From ‘the environment’ to ‘an environment’ (of outstanding natural beauty)


By Peter Coates

Opening address delivered at the Quantocks on Tuesday 1 March 2011

Welcome to the western edge of the second oldest of England’s thirty-one designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which, collectively, cover 15% of the country. This is also one of the smallest, at 99 square kilometres. In fact, only 6 are smaller. (The smallest, the Isles of Scilly, covers just 16 square kilometres; the largest, the Cotswolds, totals 2,038 square kilometres.) As I drove down the M5 from Bristol airport with David, Petra and Richard, we passed along the western edge of the Somerset Levels, an area of mostly drained fenland that forms an unintentional but rather apt bridge between the Quantocks and the first workshop in Cambridgeshire last November. But now we’ve left the flatlands behind. The West Country has real topography.

One of the essays Paul posted on the Network website after Wicken was entitled ‘Aesthetics and the Environment’. He began with the observation that, at our final ‘round-up’ session, we started talking about something called beauty, prompted by Ben Cowell’s observation that the National Trust’s original mandate had been to preserve beauty, not the environment or biodiversity (its full name being the  National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Yet, as Paul commented further: ‘This raises questions of course. What is beauty? I’m not going to resolve that one here’. We’ll leave that to Peter to sort out in time for our next meeting in an AONB! He didn’t actually say the latter, but perhaps this was what he was thinking.

So, my title and talk pick up where Paul left off. Workshop One kicked off with a session at Cripps Court, Magdalene College on ‘The Environment: The “Out There” Idea’. I agree with Paul that ‘environment’ is a rather bland and technical, inelegant term with little appeal for those in the arts and humanities. It conspicuously lacks the charm and resonance of the rich, thickly encrusted concepts of ‘Landscape’ and ‘Nature’. Nobody talks about ‘Environmental Beauty’ in the way we’ve talked for centuries about ‘Landscape Beauty’ and ‘Natural Beauty’. Paul speculated that ‘the power of the environment as a concept is linked to the prestige and techniques of science in forming an object of study and political action’. At the risk of sounding hopelessly derivative, I like to think that ‘the power of beauty as a concept is linked to the prestige and techniques of the arts and humanities in forming an object of study and political action’.

So now we move down to earth to take a soft look at a particular place and a particular category of environment: an embodied area, not just of natural beauty but of officially decreed outstanding natural beauty. It’s easy to approach the Quantocks as a material and cartographic entity. It has a nicely defined topographical identity: a compact range of hills about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide. Shaped like a rectangle tilted on its side, the Quantocks stand out from their surrounding, or should I say environing lowlands and the Bristol Channel (or, to give it a more poetic name, the Severn Sea). The area encompassed by the AONB does include some land beyond the uplands as well as three miles of coastline, but it’s instantly identifiable. The trouble begins when this place becomes a designated area of outstanding natural beauty in 1957, which, by the way, makes me as old as this AONB. For if ‘the environment’ is a relatively recent notion, then beauty, whether of the natural variety or any other kind, is a concept with an ancient pedigree.

Is beauty a universal, trans-historical, cross-cultural quality? Or, like so many other concepts, is it essentially historically and culturally contingent? For many, beauty is the ultimate subjective quality. (The person most widely credited with coining the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (see Molly Bawn, 1878). Black is beautiful, pronounced the charismatic African-American community leader, Marcus Garvey, in the 1920s. Suntanned is beautiful, announced Zelda Fitzgerald in the same decade – yet both were radical propositions at the time.

There’s no time this evening to dwell on the links between human beauty and its non-human forms. Suffice to say that a PhD student should examine the connections between the artificial facial beauty spot as a mode of enhancement for (mostly) feminine beauty since the days of ancient Rome and the beauty spot’s more recent re-invention as a point of attraction within a larger landscape. (How’s this for a potential dissertation title?: From Marilyn Monroe’s lower left-hand cheek to the Lake District’s Tarn Hows’. Bear in mind that in pre-modern times the beauty spot (or patch), which passed out of fashion in the nineteenth century, only to be revived in the 1950s, also served to conceal disfigurement from small pox.)

But I can’t pass so quickly over the question of the innate nature of natural beauty. Does everyone find a sunset beautiful? Do we all consider moonlight beautiful? (Does everyone find a steaming pile of fresh grizzly scat, studded with blueberries and the fur of a well-masticated marmot a beautiful vignette of nature? Perhaps only if your name is Timothy Treadwell, aka Grizzly Man.) The insights of developmental psychology are surely required to guide us through this kind of territory. At my University, visual psychologists employ eye-tracking technology to quantify eye movements in response to natural scenes, measuring attractiveness according to pupil dilation. An evolutionary approach to attractiveness in nature – as well as viewing notions of beauty as being hard-wired in our biology and psychology – can perhaps override the divide between beauty and utilitarian value. Do we find a clear and fast flowing stream beautiful because we associate clean water with health and survival?  We might call this the biological salience of the beautiful. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, there was definitely a science behind beauty. Aristotle (Metaphysics) regarded beauty as a property of symmetry – particularly evident in the mathematical sciences, which exhibited ‘order, symmetry, and limitation; and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful’. For Lucretius (De Rerum Natura), natural beauty resided in the underlying order of natural phenomena.

From this perspective, the straight lines, regular shapes and angularity of the drained fenlands of East Anglia were beautiful. This aesthetic canon remained more or less in force until the romantic revolution. However, as Paul pointed out in his post-Wicken ruminations on ‘Aesthetics and the Environment’, the line has since enjoyed something a comeback in the guise of the high modernist aesthetic. And at Halsway Manor, we saw how much lines and angles appealed to our resident artist, Jenny Graham, in the shape of the fields, hedges, lanes and farm gates of the undulating, billowy Quantocks – just as they do, perhaps more obviously, in the Somerset Levels where she lives.

Mountains, once judged so hideous they were given pejorative names like ‘devil’s arse’, were a landform raised to the summit of beauty by the new romantic ideology, which privileged irregularity of shape. From Mountain Gloom to Mountain Glory, to borrow from the title of a classic 1959 study by the literary historian, Marjorie Hope Nicholson, reissued in Bill Cronon’s ‘Weyerhaeuser  Environmental Classic’ series (University of Washington Press) in 1997 [Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite]. More recently, deserts and swamps have also been redeemed.

The high value American culture has invested in untamed nature partly reflects the depth of American antipathy to the city as a fallen, supremely ugly place. According to Gary Wills ‘the city in the American imagination has played roughly the role of hell in Christian theology’ (‘American Adam’, New York Review of Books, 1997). Wills also believes that the American location of divinity in wild nature benefitted from the lack of competition from religious structures: the church as a building was never bestowed with a sacred quality comparable to European reverence; there are certainly few large, imposing and ornate churches in the US.

Nineteenth-century American cultural nationalists routinely venerated high mountain wilderness as the pinnacle of environmental beauty. Yet some Britons were equally captivated – and by mountains higher than the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Francis Younghusband raved about the glories of the Himalayas. Here’s what he had to say in 1921, in his capacity as President of the Royal Geographical Society, in a talk at University College London on ‘Natural Beauty and Geography’: ‘The value of Knowledge and Character is duly impressed upon us. Of the value of Freedom we are told so much. But Beauty we are half inclined to connect with the effeminate. Poetry, Music, and Literature are under suspicion with the average English schoolboy…Yet love of  Beauty persists in spite of all discouragement, and will not be suppressed’.

Younghusband spent much of his career as an army officer based in British India, and is probably best known for his 1904 expedition to Tibet. A swashbuckling character characterized by his biographer (Patrick French, 1994) as ‘the last great imperial adventurer’, he was, in short, a man who couldn’t be accused of lacking in manly virtues. My teenage daughters would say that Younghusband was ‘getting in touch with his feminine side’. Well, he certainly had a sensitive side. He dabbled in all kinds of ‘New Age’ spiritualities, propounded the Tolstoyan simple life, and articulated an early version of the Gaia hypothesis. No wonder that his biographer also hailed him as a ‘premature hippy’.

In his lecture, Younghusband went on to announce that: ‘Any description of the Earth which excludes a description of its natural beauty is incomplete. And I would go so far as to say that the description of Natural Beauty is the most important part of Geography’.  Yet Natural Beauty was obviously a concept that needed refining.  There were different kinds for Younghusband (as reported in his 1921 book, The Heart of Nature: or, The Quest for Natural Beauty). The Austere beauty of the high Himalaya. The Voluptuous beauty of Kashmir. And then there was Foreign beauty and Home Beauty. And Home Beauty was the most beautiful of them all, especially for someone who’d spent most of his life abroad: ‘The Englishman, though he loves the Alps and the Himalaya, is touched by nothing so deeply as by a Devonshire lane with its banks of primroses and violets’. A pity that this particular boyhood memory was of the wrong county.  But Younghusband quickly  redeemed himself: ‘Almost my earliest recollections are of a Somersetshire village set in a lovely valley, fringed with woods and surrounded by hills’  – which sounds remarkably like the village adjacent to Halsway, Crowcombe….

These treasured scenes of English beauty were patently examples of gently humanized nature. Whether beauty resides first and foremost in culture or in nature has been a hardy perennial of transatlantic debate for centuries. For many visiting Europeans, the United States possessed a surfeit of land, but a dearth of landscape.  Wild nature, available in profligate quantity in the new world, was raw, unfinished and impoverished. Nature was only beautiful when enriched and improved by human intervention.

The distinction between nature wild and tame is not always drawn so sharply. In his landmark book, Landscape into Art, published in 1956, the year the first AONB was designated (the Gower Peninsula in South Wales), the British art historian, Kenneth Clark, tried to have it both ways, approaching nature as a broad church: ‘Almost every Englishman, if asked what he meant by “beauty”, would begin to describe a landscape – perhaps a lake and mountain, perhaps a cottage garden, perhaps a wood with bluebells and silver birches, but, at all events, a landscape’.

It’s just as well that Clark was slightly circumspect – he says almost every Englishman – because one Englishman definitely immune to nature’s charms, whether rugged or pastoral, was a character in an Oscar Wilde story (‘The Decay of Lying: An Observation’, 1889). The setting is the library of a country house in Nottinghamshire and Cyril, bursting in from the terrace, admonishes his friend, Vivien, as follows: ‘My dear Vivian, don’t coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon…Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature’. But Vivian remains unmoved, and issues this retort: ‘My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony’. The prospect of sprawling on the grass held no appeal for Vivien, for nature is ‘so uncomfortable’. Grass is ‘hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects’.

The hallowed divide between nature and culture engenders amusing stories like this. But neat dichotomies are usually overstated. In a recent article (2010), David Lowenthal emphasized that the movements to preserve the relict monuments of nature on the one hand and of human creation on the other converged on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century – a two-fronted crusade spearheaded by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris over here and by George Perkins Marsh and Charles Eliot Norton over there.

Outstanding cultural treasures remain the reference point for conservationists and environmentalists, including twentieth-century American wilderness preservationists like Aldo Leopold and the hard-core Edward Abbey. In the penultimate sentence of his celebrated essay, ‘The Land Ethic’ (A Sand County Almanac, 1949), Leopold complained that ‘We are remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel’. And Abbey, feisty advocate of direct action in defence of untamed Mother Earth, in an essay entitled ‘Industrial Tourism and the National Parks’ (Desert Solitaire, 1968), pointed out to his fellow-Americans that ‘we have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference’. (If Leopold and Abbey had ever seen the exquisite sixteenth-century oak pew end (bench-end) carvings of green men, slain dragons and bats in the church of the Holy Ghost in Crowcombe , their preservationist instincts would surely also have been aroused.)

Though beauty is our topic, it’s not the ultimate aesthetic property we’ve located in nature. Eighteenth-century theoreticians of landscape aesthetics distinguished between the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime. I’ve never managed to figure out exactly what the difference is between the picturesque and the beautiful. Imagine my relief when I found out that  Coleridge couldn’t either . (‘What then is the real Difference & is there a real Difference between the Picturesque and the Beautiful?’, read one of his notebook entries for December 1803 .) For William Gilpin, (1786), a dell – a narrow, thickly wooded, rocky cleft, usually graced by a tumbling torrent – was the epitome of the picturesque. Yet Gilpin sidestepped the distinction by using the phrase ‘Observations on Picturesque Beauty’ in the title of various books on the Wye Valley and the Lake District (1782, 1786).

The distinction between the merely beautiful and the sublime appears to have been much clearer in this aesthetic hierarchy. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke based his notion of beauty in nature on ‘a quality that men find attractive in women: smoothness, gentleness, softness’. The Sublime, by contrast, was related to grander things like infinity, eternity and our relationship to the deity. Above all, it was related to the terrible. The sort of things that precipitated this feeling of terror– ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’ – were privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness, suddenness – qualities closely associated with natural phenomena such as the storm, the cliff-edge, the waterfall, and the mountain summit. Things and places, in short, that make us feel small, helpless and afraid. To feel the appeal of the terrible and the threatening was a multi-sensory experience – a state of consciousness, even – that went far beyond the narrowly visual enjoyment of beauty. We should perhaps distinguish further between the positive/transcendental sublime and the negative sublime – the former characterized by joy and awe rather than fear. In any event, this was the delightful horror to which Immanuel Kant alluded; the delicious terror that was completely dependent, of course, on knowing that the danger was more imagined than real. I wonder how Burke and the connoisseurs of the sublime would have felt about the ‘terrible beauty’ of the mushroom cloud as a visual spectacle in the atomic age. And I wonder whether Coleridge – who flounders about in the sticky mud of the Severn estuary in the shadow of Hinkley Point’s twin towers in one particularly unforgettable scene in Julien Temple’s film, Pandaemonium (2000), which the workshop survivors’ rump watched on Thursday evening – would have thrilled to the vision of the technological sublime embodied in the nuclear power plant that looms beyond the AONB’s northern perimeter. And, like Temple, would they have incorporated the vapour trails of jets effortlessly into their portrait of  the Quantocks?

Leaving aside the mushroom cloud, according to Coleridge’s and the Wordsworths’  aesthetic schema, the Alps, Richard Oram’s Glen Almond in Perthshire, and the North American Rockies were sublime. (In 2002, Tate Britain hosted an exhibition of American landscape art, 1820-1880, entitled ‘American Sublime’.) Meanwhile, the Quantocks, being small, smooth and flowing, surely qualified as no more than Beautiful, perhaps merely Picturesque.

But where does outstanding beauty enter the picture?  The natural beauty of home that Younghusband fondly recalled doesn’t strike me as being outstanding. In 1935, Vaughan Williams attributed the distinctly English genius of Edward Elgar’s compositions not to the ‘aloof and unsympathetic beauty of glaciers and coral reefs and tropical forests’ but to ‘the intimate and personal beauty of our own fields and lanes’. Surely we’re talking about prettiness here. Outstanding is something that, well, stands out, or rises above. It’s the top grade that we hope to get when we submit our end-of-award report to the AHRC.

Margaret Anderson, who in articles published in 1980 and 1990, has studied the politics behind the AONB designation in England and Wales, was unable to pinpoint exactly when and why the terminology of outstanding natural beauty emerged, given that the previous discussion had been of ‘conservation area’ designation for lands that did not make the grade as national parks following the 1949 Act. If a civil servant had been struck, inexplicably, by a creative moment, then I suppose it could have become ASNB. Area of Striking Natural Beauty. Or AANB – Area of Arresting Natural Beauty. Or ACNB: Area of Conspicuous Natural Beauty. Or ARNB: Area of Remarkable Natural Beauty. Or, more poetically, ARNB: Area of Rapturous Natural Beauty. Or, in today’s language of hyperbole, Area of Stunning Natural Beauty. I guess it really doesn’t matter.

Needless to say, no criteria for the measurement or quantification of natural beauty of any sort have ever been drawn up by a government committee in the twentieth century, nor, unsurprisingly, has a legal definition ever been ventured (Paul Selman and Carys Swanwick have begun to mull over these issues in a 2010 article in Landscape Research; thanks, Clare, for bringing this to my attention). Nonetheless, it should be stressed that designation as outstanding does not imply that the natural beauty within national parks is more than outstanding; that would be an excess of excess, like over-exaggeration. Location and size rather than quality of scenery per se appear to have been the critical distinction between AONBs and the first tranche of national parks. Scenically, the Quantocks AONB has more in common with its neighbouring national park of Exmoor than with a fellow, but somewhat more distant AONB like the sprawling Cotswolds. The Hobhouse Report of 1947 that informed the 1949 National parks Act spoke of Exmoor and the Quantocks in the same breath, recommending (unsuccessfully) that both be included in a proposed park centred on Exmoor (Iain Porter of the AONB service cast some light on this abortive twinning in his talk in the old library at Fyne Court on Wednesday morning). Nor does AONB designation suggest that the rest of the English and Welsh countryside is of an inferior scenic quality. All it means is that the outstanding beauty of certain areas has been officially recognized.

Outstanding can also mean unsettled. An outstanding bill is something that remains to be paid. An outstanding issue is a matter unresolved. And the essential identity and core purpose of the AONB – as a category of designated land – remain outstanding in this sense.

I want to move on to look at the relationship between beauty and ecology. When did the concept of ‘environment’, a synonym for surroundings for so long, become ‘ecological’ or, should I say, ecologized? That’s a question Paul posed in his paper in Cambridge. What I wonder is when the concept of ‘natural beauty’ become infused with an ecological meaning?  Perhaps Rachel Carson had a hand here as well.

In 2007, in an article in Landscape Research (‘Living with and Looking at Landscape’), Lowenthal remarked that ‘scenic beauty is now out of vogue…derided as superficial, frivolous, even soulless: to dwell on décor is to scant integral landscape values, notably ecological fitness, residential sustainability, community health and historical authenticity’. Has value in nature really become, at root, a deep ecological concept?  Even if it has, then I don’t think there’s any necessary friction between appearance and content. Proto-green landscape architects in 1930s Germany firmly believed that, the richer the biodiversity, the more beautiful the place. In 1938, Alwin Seifert dismissed Germany’s pseudo-forests – swathes of sterile conifer plantations consisting of single-species of non-native trees – as ‘neither biologically sound, nor lasting, nor beautiful’. The anti-conifer battle fought by Friends of Quantock in the 1950s against the Forestry Commission was a stand for beauty against the ugliness represented by rectangular block plantations of ‘alien’ conifers. Native nature is not invariably more beautiful nature, but a sprig of Sitka spruce needles is never going to replace a cluster of oak leaves and acorns as the emblem of the National Trust. (Still, we eagerly await David’s promised ‘Ode to the Sitka Spruce’, to be delivered in the depths of Kielder Forest at twilight in late March.)

I don’t see the need for a return to beauty. But what I do see is a turn to the wild. An unpublished study conducted in 1976 suggested that most people in England and Wales preferred the scenery in AONBs to that contained within national parks. Because, to quote Margaret Anderson (1980): ‘the generally rolling countryside of AONBs with their farmland of crops and pasture set off by trees, and with villages and farms nestling in the valleys…is far more to the national taste than the rugged wilder pasture and moorlands of the upland National Parks’. For someone like me, who has mostly studied nature conservation in North America, the difference between parks and AONBs appears overstated. The crucial point, surely, is that the dominant land use in both is agricultural, regardless of whether it’s extensive or intensive, grazing or arable. Since my inner core is that of an Americanist, I’m also fascinated by the pejorative terms that we Brits have attached to wild land. Everywhere, it seems, is graded with reference to the norm of agriculturally productive land and land subject to the stewardship of a grazing regime: so there’s ‘poor’ land, ‘derelict’ land, ‘waste’ land, and ‘abandoned’ land. Most shockingly, there’s ‘sterilized’ land, and most amusingly, there’s ‘difficult’ land.

Casting around for British allies, I checked the entry for the 1st of March 1798 in the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept while she and her brother were living at Alfoxden House, just a few miles to the east of here, across the ridge. And sure enough, the B-word crops up – and it does so in association with the quality of the uncontrolled. The first of March was a misty morning that eventually cleared: ‘the shapes of the mist, slowly moving along, exquisitely beautiful. Passing over the sheep they almost seemed to have more of life than those quiet creatures’. I don’t want to read too much into that brief entry. But I suspect that Dorothy – and William – preferred the more animated red deer for which the Quantocks are famous to these passive grazers, animal tools adopted for environmental manipulation. Now Dorothy was particularly fond of Crowcombe ‘dell’, not far to the east of  here, which she described in her journal entry for 15th April 1798 as ‘romantic and beautiful’. Romantic and beautiful, that is, if you overlooked the  ‘unnaturalized trees’ that were ‘everywhere planted’. (The trees to which Dorothy took exception had been planted by Thomas Carew when he laid out Crowcombe Court in the early 1700s.)  A nature aesthetic shaped by the wild not only approached nature and culture in oppositional terms; it also classified non-native trees as ingredients of culture rather than components of nature. Walking around the grounds of Crowcombe Court, she observed ‘Quaint waterfalls about, around which Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed – ruins, hermitages, etc.’

What consoled Dorothy on this occasion was the reassuring awareness of limited human technological prowess: that ‘we cannot shape the huge hills or carve out the valleys according to our fancy’. I’m glad she didn’t live to see the invention of the bulldozer and the capacity of open-cast mining to re-arrange the topography, whether in West Virginia or the lignite country of the former East Germany. It’s also a good thing that she and her brother didn’t live to see the afforestation of large swathes of the local hills that had escaped enclosure and reclamation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by being too high, too rainy and too sour of soil.

I cut my teeth as an historian in Alaska (and might just go back to my roots now that Sarah Palin – the Momma of the Momma Grizzlies – has single-handedly turned the international spotlight back onto Alaska for the first time since the days when the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline as being built). There’s a corner of a foreign field that is forever Alaska in the shape of the Sitka spruce plantation – so you’re never too far away from Alaska, especially not in the Quantocks. But I’d like there to be a more positive echo of Alaska somewhere in Britain. Not necessarily here in the Quantocks, but somewhere, why don’t we experiment with the creation of a wilderness? I’m not the first to venture this suggestion. The veteran American environmental historian, Samuel P. Hays, author of the well-known Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States 1955-85 (1987), has been there before. Hays stuck out his neck back in the journal Ecos in 1984, after he’d become familiar with the British nature conservation scene while spending a year at Cambridge as Visiting Pitt Professor of American History.

Back then, the voice of Hays was a voice in the wilderness. Despite the best efforts of  Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Brits have not been overly enamoured of wild lands, let alone wilderness. In October 1986, the Tory environment minister, Nicholas Ridley, accused those who sought to protect the countryside from inappropriate development of wanting to return to some kind of wild state of Eden. But as Ridley warned: ‘If you could get through the bogs and the jungles and the thickets [that covered] this country one million years ago, you would say “What a dreadful place this is”’. And during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, livestock removal from upland areas such as the Lake District was seen as a potential disaster for that treasured landscape, which would regress to a scruffy, scrubby, wild state, in the absence of all those nibbling mouths.

I fully appreciate that, because spontaneous natural forces threaten the forms of nature we prefer, plans have been formulated and duly executed to protect them from nature from running wild.  Across the Severn Sea, on the Gower Peninsula, rampant summertime growth of gorse and bracken not only invades heathland but threatens to obliterate and undermine archaeological sites.  Bracken bruising with heavy duty machinery has been the control mechanism there, which sounded like pretty rough treatment to me until we heard about the half a million pounds spent on aerial spraying to alleviate the bracken menace on the top of the Quantocks (on our walk up to the ridge from Halsway on Wednesday afternoon, AONB service chief ranger, Tim Russell, pointed out the blitzed area). In cleared areas on the Gower, new archaeological treasures have come to light, including prehistoric hut groups and medieval long houses.  But at the risk of incurring Richard’s wrath again (making him wild with anger), I still feel we Brits are getting more in touch with our wilder side and maybe need to express this feeling in our land management policies. We could to a lot worse that begin this reappraisal with a more tolerant attitude to the much maligned scrub.

Before you accuse me selling out to yet another noxious form of American cultural imperialism, think about the turn to the wild in Britain since Old Nick ran amuck on Maggie’s Farm. Everything wild, it seems, is currently fashionable, if not yet de rigueur: wild swimming and wild places are the subject of best-selling books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. The John Muir Trust (1980) is the UK’s fastest growing environmental organization, dedicated to the preservation of Britain’s wild remnants – and not just in Scotland. Meanwhile, wild, foraged food is all the rage (at least in South-West England) and the bakery I patronize in Bristol (Mark’s, in Southville] only sells wild bread. That’s bread made only with ‘naturally occurring yeasts and friendly bacteria’. (Frivolous question: is ‘wild’ bread the ultimate subversive substance, bread being a supreme symbol of the advent and ascendancy of agricultural civilization over the hunter gatherers who co-existed with wildness?)

The Wordsworths and ‘Citizen Sam’ Coleridge would surely approve of what is perhaps a re-turn to the wild feeling nurtured in these hills. So, in view of this increasingly hospitable cultural environment, why can’t we select just one AONB or national park, stand back and let nature at its most beautiful take its course?

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