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Week 49: 12 August 2012

Doreen Massey

Emeritus Professor of Geography, OU

Landscape as Provocation

LANDSCAPE AS A PROVOCATION: Reflections on Moving Mountains*

Outside the town of Keswick [in the Lake District] looms Skiddaw, a grey slab of a mountain, about 3000 feet high, an immobile, immovable, presence set against the scurrying tourism in the settlement below. Over the fortunes and intersections of ‘place as meeting place’, it had presided. It seemed in that sense foundational… Of course, the topographies of landscapes are constantly evolving. In the Lake District the geomorphological evidence of glaciation is all about. But nonetheless that mountain, Skiddaw, seemed of a different order. In fact, of course, it is not. However to appreciate this, it is necessary to engage with a temporality of landscape that is of quite different dimensions.

Briefly: Skiddaw is composed of Ordovician slates, which were laid down as sediments some 500 million years ago. However what snagged my attention as I was thinking of this history was that when they were laid down, in a sea that we now call the Iapetus Ocean, they were one-third of the way south of the equator towards the south pole. It was hundreds of millions of years later that these rocks of Skiddaw crossed the equator on their way through this latitude, now, and later still that they were formed into anything we might call a mountain. What is important here is not the formal knowledge (such tectonic wanderings are now part of popular science) but what one allows it to do to the imagination. For me, initially, this dwelt upon the thought that these are immigrant rocks, arrived ‘here’ from somewhere else. It was an imagination that was happily congruent, therefore, with the notion of a global sense of place…


Doreen Massey, For Space published by Sage, 2005

The notion of rocks as immigrant had also been seized upon in a poster produced as part of a campaign in the city of Hamburg. A huge rock, dredged up in the river Elbe, and which had become loved by the inhabitants of the city, turned out not to be a ‘local’ rock at all. Rather it hailed from the north, probably Sweden, a glacial erratic left behind by the retreating ice.

The poster pictured it in a campaign around immigration rights, dubbing the rock ‘our oldest immigrant’. In the production of this poster the understanding of ‘nature’ as endlessly geographically mobile enabled some political messages to be established and, equally significantly, others to be undermined. Most immediately it problematized any notion of intrinsic indigeneity (in the sense of having been eternally present), any question of things being essentially and only local.1 It problematized the notion of local belonging. It demonstrated both allegorically and materially that local place identity does not grow out of the soil. (If even the soil is not ‘local’...) The importance of such demonstrations was that they undermined certain political claims to place, and in particular those arguments against in-migration based on notions of a dichotomy between authentically local on the one hand and foreign/intruder on the other.2 In other words, this presentation of geology and geomorphology – this re-imagination of the ground beneath our feet – was proffered as both metaphorical reinforcement and scientific legitimation of a particular political stance. The erratic rock of the Elbe was mobilized, as was the Skiddaw story, precisely because they reinforced so well positions that had already been taken…

The critics who ha[ve] been concerned that the new approaches to place, in emphasizing the constructedness, the openness and the mobility of place, had lost touch with place as providing a sense of groundedness, ha[ve] a number of worries. On the one hand there was reference to the need for place to have a grounding (in order that it could provide in turn a grounding for those within it). On the other hand there was an implication that it was ‘Nature’ that might provide it. The kind of grounding being sought was, it seems, a combination of locatedness and stability. Yet here in the northern Lakes, faced with Skiddaw, the very rocks were/are moving on.

Indeed it is worth pausing here to note that the rhetorical effect of this movement is particularly powerful precisely as a result of its geographical location. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that this stretch of north-west England had emerged as ‘the Lake District’, a designation that was integral to a shift in its position within the national psyche. This newly designated Lake District functioned precisely as some kind of grounding: ‘as an area of national importance, an icon of stability and harmony’ (Edmonds, 2004: 15). ‘The Lakes had all that was needed for the making of “classic ground” outside the flow of modern life. Here were the ingredients of a changeless classical paradise located squarely within the boundaries of the nation’ (2004: 15). Even the (occasional) figures that appeared in representations of the Lake District appeared ‘as stable and timeless as the lakes and fells themselves, as if they were living in some form of “natural state”’ (2004: 16).3

At the beginning of the 21st century, quite contrasting popular understandings of ‘nature’ – as endlessly mobile, restless, given to violence and unpredictability – are widespread. Richard Fortey’s book The Earth: An Intimate History (2005) is a tale of this restlessness, stressing above all that nature is never still, nor simply in balance; and the book sold very widely, in paperback. In any given month there seems to be some programme on television documenting (or simply designed to scare us with) tornadoes, volcanoes, the crashing of tectonic plates. It figures as a kind of 21st-century version of ‘nature red in tooth in claw’…

If you stand on the slopes of the northern Lake District you can see to the north across the grass bent in the wind, over to the Solway Firth and Scotland. As Richard Fortey writes ‘we can see how the rocks making high ground continue into the Lake District and further north again into Scotland’ (2005: 438). And that word ‘continue’ captures perfectly the way that the present landscape, and our notion of it, sutures the turmoil that produced it… This continuous landscape covers over an ancient fracture and point of contact between the North American and Eurasian plates, one which existed before the fracture that the presently-widening Atlantic now marks. A memory of place, yes; but a more expansive one in time and in space. And a memory not just of ‘here’. Or rather maybe it is that the very constitution of ‘here’, of this landscape, and its magic, is precisely in the outrageous specialness of the current conjunction, this here and now.

One, among many, of the ways to approach landscape is through concepts of space and time. Hegemonic conceptualizations of time understand it as the ineffable dimension of change, as internal to things and as intangible.4 In a kind of philosophical ‘response’, space has frequently come to be defined as time’s opposite (and indeed one of the problems in the conceptualization of space has been this manner of understanding space as a kind of residual category, as what time is not). It is thus that we have space as the material world, as the given, as the great out there. It is in this guise that it becomes so frequently elided with land and landscape (space as something we travel across). In such imaginaries, both space and landscape take the form of surfaces. For a whole host of reasons this is problematical (see Massey, 2005). Rather, and once again bearing in mind the movement of the rocks, both space and landscape could be imagined as provisionally intertwined simultaneities of ongoing, unfinished, stories. Space, as a dimension, cuts through such trajectories, but not to stabilize them into a surface; rather space is imbued with time. Moreover, one constantly emergent, ongoing, product of that intertwining of trajectories is what we call the landscape. (And conceptualizing it thus can also encourage a disaggregation of ‘Nature’ too into a multiplicity of trajectories – a move which further militates against the temptations of foundationalism.) Indeed, maybe the very notion of ‘landscape’ has on occasions worked to suture any underlying constitutive jarrings and discontinuities, and evoked a surface which renders that intertwining – of histories and geographies – knowable and fully representable. Rather it is that a landscape, these hills, are the (temporary) product of a meeting up of trajectories out of which mobile uncertainty a future is – has to be – negotiated.


*This text is an edited excerpt for Nowhereisland by Doreen Massey from her article ‘Landscape as Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains’. The final, definitive version of this paper is published in Journal of Material Culture, 2006 11: 33 by SAGE Publications Ltd. All rights reserved. This article was written in honour of Barbara Bender, on the occasion of her retirement. For an expanded view on these ideas, see Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage), 2005.



1. ‘Essentially and only local’ in the sense that they are not born of any connections beyond the area.

2. Note that this does not by any means address all the arguments that are mobilized against immigration.

3. Edmonds’ book not only challenges this but also stresses the wider geographical connectivities of those who, through the Neolithic, worked this area.

4. Conceptualizations of space, and of time, are central to Massey (2005).



Bender, B. (1998) Stonehenge: Making Space. Leamington Spa: Berg.

Edmonds, M. (2004) The Langdales: Landscape and Prehistory in a Lakeland Valley.

Stroud: Tempus.

Fortey, R. (2005) The Earth: An Intimate History. London: Harper Perennial.

Massey, D. (1991) ‘A Global Sense of Place’, Marxism Today (June): 24–9 (reprinted in D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, pp. 146–56. Cambridge: Polity Press).

Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: Sage.

Doreen Massey

Doreen Massey is Professor of Geography at the Open University, specialising in globalisation.

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