We’re all aware of the Romantic idea of ruins – artworks, poems, even music that describes the Ozymandian remains of previous civilizations.
There is an important message behind most, if not all, artworks of ruins: that the mighty can fall, that the way things are today is not the way things have always been.
I use the phrase, ‘The Ozymandian moment’ to refer to a specific occurrence when we gaze upon a fragment, a space, a landscape, and see within it the ruinous traces of a previous way of life. It can be an exciting one, or a terrifying one, or an entirely neutral one, but it is one that is gone.
And those traces can exist for long stretches of time without truly becoming ‘ruins’. Examples persist all around us – Tintern Abbey is one example: was it a ruin before being painted and written of? There’s an example in my book – a deserted village called Balsdean, in a valley east of Brighton. Some of its last structures were shelled by the Canadian army as target practice in the run-up to D-Day. There’s nothing left of them. But I think we can now argue that its nonexistence, its blank spot on the map, is ruinous.
We see Ruins in Nash – Totes Mere is a great example, using the landscape of an aviation scrapheap as a kind of ruin of mobility: the invention of the ship is the invention of the shipwreck, and Totes Meer becomes an oceanic swell of loss, of past, of what-once-was. This is the memory of a once-great, now-gone, civilization – the civilization of the fighter plane and the bomber, a civilization reduced to a scrapheap and cast adrift.
And that process carried forward in Nash’s other works, his twisted found driftwood recalling the twisted metal of the wars, and the denuded forests of some of his landscapes. And it is, after all, for wood, rather than metal, that we know Nash.
But, for Nash, there was an absurdity to this moment – this realization of the meaninglessness of these actions – and an absurdity to the power of nature and of the landscape and, in particular, and absurdity to the relationship between people, war and landscape.
I think this absurdity is a response to what some artists today call ‘Forest trauma’ – a term stolen from French horticulturists, it’s used to describe the impact on memory – both of people and places – of an event such as the War. Nash’s response to the trauma inflicted on the landscapes of Europe was a renewed interest in ruins, in battered wood, and in absurdity.
In one of the letters from 1917 to Margaret he writes:
“Flowers bloom everywhere and we have just come up to the trenches for a time and where I sit now in the reserve line the place is just joyous, the dandelions are bright gold over the parapet and nearby a lilac bush is breaking into bloom; in a wood passed through on our way up, a place with an evil name, pitted and picked with shells the trees torn to shreds, often reeking with poison gas – a most desolate ruinous place two months back, to-day it was a vivid green; the most broken trees even had sprouted somewhere and in the midst, from the depth of the wood’s bruised heart poured out the throbbing song of a nightingale. Ridiculous, mad incongruity! One can’t think which is the more absurd, the War or Nature.”
In our writing, I want us to consider these as different ways of looking at place – at landscape as a keeper of memory, and of trauma, but also as a condition of constant rebirth and change; a reminder that the way things are is not the way things have always been, and that the landscape itself changes and stays the same in equal parts based on the way we look at it: In other words, we control the meaning of a landscape through the way we write about place.