What books can help me read a landscape?
July 4, 2012 3:05 PM   Subscribe

What books can help me read a landscape?

I like walking, in cities and in the countryside. When I walk I like to get a sense of what has shaped the landscape or cityscape around me: human forces (economic, agricultural) or natural ones (geology, weather). Can you recommend any books that will help me do this? For example, I'm told that this one is good for knowing the geology under your feet when you're hillwalking in Britain. Rather more specifically, this one is good for knowing, as you walk through any given part of Paris, what has made it into what it is today, though it would only work by example for other cities, not by transferable principles (in the way that a 'field guide to human geography' might work).

Other things being equal, I'm more interested in books about the British Isles and western Europe, but I'm open to other suggestions too. I don't mind if your answer is a blog or a website, either.

posted by lapsangsouchong to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Even though the facts in this book about London are dated, the methodology is still relevant, and can be applied to current observations. Good luck!
posted by mumimor at 3:28 PM on July 4, 2012

I quite like Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe, but it may be too US-centric?

James Kustler's The City In Mind compares/contrasts the built environment in several cities, worldwide.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 3:33 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels is excellent. It was written about the Northeastern U.S., but a lot of the features can be found in formerly glaciated landscapes and abandoned farmland.
posted by release the hardwoods! at 3:44 PM on July 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't know if you'll have access to this, but I just caught bits of a couple of episodes of Michael Wood's The Story of England on my local PBS station. It originally aired in the UK on BBC4. It describes the history of a few villages in England from Roman times to ...well I'm not sure how far it goes. The last episode I saw got up to around 1200 or so. He uses local archives, finds from archaeological digs that the locals participated in, old maps, etc. WRT your interests he does discuss how the local fields and the way that they are partitioned off goes back to at least the period of the Norman Conquest, how different hills were ancient Viking burial grounds, how far some of the roads in use today date back, etc.
posted by kaybdc at 3:52 PM on July 4, 2012

For England: W.G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape is an undisputed classic. Francis Pryor's The Making of the British Landscape (review here) revisits the same territory. The essays in Michael Wood's In Search of England also tread in Hoskins's footsteps.

For North America: John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, and anything by John Stilgoe (previously on MetaFilter). 'Cats communicate fire' is my favourite piece of Stilgoe's writing, though perhaps not to everyone's taste.
posted by verstegan at 3:56 PM on July 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Er, without being flippant this one's quite good, if perhaps a bit basic.
posted by cromagnon at 3:58 PM on July 4, 2012

Reading the Landscape by May Theilgaard Watts is one of the absolute classics of American ecology. Watts was a naturalist with a deep understanding of the biological and social forces that shaped her native Middle West. She also wrote Reading the Landscape of Europe, which is also good, but suffers in comparison since it's not her home turf. I would still recommend you read the original book, even though you live an ocean away, because it's not really about the details of North American natural science so much as it is a set of lessons on where to look and how to interpret the world around you.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:35 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, if you want a case-study, William Cronon's "Changes in the land" is wonderful.
posted by cromagnon at 5:21 PM on July 4, 2012

There's a Roadside Geology series of books for the U.S. that does this. Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory also comes to mind for a UK focus, although it's not exactly what you're after.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:58 PM on July 4, 2012

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester. The story of William 'Strata' Smith.
posted by unliteral at 6:43 PM on July 4, 2012

Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels is excellent. It was written about the Northeastern U.S., but a lot of the features can be found in formerly glaciated landscapes and abandoned farmland.

Wanted to second this; came in to recommend it. It's a phenomenal book, and, more than teaching you to read forests, it teaches you to observe and reason about what you see.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on July 4, 2012

For interpreting the landscape from the air, check out Window Seat by Gregory Dicum or America from the Air by James S. Jackson. Both are US-centric (and include details associated with specific common flight paths) but have applications elsewhere.
posted by carmicha at 9:27 PM on July 4, 2012

The Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape that sebastienbailard recommended above is an excellent book. It reminded me of The Spotter's Guide to Urban Engineering: Infrastructure and Technology in the Modern Landscape by Claire Barratt, which is extremely accessible to non-engineers.
posted by carmicha at 9:32 PM on July 4, 2012

Just coming in to also recommend The Making of the English Landscape. Love that book.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:37 PM on July 4, 2012

Much of this falls under the heading of Urbanism and urban planning:
I'd suggest skimming your local (uni?) library on the subject.

BLDBLOG is good:
site:http://bldgblog.blogspot.com london

You'll want to read Jane Jacob's
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
And catch your local Janes Walk next year, along with checking out local ongoing architecture walking tours.

Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City may be good.

After Jane Jacobs, try this.

I would also suggest picking up a cheap used copy of Jerome Blum's In the Beginning: The Advent of the Modern Age Europe in the 1840's. You can see how the canal and railroad revolutionized Europe.

Turning to more discrete chunks of architecture, there's Steven Brands book and video, How Buildings Learn.

There's a lot of good books and wikipedia on the history of architecture.

I think one I like is Osbert Lancaster's Cartoon History of Architecture .

I'd read that and then seek out a drier treatment of the subject and pick up a university textbook.

You'd want to build up your vocabulary a bit:
American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:34 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

My wife and I are halfway through the bbc documentary: A History of Ancient Britain. You'll like it. It starts with hunters in mesolithic britain. Then something happens .

I would suggest you find a local architecture book store or architectural library and grind through the selection a bit. 15 minutes there may be better than tens of hours looking at an electronic catalog on online.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:46 AM on July 5, 2012

The Smithsonian Natural History books on various countries/ regions are great, well written and very easy to read. Another good one is Bakker: An Island Called California. If you're interested in the Western US you must read books on the history of water and irrigation schemes. Cadillac Desert is oft recommended but I prefer both Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelly (amazing book!) and An Empire Wilderness by Robert Kaplan.
posted by fshgrl at 1:02 AM on July 5, 2012

Consider going on a walk with your local lapidary or natural history club.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:09 AM on July 5, 2012

In terms of the UK, as others have recommended upthread, W.G. Hoskins is the absolute baseline for landscape history; The Making of the English Landscape effectively defined the field, and Hoskins was the intellectual catalyst for thinking in an entirely new way about the human and natural forces that shape place and identity. In terms of more recent work, Richard Muir is someone who you might want to look at. He publishes a good deal, although a lot of his work drifts in and out of print and some goes over the same ground as earlier work. Any of the following, depending on your specific interests, may be worth looking around for: How to Read a Village, Landscape Encyclopaedia, Be Your Own Landscape Detective: Investigating Where You Are, The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, Approaches to Landscape. In terms of reference books, a copy of Grigson's Shell Country Alphabet might be useful. For specific case studies of what you're interested in, Muir has a good book on Yorkshire (The Yorkshire Countryside: A Landscape History), and (as mentioned upthread) there's a wonderful series and book by Michael Wood on Kibworth in Leicestershire (The Story of England) which uses one settlement's landscape history as a synecdoche for the nation's story. For the peri-urban, I'd recommend Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside, Roberts & Farley's Edgelands, and Patrick Keiller's three 'Robinson' films (especially the last one). There's huge amounts on the urban landscape history, especially with a psychogeographical bent. Peter Ackroyd's books on London are inevitably of a historical character, but have a brilliant eye for 'sense of place'; Patrick Wright, Iain Sinclair, and Owen Hatherley are all writing politically-charged, socially-engaged, intelligent stuff about how our urban forms are the results of political and economic machinations the like of which boggle the mind. Finally, Nick Papadimitriou's Scarp has just been published; I haven't read it yet, but I made a post about his work a few months ago. Enjoy yourself: walking, reading, and thinking are the three best things any of us can do.
posted by hydatius at 3:23 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a wonderful set of answers. Thank you all!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:23 PM on July 5, 2012

Margaret Gelling's The Landscape of Place Names will both tell you how to spot different features from English place names and also a few features you wouldn't know before. She worked mainly on Berkshire and Shropshire.

Richard Fortey's The Hidden Landscape is a pretty good linking of Geology with the British landscape and very nicely illustrated.
posted by ambrosen at 4:23 PM on July 6, 2012

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