One of architecture’s functions is to manipulate the mind of the building’s user. In many case it is as simple and helpful as a corridor designed to guide a person to another space, or high ceilings to reduce a sense of claustrophobia. In other cases it may be that architecture is employed for more troubling reasons. An imposing building might assert an authority over the user, or a prison’s small cells might encourage discipline amongst its inhabitants.
What then, does an outdoor landscape do to our minds? Most rural landscapes in Britain are referred to erroneously as ‘natural’. Even an industrial monocrop farm is gifted this adjective, and perhaps in these cases it is most dangerous. With the perception and cultural reiteration that what we are seeing is as nature or even God intended, our minds become more susceptible to its persuasion.
We are out on a walk in the English Midlands. We have been lucky enough that the path which we have followed guides us through a copse. It is no longer coppiced commercially and most of the multi stemmed hazel stools are overgrown. Three metre long grey-green poles create a canopy that glows beneath a bright morning sun. This landscape, though beautiful, is not natural. We hear a blackbird’s alarm call as she dives from a tree behind us, across our path and into a thicket of dog’s mercury. In that direction a dark blue plastic bucket on three legs claims our attention. It is a pheasant feeding bin. At the sight of this incongruity, the ominous thought dawns on us that the only reason that this small patch of woodland has been saved from the chainsaw is that it provides cover for an industrially bred monocultural animal from Asia which is commodified as something for the upper classes to fire shotguns at. Now our peaceful walk of reflection in nature has been gutted by the class system. We look into the branches hoping to see the soft, indifferent face of an owl, but we are more likely to meet the hateful glare of a gamekeeper.
We leave the copse’s edge and enter a field of provender: crops grown for the feeding of livestock, a wildly inefficient use of space and resources. It is the same in the next field, and the next. It is silent apart from a few jackdaws’ bubbling call as they flock to another field to eke out their forage. Our minds, though desperately open for the reception of nature’s healing faculty, receive instead the crafted landscape of modern industry. What does this do to our subconscious minds? Does the organised fields and equal spaced rows of plantations similarly organise our thoughts? Are we trained to resist the urge of thinking chaotically? Are these enclosed spaces’ purpose partly to engulf our sense of freedom as individuals? Was this one of the intentions of the Enclosure Act?
Where I live now is often lauded as one of the ‘last great wildernesses of Britain’. It is not so. Here in the far North west of Scotland there are few crop farms but the land owners are still mostly striving for a monoculture. The main culprit is the deer shooting fraternity. It is now well known that there used to be bears, wolves, lynx striding these hills taking their unique and essential part in an ecosystem which enriched the landscape with profuse flora and fauna. These natural predators were killed by humans, and the commodified red deer have for centuries been allowed to grow in population all out of proportion with natural order. The deer, in these great numbers eat most new growth, causing the hills which once were lush with subarctic forests to be barren to almost the extent of desolation.
But the difference in the Highlands is that there is no order to the landscape in the way a Midlands farm is ordered. All the deer wracked hills are now exposed, stripped to their bare essence. We see the robust shapes left behind by ancient, earth-forming vulcanism, the scars of gargantuan glaciation, the chaos of silver pools and rusty sandstone peaks. How does this affect our subconscious? For my part I see my own mind pouring like water onto the bare gneiss. It is splashed everywhere in incalculable frenetic chaos. At first it is daunting to imagine my mind disintegrating and becoming absorbed into the impartial peat bog. But as soon as I come to the realisation of this I extend the metaphor: The water evaporates back into the atmosphere and reforms as cloud, rain, hail, snow, forever disintegrating and reforming as long as the planet retains its atmosphere.
This is me yielding to the chaos of natural processes. It is me allowing myself to become particulate and reformed in a cycle larger than myself. I am freed of the constraints of authoritarian architecture and (contrarily) imprisoned in the freedom of my true ruler, whether that be Mother Nature, Chaos, or some other nameless deity.
This way of seeing might be described as a sort of reverse animism. Rather than seeing inanimate landscape as kin of my own, I see myself as kin of it. I live by the rules of its nature when I am amongst it: I do not speak, I move slowly, I allow the wind to batter me and the rain to splash upon my face, and in so doing I let it erode my outer surface, my tangible body until I am stripped of all except my rawest spirit. The process of detachment from humanity, to identify oneself with the fluidity of rain on rock, allows me to, when I am reformed, become more worthy of existence. I am like the scientist/muscid hybrid Seth Brundle in The Fly: I am merged with other corporeal entities. Rather than the fusion ending in grotesque desolation, I am unfurled and respectful, ready to behave appropriately within my environment.