by Benjamin Schwarz
The book I’ve most enjoyed this year was The Making of the English Landscape, by W. G. Hoskins—a seminal work which established the field of landscape history when it was published in 1955, and a book that I’ve wanted to read since I was in college. Hoskins was a brilliantly resourceful historian and archaeologist, but even more important, he was a genius observer who could discern and interpret what was in plain sight. He explained how landscape—the patterns of fields and fens, hedgerows, villages, watercourses, roads—isn’t a given, but is the product of the accretion of thousands of years of human activity. In reading “the hidden anatomy of a scene,” Hoskins showed how, say, Celtic farming techniques, Roman roads, abandoned medieval villages, the demographic and economic ramifications of the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries, parliamentary enclosure commissions, and the demands of industrialization created the contemporary landscape that we take for granted and assume is immutable. In so doing, Hoskins wrote a profound meditation on the pervasive and stubborn influence of history on the present (Hoskins’s approach has been especially helpful to me in illuminating the landscape of the American South), and on the non-progressive, indeed in many ways retrograde, nature of human psychology and the human experience, which jumble together the distant and recent past even as we try to make our way forward.