A Natural History of Watership Down     LITERARY LANDSCAPES VOL.1

A work in progress, tracing the paths of Richard Adams' characters Hazel, Bigwig, Strawberry, and Fiver throughout the pastures, woodlands, and hedgerows near Adams' home in Hampshire, England.

 

“ To rabbits everything unknown is dangerous.”


 

“Rabbits avoid closed woodland, where the ground is shady, damp and grassless and they feel menaced by the undergrowth.”    


 

 

INTRODUCTION It was not Richard Adams's novel, but Martin Rosen's excellent animated adaptation that first brought Watership Down to my attention. I was eight years old, it was the summer of 1979, and HBO, who had only recently broken into the mainstream, seemed to be broadcasting the film on a daily basis. Found early in life, each of us carries within us an intensely formative cultural experience, created by a book, a piece of music, or a film. In my case, Watership Down was such an experience and based collectively and individually in all three of these mediums: Rosen's film, Angela Morley's superb score, and Adams's original novel.

Facebook groups titled the likes of “traumatized by Watership Down” inevitably are referring to the PG rated 1978 film. Citing its level of peril, occasional violence, and theme of totalitarianism, some online parenting groups have placed the film on their advisory list. It's not for these reasons alone, but also the film's mysterious tone and the resulting somber mood the story and score places within the viewer, which is not easily cast out. Much the same way parents and librarians are said to have pulled “Where the Wild Things Are” from library shelves, both works reveal a sense of danger that exists not only in the story, but innately within the world at large. In a word, the specter of death.

For all the deserved attention and mixed praise placed on the film, the real genius rests firmly with Adams. Reading the novel for the first time as a young adult I rediscovered the characters and story even more richly. Adams's language and details were able to percolate through me as only the slower, intermittent pace of experiencing a novel can provide. From Watership Down I discovered further a love for the sanctity of nature, an appreciation for the integrity of non-human life, and above all the sadness and sweetness of life itself that comes with an understanding of the nature of mortality – without it, beauty cannot exist.

Every few years finds me re-reading the novel to different effects. Having already thoroughly absorbed the narrative and its impending outcomes, I was recently struck my Adams's keen and precise observations of nature. As a naturalist, Adams's writing comes close to serving as a natural history of his beloved rolling landscape and its inhabitants within Hampshire and Berkshire in the southern English countryside. It then came as no surprise that the maps in the novel represent actual physical locations. This realization was welcomed alongside my interest in cultural expressions of place, studies in landscape ecology, and a strong desire to explore my own inroads into landscape photography. It was at this moment that the concept of Literary Landscapes was born.

If you've been inspired (or traumatized) by Watership Down in any of its incarnations, I hope you will join me on this journey. The images seen here are just the beginning of a work in progress. Eventually, I hope you will see more multi-media as I attempt to make the relationship between image and text more explicit, and ultimately the publication of a book which could serve as a fine art compendium and field guide to the novel for those of us who would love to know what the primroses and bluebells of the chalk formed downs look like as we are reading.

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“He went cautiously out into the field, squatted down against a clump of thistles and began to smell the wind. Now that he was clear of the hawthorn scent of the hedge and the reek of cattle dung.”    


 
 

“When Hazel woke he perceived at once that it was morning - some time after sunrise, by the smell of it. The scent of apple blossom was plain enough. Then he picked up the fainter smells of buttercups and horses. Mingled with these came another. Although it made him uneasy, he could not tell for some moments what it was. A dangerous smell, an unpleasant smell, a totally unnatural smell - quite close outside: a smoke smell - something was burning.”    


 
 

“There is a thick mist between the hills and us. I can’t see through it, but through it we shall have to go. Or into it, anyway.”
“A mist?” said Hazel. “What do you mean?”
"We’re in for some mysterious trouble,” whispered Fiver, “and it’s not elil  (a predator).  It feels more like - like a mist. Like being deceived and losing our way.”
   


 

“It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.”    


 
 

“You could see the water faintly shining as it flowed and could just make out, on the further side, a thick belt of nut trees and alders.”    


 

“By moonrise they had made their way through Newtown churchyard, where a little brook runs between the lawns and under the path. Wandering on, they climbed a hill and came to Newtown Common - a country of peat, gorse and silver birch.”