it ever was.
A Melancholy Event by Dan Glaister is published by Unbound.
(c) Dan Glaister
About A Melancholy Event:
When Stephanie finds a hand-written story in a box of old papers, the path her life is to take becomes clear. Haunted by the true tale of a duel that took place 200 years ago, a ritual as tragic in its inevitability as it is in its futility, she is determined to harness its ghoulish beauty for her own ends.
A Melancholy Event is a tale of obsession, of a story that inhabits and infects the landscape, drawing the characters in this novel into its own world.
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