Supporting article Q: Why we need our wilderness: A personal account
Government schemes that lay waste to vast swathes of countryside betray a terrifying insensitivity to nature, says John Lister-Kaye
By John Lister-Kaye
Published: 7:00AM GMT 31 Jan 2010
Naturalist Sir John Lister-Kaye: ‘I have always found wildness a drug; the more I discover it, the more I need it’
To those who have dedicated their lives to the land – whether forester or rambler, naturalist or conservationist, farmer or allotment devotee – the notion that the Government may raid our precious green belt is nothing short of treasonable.
Last week, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) suggested that land is again under threat from development. Its revelation that the Government may be about to dilute planning law in order to build 200,000 houses in order to meet its 3 million target by 2020 came only two weeks after Scotland’s energy minister Jim Mather announced the go-ahead for another controversial construction project: a mega-pylon line from Beauly, near Inverness, to Denny, near Stirling. A 137-mile line of 600 towers, each about 200 ft high, will soon pass through some of the most scenically sensitive areas of the Highlands, including the new Cairngorms National Park, to connect renewable power projects to the national grid.
What these two announcements tell me is that our political leaders north and south of the border no longer consider wild nature to be important; that our unsustainable consumer culture and growth economics are more valuable to them, together with satisfying our ever-increasing lust for energy, than the protection of wildlife habitats, or uplifting scenery, or green tourism, or even the spiritual and recreational significance of wildlife green spaces.
I live in a Scottish Highland glen, ringed by mountains and forests. When I need to, I walk to an eight-acre loch to escape the pressures of my work, family, money or, nowadays, tedious and mindless regulations. It takes me through upland sheep pasture, plantation forestry and out into wild native birch and pine woods. On the far side of the loch is a marsh, and beyond that the heather moors rise to a distant haze of deceptively wild grassland – deceptive because it is tempting to call it wilderness, which it certainly is not.
There is no true wilderness in Britain. To find even a hint of that elusive quality you would have to go to the highest mountain tops or the remotest offshore island – and, with one or two notable exceptions, that has been more or less the case since the Romans abandoned Britain in 407 AD.
Even the great forests of antiquity preserved by medieval kings and nobles as royal hunting parks – the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, Savernake, Wyre, Thetford Chase, Sherwood, Cannock Chase, Epping Forest, and several others – have been significantly shaped and used by the inexorable demands of men. They have all been harvested, re-planted, coppiced, grazed, undergrowth-burnt for hunting, managed for tan-bark, cut over for charcoal and rootled over by domestic pigs for pannage for more than a dozen feudal centuries.
Those forests – wonderful and remarkable though they are to this day – housed, sheltered and fed a thousand years of squires, yeomen, farmers, carters, labourers, peasants, trappers, poachers, woodsmen, charcoal burners, huntsmen, cottars, vagrants, outlaws, ne’er-do-wells, vagabonds and gipsies.
Even here in the far north of Scotland, the once-widespread climax forest of the Highlands – the “Great Wood of Caledon”, as the largest area of continuous old forest in Britain has been evocatively dubbed – was similarly exploited, but without the protection of nobility or the Crown. Slowly but surely, it was cleared and fragmented, and, leaving only a few precious remnants, more than 99 per cent of it was finally felled, grazed or burnt out of existence to meet the ever-expanding needs of an exploding population of Highlanders.
The immediate victims of this gradual but systematic deforestation were the wild ox, reindeer and wild boar; the lynx, brown bears, wolves, the beaver, the polecat and the capercaillie; the red kite, the sea eagle, the osprey and, to within a whisker of their twitching noses, the wildcat and the pine marten.
The eventual victims, so often unlamented, were the wildflowers, the saprophytic decaying fungi, the specialised pine forest birds such as the Scottish crossbill and the crested tit, the unsung hordes of invertebrates, the vital and intricate mycorrhizal root associations, the humic microbes, and, finally, the precious forest soils themselves. No, the wildwoods of Britain are certainly not wilderness.
I have been taking my circular walk of little more than a mile for more than 30 years. It has become an act of oblation, an offering of myself to the landscape and the wildlife with whom I share this little patch of upland wonder at the water’s edge. I have grown comfortable with it over the years, as I hope it has with me. Wilderness it may not be, but it certainly contains plenty of wildness, and it is where I have been privileged to witness some of the finest wildlife encounters one could hope for in our crowded islands: ospreys, otters, pine martens, deer, wildcats, golden eagles, and much more.
Those encounters and that brief circuit have helped me understand that the famous quotation by the 19th-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau – “in wildness is the preservation of the world” – is no idle boast. We need wildness and we need wilderness. We need places where man’s ugly footprint is not visible; places where, every now and again, we can forget our frantic selves; where we can reassess our priorities and ponder our place in the world; where we can feel a nobler sense of belonging than the crimped human community of chivvying cities and tawdry towns. Mountaineers know it well enough, so do sailors who take off into the wind and the waves.
I have always found wildness a drug. The more I discover it, the more I need it. Perhaps it is a reaction to the helter-skelter life we all lead; the peacelessness of modernity constantly striving to deny us nature’s calm and forcing us to believe that we are apart from nature, not a part of it.
Wilderness and wildness are not the same, but they do belong together, breathing life into each other and electrifying the moment with a careening splashdown into the urgent current of instinct – a real life condition we seldom seem to recognise. What is so special about true wilderness such as the great oceans, deserts and polar regions of the world or virgin forests such as the Amazon rainforest is that they free up the wildness in our own heads, that ancient ur-wildness that has been with us ever since we stepped out of the primeval forest. A wildness children know well enough, but which most of us have sloughed off and no longer acknowledge or comprehend.
So where do we stand in the 21st century? What have we done to wild, the adjective, and wild, the concept? What have we done with the noun that has so loyally dogged our heels all the way from the woolly mammoth and the cave bear; what have we done to the wilds themselves? The answers are a sorry testament to the inspirational writings of naturalists such as Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman and Wordsworth, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Gilbert White and now, most recently, Jay Griffiths, as well as the many other great philosophers, poets and lyricists of the wilderness movement. For the moment, at least, we have lost the plot.
Wild is where we all came from and to where, ultimately, we will all return. Nature is far bigger than science and technology, than religious zeal, than economic forces and all the politicians ever spawned; it is infinitely bigger than democracy and people power and, despite our most arrogant, anthropocentric protestations, it utterly dwarfs and swamps the creative genius of the human brain. Just as, when we die, our nutrients return to the earth that spawned us, so we have not one twitch of control over the cosmos – the great natural workings of our planet and its solar system. One hefty meteorite colliding with the Earth or a major aberration on the surface of the sun or even an extreme volcanic event could wipe out every one of us, like the dinosaurs, in a matter of weeks.
However devastating the ecological crisis we may bring about by our own folly and greed, however many species we may drive into extinction in pursuit of our own amusement and comfort, we can never hope to control our climate or the many other natural forces that govern our lives. We are utterly powerless before the might of nature, so convincingly demonstrated by volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunami, hurricanes, typhoons, twisters, droughts and floods, encroaching deserts and rising sea levels, all of which are but tiny, missed notes in the grand opera of global and cosmic forces. If we screw up altogether, we perish; but the planet goes on forever.
I am perpetually angered by pompous politicians who repeatedly refer to “addressing the climate change issue”, as though a tweak of the tax regime or a forthcoming White Paper will somehow make it all better. We all know we have the capacity to screw up the natural environment – dear God, we know it – but I have yet to see a scrap of evidence that we can do anything better than backing off and letting nature heal itself.
In recent years, grass-roots environmental consciousness has gathered pace. Perhaps the hot air of politicised global warming has begun to make us think again, not just about the science that may or may not turn out to be accurate, but about our long future and the mindless profligacy of energy-centric Western excesses. Perhaps we are slowly awakening to the ghastly mess we seem determined to leave behind us for our children and grandchildren.