Thursday, 15 November 2012

Back to Nature?

"Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors. "(Charles Mann)

There's going to be a debate about Plemont soon in the States, and there is a clear division between those arguing that it should be "returned to nature", and those who are looking at the cost of doing so in times of great austerity, where there are many demands on the public purse.

I'm sure that a lot of ground will be retread that has been covered in past debates, so I'd like instead to focus on the concepts of "back to nature" and "natural wilderness", and show how they are, in fact, an artificial construct. That is not to say the notions they embody are without merits, but I think it is easy to gloss over them with rhetoric and not examine them critically enough.

The notion of a return to nature originates in the Romantic movement, as a reaction against the rise of the cities, and the migration off the land, driven by wages and enclosure. It was a movement derived from an alienation from the farmed landscape, in which the rural was idealised. As Ronald Hutton has pointed out, it is from this time that Pan, the rustic God, suddenly becomes important in the literature, whereas before the classical revival focused on the more aristocratic Greek gods, Zeus, Aphrodite, Athene etc.

This 'back to nature' movement received further impetus from Henry David Thoreau's 1854 book Walden or Life in the Woods, which celebrated the detached contemplation of unspoilt nature. The upshot was that by the start of the twentieth century, people were getting back to nature in droves through a whole host of activities, some accepted as normal, others viewed as a bit cranky. The list would include rambling, hiking, mountaineering, scouting, amateur botany, bird watching, collecting butterflies, nudism, neo-pagan rituals and a growing appetite for books about nature. (1)

It is worth remembering that this is an emerging movement from within a civilised society, with philosophers like Rousseau's ideas of the "noble savage". It is a reaction which would have made no sense at all to the peasants of the Middle Ages, for whom life close to nature was, as Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish and short". Against the background of industrialisation is the rise of an idea of "pristine nature". But how pristine is nature? And who can afford it?

In "Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law OImsted", Anne Whiston Spim looks at several locations, but the one I want to focus on is Yosemite Park. This was the first tract of wild land set aside by the 1864 Act of Congress  "for public use, resort, and recreation. "

There was no precedent in the United States for such an action, and Olmsted was asked to chair a commission to recommend what should be done with Yosemite. In 1865 he outlined the case for preserving Yosemite and the strategies for managing it. His view was frankly anthropocentric: Yosemite should be preserved because it had value for humans; to be in a place surrounded by "natural scenery" promoted human health and welfare. Such scenery, he felt, should never be private property, but should be held in trust for public purposes, for its importance to the nation was comparable to strategic, defensive points along national boundaries. (2)

While the environmental argument had yet to make an impact, notice how the notion of wilderness in a "natural state" held in trust for future generations forms part of the narrative. That is, of course, part of the argument for Plemont, that it has a value for Islanders to visit and enjoy the natural scenery. But the management of that natural environment can itself change that environment. When we look at the developments at Yosemite, we see how:

In 1865, the year of Olmsted's report, several hundred people visited Yosemite. Visitors had to hire a guide and horses and travel three to four days, for forty miles along a "very poor trail." Olmsted's proposals for Yosemite were deceptively simple: provide free access for visitors in a 'Planner that preserved the valley's scenic qualities. He proposed that a public road be constructed to connect Yosemite with the nearest road and that 6 cabins be built in the valley, convenient to camping places and each providing at least one free room for public use. He proposed paths and prospects to shape visitors' experience of Yosemite by directing their movement and gaze. To enhance an individual's experience of this scenery without the distracting intrusion of "artificial construction," he recommended building a narrow, one-way trail in a circuit around the valley, concealed by trees so that it would be invisible to viewers gazing from one side to another. (2)

Now I'm not suggesting that the extensive changes given to Yosemite happen at Plemont, but to some extent changes of this nature have already occurred in the area. Pathways so that visitors can enjoy the landscape are an intrusion into the natural environment, as well as the walkways down to the beach. These are kept in repair, natural vegetation is cut back along these paths. These are accepted as an invisible change to the landscape, but just as Olmsted did as Yosemite, they are creating a changes to what was there. It is no longer in a natural state, and the effects on the ecology, while minor, are nonetheless making changes. They may not harm the environment, but they do change it. Managed access creates a shaped landscape, and while we may not notice it, we should be aware that it is a change.

Of course it can be argued that there is no impact on the environment by paths for ramblers, although I've seen litter, and people cycling along them, both of which have an impact. The very presence of ramblers will itself effect the way in which wildlife behaves in the area. This can be seen most clearly in Scotland, where there was a proposed extension this year of the Loch Leven Heritage Trail, and a conflict between the Ramblers Scotland, and the RSPB Scotland. The walking charity's director Dave Morris said the trail could be taken across a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland nature reserve without too much disturbance to wildlife:

"We do not accept in their entirety the points made by RSPB and SNH as regards potential disturbance to wildlife or farming operations with the completion of this trail. In particular we do not accept that the levels of disturbance predicted in the area of the RSPB reserve will be as great as has been suggested." (3)

But the RSPB countered:

"The proposed route for the trail across the RSPB reserve is consistent with all of the above NNR objectives. It provides the best wide views of the wetland and its bird flocks, without disturbance, and most importantly it does not compromise the farming operation which maintains the wetland." (3)

As Anne Whiston Spim asks:

The question Olmsted posed in 1865 remains unresolved: how to admit all the visitors who wish to come without their destroying the very thing they value? The moment people come to a place, even as reverent observers, they alter what they came to experience. Preventing the destructive effects of human visitation requires management of water and soil, plants and animals, and people (and this is now routine at national parks and forests). Yet management is something most people don't associate with wilderness; even the idea of management is anathema to some. This is because they see wilderness as something separate from humanity-as untouched by human labor and culture, on the one hand, and as a place where one's behavior is free and unconstrained, on the other.

Returning to Yosemite as our case study. There are no cabins at Plemont, but there is also a road to a public car park area, and a road down to the cafe. The intrusion of a cafe, and a road and car park are pleasant for visitors to enjoy the location, but those can hardly be said to be natural.

The proposal to return the headland to nature does not impact on those amenities, but it has to be asked, why not? If a cafe does not intrude into the environment, how do we decide what does and what does not when considering proposed buildings? Is it a matter of scale, and if that is the case, what criteria are there for assessing scale? Or is all development bad, in which case, the cafe should also - by that logic - be removed. There is an inconsistency here that is overlooked because we are used to the cafe and the road and car park; they have become invisible, and the question is whether we can justifiably turn say that their impact is slight, or whether that is special pleading, because of familiarity. I'm not answering the question, please note - I'm just asking it.

In William Cronon's book, "Uncommon Ground", he raises the question as to whether our thinking on wilderness is a clear as it should be:

I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem-for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection-but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.

Why, for instance, is the " wilderness experience" so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and "get away from it all?" Why does the protection of wilderness so often seem to pit urban recreationists against rural people who actually earn their living from the land (excepting those who sell goods and services to the tourists themselves)?  (4)

I can see arguments on both sides with regard to the land at Plemont, but I think that some of the underlying conceptions that lurk behind notions of returning it to a natural state are muddled, and in some cases, inconsistent. This essay is more of a philosophical ramble than a political one, an attempt to clarify what is meant by a "natural state".

It doesn't mean that such a decision might be a bad one - after all, while Yosemite Park is clearly in some ways a managed environment, it doesn't detract from the fact that it exists, and it available for visitors, rather than being swallowed up by a developer. But a "natural state" is a social construct, and how we draw the boundaries of what we want to count as natural is a human construct - and how, for example, we accept car parking, and a cafe and toilets as acceptable, but other buildings as intrusive, are matters for consideration rather than special pleading. And the case in Scotland shows how even just constructed pathways for ramblers can lead to a debate on the impact on the ecology of a landscape.

(2) Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law OImsted, Anne Whiston Spim, 2005


James said...

There is an inconsistency here that is overlooked because we are used to the cafe and the road and car park; they have become invisible

I'm not sure that is true.

The cafe, sited as it is in a deep and narrow declivity, is pretty well invisible. The car park is surrounded by a bank and high-ish hedges. The cafe is also a small (1000-odd sq ft) structure.

Whereas 28 houses, each on a plot of (say) 2500 sq ft, on the top of the cliff, are likely to be very visible.

Mind you, the point that "back to nature" is not always what it seems is a good one, and well made

TonyTheProf said...

The visibility of the houses seems (from the last States debate in 2010) to be what one might call a disputed matter. Some members said they were well away from the headland, and wouldn't be that visible, some didn't. On the one hand, they are set well back, on the other, some people are taking of magnificent views of Guernsey - which must indicate a degree visibility, even if from far at sea.

The car park is surrounded by high hedges, but those are not natural. Planting hedge / trees to screen the houses might fulfil a similar function.

The cafe also brings traffic to the site, just as much as the houses would, indeed, possibly more, as it has to be a viable commercial entity.

So the notion of "natural" perhaps more to do with removing that part of the site (the holiday camp) that fits with that idea, and not those amenities which everyone uses, and are considered acceptable.

James said...

The car park is surrounded by high hedges, but those are not natural.

Well, they are gorse, which grows wild thereabouts. But they have been placed in a way that they would not have otherwise necessarily grown.

Planting hedge / trees to screen the houses might fulfil a similar function.

But they wouldn't be natural either. And to get trees to grow high enough to hide a 20+ foot high house on an exposed cliff would be a tall order (pun not entirely intended)