machair-north-uist

In the final years of the last century I elected to live for a while on the island of North Uist. From the moment of my arrival I was absorbed by the landscape as if by a realist novel of depth and character, with a sinuous plot that wound, like a hill track, across five millenia. As an academic geographer, the idea of ‘reading the landscape’ has long since come in and gone out of fashion. And yet it well describes the desire I had to know this place. In Uist, I discovered a kind of practical curiosity about how – culturally, visually, ecologically, economically – the landscape had taken shape.

What struck me first were the birds and – oddly – the machines of the machair. The cacophony of corncrakes, lapwings, skylarks and curlews was like nothing I had heard. More intriguing, was the fact that these birds were often to be found skulking in fields in and around the rusting remains of Massey Ferguson and Fordson tractors, Bamlett threshers, Bamford reapers, Cockshutt ploughs, as well, of course, as the more ubiquitous skeletons of Land Rovers and Mini Metros. The whole history of modernity, it seemed to me, could be seen in this series of lichen-encrusted exhibits.

As it turned out, my alertness to things ornithological and mechanical was by no means unique. A former RSPB warden, Philip Coxon, once described in his memoir how in Uist ‘almost every croft house stood at the centre of what looked like a used car lot. Some of the vehicles were skeletons of rust, others more recently abandoned and intact, used as hen-houses or dog-kennels … I felt I was touring Britain’s junkyard’.

Coxon experienced the Uist landscape as a contradiction – wonderful birdlife, irresponsible locals – without seeming to recognise that the machair was itself the hybrid accomplishment of crofters and wildlife and that the birds thrived here because of, not in spite of, crofting agriculture.

Had Coxon not died young, he would have been pleased to learn that these wrecks have now largely been cleared away. Indeed, under the ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area’ agreements, crofters have had little choice other than to tidy up in the name of visual amenity, leaving behind a more ordered landscape but one with fewer signs of the human labour that was invested in its transformation.

For the best part of two years, my time in North Uist was spent in a thatched cottage beside the postcard perfect sands of Vallay Strand. One luckless tourist, so diverted by the beauty of the scene, once nose-planted his car into the ditch. On another occasion, I found myself in an animated discussion with a BBC wildlife cameraman about the placement of my wheelie bin which – he made clear – was disrupting his footage. I obliged, eventually, by moving it.

I was reminded of all this when following recent debates about ‘wild land’ in Scotland. My memories of Uist impressed on me how much background human labour goes into making a picturesque scene. All that editing, moving, cropping and tidying up.

This, too, is the paradox of what we call wildness – that while it promises an ideal of pristine nature, one that is philosophically anterior to culture, it can only be realised through much imaginative and material ‘work’ of humans. Wildness is only brought about through a great deal of human intervention.

So here’s a proposition: that wildness is an attribute that we ascribe to landscape not a quality that inheres in landscape. It is a cultural ideal, and one which has its origins in the European Enlightenment, with its long taproot into the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are, in other words, no wild places before we insist on their wildness, a status that can only be sustained through suppressing our knowledge of the extent of human intervention in the landscape.

Most of Scotland’s conservation bodies acknowledge that we have no ‘wilderness’ in the classic sense of the term; and that our landscape has been subject to human management for millennia. But this muttered concession in no way discourages their retention of the cultural and rhetorical frame of wildness as a way of talking about much of Scotland. And this wider frame, it seems to me, always overwhelms the hesitant acknowledgment of human labour.

John Muir, patron saint and poster boy for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013, embodies the problem: his conception of wilderness as ‘a refuge from society’ left little room for the indigenous peoples he encountered on his travels. Now, his devotees in the John Muir Trust are campaigning to enshrine wild land as part of the planning system. Their drive to make Scotland wild may yet succeed.

I’ll be frank and say that I tend not to like ‘wildness’. It is not that I dislike places that are deemed wild, far less do I want to see them inappropriately developed. As a birdwatcher as well as a geographer, I relish time in Scotland’s less populous districts. My problem is that the specific cultural lens of ‘wildness’, with its fixation on predominantly visual attributes at the expense of other meanings, stories and histories, tends to obscure more than it reveals. It is precisely because wildness emphasises an external agency – an abstract, pristine Nature that aparently precedes humans – that it ends up rendering human history, labour and experience as marginal.

The challenge is to find a new vocabulary of nature that does justice to the myriad ways in human history and natural history are entwined. There is a great irony in the fact that although Scotland has produced more than its fair share of fine environmental thinkers, we have devoted our attention to the wrong ones. If only Patrick Geddes – with his synthesis of place, work, folk – was given the same acclaim as Muir.

Nature conservation in Scotland is now in desperate need of conceptual renewal, having rarely been subject to the sort of philosophical challenge that is routine in other disciplines. Insights from the humanities and the interpretative social sciences – the idea, for instance, that wildness is a social construction – are conspicuously absent. So it would be a welcome development if some of the creative intellectual stirrings that are being catalysed by the independence referendum might find application in our approach to the environment.

It is not just that we need to act differently, we first need to think differently. Can we find ways of celebrating a nature that has always been resolutely cultural? And can we do so without seeing this as a loss of something pure that has become compromised by the social world?

I am sympathetic to the sorts of visions that are discussed under the rubric of ‘re-wilding’, most recently in George Monbiot’s Feral. Enchantment is a great starting point for thinking about a more intimate involvement in the natural world. But I worry, too, that ‘re-wilding’ signals a reprise of a concept that, at its heart, disavows human agency. We might need to un-wild before we can re-wild. And if this feels like futile word play, it is an obvious truism that how we talk and think about the world is indivisible from how we can change the world. We should certainly be concerned about the quiet rise of instrumental conceptions of Scotland’s nature such as ‘ecosystem services’. Appeals to landscape value expressed as an object of capitalist accounting are not just dispiriting; they also set the terms for what kind of world is possible.

I feel something similar about the recent wagon-circling defence of wildness. We need a different approach: one that can allow us celebrate the ways in which our landscapes narrate the hybrid labours of humans and non-humans. Stop worrying, in other words, and learn to love the rusting tractor.