Terry O'Connor

Home » Landscapes » Essays, ideas and images on archaeology, natural history and landscapes

Essays, ideas and images on archaeology, natural history and landscapes

What better day to launch a blog? A Monday in August, schools are out, holidays are being taken, England have won another test series, and here in Yorkshire the sun is beaming down from a blue sky, as it has failed to do for most of the last six weeks. And what better place to launch it from? An impromptu desk in a double-glazed garage, flowers visible through the windows, on the edge of a village where green fields rise to rough moorland on which heather is coming into fragrant bloom.

Time and place, and the interplay of those two parameters, are the raison d’être of this blog. As someone with an amateur interest in natural history, I am fascinated by the detail of the landscapes around us, not merely what exists in them, but how those landscapes work: ecology in the proper, non-political sense. And as someone with a professional interest in archaeology, I want to add the dimension of time to that ecology, to understand how landscapes and ecosystems came to be how they are today, what details and processes they have inherited from the past.

At the risk of making the brain hurt, any landscape, be it rural, urban or whatever else, can be understood in terms of nested scales of time and space. The large spatial scale unpacks into smaller components within each of which there is more detail. A satellite view of this valley shows contrasting patches of green pasture and brown moorland. Within the pastures, different fields will show slight differences in the length, lushness and species of plants, and within any one field there will be the contrasts between the tussocky patch where the voles live and the more open areas where they don’t. Some of that variation will be the legacy of the last few months of grazing, the consequences of cows in this field and sheep in that. Some will be the consequence of two harsh winters, with long periods of snow cover and deep frosts. On a longer timescale, some will reflect earlier farming practices, pre-dating the modern subsidy culture. Longer still, and big differences between the clay soils of the pastures and the sandy soils of the moor reflect the last glacial period, when valley glaciers left thicknesses of till and moraine across the valley floor and sides. In fact, in that satellite image, the green and brown almost map the areas with and without boulder clay cover.

Now, that’s all very well and a bit indulgently complicated. Can’t a chap just enjoy the view without having to analyse it? Yes of course, so don’t be too surprised if blogs on this site rhapsodise about hearing the first willow warbler of spring (much more evocative than a cuckoo), or get carried away with the autumn scent of leafmould and fungi. Too rural? Then mull over the patchwork of colours, sounds and scents that comprise a street market, whether in Skipton or Church Street, London NW1. Too British? Then how about this image: driving along a dirt road in northern Tanzania, we passed a small clearing with a few traditionally-made huts. Around the huts, children played and scrawny chickens scratched. And in the doorway of one of them, a tall, traditionally-dressed man was making a call on his mobile phone. It is an image characteristically of a place – the man’s brightly-coloured clothing was distinctly local in style – and the huts, children and chickens lent it a spurious time-depth, a sense that this is how African village life had ‘always’ been. Then the mobile phone nicely subverted the visual cliché. Different scales of time and place collided and forced a re-think of what might otherwise have been only superficially memorable.

That’s it for this first blog: just an introduction, or an awful warning, depending on your point of view. When I work out how to post photos, subsequent postings should be more visually interesting. Place your bets now on how long it will be before I get side-tracked onto music.

© Terry O’Connor Aug 2011

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