Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Wilderness and the real world.
One of the most enduring myths concerns our relationship to "nature" and what we have come to define as wilderness. If only people would adopt a hands off approach to the natural world, the myth goes, we would have a pristine nature to be contemplated by privileged visitors. This thinking is at the very heart of the movement to create national parks and wilderness areas; but the establishment of national parks was a profoundly elitist and colonial project that paid scant regard for the indigenous people who made a living from the land. This is the subject of the BBC4 series Unnatural Histories. The first programme looked at the Serengeti, the second, to be shown on Thursday night, looks at the the Yellowstone and the American conservation movement. Part of the myth is the assumption that when we look at landscape we see a "natural" world that must be preserved. The truth is that landscape is the product of a number of processes including human activity. You don't have to look at remote and iconic areas of the world to see the myth in action. Here in UK there is a widespread misconception that our countryside is in some way the result solely of natural forces rather than human activity. But the countryside is a social and a political product. The result of layer upon layer of human activity culminating in the enclosures and the industrial revolution. The Highlands of Scotland, to give just one example, have little in the way of human footprint due to a deliberate and cynical act of depopulation.
One of the most interesting considerations on the subject that I have found is The Trouble With Wilderness by William Cronon. It is because the myth of untouched nature has such a grip on us, and informs the thinking of governments, the media and powerfull charities alike, that it needs to be challenged at every opportunity. Unnatural Histories is a step in the right direction