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  • Richard Morris
    Forward from Permaculture UK list http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/permaculture_uk/ WILDERNESSES OF THE MIND A new year and it is time to appraise the state of
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 3, 2005
      Forward from Permaculture UK list


      A new year and it is time to appraise the state of wildness and its
      progress as a value. This commitment to promotion of wilderness and
      self-willed land is a personal motivation, born out of dissatisfaction
      with land ownership and use in Britain and from subsequent self-study of
      the history of its landscape. Because our use of British landscapes is
      so comprehensive, we have no example of what is natural, or what has
      been lost, and thus have no basis for a value system for landscapes.

      >From an outsiders perspective

      I am a newcomer. While I can probably point to at least a decade of
      thinking about wilderness and its relevance to Britain, it is only in
      the last two years that I have felt sure enough that my instincts and
      unease about the British landscape were valid. The turning point was the
      prolonged exposure to the North American attitude to wilderness that I
      experienced during a 10-week period of walking its national parks and
      open spaces in 2003. After returning, I researched particularly the
      American situation (legislation, public land ownership, institutions and
      voluntary organisations) and sought comparisons within Britain, using
      the findings from that research in writing a manifesto that I emailed to
      all the statutory or voluntary nature conservation agencies, DEFRA
      departments and wildlife groups etc. that I could find an address for. I
      had few responses. Disappointing though this was, it was entirely
      expected since individuals who have something to say are much easier to
      ignore than those who make formal contact and have affiliations, or
      speak on behalf of organisations or institutions.

      In terms of effectiveness in promoting this view for the value of
      wildness, I am thus at a disadvantage in that I do not work for a
      statutory or voluntary nature conservation or land agency, or in any
      place of higher education that has interests in conservation, ecology,
      agriculture etc. Nor do I have any professional training that would
      necessarily qualify me to do so. I am not connected into the formal and
      informal networks that obtain in and between those organisations. That
      disadvantage can of course also be an advantage in that I haven't been
      subject to an education in nature conservation that places such values
      as anthropocentric management at its core. I don't have to unlearn
      anything, nor am I bound by the strictures of having to express
      institutional viewpoints.

      The circulation of the manifesto did draw out the opportunity to have an
      abridged version published in ECOS, the Journal of the British
      Association of Nature Conservationists (BANC). It was matched with
      articles giving a variety of other views on wildland by James Fenton
      (National Trust for Scotland) and Peter Taylor (independent consultant).
      We also responded to each other's articles and the whole was published
      as a coherent set, along with an article from Keith Kirby and associates
      from English Nature (ECOS 25 (1) ppg. 2-33).

      This was a valuable experience. The contrasting and well-argued views of
      others can quickly convey the full range of contemporary issues for
      rewilding. Peter is a big fan of mega herbivores and their impact on
      landscapes, and wishes to create core area wild landscapes. James thinks
      that it is probable that the uplands landscapes of today may not be too
      far from their natural character as they reflect a grazing pressure that
      would result from wild herbivores. In this, James was giving currency to
      the theories of Frans Vera, whose book Grazing Ecology and Forest
      History suggests much more open landscapes for Europe than climax
      woodland. Kirby and colleagues took this further in their article,
      speculating on different levels of intervention in nature conservation
      management, and utilising the interest in naturalistic grazing regimes
      stimulated by Vera to create new conservation sites. Vera's theories,
      while welcomed by those addicted to grazing for land management
      purposes, are disputed by some palaeo-ecologists and, when modelled,
      still come up with landscapes that have a majority of open and closed
      woodland compared to open grassland (see Kirby, What might a British
      forest-landscape driven by large herbivores look like? (2003) Research
      Report 530, English Nature).

      The next edition of ECOS threw up another excellent article. Peter
      Rhind, an ecologist with the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) wrote
      about his dissatisfaction with the lack of naturalness of current
      conservation sites, and argued for a shift in emphasis in nature
      conservation to less human intervention (Give Nature a Chance, ECOS 25
      (2) pg 85-91). I corresponded with Peter who identified for me that
      current conservation legislation is a major issue, as he believes it
      creates a barrier to wilderness restoration (see later).

      For a variety of reasons, Peter Rhind and I share a belief that a UK
      Wildlands Project is essential, and Peter has floated that idea in a
      recent comment piece that succinctly sums up his views - Spread of the
      Noospehere (2004) British Wildlife 16(2) pg. 107. I believe and have
      stated in my manifesto that public land (and inalienable land) is the
      best hope for self-willed land for its own sake. Peter seeks reform of
      conservation legislation, and my desire for self-willed land would also
      need legislation for its constitution and regulation. These changes in
      legislation will have to garner political and public consensus, not
      least from the statutory conservation agencies (EN, CCW, SNH) since it
      is to them that the politicians will turn for guidance.

      Where is the debate?

      In general, the British public have little access to the debates that
      are going on in the UK about rewilding other than through what is
      available via the Internet. Both ECOS and British Wildlife are
      subscription only publications, neither of which post much content on
      their websites. A Wildlands Project would need a good website as an
      easily accessible interface, and an open forum content that stimulates
      and informs - whether it was commissioned articles or through links to
      articles on other sites.

      As an example of good information sharing, the Scottish Wildland Group
      republish their newsletters online, which gave me the opportunity to
      read the very interesting work in Glen Affric by Richard Tipping
      (Stirling Uni.), and to follow it up with Richard. Pollen analysis in
      East Glen Affric indicates a cessation of natural woodland regeneration
      some 4,300 years ago, lasting for 500 years and resulting in a the
      natural replacement of trees by open grasslands and heath. Bronze age
      communities would thus have been presented with a landscape suitable for
      farming and which they would not have needed to clear (as is normally
      thought). While the causes of this cessation of woodland regeneration
      are uncertain, Richard says they did happen elsewhere and within a
      similar timeframe, and thus need further study.

      I feel it is a greatly lost opportunity to me that I can't put up a page
      on my website that provides some commentary to pull together - as a
      collection - those articles from ECOS mentioned earlier, and then
      provide links into the BANC website to the individual articles. I
      believe that taken all together they would make a very good primer for a
      wildlands UK debate. Single articles (or project proposals) rarely
      convey sufficient breadth or allow a variety of analyses. Another
      advantage of the collection would be that they are not centred on
      specific locations, and so do not become prescriptive in terms of action.

      Is there a general consensus developing about what wilding means?

      I would go back a step from that and say that there isn't yet a
      consensus that wilding is essential, or even important. As much as
      individuals in conservation and land management circles may acknowledge
      wilding, the comment is often- "it is an interesting debate which needs
      wider recognition" - and then people quickly become bogged down in what
      they see as the negative practicalities arising from rewilding (i.e.
      their lack of control), and from the sheer dead weight of received views
      on nature conservation that it should be holding back nature in

      Scrub management by grazing regimes is beloved by conservation
      organisations. In fact English Nature recently published a Handbook for
      Scrub Management that states "Reserves scattered around the UK show how
      the management of scrub has been carried out for the benefit or
      wildlife". Well, that's for wildlife that thrives in the artificial
      conditions after the scrub has been removed. Farmers loathe scrub, and
      the received wisdom is that its encroachment reduces the wildlife value
      of landscapes. This is nonsense, and now firmly contradicted by a report
      entitled Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain, downloadable
      from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.

      Encroachment of scrub is often the first step to regeneration of
      woodland, and to what would be a rewilding of a landscape. Peter Rhind
      gave this context to me as an example of why the current nature
      conservation legislation is at fault (see earlier). The CCW is involved
      in a project to allow woodland to develop in Cwm Idwal (Snowdonia) at
      the expense of some calcareous grassland, which is a notified feature of
      the Eryri Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Fortunately, the
      SSSI is also notified for its woodland, so that the developing woodland
      in Cwm Idwal is allowed to proceed as it can be interpreted as simply
      the expansion of an existing feature of interest. Without the woodland
      also being part of the notification for the SSSI, then the developing
      natural succession of woody species would have to be controlled by
      clearing to prevent interference with the calcareous grassland.

      This goes on everywhere and in smaller scale. Trench field is an SSSI
      paddock (owned by the local council) a short walk from my home, and it
      is notified for its unimproved neutral grassland and associated
      wildflowers of betony, birds foot trefoil and devil's bit scabious. The
      field is on the edge of a semi-natural oak and birch woodland, and so
      tree seedlings are inevitably spreading in. The council's Countryside
      Service have no choice but to destroy these tree saplings since that is
      the agreed management program for the aim of the SSSI. I for one would
      like to see regenerating woodland there with a good understorey of
      returning shade tolerant wildflowers as well as isolates of the meadow
      species. And I would want an honest recognition that Trench field is
      currently managed as a "garden" rather than a natural landscape. Other
      examples around me of management by species rather than whole landscape,
      is the persecution of birch and willow saplings in heathland and moor,
      and the uplands of the south Pennines and Ilkley Moor being managed for
      a drab little wading bird called the twite.

      If the public arena of nature conservation agencies fail on wildland
      values, would private ownership and determination do any better? It was
      reported late in December 2004 that Paul Lister intends to transform the
      23,000 acres of his recently bought Alladale Estate in Sutherland/Easter
      Ross into a reserve for indigenous flora and fauna, including the
      re-introduction of mammals such as boar, bison, bear, lynx and wolf. Mr
      Lister has been observing a game reserve near Cape Town in South Africa,
      and intends that his estate becomes a similar safari/tourism business.
      It seems that land in Britain is never allowed to exist without it
      making an income for its owner. Self-willed land for its own sake will
      only exist in Britain if land is held inalienably in the public good and
      that legislation exists to define its natural character, and thus the
      limits to human intervention.

      Wildscape or mindscape?

      There is another aspect to wilderness in Britain that is alarming. I
      call it the "anthropocentric conceptualisation" of wilderness that is so
      often seen in a scholarly or literary approach. Just look at any history
      book or university course handout and there are endless allusions to
      things like state of mind, cultural context, biblical reference,
      romanticism and primitivism. There are also words like savage, barren,
      untamed, frontier and bleak. Deconstructions of North American
      wilderness writings abound, with subliminal calls to analyse your
      emotional response to British nature in similar vein. Impossible.

      A recent example of the tendency is Robert Macfarlane, a late 20's
      "English" lecturer from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. A couple of months
      ago, he wrote in the Guardian newspaper in praise of the writings of
      John Muir. My "emotional response" to his article was two-fold. Firstly,
      I found that when I read John Muir's writings that I couldn't stomach
      them, whereas other American wilderness writers that Macfarlane
      criticised, such as Thoreau, are very quotable. Aldo Leopold would be my
      favourite American writer on wilderness, because of his common sense and

      What's wrong with the writings of Muir? He comes across as a fantasist.
      I looked forward eagerly to reading his anthology The Wilderness
      Journeys, but only just got through Story of My Boyhood and Youth, and
      gave up after dipping in to the rest. They are full of what I can only
      describe as exaggerations, and a self-absorption that does constant
      battle by drawing attention away from his experiences and descriptions
      of wild land. This could be forgiven in the Story of My ... etc. since
      he wrote that down many years later towards the end of his life, and
      perhaps with the embroidery of old age, even though his place in history
      was secure. But it can't be the case with his earlier journals of his
      extended journeys or sojourns, even though they weren't published until
      late on. Since Muir is an icon, there is no point in me wondering about
      whether the legacy of his writings is merited or not.

      Robert Macfarlane, on the other hand, is someone who needs to be
      examined carefully, and it is amusing that someone who has been accused
      of being a self-publicist is seeking possible aggrandisement by
      association with the fantasist Muir. I first came across Macfarlane when
      I read an article of his on wilderness in Trail Magazine, a newsstand
      magazine for hill walkers. His article was overblown hyperbole that
      lacked any functional understanding of wilderness, while deriding the
      views of anyone who had bothered to develop a systematic view through
      exploring some of the more incontrovertible wild landscapes of other
      continents. To cap it all, he proclaimed that Britain was full of
      wilderness - that is, of course, if you had the same "eyes" as his to
      see it (for "eyes" read "mind" with Macfarlane). Trail Magazine
      graciously published my letter of rebuttal to his article.

      Macfarlane is a self-proclaimed populariser and his recent book
      "Mountains of the Mind" is more hyperbole about the white Victorian
      propensity to stagger up large mountains, without pondering whether it
      was really an enviable aim (why did Muir have to climb the mountains of
      Yosemite?). Germaine Greer, writing recently about a new statehood for
      native and all other Australians in Whitefella Jump Up, sums this up
      when she says "Aboriginal Australians would not think that Uluru is
      there to be climbed".

      A review of Macfarlane's book suggested that it really had nothing new
      to say except that he had dressed up historical mountaineering events
      (accounts taken from other people's work) and made them more colourful
      and reflective of himself. I suppose it is no coincidence that
      Macfarlane has announced that he is working on a book about the
      wilderness areas of contemporary Britain. Macfarlane's Guardian article
      said "it is clear that the British Isles in fact still seethe with
      wildness and wilderness". Where? As I explained in my letter to Trail
      Magazine about his wilderness article, the emptiness and bleakness of
      the artificial landscapes that can be found in the British Isles is
      definitely not the same as wilderness, and that the abundance and
      richness that true wilderness can be is in fact the complete opposite.

      I suspect that Macfarlane thinks he can become Britain's modern-day
      Muir. A further sentence from his Guardian article gives a clue "I have
      said it before, but it cannot be said often enough: the natural world
      becomes far more easily disposable if it is not imaginatively known, and
      a failure to include it in a literary regard can slide easily into a
      failure to include it in a moral regard." I guess Macfarlane thinks he
      is going to provide that "literary regard" to make wilderness in Britain
      "imaginatively known". But will it have any moral compass if he has
      absolutely no understanding of what true wilderness is? Are we going to
      get instead from him a useless "Wildernesses of the Mind"? You bet!

      I may have to give Macfarlane some due as he has put a finger on
      something that does need addressing eventually - a literary canon for a
      wilderness view in Britain. It would be easy for me to explain its
      current paucity in relation to the amount of literature in the Americas
      (and even Australia) because of the millennial distance we have from
      anything remotely identifiable as a pre-agricultural landscape. As I
      have explained elsewhere, while we have had 5000 years of landscape
      transformation in Europe, the Americas (and Australia) have had less
      than 500 years of wholesale change. Even then, some of the
      "wildernesses" in North America that are now designated, are in fact
      regenerating landscapes (the eastern seaboard woodlands for example) and
      so the word pristine would be a misnomer. But at least they have the
      richness and beauty from which to draw knowledge and inspiration from.
      Without that here, it is hard for us in Britain to better understand how
      we can - as Aldo Leopold put it - become part of the overall land
      community, and thus reduce our dominant influence. We just have cowpat
      fields and degraded uplands that astonishingly are regarded as beautiful
      nature only because we have nothing else to compare them with.

      While the Americans have the luxury of philosophical rhetoric about
      wilderness in their literature (see Unmanaged Landscapes: Voices for
      Untamed Nature and The Great New Wilderness Debate) the danger in
      Britain is that any philosophical discussion has nothing to base itself
      on, and what literature there is has little imagining of landscapes
      prior to the coming of agriculture, or scenarios of future natural
      landscapes from rewilding. Occasionally there is mention of the
      Bialowiecza forest in Eastern Poland. This is a large wooded area that
      straddles the border with Russia, and which avoided interference over
      recent centuries because it was a royal hunting ground. Today, it is
      designated as a nature reserve and it is described as having probably
      the most complete range of species (plant and animal) that would be
      expected to exist in a temperate European self-willed land, including
      predators such as lynx and wolves, and large mammals with the return of
      the European bison. Any discussion/literary appreciation of wilderness
      in Britain has to take note of Bialowiecza as the nearest example of
      what will have been - and can be again for those that see a future for
      our landscapes past their own lives.

      Mark Fisher
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