There is no such thing as an Empty Landscape.

Last summer, I was for a week in Czech Republic, visited Prague and dreamed about a rewilded story of Sarka. Afterwards, I participated in the Summer training school programme “Tracing & dwelling in post-anthropocentric landscapes“, organised by the Czech Academy of Science.

The training school focused on “conceptual and methodological issues related to
more-than-human entanglements constitutive of landscape and ensuing challenges for
research. The aim was to explore innovative methodological avenues for engaging with traces of
transformation in/of a post-mining / post-military landscape.”

We went to Ralsko, an area which was closed for the public after the World War until the fall of the Soviet Union, and still has some closed areas, because of uranium mining activities. The landscape is full of overgrown houses and military infrastructures.

One term that I heard often was “empty landscapes” – because of the presence of empty houses and not-used infrastructures. However, the term does not feel right anymore to me. After learning so much about ecopsychology and posthumanism, I cannot see any landscape as empty… What is empty? It is the lack of a story… but you can always find a story. Perhaps you cannot find human stories, because there are no houses or other infrastructure. However… this earth is so touched by humans that there are traces of history. Perhaps the traces are more difficult, but if you use the right methods you might pick up something. One of the other participants brought a tool to measure radioactivity, and suddenly unperceivable information became very perceivable. It makes you think what is invisible, not only because we do not have certain senses… but also because we are are trained to not use certain senses or change perspectives. When people call a landscape empty, there might have been an erasure of stories that people – in the past or presence- with power do not want others to sense. By using other sensors, by deeply focusing on the hidden, you do politics. It is ecofeminist activism, which is all about recognition and making the invisible visible (Shiva and Mies 1993).

“For many of us today, though, our relationship with place has become demythologised—a fact which is both an explanation for and a consequence of our sense of alienation from the world around us. Remythologising our places, then, is not just an interesting intellectual exercise, but an act of radical belonging. Like any other species on this planet, we badly need to be grounded; we need to find our anchor in place, wherever we might happen to live. Stories can be our anchors.”

Sharon blackie (2020)

Landscapes without stories?
There are demythologised landscapes and almost lost and forgotten stories about our wild and queer nature. These ‘empty landscapes’, empty of stories, can harness personal and societal transformation. In my practice, art and academic work, I am interested in engagements with local stories and landscapes in order to find seeds for creating and engaging others in hopeful futures despite/in aegis of multiple crises. It might be easier to delve into landscapes where the stories and awareness of kinships with landscapes are still present, as in indigenous landscapes where (indigenous) activists keep the stories visible. Or landscapes as rural Japan, where you can meet the uncanny and the wild. But even there, you can get confused about contrasting discourses and experiences.

Unearthing ideas through deeply engaging landscape research methods

In Japan, I did a PhD in environmental science and got immersed in the world of shinrin-yoko or focus bathing. For some parts of my doctoral research I focused on circular economy strategies for vacant houses, as they are seen as a waste of resources… – I realised later – from a antropocentric perspective. I encountered many places that can look like empty, until I started to engage in forest bathing and other methods that let me really deeply listen to what is there (see blog “Nakasendo’s whispers or different interpretations of silence). In one of my academic papers I write about circularity discourse in Japan, and the stories of the vacant houses in a model town in Japan. I made a note that they were not vacant from a postantropocentric perspective; they were full of microbes and other beings. One of the most “circular” activities was just letting it overgrown, giving the space back to the more than human world. However, in Japanese discourse, they saw this as a hazard. It is quite ironic to hear about ideas like shintoism and satoyama, but also the need of some Japanese for sterility and control. By doing methods like forest bathing, and reading, and then reflecting when I move slowly, or sit in a landscape, I often find the ingredients to harness personal and societal transformation, to do ecofeminist activism, to get more political.


In the footsteps of environmental social scientists, critical feminist and posthumanist thinkers, postcolonial landscape pedagogies, cultural geographers and ecopsychologists (e.g. Tsing, Ingold, Harraway, Abram, Nxumalo, Villanueva; Wall Kimmerer), I define restor(y)ing the practice of giving attention towards the multiple stories in a landscape, as a reaction to colonial practices that see many landscapes as ‘empty’ of story.  

Restor(y)ing implies giving attention towards the stories of the landscapes surrounding you. In a human-centric world, some might see only the stories of humans that are happening or happened. Therefore, many landscapes can seem empty in the eyes of these people. But I want to acknowledge also the stories of the more than human world. This implies the arts of noticing (e.g Tsing 2015), decolonial democratic listening strategies (e.g. Nxumalo, F. and Villanueva 2020), which are/can be ingrained in nature-based practices like forest bathing and shamanist rituals.  

As folklore is the heritage and fruit of storyweaving by multiple generations of people, we see restorying as a community act. Restorying means shared moments and communitity activities with other people, like shared walks and gardening where people talk sometimes, oral storytelling in the open air, between nettles and hawthorns, guided forest bathing practices, community weaving and spinning next to a brook. Restorying takes times, and also moments in solitude and interaction with other nature, through for example sit spots and with democratic engaged listening strategies. Restor(y)ing is a messy non-linear process, of which the benefits for humans and nature cannot be explained, but different testimonials, autoethnographies and biographies can provide the evidence. Therefore this blog, my testimonial.

A forest bath in the “empty” landscape of Ralsko, Czech Republic 

One day, we got the chance to try out some methods to “find traces”, to make the invisible visible, to challenge the idea of an empty landscape. We split ourselves in groups. Some digested plants. We were a small group and tried different methods. We did a small forest bath, guided by me, and tried a method that another participant is working out, a dialectic cartography. I made some notes on random moments of walking and forest bathing in this landscape:

  1. Empty does not exist.
  2. Deer, out of place
  3. free wifi is a basic need, invisible information flows
  4. nail of the post-mining area
  5. Jesus is a mushroom (chapel with a lot of fungi)
  6. to clean/remove or not to clean?
  7. bags of paintballing garbage? Not useful anymore for humans?
  8. what did you notice first? the beetle or the mushroom?
  9. death is only the beginning
  10. the fences are eroding away
  11. caterpillar that first seemed a stamp of a flower
  12. I see faces in trees
  13. beech trees, kings of the forest
  14. an overgrown path, let us take it
  15. feel bit guilty, walking over plants
  16. plants are resilient
  17. beech makes a cracking noise
  18. fairytale forest, a Lord of the rings feeling
  19. we are in the mining area, infrastructures, some claimed back by the moss and the land
  20. rotten history
  21. humidity on the aluminium pipes
  22. butterflies, not afraid of us
  23. landscape, full of scars and injections
  24. this is a female landscape.

When I read these notes back after 3 months, I see I was focused on impurities. I know I am dealing with insecurities related to a mother who is a cleaning lady and reminded me everyday in my childhood I -and my room- was never clean enough. I have been engaging that summer with the work of Sophie Strand, who also works on the theme of rot and impurity, toxicities and these weird notions of “normal” and “pure”, partly. We are entangled, impure, because we are touched and interacting with so many beings, some invisible, some visible, some living, some a bit less, but still influencing our bodies. If we stay blind for all the stories, we do not see there is no such thing as clean or sterile landscape. By walking in this postantropocentric landscape… I got mostly a reminder for a personal transformation I am going through: We are all impure, and that is ok.

Acknowledgement: I want to thank Petr Gibas, Karolina Pauknerova and his colleagues for organising this summer school. I am also grateful for the reimbursement of the COST Action (CA20134) funding, as all the inspiring conversations I had with fellow participants.