Wildernesses of the Mind


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 (see ADDENDUM below). 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 plagioclimaxes.

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 of 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 humility.

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, 31st January 2005

Robert Macfarlane has written a response to this article, an abridged version of which can be found on the Feedback Page


The articles in ECOS referred to above, are now posted on the BANC website in the form of PDF (~1mb) for each issue of the journal.

The articles by Fenton, myself, Taylor, and Kirby & associates are in A taste of the wild, ECOS Vol 25 No 1, which can be downloaded at www.banc.org.uk/Articles/April2004/index.shtml

Peter Rhind’s article is in Conservation weighed down, ECOS Vol 25 No 2, which can be downloaded at www.banc.org.uk/Articles/August2004/index.shtml

The overall index of journal issues for ECOS posted on the BANC website can be found at www.banc.org.uk/Articles/index.shtml

28 October 2006


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk