No Paradise without a Surveyor

Landscape in Literature

Landscape exists. Nature, I’m not so sure. Pure ‘nature’ is wilderness. And where in the Low Countries will you still find wilderness, apart from that which has been carefully planned and laid out? Judith Herzberg gave laconic expression to our intimate-but-detached relationship with ‘nature’:

We’re aware just how the grebe
transports her young upon her back
and how the trees grow new leaves each according
to its nature
We sit in brightly lighted
institutes and confer together
as to their future

In 1946 the Dutch poet Jacques Bloem wrote a famous sonnet, ‘Dapper Street’ (‘De Dapperstraat’; translated by James Brockway). In it he captures with great lyrical matter-of-factness the attitude to nature and landscape of the dweller in the urbanised Low Countries:

Nature is for the empty, the contented.
And then, what can we boast of in this land?
A hill with a few small villas set against it,
A patch of wood no bigger than your hand.

And he goes on provocatively:

Give me instead the sombre city highroads,
The waterfront hemmed in between the quays.
Clouds that move across an attic window,
Were ever clouds more beautiful than these?

Town and country, space and boundaries and infill, are inextricably bound up together. Landscape is not ‘nature’. It is always created, organised. Generations work at it patiently, reshape it, turn it into the only landscape there is: the ‘cultured landscape’. And there they settle. They are defined by it and they define their place in it.

No landscape is so organised as that of the Netherlands: ‘(. . .) their tireless hands manufactured this land, drained it and trained it and planed it and planned’, James Brockway says with ironic admiration of the Dutch in his poem ‘God Made the World but the Dutch Made Holland’. A journey through the Netherlands is a journey through the first books of Euclid, wrote Aldous Huxley after visiting the Netherlands in the twenties. Once, geometry meant measuring how much agricultural land was flooded by the Nile in Ancient Egypt. And there you have it. There is no paradise without a surveyor.

But geometry won’t get you far in Flanders. There the horizon is closer, the roads are not as straight and the water is not such an overwhelming presence. Here everything is on a smaller scale and more cluttered than in the Netherlands. Messier certainly, sometimes more charming. But these distinctions vanish like morning mist as we observe poets from North and South going in search of their own Arcadias. And sometimes they find and capture them. On paper.

By Luc Devoldere
Translated by Tanis Guest

First published in The Low Countries, 1999