He has become one of Scotland’s revered secular saints – a founding figure of modern environmentalism and, most recently, the poster boy for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013.
His name has become a byword for the preservation of wild land which is exactly what the eponymous John Muir Trust (JMT), now one of Scotland’s biggest landowners, seeks to do. Hard to find fault with this, surely?
Last month, the wild land charity published findings of a YouGov poll that apparently showed strong support in Scotland for giving wild areas ‘special protection from inappropriate developments’ (for which read: windfarms).
In case you didn’t appreciate the threats to Scotland’s wild lands, JMT have produced a stirring video in which a series of lofty vistas, untroubled by human habitation, are set to a sombre piano refrain.
The film introduces us to “Lewisian Gneiss rock … three billion years old” and then oddly cuts to a JCB excavating a building site in Fort William, with the caution that “it only takes a moment to destroy it”.
But it is precisely because these visually persuasive slippages are powerful, that the JMT’s beguiling landscapes should not distract us from thinking critically about their vision for Scotland.
“The thing is” continues their film, “we can build roads and cities and technological giants” (cue images of Forth Road Bridge, Edinburgh and, yes, a wind turbine) “but we can’t build wilderness”.
It is a seemingly irrefutable claim – an appeal to the obvious. But as is often the case with common sense politics, it doesn’t bear closer scrutiny.
“Wilderness” John Muir once wrote “is not only a haven for native plants and animals but it is also a refuge from society”. Unfortunately, his own experience did not always support the claim. On walking in the Sierra Nevada, his reveries were interrupted by what he described as ‘a lot of queer, hairy muffled creatures …. shuffling, shambling, wallowing towards me’, the ‘dirt on some of the faces … old enough to have geological significance’.
In Muir’s wilderness, almost by definition, there was little place for human beings – particularly if they were indigenous Indians.
The environmental historian William Cronon takes the opposite view to Muir and his modern disciples. ‘Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity’, he argues, wilderness ‘is quite profoundly a human creation’.
Cronon regards wilderness as a post-Enlightenment conceit that bears an uncertain relation to the physical landscape. Rather it is an industrial era fantasy that can only be sustained by suppressing our knowledge of the extent of human intervention in the environment.
All of this is particularly relevant for Scotland’s mountains which have been variously chopped, burned and grazed beyond anything like their ‘natural’ state.
Much of the Highlands, for instance, have been ecologically arrested to support red deer and red grouse, species that in turn support the recreational bloodsports of princes and bankers.
What we take to be ‘wild land’ is really a closely managed political ecology that has turned landscapes of privilege – the ‘wild’ deer forests – into the now familiar canon of Scottish scenery.
In the early days of the twenty first century, the Scottish Tourist Board launched a campaign called ‘Scotland: it stays with you’. One advert placed in the Financial Times showed a photograph of a wild Sgurr nan Gillean in Skye with the tagline ‘And you thought making money quickened your pulse’.
The blurb went on:
Breathtaking isn’t it? And not a bull or a bear in sight (stags are pretty common though). To swap the Square Mile for something a little more awe-inspiring, simply visit our website to see our online brochure of Scottish winter breaks. After all, don’t you think it is time you blew a little of that money you’ve been earning?
This kind of oleaginous promotion is quite in keeping with the long history of landscape representation in Scotland for which, in some part, we can thank Edwin Landseer. Monarch of the Glen along with his other commissions from Victoria and Albert gave us an image of Scotland that, for all its charismatic nature, was ultimately subject to the sovereignty of the sportsman’s gun.
The John Muir Trust would doubtless agree that Scotland’s uplands have been ecologically devastated – that, after all, is at the heart of their well-intentioned purpose to restore habitats.
But why must we cling to the fiction of wildness? The Highlands have been subject to human management for millennia; and it will require further ingenuity and effort to repair the environmental damage of the last three centuries.
David Brewer – a Muir devotee and founder of the US Sierra Club – once described wilderness as a place ‘where the hand of man has not set foot’. It is a wonderfully mixed metaphor and one founded on the tired old Cartesian binary that counterposes nature as the metaphysical opposite of culture.
For Cronon, by contrast, wilderness is a place that exists primarily in the Western imagination – a retreat we have made from the disquieting encroachments of modernity.
So here’s the paradox: wildness is a human attribute that we ascribe to the landscape, not a quality that adheres in the landscape. And wildness is only achieved through a great deal of cultural, material and ecological ‘work’ on our part, whether this takes the form of making art or erecting fences or writing conservation policy. At the same time, however, the very notion of ‘wild’ prohibits any acknowledgement of the human agency from which it is constituted, demanding instead that we see only the workings of an external, pristine Nature.
All of this might seem very abstract. The point is that there are good reasons to be cautious about the political baggage carried by ‘wild’ land in contemporary Scotland, for what is being protected is not just the appearance of specific landscapes but a wider aesthetic – a vision of what Scotland should look like – that has its provenance in elite ways of seeing.
To designate much of Scotland as wild land is to give priority to this culturally specific vision while obscuring the many ways in which these landscapes have been known and named and storied, from prehistory to the present.
I am concerned then about the political aim of the JMT to enshrine ‘wildness’ within the public planning system. They are campaigning to see areas of ‘core wild land’ – recently mapped by Scottish Natural Heritage and currently under consultation – declared off limits for ‘inappropriate development’ (windfarms, again) – see here.
At first glance, these maps are pretty persuasive, at least as long as you stick to Muir’s path and think of wildness as something ‘out there’, a quality independent of human vicissitudes.
If you consider wildness to be a scientific object that can be mapped then this is the cartographic result you are likely to get. But it wouldn’t hurt SNH to employ a humanities graduate or two. Though they have big scientific guns at their disposal – quantitative methods and spatial analysis – wildness will always prove itself to be an evasive quarry, as any art historian or philosopher can testify.
In SNH’s new definition ‘wild’ is an amalgam of perceived naturalness; ruggedness; remoteness; and a visible lack of human occupation. Although SNH, unlike the JMT, are careful to distinguish ‘wild land’ from ‘wilderness’, the rhetorical function of ‘wild’ is largely the same. It props up the demonstrably unsafe pretence that some corner of Scotland has lain beyond the reach of human design.
The practical consequences of such a change could be momentous. Say, for instance, that Stòras Uibhist, the community owned estate in South Uist, wanted to use hill land to generate their own renewable energy – they might find themselves blocked by the aesthetic conventions of the late eighteenth century.
But what is really at stake here is much bigger than the present wind farm controversy. It is a question of whether contemporary Scotland can celebrate a nature that has long been woven into the fabric of our culture; or whether we need to persist, as Muir did, with the contrivance of a pristine nature in which people have no place.