An Exploration of Geography

W.R. Mead

  • Shell Guide to Reading the Landscape by Richard Muir
    Joseph, 368 pp, £10.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1971 1
  • The Environment in British Prehistory edited by Ian Simmons and Michael Tooley
    Duckworth, 334 pp, £7.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7156 1441 X
  • Geography, Ideology and Social Concern edited by D.R. Stoddart
    Blackwell, 250 pp, £12.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 631 12717 8

For many people, geography remains the story of exploration. But there is more to it than that, as these three books attest. They present the geographer as the student of landscape, as the environmentalist and as the ideologist. Richard Muir looks at the landscape as nature’s stage. Ian Simmons and Michael Tooley, with their team of scientists, identify the stages of nature as they have changed through the successive periods of British prehistory. David Stoddart’s conclave of geographers engage in a philosophical exploration of geography itself.

It is always a pleasure to find a tribute to the schoolroom. Richard Muir was fortunate to have an inspiring teacher who contrived to overcome ‘the tedious O and A-level syllabuses’. He was also fortunate to come early to the work of W.G. Hoskins, whose Making of the English Landscape has influenced him profoundly. Reading the Landscape is very much in the mood of the German Landschaftskunde, only more personal in approach. It recounts the stories of the woodland (from wilderness through medieval forest to present-day money-spinning plantations of conifers), of the fieldscape (from Celtic clearings through the open fields and the surveyors’ geometric enclosures to the creeping disease of the contemporary factory field), of the villages (lost, found, shrunken, shifting and beguiling), of the churches and strongholds, of the roads and tell-tale trackways, of the homes (remembering terraced dwelling as well as mansion), of the industrial landscapes (past rather than present), and of the names that sum them all up. He laments the demise of the vernacular, he pleads for provincialism, he woos with photographs (mostly his own) and he is at one with Wordsworth in challenging ‘the middling intellect’ that ‘misshapes the beauteous form of things’. Whether he knows it or not, Muir is also of the persuasion of the German geographer Edvard Banse, who sought to penetrate ‘the soul of the country’. His reading of the English scene may add grist to the mill of Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, but that will certainly not detract from its appeal.

While Richard Muir, an academic geographer turned freelance author, is writing for a popular audience, Ian Simmons and Michael Tooley look to the professionals. During the last fifty years, evidence for unravelling the course of environmental change in prehistoric Britain has accumulated at an impressive rate. It is the result of a large number of patient and painstaking excavations which have benefited from an increasing range of expertise. Information derived from investigations of sites scattered throughout Britain is now sufficient to permit the reconstruction of the physical background to life as it was during Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age times. In the process, a new appreciation of man as an environmental agent is added to the parts played by changing climate, varying sea level and modifications in soil, vegetation and animal communities. The methods employed for dating human artifacts and biotic materials and for the subsequent reconstruction of palaeo-environments are summarised in an excellent introductory chapter. Reference to parallel investigations undertaken in mainland Europe gives perspective to the British experience. At each stage in prehistoric evolution where fragility has characterised an ecosystem, it would seem that man has been critical in changing the distributional patterns of flora and fauna. His impact, which has intensified with advances in technology and has been differentiated through the introduction of stock and crops, has varied considerably from area to area. Not surprisingly, explanations appropriate to one setting or for one period can only be employed with extreme caution in other contexts. The same caution applies to the imaginative maps and chronological charts that add so much to the text.

In their different ways, the books of Muir, Simmons and Tooley testify to the maturing of geography as a distinct field of study. Academic disciplines are social phenomena in their own right, born of epistemological breaks, gradually acquiring a place in the history of learning and undergoing the experience of institutionalisation. They pass along their roads to Damascus and, though the character of their conversions will vary, the degree of self-affirmation that results gives a new spirit and a new confidence to their practitioners. Where there is a respectable research tradition and a substantial corpus of associated literature, they no longer feel on the defensive. The emergence of younger disciplines, the appearance of uncertainties in older disciplines and the realisation that weaknesses and shortcomings are not unique to any field of learning provides further assurance. Such is the experience of the contemporary geographer.

The papers assembled by Stoddart deal largely with the history of the ideas that lie behind the study of geography. From the outset, it is emphasised that the historiography of the subject will depend upon the way in which geography is seen. As Olavi Granö puts it in his contribution, ‘the domain of geography as a body of knowledge varies greatly today and it has also fluctuated greatly in the course of history.’ Although the book partly explores the rise of contemporary geography – from its undefined predisciplinary period through the contributions of the various national schools, through the phase of the passive dissemination of the Weltbild, to the current concern with application – its emphasis is primarily on the nature of the subject. It is a very different view from that offered on the eve of the Second World War by Richard Hartshorne in his Nature of Geography. The present-day geographer is less a prisoner in his own field than he was in Hartshorne’s day (though he is more likely to be a prisoner of his metaphors). As he looks at the evolution of his subject, it is the contextual history that counts. The internal developments, often deceptively simple, are inseparable from the complexity of external influences. Stoddart’s company is therefore exploring how the subject is structured, how changes in it occur, how such changes are related to the wider social and intellectual context, how change parallels that in other disciplines and how the concept of the paradigm helps to explain change.

Part and parcel of the exploration of geography as a social institution is the appraisal – and reappraisal – of those who have contributed to its development. Accordingly, Stoddart’s volume has its fair share of ancestor-hunting. To modify the clerihew, geography can be very much about chaps as well as about maps. In this instance, Alfred Weber and Patrick Geddes, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus take to the stage. Furthermore, since the geographer as theorist must be complemented by the geographer as philosopher, it is suggested that there are lessons to be learned from that progenitor of the philosophy of human studies, Wilhelm Dilthey, from the Californian provincialism of Harvard’s Josiah Royce and from the life-work-language approach of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

It is noticeable that this is a book which treats geography as a unitary subject. In none of the instructive diagrams that are employed in it is there a reference either to human geography or to physical geography. Insofar as a dichotomy is suggested, it emerges from the aphorism of Dilthey: ‘the natural sciences, we explain; the human sciences, we understand.’ As Anne Buttimer reminds us, in the art and science of knowing, emotion and intellect cannot be divorced.

Geography, Ideology and Social Concern contains much that is sane, sensible and realistic. It has imagination to balance the occasional quirkiness; it has the unaffected prose of the geographer as natural scientist to offset the intermittent jargon of the geographer turned social scientist. Most of it is written from the head, but some of it springs from the heart. Perhaps that is the secret of its appeal. Not without reason are we reminded of the American philosopher McMurray and his belief that ‘in some queer way, things depend for the knowledge of them on our personal interest in them. As soon as we depersonalise our attitude to them, they withold their secrets.’