From Somerset to the Serengeti: low and high, rich and poor


By Peter Coates

Inspired by Petra Van Dam’s reflections on ‘The Beautiful and the Global’.

I’m moved to respond to Petra’s stimulating reflections, infused with personal history, on our conceptions of beauty and the sublime with reference to lowlands and highlands and the role of individual landscape conditioning. This task has kept me indoors for longer than anticipated on this gloriously sunny early spring Sunday afternoon (shame on me).

I’m also a flatlander by birth and upbringing. The highest ground in my immediate boyhood habitat was the belt of sand dunes that were being steadily eaten away by the Irish Sea along the Lancashire coast just north of Liverpool. And I lived the whole time on a street called Moss Side (though our house was named for a small town in the (picturesque?) Rhine Gorge where my parents spent their honeymoon…..). A moss is the Lancashire term for raised mire, which, before reclamation, was a damp and peaty flatland covered in Sphagnum mosses that formed a belt along the coastal plain. There was good reason for the name of our street; at its eastern end, Moss Side turned into the road that meandered across ‘The Moss’, an expanse of rich, dark brown earth particularly good for growing carrots (though 98% of the moss has been drained and converted to intensive arable agriculture over the past century, the has name stuck).

Drainage ditches that criss-crossed the almost black earth, with names such as Upholland Brook and Downholland Brook, linked my local world with East Anglia, the Somerset Levels and Petra’s backyard. But as far back as I can remember, I was always drawn to higher, more sublime ground. The destination for our youthful cycle rides along the road that ran, for the first few miles, along an elevated causeway, was usually Parbold Hill, the first piece of high ground you could see on the eastern horizon – an outlier of the Pennine chain.

On Formby Beach (a National Trust property, together with the adjacent dunes and pinewoods), I often just stared straight out to sea. But just as frequently I raised up my eyes to the distant (national park calibre) hills. Walking south, on clear days, the mountains of North Wales rose up across the Mersey estuary, beyond the ships heading into or leaving the port of Liverpool. Walking in the other direction, sometimes visible across the Ribble estuary, beyond the tall pencil of Blackpool Tower, stood the mountains of the Lake District, destination for Whitsun week family holidays.

Somewhere on the sea but also relatively close to the finest mountains in the UK, therefore, my main criterion for choosing a university. Hitchhiking on the roads of the western highlands and islands of Scotland during my undergraduate vacations, I spotted plenty of number plates from Austria and Switzerland as well as those of Petra’s fellow-Dutch motorists. The main attraction for those who have the Alps in their backyard obviously isn’t high mountain scenery. The highest landscape values on offer there in Scotland (at least for the visitor less sensitive to the distinction between empty lands and emptied lands) remain remoteness and low population density, which provide the opportunity to experience the delicious solitude (forget the terror) less readily available in the Alps, particularly in alpine valleys, into which so much infrastructure, industry and dwellings are crammed.

A place in which remoteness and sparse human population are increasingly available as the farming economy collapses and a new generation of ghost towns emerges, driven, not least, by record-setting years of drought, are the Great Plains of mid-North America. Proponents of the ‘Buffalo Commons’ seek to build a new eco-tourist and sport hunting economy based on the restoration of wildlife populations in an American equivalent of the Serengeti. Before (and after) the arrival of the first human occupants of the Americas, the Plains were teeming with wildlife. Scenically alien to the Euro-Americans who crossed them in their prairie schooners, the grasslands were a much richer biotope than the scenically majestic Rocky Mountains that lay beyond them. Time and again, American national parks were carved out of highlands (so-called worthless lands, worthless, that is, as Alfred Runte argued, in terms of extractive economic potential) whose biodiversity value was much lower than that of their environing lowlands, creating huge problems for species such as elk, that over-wintered at lower elevations.

The dilemma, of course, is that humans also find the lowlands a more congenial living environment than the high country, far more hospitable to human livelihoods and often harbouring valuable mineral resources. Wilderness designation for the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been one of the hottest flashpoints of US environmental politics over the past few decades. Unfettered access to the calving grounds of the wildlife refuge’s coastal plain is vital for migratory herds of caribou. Yet the oil industry and Alaska politicians still live in hope to finding oil reserves here comparable to those discovered on the coast to the west at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. To outstandingly beautiful lowlands and merely sublime highlands we can perhaps add the concept of resource-rich lowlands and biologically and mineralogically poor highlands.

When we devised this Research Network around local places and global processes, the global processes we had in mind were those of environmental change. Yet Iain Porter reminded us that no place is entirely local also in the sense that every protected landscape, whether in Somerset or the Serengeti, has been assigned an official designation (categories 1 through 5) formulated at supra-national level by the IUCN. (I must admit, though, that when Iain Porter showed that slide of a cheetah my first thought was that he was proudly showing us a Quantock big cat equivalent to the Beast of Bodmin.) As well as responding to this international framework, the managers of sites such as the Quantocks AONB also operate with reference to pan-European understandings of place, nature and landscape character such as those embodied in the recently adopted European Landscape Convention. Global processes of landscape classification shape and connect our specific sites as well as ubiquitous forces such as climate change.

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