Melinda Appleby, CPRE Trustee, shares her thoughts on the links between landscape, nature and protecting them both.
Landscape: the more pixels, the better the picture?
I’ve heard a lot of discussions in my time at CPRE on why we’re drawn to the countryside and how people’s early experiences affect how they think about it. Some refer to the landscape of their childhood or holiday experiences - and some to seeing wildlife for the first time.
Landscape is a subjective idea, as shown by the top 10 landscapes identified by photographer Charlie Waite:
Glen Etive Mor, Scotland
Win Green Hill, Wiltshire
The Western Isles
River Cuckmere, Sussex
Gwynedd river, Mawddach estuary
And the top 10 literary landscapes from Margaret Drabble:
Burslem – potteries
Goredale Scar – sublime and romantic
I googled landscape and nature writing and found 55,100,000 results for landscape writing, but only 20,500,000 results for nature writing. This reflects my experience interviewing people for a Drawn to Nature project with Essex University. They were asked about their first experiences of nature and landscape – what were their earliest memories, what gave them their love of nature.
Very few people chose a species of wildlife. Most chose emotional experiences and observations: sunlight through tree leaves; the noise of a river; the wash of river water over pebbles; fresh air; a place to escape to; building dens and climbing trees; views from hills and parks and windows.
The research suggests that what is important is nearby space where people can see, feel, smell and taste landscape. The diversity of species within the natural world may be less important and, indeed, may never come to the fore.
We can have an emotion about wildlife - we like or dislike species, we watch them, and their presence ignites our senses but they carry on as best they can with their lives and, although impacted if we left, their lives would go on. There is a sense that without people, landscapes would not go on. They are a cultural concept. But they are often the frame through which our emotions are connected to place.
Landscapes are a product of geology, soil, climate and the activities of nature and humans. Putting human and non-human content into them turns them from space to place. But they wouldn’t be there without people – not just as their co-creators, but in the way we appreciate them and reflect our emotions. Landscapes involve concepts of time, use of the senses and memory.
You can have wildlife without landscape – the setting in which you find your plant, watch your butterfly or hear your bird can be immaterial to the experience. Similarly, landscapes can be viewed with very little awareness of the wildlife they contain, a criticism sometimes aimed at the landscape interest groups by others. It is important to recognise that landscape can be valued by everyone without the need for detailed knowledge of its content. For example, we shouldn’t downgrade the thoughts of dog walkers, who may enjoy their time in the landscape every day, because they don’t know which birds are singing or flowers blooming.
Without wildlife, however, our landscapes would definitely offer less. We can still thrill at the soar of a mountain, the plunge of a waterfall, the roll of a hill or the intricacy of hedged fields. But our experience of the landscape is enhanced by the dawn chorus, the chance sight of an otter or badger crossing our path and the wonder of a butterfly.
Landscape is the picture – on the biscuit tin, the calendar, the train window - but it does need that detail for us to fully appreciate it. It needs the variety of plants that create colour and the networks of wildlife to animate it, to make it sing and smell. I liken it to photographs that have been reduced to small files – they have enough pixels to give the idea of landscape and our minds can fill in the blurred bits, but they lack the detail and satisfaction of a high resolution image.
Science and knowledge are failing to move us to protect wildlife that is presented to us in terms of biodiversity targets, population dynamics and climate change science. The alternative seems to be to dumb nature down to try and encourage a connection.
Landscape is a part of many of our lives and, by providing space that is connected to our emotions and memories, offers a frame for reshaping our relationship with nature – and encouraging all of us to protect it as a space, and a place that we share with nature.
Melinda Appleby is the current Chair of CPRE’s national policy committee and is a writer/researcher, specialising in creative connections to nature and place.
She is also a non-executive Board member of the SITA Environmental Trust. Previous appointments include: Board member of Natural England from 2006-8, and of the Council of English Nature from 1999-2004; Board member of the Rural Development Service from 2005-6; regional committee member of the Consumer Council for Water.
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