By Robin Lloyd-Jones
Elsewhere I have argued strongly that there is no better way to fully appreciate a landscape than to be in it, part of it, experiencing it at the natural human pace and being able to stop and admire the details whenever one wants. However, for a majority of people in modern Britain, particularly urban dwellers – which is most of us – this is not how we experience landscape. For the most part we see it from a moving car, coach, train or aeroplane, the first of these being the most common. A friend, recently returned from his first visit to America, said to me, ‘Everything I know about America comes from a moving screen.’ He meant the windscreen of his hired car, the window of the train, and television and cinema screens. For me (and for everyone, I suppose), driving through a landscape is a very different experience from walking through it. Despite the fact that there is a minimum of contact with anything outside my insulating capsule, I find that landscapes in motion have their own special delights.
There is the obvious point that, on a drive in the country, I might average thirty or forty miles an hour, whereas, on foot, these days, two miles an hour is likely to be my norm. Number of miles covered, in itself, is not necessarily a positive factor, but it is when it enables an increased panoramic perception. It allows me to see the contrasts between one area and another in a more immediate and sharper way than if I was walking the same route. The change from one kind of scenery to another arrives sooner and with greater impact. By being able to contrast barren moorland and lush valley, or steep-sided mountains and flat lowland my appreciation of each is enhanced. That five-mile stretch of land covered on my walk can now be appreciated as part of a wider design and structure, part of what contributes to forming the character of the region as a whole. It is not often in a day’s walk that I can follow the course of a river from its source to its end, seeing all its phases from turbulent youth, through middle-age, to its final sedate, meandering miles. In a car a lot is missed – the sound of the water, the flora and fauna along its banks, for instance – but other things are gained.
The plunge into or exit from a patch of mist or fog is more sudden and therefore more dramatic. The same is true of coming over the brow of a hill and seeing the ocean, or a green and fertile plain laid out below. In walking it is the slow anticipation; with driving it is the surprise. The experience of near and far is also quite different given greater speed, the time-span between tiny and imposingly large being short enough to create a sense of wonder. Especially at night, or with my eyes shut, when in rapid motion across the countryside, I feel its rhythms, its curves and contours, its rise and fall, the ripple and swell of its topography. Not all roads follow the natural line, and here are new rhythms, counter-rhythms and two-part harmonies.
What fascinates and attracts me most about viewing the countryside from the passenger-seat of a car is the way the vehicle somehow transfers its speed and energy to the landscape itself. Sometimes the ribbon of land on either side of the road becomes a river in full torrent, greens and browns and assorted shapes pouring and tumbling past the seemingly stationary viewer. If kinetic art is defined as art which depends on motion for its effect, then to combine spectator, fast-moving vehicle and landscape is to create a large-scale artistic ‘happening.’ Motion is the medium; and beauty, as well as being in the eye of the beholder, is in his velocity. Joy-riding through the kinetic countryside I am learning new ways of seeing.
I like how the foreground moves faster than the background; the way trees, buildings and other objects constantly change their spacial relationship to each other; and, if the road is curving, the way front, side and back are seen in quick-time – a fluid, shape-shifting scene of altering angles and juxtapositions. Side-roads and paths bend and unbend, writhing like snakes, while furrows and rows of crops spring open and snap shut in dizzying succession. I enjoy a low-lying sun dodging and winking behind a wood; and a full moon playing peek-a-boo, first on my right, now on the left, before hiding behind a hill, only to jump out again minutes later. There is enjoyment, too, in whizzing past stands of tall straight trees. My eye is gratified in the same sort of way as is my finger-nail when it zips across corrugated cardboard. In Winter a row of leafless trees beside the road can blur into a flimsy veil, lending mystery and enchantment to what lies behind, half-hidden. If the roadside trees are spaced at regular intervals, the images flicker by as on a reel of film. And I am in the best seat in the house.