Schama's work is as hard to define as it is wonderful to read. Literary criticism and art history are pressed into the service of social and political history as articulated through woods, waters, rocks, and parks. Wilderness, argues Schama, is made up of layers of myth and recollection. All wilderness, all cultivation is found nowhere but our own minds. The structure of Landscape and Memory is built around moments of recognition, when the layers of myth and memory are turned over, and old strange foundations are exposed.
Shama detours at the beginning (the whole book feels like a ramble of sorts, with detours indistinguishable from argument) to give his own family history, nineteenth century immigrants, formerly Jewish loggers in Poland. The image of six army's worth of great-coat buttons to be found in the woods Schama went to visit (following his mentor's advice to search "the archive of the feet") sticks with the reader from beginning to end. The surprise -- and the feeling that it ought not to be a surprise -- is in the bloodiness of the wild Bialowieza woods claimed and reclaimed by Prussia, Poland, Russia, and never successfully by Lithuania. Coming to shoot the bison in the woods was a repeated exercise in conquering heroics. (The bison's 1920s extinction is actually much later than one would have supposed any bison to have survived outside zoos in Europe anywhere.) Woods remain ominous as Schama recounts the historical repositioning of wild forest men into pure Teutonic heroes of the woods, ending with the deadly SS hunt in the Fontedamo family home for a copy of Tacitus's Germania. (80). England's woods were greener for Schama (English by birth), but no less haunted by political intriguing, beginning with enforced royal hunting rules, continuing through years of indecisive noble and common pilfering, moving slowly to enclosures, and ending with the frantic search for hardwoods for the navy. France, by contrast, was lucky in Colbert, who saw trees as large commodities standing in rows. Landing in Yosemite, Shama recounts the experience of Western explorers, who found America's redwoods -- at first sight -- to be overwhelming, unbelievable monsters. But shortly they became untouched, unspoiled, God's own cathedrals from the beginning of time. (Indians were simply eliminated from the picture.) Woods never seem less than dark in this work.
Both water and rock take new form in Landscape and Memory. Schama's rivers start with priapus myths in Joel Barlow's discredited Egyptological works. Barlow's works had momentary fame because the Nile and Osiris or rebirth, and fecundity, became important images to the new republics of France and America. (The Nile had earlier been linked by Domincan scholars to the Jordan at an imaginary confluence.) Waters of founding and waters of circulation are crucial to the credibility of a nation. So Sir Walter Drake made El Dorado, at the head of the Orinoco, a life-long search for England and not so coincidentally himself; so Innocent X comissioned Bernini to created a fountain of the Four Rivers of the world in Rome; so Louis XIV re-possessed the ground and architects of a foolishly ostentatious nobleman and made Versailles the center of mythological and engineering marvels. Rivers are channeled, controlled. But mountains, like woods must be rehabilitated. Mountains are the abode of dragons, the home of Pilate, of ghosts, of terrors. In the eighteenth century they become the home of the virtuous and free Swiss peasants, the site of sublime (sometimes playful) terrors of climbing, the home of Ruskin's smooth curves and tremors caught in stone.
Schama concludes with et in arcadia ego, of "I also am in Acady."
Who is the "I" of the sentence? "I" can be the speaker, but there
is another traditional answer to this question. Schama reminds us,
through his survey of New York's Central Park, Thoreaus's Walden pond,
and the hiking trails of Fontainbleu, that while nature always reflects
our minds, that death lives in Arcady with us.