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The portrayal of landscape in Marguerite Poland’s works PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:51

The portrayal of landscape in Marguerite Poland’s works


Defining landscape

Much has been written about the “sense of place”, a well-known phenomenon in human society in which people strongly identify with a particular geographical area or location. Thus it seems that ‘place’ is not used only to refer to spatial locations, but also to locate people inside society. Being an abstract interpretation of ‘place’, this meaning may be far less acceptable than the primary meaning of ‘position in society’.


The various elements such as memories, feelings, connections, cultural rules and conventions have a defining role in the landscape as they co-exist. In other words, these elements define a particular place and are profound centres of human existence. Hence, a place is not merely an objective location or collection of geographical attributes. It becomes an emotional abstraction that consists of landscape, people and experiences anchored in time. We live in a three-dimensional world in which objects and events occur and in which they have relative position and direction. Since our world is spatial and three-dimensional, notions of space permeate our daily encounters. The structure of the space surrounding us moulds and guides our actions and interactions. As we grow older and (hopefully) wiser, we become skilled at structuring and interpreting space for our personal and interactive purposes. Our world is filled not only with artefacts, tools and representations of our work, but also with other people and with signs of their activity. The sense of other people’s presence and the ongoing awareness of activity allow us to structure our own activity, seamlessly integrating communication, collaborating and constructing identities. We attempt appropriate behavioural framing, which we observe and encounter in the real world. This behavioural framing comes not from a sense of space but from a sense of place.


Every image and idea about place is compounded by personal experience, events and the consciousness. Place is shaped for each society by refraction through cultural and personal lenses of custom and stimuli. Thus, a place is generally a space with something added – social meaning, principles, cultural understandings. An important part of the concept of place is the sociological implication. Since the fundamental ontology of place is connected to human situatedness, making places means that one is making something in which to situate one. Place is a precondition of human existence, and making places is thus to reinforce their placeness. In contradistinction to place, space is non-defining and does not have the stability of place. People make places. By modifying one’s environment, one creates a place – a significant part of space.


If one had to approach the concept of place in a purely scientific manner, the concept would be reduced to a mere spatial concept: it would thus mean ‘a location in space’. However, as has been argued, the life of the land and human life are inseparable and both rely on each other for their definition. But these definitions are always in a state of flux as people are continuously rethinking and changing connections to place. People deal with places daily. Human spatiality is the map that describes how places determine human behaviour. We, humans, are shaped throughout our lives by our interaction with places and the meanings we assign to these places. Other people in these places also mould us and as such, landscape takes into account the impact nature and places have on a culture. Thus, a sense of place is much more than simply the spatial organisation of our surroundings, and more than the three-dimensional arrangements of artefacts. Places also call up cultural understandings, which help us to frame our behaviour.


Landscape and identity


The constitution of power of the cultural processes involved in the making and meaning of the landscape is only maintained through constant remodelling and reworking. In other words, landscape and identity formation are a dialogue constantly in process. They are not passive but operate as part of the intricacies of social relations. All landscapes, whether painted, real or imagined, are representational  - they all form part of the medium through which we make sense of things and through which meaning is produced and exchanged. This is significant when one reflects on who one is and how social relations determine one’s character and life. Some theoretical postulations, for example, post-structuralism claim that identities are neither fixed, nor stable and immutable. Identity is something that is constructed and reconstructed on an ongoing basis further reiterating the belief that identities are made through different social processes and are constantly being changed.


Society inculcates a sense of belonging and a special awareness to spatial situatedness. Identity, then, is an attribute of the individual, of the landscape and of the event that takes place in the creation of the relationship between individuals and context. Those wishing to sustain a healthy state of existence, then, must enter into some working identity not only with a cultural tradition but also with a particular landscape. Virtually all landscapes nowadays have cultural associations, because virtually all landscapes have been affected in some way by human action or perception. In other words, most landscapes are, in practice, cultural landscapes because they have been impacted in differing degrees by human processes. Cultural factors in large measure control the rate at which the landscape is being altered and the economic and cultural differences of a multicultural society are largely responsible for both the dynamics and statics of the process


The landscape of Marguerite Poland

Marguerite Poland’s fictional landscape is firmly rooted in an African context and deals closely with the flora and fauna of South Africa, especially of the Eastern Cape. The written word cannot escape oral antecedents and Poland tends to reflect the antecedents of the oral tradition of black South Africans. In the oral tradition the African myths are stories passed along from generation to generation by word of mouth. They are inexorably linked to religious traditions, tribal customs and idiomatic expressions dealing with their belief systems. The mythological landscape, or landscape imbued with mythological import, has existed in every conceivable society. It is evident that in their general characteristics and in their details nations’ myths reflect, express and explore the inhabitants’ self-image and beliefs within a particular landscape. What we might call ‘mythological’ landscape is thus important as we explore individual societies and human culture.


Poland’s works have interlocked themselves around notions of space and place; identity theories and around cultural and mythological landscape. Her characters, human or otherwise, are able to integrate and identify with the landscape in which they find themselves, thereby configuring place. In recognizing and constructing these places, the characters are, by extension, identifying and confirming their own existence. For example, in her novel Shades (1993), the Reverend Walter Brownley, a missionary from England, finds himself in the alien landscape of the Eastern Cape and he is overcome by a “strange sense of foreboding” (1993: 8). His disposition, as well as Benedict Matiwane’s, the orphaned black boy brought up in a white mission school, forces him to make an existential connection between life and the land. To reiterate this concept, Poland’s landscape, in the majority of her works, functions from the outset not only as setting but also as character:


Some of Poland’s characters are clearly cast in the familiar existential condition – alone and burdened with the sole responsibility of discovering or creating some identity between his/her own identity and the world’s. The socio-historical conditions in Shades bear testimony to the fact that identity is shaped by the intimate relationship of people in that particular place at that particular time. Moreover, because landscapes have a temporal dimension, which alters with time, they can be read as palimpsests, documents in which nature’s own powerful, dynamic and changing intentions of human beings over the years inscribe a historical record


Marguerite Poland’s ‘colonial’ landscape brings to life the voices of the ordinary people who build and inhabit the landscapes. She explicitly and implicitly examines space and landscape in terms of geographical spaces as well as abstract mental and cultural spaces. In each of her books there lies some sort of struggle for existence -- for cultural empowerment, for liberation from patriarchy, for freedom from marginalisation. Her articulation of the highly complex notion of borderlands, as sites of marginality and ambiguity shows, to varying degrees, how people are either constrained or liberated by them. Marguerite Poland’s works dwell significantly on place as they problematise the concepts of borders and boundaries, which are central to the process of defining, articulating and maintaining place. In her first novel Train to Doringbult and in Shades she is able to identify the reflexive relationship between people who live in a particular place and the construction of that space by economic and political forces. The history of the place is brought to the surface and incorporated within the map she draws across the landscape. The history and the geography of the places are reflected by and within the people who live there. In Marguerite Poland’s quest to re-appropriate the full meaning of the landscape she identifies spaces as political constructions and cultural formations and she draws on personal observation, local and national history and geography and their intersections.


In Train to Doringbult she captures the experiences and affectations of the main characters as they journey through the imagined landscape of ‘Doringbult’, facing their fears and challenges head on. Elsa, a white colonial woman, is shocked at the police brutality against her loyal farm-labourer, Petrus, and in a life-changing moment she experiences emotionally and spiritually a powerful fusion with the indigenous land and its inhabitants. Like Frances in Shades, she undergoes a sense of illuminated inner space, which was previously obstructed by the fact that she was a female in a colonial society. Both women expose the social malaise of the time – female subjugation in a patriarchal society. And so it is, within the expansive spaces of male domination and the cosmology of the indigenous people, that these women have to fight to create an identity and a sense of worth; to transcend the limitations imposed on them by circumstances and gender. These themes, integrated with the landscape, enable the plot to develop out of the setting. Marguerite Poland frequently makes use of short descriptions of a panoramic vista of land to reveal life within the landscape. The places in which the characters find themselves are full of spiritual life, history and personal significance. The descriptions of the land are not separated from the community, but are described as an integral part of the daily life and experiences of the people who live within it.


Poland’s affinity with nature, and her sense of the almost sacred significance of certain landscapes, is a feature that enriches her novels. The landscape, as she describes it, has a life of its own as it contextualises the other, secondary forms of life, including human lives that have learned to co-exist with the nature of these places. Poland foreshadows the dilemma of many South Africans who are possessed by a love of place and people, yet are deeply uneasy and resentful about the types of identities they possess. As one reads into the landscape, one becomes fully conscious of the integral role that specific features of the landscape play in African tradition. The landscape is not stable since it is transformed by the seasons, by the weather, and by the activities of the inhabitants. The landscape is also a landscape of social boundaries. The South African landscape reflects a complex, even conflicting matrix of colonial, pre-colonial and post-colonial history and contemporary political and social relationships.


In her works, Marguerite Poland articulates a framework for the exploration of culture and her emphasis is on the constantly shifting cultural, gendered and political boundaries – as opposed to fixed notions of place and culture. Poland uses the text as a site on which to build attitudes and perspectives, using nature and visual elements of the landscape to enhance the effect of her text. One may thus conclude that landscape is a complex dialogic spatiality where elements meet, interact, entangle, disperse and shape. Landscape becomes an ongoing process, never static but always evolving, adapting and embracing differences as they emerge. 


In this regard, identities are created either individually or in groups. This is essentially a cultural phenomenon. The implications herein is that sense of place is dependent on much more than simply the spatial organisation of our surroundings and three-dimensional arrangement of artefacts – places call up cultural understandings which help us to frame our behaviour as argued earlier. In Marguerite Poland’s Iron Love, for example, the all-boys boarding house provides the setting. The environment of the school demands communally-held sense of appropriate behaviour, and provides a context for engaging in and interpreting action. New pupils at the boarding home learn the cultural norms and mores of the school space environment as part of their enculturation. Understandings develop within cultures, and learning them is the normal and general process of assimilation and socialisation. A colonial school in an African landscape in which boundaries and borders are transgressed provides interesting grounds for analysis.


Many of MPs passages suggest the intimacy with which the animals share with the landscape. The birds and animals are part of the landscape, mingling with one another and being an integral part of each other. The indigenous landscapes of Africa are full of plants, birds, animal life, geographical forms and other physical features which are named in indigenous languages but have no names in English. Marguerite Poland’s academic studies in indigenous languages hold her in good stead when she describes the indigenous landscape. With consummate ease she is able to capture the indigenous vocabulary’s richness of detail for the terrain, vegetation and animal life. Her descriptions confirm her affinities and sense of identity with the land. A journey through the indigenous landscape, recreated by Poland, is a profound and orienting experience. She continually suspends the actions of her characters to study the shape and contours of the landscape on which they move. She shows an extra-ordinary fondness for the vegetable world, as well as for the birds and animals. She is very reverent and exact when speaking of cows especially. In fact, she has such an intense passion for cows, that she has made them the topic of her doctoral thesis: ‘Uchibidolo: The Abundant Herds’. This is a thought-provoking descriptive study of the Sanga-Nguni cattle of the Zulu people with special reference to colour pattern terminology and naming practice. In her research she uncovered 350 different names of cattle and in the majority of her works cattle play a role, significantly or otherwise. Stemming from her doctoral thesis are two major works: The Abundant Herds: A Celebration of the cattle of the Zulu People (2003) and Recessional for Grace (2003). These works explore the way cattle fit into the landscape and their importance to place and its inhabitants.