Friday, 27 February 2015

Oliver Rackham: How 'natural' is our landscape?

The respected landscape historian Oliver Rackham died earlier this month:
Professor Oliver Rackham, historical ecologist - obituary - Telegraph
Oliver Rackham obituary | Environment | The Guardian

This is Simon Jenkins' take on his legacy - looking at Rackham's 'language of landscape beauty':

I am sure the way forward is to treat the countryside as we do urban land. It should be listed and conserved for its scenic value — as it is for its quality as farmland. I would guess this would render sacrosanct a ‘grade one’ list of roughly three quarters of rural England, to be built on only in extremity. The remaining grades would enjoy the protection of a ‘presumption against development’, but a protection that would dwindle down the grades to ‘of limited local value’.

One feature of such listing is that green belts could be redefined. Those of minimal amenity value would be released in favour of belt extension elsewhere. It is stupid to guard a muddy suburban field while building over the flanks of the Pennines.

In making these judgments we need to rediscover the language of landscape beauty, fashioned by the sadly deceased Oliver Rackham and others. Without such language, argument is debased and money rules. The policy of ‘let rip’, adopted by both major parties at present, means that England’s countryside is having to fight for each wood and field alone. At which point I say, praise be for nimbys.

The myth of the housing crisis » The Spectator
“The Myth of the Housing Crisis” – Sir Simon Jenkins (Chair, National Trust) | East Devon Watch

However, defining 'landscape' is a tricky business:

It is all too easy, though, to forget that landscapes are also partly social constructions, with many different meanings bound up in them.

In 'Remaking the Landscape', Jennifer Jenkins has brought together a dozen contributors in a single volume to reflect and speculate on the nature of the British landscape.

Important questions and contradictions are posed. Would we like more woodlands, or large fields with distant hedgerows? Would we like more houses facing grand views? Yes, if we live in them; no, if we want to walk nearby. Should there be more roads to ease our transport worries? How do we look after our communities on the margins of the economy? Above all, what are our collective attitudes to the land? Do we care enough, or are we content to see important environmental and cultural resources slip away through gradual degradation and damage?

Simon Jenkins' and Marion Shoard's concerns are with the urban landscapes and edgelands. Nature does not have to be grand for us to enjoy it. Indeed, with more and more people living in urban settings, it is nearby nature that is most accessible - the city park, community garden or allotments, urban heathland and patch of woodland all provide great value for local people. But how do we protect these? And what will we do about the sprawl of "commercial blocks of extraordinary ugliness" that surround many of our oldest towns, as Jenkins puts it?

Other essays provide useful perspectives on history (David Cannadine), on the probable effects of climate change (Crispin Tickell), on population pressures and changing household compositions (John Clarke), on the value of ancient woodlands (Oliver Rackham), and on the effects of sustainable development on our planning systems (David Bannister).

Despite the broad scope of the book, important questions remain. How will the population decline affect landscapes half a century from now?

As the book's editor puts it: "The one thing that is certain about British landscapes is that they will change, and change dramatically."

Shaping the land that has shaped us | Environmental science and Geology | Times Higher Education

That ever-provocative commentator Will Self evoked Rackham when questioning how 'natural' our landscape really is:

It was that arch-conservative GK Chesterton, inveighing against the rural purists of his own era, who said "the artificial is, if anything older than the natural", and that "in the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, 10 to one, playing at steam engines".

He understood intuitively what the work of Oliver Rackham, that great historian of the British countryside, subsequently established factually - that the pattern of land use we see the length and breadth of these isles is as much a human artefact as Stephenson's Rocket.

Rackham estimated that by the time of the Roman invasion the primordial British woodland had been cleared almost to the extent we see today. What further depredation there has been occurred in the post-war period, when hedges were grubbed up and pesticides lain down in furtherance of the monocultures so beloved of agribusiness.

The vista the wind turbine revolves within, whether it be the fens of East Anglia or the bens of the Scots Highlands, is a man-made one. However, that doesn't in and of itself mean that it is unnatural, for we are by no means the only animal on this green Earth to adapt its environment. You might as well describe beavers' dams or termites' mounds as "unnatural".

Indeed, the very idea of wilderness is itself a perverse human invention. A massive category error imposed by the British colonists in North America on a landscape of dispersed woodland and glade that they assumed to be "natural", but which was in fact the result of centuries of concerted Native American management.

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