Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Plemont and the Romantic Ideal

"The nineteenth-century English made the god [Pan] the expression of all the aspects with which the Romantics had invested the natural world: sublime, mysterious and awe-inspiring, benevolent, comforting, and redemptive. He was pitted directly against the perceived ugliness, brutality, and unhealthiness of the new industrial and urban environment and the perceived aridity and philistinism of the new science. He offered both peace and joy, a return - if only for a few hours - to the lost innocence of a sylvan wonderland." (Ronald Hutton - The Triumph of the Moon)

There's a debate today about Plemont, and whether it should be bought and returned to a natural. But what does it mean? "Return to nature" is a very contested idea. What is really meant is removal of buildings and a "managed" nature, with footpaths etc, in other words, a cultivated wilderness. Just letting nature taking its course would mean weeds, brambles, gorse etc spreading where it would, and the Plemont headland becoming inaccessible. Of course no one wants that, so "back to nature" is in fact a misnomer. A  "windswept wilderness" is in fact a chimera - what you will end with is a managed wilderness, much like the top of La Pulente, or Noirmont common.

The fundamental myth underlying the "return to nature" is the Eden one. Eden is nature as paradise, a garden, not a wilderness. Here is a place where one can wander lonely as a cloud through the daffodils.

"Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had formed. He made all kinds of beautiful trees grow there and produce good fruit....A stream flowed in Eden and watered the garden; beyond Eden it divided into four rivers." (Genesis 2:8-10)

This is the idyllic picture of nature, a nature where weeds and thorns running riot do not occur. In contrast, T.F. Powys, in "Lie Thee Down, Oddity", has a very different portrayal of nature:

"The heath was a different matter from the garden. All was nature there, and she is a wild, fierce, untutored mother. Flowers and weeds, unnoticed, lived there, fighting the battle of their lives, careless of man, but living as they were commanded to live at the first moving of the waters."

Paul S. Sutter argues that just as the Romantics reacted against the urban dislocation, modern alienation is a the root of outdoor pursuits and the return to nature. These stem from  "discomfort with consumerism, tourism, mechanization, advertising, landscape architecture, and the various other forces that remade outdoor recreation during the interwar period"

Sowards notes how Sutter argues strongly that the alienation from nature is a stronger element than the ecological imperative in motivating people:

"Rather than a critique of industrial use of resources, wilderness emerged as a critique of commercialized recreation that threatened, particularly through the automobile, to undermine Americans' relationship with nature. The changes in the interwar economy, especially the intensification of consumer culture, democratized and commercialized outdoor recreation."

This can certainly be seen in the debate on Plemont, where the "natural state" of the place, and its accessibility to Islanders plays a strong part, despite the fact that many of the people who visit it do so with cars. The cafe half way down to the beach also adds to the recreational enjoyment of the place, as do the various paths cut into the hillside, from which you can make your way around the coast to Gronez, for example. As a recreation destination, Plemont  provides a place to escape, exercise, relieve stress, and "return to nature".

And that is why I think Plemont arouses such strong feelings. In an Island where development is rife, and brown field sites are themselves taken and rezoned for housing, the urban sprawl is everywhere encroaching on the land. Plemont is a symbol of resistance to this, and the notion that it was a mistake to ever let anything be build there is itself a reflection of the increased alienation against the way the Island population and development has grown since that time.

In the meantime, if you want a more amusing take on Plemont, look here, but notice the date of the posting:


(1) Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement By Paul S. Sutter, 2002
(2) Driven Wild: Review by Adam Sowards,  Electronic Green Journal, 2003
(3)  Iron John: A Book About Men, Robert Bly


Rob Kent said...

I like Roland Barthes' phrase: "Scratch nature and you usually find culture underneath."

Just visited some friends at Portelet who live the other side of the 'gated community' there. Presumably the gates have to open automatically because it is a public right of way, but why is it gated in the first place?

James said...

@Rob: could be because of the lack of a trespass law in Jersey?

@Tony: my answer to Plemont is based on Gerry Durrell. "The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider's web, and like a spider's web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we're not just touching the web, we're tearing great holes in it."