Savage and tame; mythical and modern; nature and culture: Simon Schama's new book links opposites to show the mysteries that lie under familiar ground
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WE HAVE a guilty conscience about Nature. It is a mangy creature which stares at us through the bars and makes us ashamed of ourselves. Guilt has led us to write the history of our relations with nature as one long declension, from innocence to corruption, from beauty to ugliness, from reverence to rape. When did we take the first fatal step ? When Adam took that bite? When the first plough dug up the soil?

Landscape & Memory sets out to overturn these narrative conventions. Simon Schama wants us to remember that we have worshipped and served nature, as well as despoiled her. We have not merely logged the forests; we have built cathedral naves in homage to the awesome canopy seen from the forest floor; we have not only polluted our rivers, we have built fountains in imitation of their playfulness and seen in them the flow of our own consciousness; we haven't only dynamited mountains, we have created national parks to preserve them as monuments to our idea of the sublime.

Schama does more than re-write our relation to nature; he wants us to re-think our relation to myth. Our histories of modernity are histories of our disenchantment, of the displacement of myth from our imagination by reason and science. Schama insists that ancient myth rules us still. Every spring the sap rises in us; the rebirth of nature inspires and moves modern people as much as it did our pagan ancestors.

His plea is not merely that we respect nature, but that we respect ourselves, free ourselves from the illusion that we are the captives of our own drive to lay nature on the rack. What makes the book moving and profound is its intuition that our guilt-ridden ecological pessimism is sapping faith in our capacity to save what is left of our natural heritage:

"For if the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race towards a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, allegory, where measurement, not memory is the absolute arbiter of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self-destruction."

Landscape is memory: there is no unmediated perception of nature. Every landscape comes framed. Landscape is "a work of the mind", arranged by ideas of beauty and order of which we are the "unconscious legatees". An oak is never just an oak: those spreading leaves once brought to every Englishman's mind the Royal Navy, the bulwark of British liberty; the oak was the arboreal symbol of the British state and of the bloody-minded obduracy of the British character.

This is a great meandering river of a book, a 600-page exploration of the headwaters and tributaries of the nature myths ruling Western societies from the beginning of recorded history to the present. It is not the first book to travel the waterway, but Schama's originality lies not so much in the argument - we all know that nature comes framed by culture - as in the brilliant persistence with which he follows a nature myth through the aeons of time. He will begin, for example, with the power-mad Macedonian sculptor who carved the American Presidents' heads onto the flanks of Mount Rushmore, and then take us back several millennia so that we discover another Macedonian, named Dino-crates, with the ambition to carve Alexander the Great's face onto Mount Athos.

Like Citizens, his history of the French Revolution, this is a tour de force of vivid histo-rical writing. This delightful passage describes the great hall of the 17th-century landlord, fornicator and eccentric, Henry Hastings:

"Stepping into the great hall of Woodlands meant grinding the heel of one's boot on a carpet of half-gnawed marrowbones, while the evil-smelling chamber itself was filled with an inconceivable number of hunting, pointing and retrieving dogs - spaniels, and hounds of every description. Hawks and falcons roosted from the sconces set in the panelled walls, spattering the floor with their droppings. At the upper end of the room hung two season's worth of fox-skins with the occasional polecat mixed in among them."

Landscape & Memory is full of such sinewy delights. It is astoundingly learned, and yet the learning is offered with verve, humour and an unflagging sense of delight. It is a browser's paradise. The chapter titles are enticing: "The Political Theory of Whitebait", a disquisition on the annual seafood dinner offered at Green-wich to commemorate the association between political liberty and the river Thames; "Sir Walter Ralegh Loses his Drift", a study of Ralegh's fatal fascination with the Orinoco river; "The Wild Hairy Huckleberry", a charming essay on Thoreau's injunction: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

Along the way, Schama offers learned essays on the origins of fountains, ornamental gardens, greenhouses and zoos, as well as on the beginnings of mountaineering and hiking. Eco-tourism has centuries behind it: the first forest hiking trails were laid out in Fontainbleau by an eccentric ex-soldier Claude Francois Denecourt, dit le Silvain, in the 1840s, and it is comforting to discover how long people have been complaining that Mont Blanc has been spoiled by tourists and mountaineers. There was a Hotel d'Angleterre in Chamonix from the end of the 18th century, drawing in the trade of travellers who wanted to taste the "delightful horror" of Alpine abysses. Schama does not side with the purists against the tourists. He argues that even the Victorian mountebanks like Albert Smith, who made a fortune with his multi-media extravaganza, "The Ascent of Mount Blanc", exploited the mountain, but also helped to cultivate a popular culture of awe at its majesty.

Awe is a historically constituted emotion, largely created by the Romantic cult of the sublime. Before the Romantics, a 17th-century traveller who had seen the Alps was not so much impressed as appalled by the "vast undigested heaps of stone" which assailed his eyes on every side.

This argument - that our experience of nature is always mediated through history - might seem to make spontaneity impossible. Both Rousseau and Thoreau sent us back to nature to recover spontaneity. But as Schama points out, this too was culturally loaded move: nature as the antithesis of cultivation. Yet Rousseau's question remains: how are we ever to break out of culture and to renew ourselves in nature? The best way, Schama implies, is to look at these taken-for-granted cultural frames, to become conscious of their unseen hold on us. By foregrounding the frames of our most basic experience, this book genuinely transforms the way a reader sees the world.

Nature myths can be found entwined around all forms of nationalist consciousness; modern nationalism derives its irrational force from the ancient reservoirs of myth. Schama's treatment of German mythologies of the forest primeval epitomises his virtuosity. He begins the story in 1943 with a German SS detachment furiously ransacking an Italian villa in search of a lost manuscript. Why would the German army, in the middle of losing a war, despatch men to search for a medieval manuscript? If the manuscript in question was the earliest known copy of Tacitus's Germania, deemed by the SS's division of race ancestry to be the Ur-text of German national identity. As such, it had to be repatriated to the Fatherland.

The Nazis loved Tacitus: his primeval Germans were sexually chaste, fiercely martial, ethnically homogeneous, virtuously communitarian, and at one with their forest home. Of course Tacitus's Germans were a fiction: a Latin author projecting his critique of his own society's corruption onto the nearest available primitives, and then projecting onto their forest habitat all the Latin fears of their own long since felled forest primeval. Notwithstanding, Tacitus set out the opposition to Latinity which defined German identity for centuries to come: "wood against marble; iron against gold; fur against silk; brutal seriousness against elegant irony; bloody- minded tribalism against legalistic universalism".

From Tacitus, Schama traces the dual evolution of German identity and German nature myths through medieval woodcuts, Romantic poetry, Grimm's fairy tales, Caspar David Friedrich's painting, right up to the phantasmagorical delusions of the Nazis. We begin to understand exactly why the Nazis combined genocide with environmentalism, why the Hitler regime furiously planted trees while exterminating Jews.

If there is an omission in Landscape & Memory it is science, the Cartesian and Baconian impulse to put nature on the rack and force her to deliver up her secrets. What makes the persistence of Schama's nature myths so perplexing is that the contrary impulse - to drive myth out of nature, to drive out the spirits, ghosts, fairies, and to force humans to see Nature as so much matter - has been just as persistent. By leaving science out of the frame, Schama tacitly takes it down a peg, dislodging it from its place as the logical end of all forms of Western understanding of nature. Science too begins to seem like a myth, a convention, an interlude in much richer tradition of encounters with the natural world.

Similarly, from Schama we learn just how deeply architectural form has borrowed from the natural world. But this leaves us wondering about modernism's disdain for the natural, its love of the straight line and the hard edge, its rejection of curvature, irregularity and ornamentation. Modernism, when seen in the light of Schama's book seems, like science, an exception, an interlude, a puritan fad in a history overwhelmingly defined by our borrowing from natural form.

Landscape & Memory is an inspiring answer to ecological pessimism, but if it gives us hope, it does so by finessing certain gloomy realities. Schama never really confronts the dark vein of destructiveness which runs through the human encounter with nature. There is one landscape which does not figure in this book, and that is the battlefield. The 20th-century imagination has been haunted, not so much by the sylvan glades and babbling brooks of this book, but by the eerie devastation of Verdun or the Somme, the echoing silence of Hiroshima, the rubble fields of Dresden, Beirut or Vukovar. This is the century which has created an entirely new field of vision: a landscape, as far as the eye can see, entirely denuded of nature itself, a pounded, pitted, blasted field of death. Its place in the cultural imagination of the century is enormous. This is the Wasteland of Eliot, the all-too-human space of Beckett's plays, the horizonless field behind Giacometti's figures. One begins to see its fatal attraction. Destructiveness has its sublimity too: this is the terrible modern form of reverence. In place of the mountains and the lakes, the rivers, we now worship at the blasted shrine of our own nihilistic urge to subdue and destroy. This is a landscape beyond nature, and it is beyond the consolations and inspirations offered by this wonderful book.

8 `Landscape & Memory' by Simon Schama is published by HarperCollins at £30