Spirit of Place Susan Owens Thames & Hudson 2020
As adventures in reading go this wonderful volume is a sheer delight. Skilfully researched and lucidly written the author inhabits the space with creative care. The passion and love of the subject matter shine through the text as each chapter inhabits history, place, art and writers across the centuries.
These past months have imposed upon most of us many limitations especially for travel. We all have spaces and places that we return to. These landscapes have shaped us, inspired, consoled, enriched and revealed truths that feed the imagination. Close your eyes and travel to a place that lifts and holds you – I wonder where that might be?
Here is my thin place – Pennant Melangell which I shall be missing during these days between Christmas and the New Year.
The material is carefully organised in themed chapters ( Mystery, Reflection, Discovery, Imagination, Sensation,Vision, Feeling and Presence) There is a vividness and complexity to Saxon and medieval responses to the land. My view of what landscape means shifts as Owens shows her reader how our relationship with matter and form fluctuate. This is not surprising as life is ever evolving – change is written into creation and our nurture and control of the world around us.
The range of sources and references spans more than a millennium of words and images. You will find familiar and unfamiliar places described and their associations with ghosts, geology, industry and changing populations. You will be taken back to your history and geography lessons as she charts the alternate stripes of fear and rhapsody that characterised Britain’s fluctuating relationship with its ever-evolving countryside.
Any reader will have their horizons enlarged as they are introduced to new writers and their carefully crafted observations. John Leland and his long horse rides across Britain in the sixteenth century; the fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym describes the world within and without. Shaped by the Christian year and the distinctive months and seasons are inscribed in calendars, books of hours and stained glass. And each chapter enlarged by the poets and artists that capture the colour, ambiguity and passion of attention. Owens is particularly good at describing how artists engage with their craft.
In case this might sound too idealistic these chapters are clear that perspectives are variable and sometimes unreliable. We live and have always lived with uncertainty and anxiety. We can be astonished and also horrified at what lies around us. The seasons are both life giving and death dealing. There is a temporality to life as nature changes and we impose our desire for change upon it. And we human beings see differently – that Valley in mid Wales might look and feel very different if I were a farmer struggling to make a living rather than a vacation traveller in search of peace and space ! It is – as they say – a matter of perspective !
Reading these pages in pandemic time has been a paradoxical experience. Slowing up and enforced summer confinement have changed seeing forever I think. The rivers and green spaces on Salisbury took on a very different perspective in the late July sun. Was I too busy to notice the light, the birds, the flowers and the sun slipping away into the distance? How quickly will we loose that delight, that cherishing of place and space? Solitude, limitations, permanence and destruction, air and water seem diffused with permanence and destruction as we turn the pages over into another year.
My gratitude to Susan Owens for such a lovely book and its learning and new horizons.