Saturday, 6 February 2010

Place myths and imagined histories: the restoration of the Scottish Highlands

We all know what nature is, don’t we? Panoramic wilderness, lush green forests, roaring rivers, the dawn chorus and the rest? However, when we start to think about how to use, conserve or change a natural landscape, it becomes apparent that the way we understand and value nature is highly individualistic, and influenced by our personal histories and contexts. William Cronon (1995) is a key author in describing this social construction of nature. Of course, the basic elements and interactions in nature would occur without humans, but the way we understand, value and use this “other” nature is highly influenced by our social context. This means that conservationists work in a landscape defined not only by natural processes, but one also influenced by value-driven outlooks of numerous land-users.

The nature of rural Scotland has in the public focus recently in a manner rarely seen before. There is increasing support for “rewilding” the Scottish landscape through restoring pre-human flora and fauna, seen most controversially in the reintroduction of large mammals such as beaver, wolf, lynx and even bears. However, the social, cultural and political context which underlies this debate is not always properly explained. Conservation of the Scottish landscape is not as simple as saving an external, “othered” nature. Instead, it results from a tempestuous history, which has left several groups with competing concerns over who should define and manage the natural landscape.

It’s not always immediately obvious, but the Scottish Highlands are an artificial “wilderness”. Forced, and often brutal, evictions of crofting families throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in order to clear land for sheep farming caused huge social upheaval and resentment. The parallel expansion of aristocracy-based shooting estates (with accompanying explosion in deer numbers, and resulting ecological damage), and Victorian “Balmoralisation” (which valued an empty, wild Scottish landscape for the sporting and artistic use of the upper-classes), changed the natural and social face of the Highlands dramatically.

Rewilding is often framed as a purely ecological argument, restoring ecosystem function through the reintroduction of species which play important ecological functions, such as predation (e.g. lynx) or habitat creation (e.g. beaver), but have been lost due to human actions. As a result of the history of the Scottish countryside, rewilding may also be manifestation of the struggles over redefining and reappropriating land rights, through community forestry (e.g. Abernethy) and community land ownership (for an excellent discussion, see Mark Toogood’s 2003 chapter in Decolonising Nature).

Scottish conservation discourse reflects this tension about how to manage the land, and for whom. Forestry literature distributed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish National Heritage is littered with value-laden words like “sublime” and “wilderness”, which evoke a pre-human “blanket forest” in the Highlands (the extent of which is debated – see Brown 1997 and Rackham 1976). Forests have always had a deep cultural resonance as wild, spiritual and mythical places. In the English language the words “wild” and “wood” both grew out of the root wald, which split into “weald” and “wold”, meaning both a wooded place, and a place inhabited by wild creatures like wolves and bears. Similarly, the Latin word silva is the root for both “forest” and “savage” (Both these etymological facts come from Robert MacFarlane’s brilliant 2007 book The Wild Places). It is clear, therefore, how forest restoration can become a powerful discourse in reappropriation of natural and cultural histories.

At the moment, I’m interested in how this discourse of reappropriation – through what Mark Toogood labels “an imagined history” – influences Scottish conservation, in particular ecological restoration. Is ecological restoration influenced by attempts to return to an idealised pre-English, pre-aristocracy “nature”? How do conceptions of historical landscapes (Toogood’s “place-myths”) correspond to the findings of long-term ecology? Will the influence of imagined histories lead to compositionalist restoration attempts which may be left unsuited and unable to adapt to future climate change? Are we as academics being too idealistic in what people want from their landscape? Is the cultural importance of reappropriation as important as being able to make a living from the land?

All of these questions are a work in progress for me at the moment (and will hopefully underpin my dissertation). I’d hope that working at this intersection between long-term ecology and cultural history could yield interesting results for conservation management.

Rob St.John

A few good references:

Brown N (1995) Re-defining native woodland. Forestry 70(3): 191

Cronon W (1995) The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Cronon W, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

Macfarlane R (2007) The Wild Places. Granta, London.

Rackham O (1976) Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Orion, London

Toogood M (2003) Decolonising Highland conservation. In Decolonising Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial era. Adams WM and Mulligan M eds. 152-172. Earthscan, London

1 comment:

  1. To keep being told that "wilderness" here and there is not really wild makes me depressed. But then values come into picture again: why do we value wilderness more than those touched by man?

    The use of the phrase "touched by man" suddenly put an idea in my mind--perhaps we obsess over wilderness for the same reason that some men obsess over virgins.

    Or is it because we value simplicity? Complex history is exhausting to process. Different storytellers, looking from different angles, don't paint the same picture. All that back-and-forth makes an ecological baseline hard to choose. "Give us a vision of 'the pristine state' to aim for; that makes it easy."