A few years ago I wrote a post about images of refugees on land, and how they reduce refugees to an anonymous mass: a visual trope I called the overland trudge. This trope is shaped partly by photographic technologies (the constraints and possibilities of the cameras and lenses used to take the image, and the media formats in which they’re reproduced) and partly by artistic and journalistic convention. The photographer turns individual people into nameless and indistinguishable ‘refugees’ by stepping back to bring numbers into the frame, but rarely steps back far enough to allow any significant feature of the landscape to come into view. We may get a sense of what it’s like, arid and dusty or frozen hard, but we rarely get a sense of where it is. One of the recent impracticable schemes to solve the problem of mass displacement proposes “a confederal, transnational polity” named Refugia: this harsh and featureless place is what it really looks like.
There’s no sense, in these images, of landscape as anything other than hard stuff to be grimly trudged across—an unmetaphorically hostile environment. And for many refugees and other people on the move, the landscapes they cross are indeed hostile. Rich states take advantage of this. US policy on its southern border in recent decades has been to choke off access into the country from Mexico, pushing undocumented border-crossers away from crossing-points in populated and well-served areas and ever further out into the harshest landscapes: Jason de León’s work explores the material culture of border crossing in what he calls the land of open graves. The European Union more visibly relies on the Mediterranean Sea to keep undocumented travellers out, refugees among them. But the high visibility of the Mediterranean also draws attention away from the barrier of the Sahara, a formidable obstacle for those travelling from further south.
But landscape is more to people on the move than just a prolonged series of obstacles on the journey, a potential open grave. The landscapes of home are often carried in memory, and may shape the experience of landscape in exile: Thaer Ali, an Iraqi Kurd living as a refugee in the UK, explained to photographer John Perivolaris that the trees on the road to Nottingham city centre reminded him of looking up through the branches of trees while going to visit his grandfather’s village as a child, when he would ‘reach up and try to touch the branches’. Features in a landscape of exile can form a sudden connection with the landscape of home, bringing the past—welcome or unwelcome—into the present.
The poetry of John Clare (1793–1864) is one of the most intimate engagements with landscape in the English language, but it is a poetry of loss. The Northamptonshire landscape Clare knew as a boy at the turn of the nineteenth century was enclosed by act of parliament in 1809, the same year in which he wrote his first poem. The fields, woods, and common lands of his poetry were being radically transformed as he wrote about them, a transformation of property law that would displace the variegated local culture of their people, and set their teeming profusion of plant and animal life on the path to the diminished, hollowed-out nature of the commercialized (and later industrialized) agricultural landscape: ‘simplification for alienation’, as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing puts it. In different ways, the same displacement has occurred, and is still occurring, around the world.
At nearly 40, Clare was offered the rent of a cottage at Northborough, three miles from his home of Helpston, through the assistance of wellwishers and friends. But the move, which was intended to help stabilize his finances and his family situation, permanently destabilized him—he seems to have experienced it as an intensified version of the lifelong displacement he bears witness to in so much of his poetry.
Here every tree is strange to me
All foreign things where ere I go
—John Clare, ‘The Flitting’ (1833)
At Helpston, every whitethorn bush, stile, or quarry had its intimate associations, in his own memory and in a shared local culture. The woods and fields of Northborough, so close by, were alien to him.
But landscapes of exile can also be a resource for displaced people. At a seminar I hosted in September 2018, geographer Sara Kindon asked us to rethink the place of ‘place’ in refugee integration. ‘Integration’ of refugees is often understood in a narrowly economic sense, perhaps supported by some legal recognition: refugee status and the right to work, most obviously, and in the longer term perhaps citizenship in the host state. But it takes a much thicker set of associations for any of us to feel integrated in a new place. Some of them are social, but others are ecological: a familiarity with the landscape and its more than human inhabitants, for example. I’ve been thinking about this ever since, and have written about it in a chapter that will be coming out later this year on ‘Animals, people, and places in displacement’. But only after that chapter was in press did I read Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s marvellous book The Mushroom at the End of the World, which tells—among so many other things—of how different groups of southeast Asian refugees in the USA draw on their experience of jungle warfare in the 1960s and 70s and longer traditions of forest mobility to participate, in different ways, in the picking and trading of the matsutake mushrooms that grow in symbiosis with the roots of the lodgepole pines that are reclaiming the logged-out Oregon forests. Skills honed in one landscape could be adapted to another, half a world away. “Mushroom picking layers together Laos and Oregon, war and hunting” (p91). It works not just as a livelihood strategy, allowing new Americans to earn a living in a time when the postwar welfare state has long since been dismantled, but also as a way of asserting an American commitment to a particular understanding of ‘freedom’. There’s much more to say about refugees and landscapes, and I have a lot of thinking still to do.
Click images for source.