Defending the Wild Lands

South Uist Hills
South Uist Hills

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir

The Year of Natural Scotland included a celebration of the life of John Muir, the Scottish born explorer, conservationist, naturalist and writer. Born in 1838 in Dunbar in East Lothian he emigrated to the United States as a child and was ultimately responsible for the establishment of the world’s first national park system.

A remarkable visionary Muir believed that the integrity of the wilderness was part of God’s plan for life, that preservation of the natural order was central to the continuation of life and that wilderness was more valuable than civilization. He also maintained that it was important to protect the wilderness for its own sake and not for furthering human economic gain.

It is perhaps difficult to reconcile the idealism of a 19th century naturalist with the competing demands for land use in an increasingly over-crowded island, however, it provides the basis for the public debate.

Scotland contains some of the most extensive areas of “wilderness” in the British Isles, and a new map of wild lands is stimulating discussion, generating the usual amount of hot air and hyperbolic rhetoric.

The use of the term wilderness is inappropriate in Scotland, as we cannot meet the criteria of the IUCN  (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition:
an environment in which biodiversity and ecosystem processes (including evolution) are allowed to flourish or experience restoration if previously disturbed by human activity. Human use is limited, often allowing only those who are willing to travel of their own accord rather than via established touristic activities. Wilderness areas can be classified as such only if they are devoid of modern infrastructure, although they allow human activity to the level of sustaining indigenous groups living wilderness-based lifestyles.”

Our landscape has been shaped by thousands of years of human activity and although apparently wild in parts, ecologically it has been modified to some degree by settlement, agriculture or industry. Therefore, the term wild land has been adopted to describe those areas of mountain, moorland and coast which are:
uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal.”

Inherent is this basic definition is the understanding that these landscapes possess the quality of wildness or perhaps it is a characteristic which we attach to them. Herein lies one of the problems in attempting to define an area as wild land –  the experience of wildness is subjective as it depends on individual perception and experience, thus wildness can also be experienced in places which could not be strictly defined as wild land.

I do not wish to drown in semantics or get mired in a debate on the philosophy of wildness, but for those who seek to protect wild land, it is important that there is an understanding of how it is defined.

Wild land is not necessarily devoid of human activity and often carries the ecological footprint of its cultural and social history. The fauna and flora in these regions is often extremely specialised, not necessarily particularly diverse, but usually extremely fragile. Not all areas of wild land could be classified as important for wildlife as some parts have been degraded by inappropriate land management, although they have the potential for recovery.

Alt Volagir South Uist
Allt Volagir, South Uist

These are not empty wastelands, they are valuable both socially and economically. We can of course look at the bottom-line and calculate their monetary value and development potential in terms of tourism or natural resources. Alternatively we could take a different perspective and attach a value based on the wildness factor. This is the human response, aesthetic, spiritual and emotional, to the remoteness, isolation, space, solitude and quietness of wild land.
“an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded….but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer will seem mystical to them.” Wallace Stegner.

It reminds us that we are part of the natural world and that there should be more to life that the current western zeitgeist of money, materialism and anthropocentricity. To quote Wallace Stegner again:
We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1960).

The current wild land map is not perfect, but for the first time it proposes to designate land in terms of something other than wildlife, geological, archaeological or landscape characteristics. It acknowledges that wildness is important and that before we set about destroying it we should think very profoundly about the consequences. It is not the modern equivalent of the clearances, it does not stop development, agriculture or wild sports, it is just asking land owners and local communities to take responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these wild lands. If you have enough influence, money or power it is possible to over-ride planning designations and convince government or local communities that the economic benefits of development are paramount. In fact if your arguments are very convincing they might give you a grant to help fund it.

I am not sure what it requires to “move public opinion in a more biosphere-friendly direction” (The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood) nor am I convinced that the required changes in cultural and economic values to move from land exploitation to stewardship are possible. However, it seems that those who wish to have the ability to destroy our wild lands also wish to constrain our ability to question their actions. The proposed new designation will not stop development or poor management practices, but it will clearly state that society values the concept of wildness and that there have to be very good reasons for it to be compromised.

The proposed designation should not be quashed because it is too subjective, because we can’t agree over boundaries and what is included or excluded, or because we don’t like the methodology or being told what to do by the Scottish Parliament. For once let us declare that there are somethings which are so valuable that they don’t have a price tag.

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Edward Abbey

8 thoughts on “Defending the Wild Lands

  1. Such an eloquent and erudite narrative, Christine – and a conclusion one would hope no-one could argue about, but I daresay they will. You are so knowledgable and ‘good’ with words – will a book ever be a possibility? Best wishes to you and the Head Gardener for 2014.

    • Thank you Cathy – I hope you and the Golfer have had a good start to the New Year.
      Nothing like ending the year with a sermon from the soap box. Somehow I don’t think a book of essays based on my collective musings and assorted witterings would make the bestseller lists, but if anyone wishes to pay me a shockingly large advance I’m open to offers (maybe)

      • But how about a book on wildlife and folklore of the islands, accompanied by the Head Gardener’s photographs…?

        • If you would like to join the queue I’ll put t on my do to list……….;)

  2. Really interesting (lovely writing too). Thank you. Very little wildness left in Suffolk, where I am, but every scrap we have is a treasure.

    • I forgot to say, I love you ‘gardening in a gale’ by-line. I live in a very exposed and windy place (lots of wind turbines and old windmills around here), but I’m sure it’s easy going compared with growing where you are!

      • Where ever you are, gardening always has its own and unique set of challenges and joys.

    • Welcome and thank you. The wild areas are very precious and getting scarcer, so we need to shout if we want to save them. Our countryside is rapidly diminishing so every piece of green open space needs its champions.

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