What we know and what we see

Engraving from Hydrotophia or Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne (1658).

Engraving from Hydrotophia or Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

One writer whose work influences the way the modern world thinks about landscape and memory is Sir Thomas Browne, whose strange essay, Hydrotaphia or Urne-Buriall, published in 1658, based on the excavation of a group of  fifty Saxon funerary urns on the Norfolk coast, raised a host of intriguing questions about relics, ruins and remains, and their presentiments of the future.  ‘A large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us,’ he wrote, suggesting how much of the past remains buried beneath our feet.

Browne’s rich, recursive prose, endlessly circling around matters of life, death and the ‘invisible flame’of human self-consciousness and belief, made a deep impression on W.G.Sebald, whose allusive writings in turn now influence many of those pondering such questions today.

Ken will be talking about Browne, and what lies beneath the surface of the East Anglian landscape, at the forthcoming Essex Book Festival on 8 March, along with James Canton, Jay Griffiths, Philip Terry, Marina Warner and others. The theme of a day of talks, readings, films and discussions at the University of Essex is ‘Bones’, exploring ideas concerning death, underworlds, place, memory and redemption. Given that an awareness of death has almost disappeared from urban daily life for a variety of reasons – spatial, demographic, the ubiquity of out-of-town cremation – the rural cemetery is once again an important memento mori.

Graveyard, Bradwell - on - Sea (2005)

Graveyard, Bradwell – on – Sea (2005)

The ritual of church-visiting, even for the non-religious, is still a focal point of country walks and outings. One reason for this is that the overgrown churchyard has been a trope of many poems, novels and paintings imbued with a Romantic sensibility for a long time now, and continues to play an important role in the symbolic landscape. This is one reason, but not the only one, why we included a photograph of the churchyard at Bradwell-on-Sea first published in 350 Miles, which exercised a singular poignancy.

The relationship between what we know and what we see applies particularly to the ways in which much of the history of the past is barely visible in the landscape, as Browne noted. Even so, there are always  trace remains – hedgerow patterns, tree and plant species, changes of level in the ground, place names, public memory, as well as material remains such as gravestones of course – which is why there is truth in the otherwise glib phrase that ‘geography is history’.

There continue to be enthusiastic reviews of The New English Landscape since our last post. In Creative Review a wide-ranging interview with Jason explores and discusses his photographic work, and includes some previously unpublished photographs. In our next post we will be updating and providing links to the other reviews we’ve had since publication.

The ‘Bones’ event is part of the Essex Book Festival and takes place on Saturday, 8 March 2014 at The Lakeside Theatre, University of Essex, between 10.30 and 5pm. Tickets £5/£4. For more information go to www.essexbookfestival.org.uk