Sunday 7 March 2021

Landscape, nature, and outdoor activities

Forest regeneration, Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms

Recently Alex Roddie posted an excellent thought-provoking piece on the TGO website titled Has outdoor culture become too detached from nature?  I’ve been thinking about the relationship between outdoor activities like hillwalking and nature activities like bird watching on and off for many years and this piece stimulated such thoughts. I agree with Alex that detachment from nature is a problem, but I don’t think it’s a recent problem and I think there are signs that it’s decreasing. There’s also the question of defining mountain culture. I don’t think it’s just one thing. I’m not going into that here, however. Maybe in another post.

In his excellent book Our Place (my review here) Mark Cocker writes about the ‘Great Divide’ between landscape protection and nature conservation that began many decades ago. National Parks were seen as being about the first (which may partly explain why biodiversity is poor in many of them) while nature reserves were about the second (though many of these seem more concerned with maintenance of an already depleted environment rather than restoration). This split seems to be echoed by some outdoors people and organisations. Many years ago, I remember a response to a piece I wrote about forest restoration from a walker who said he didn’t want trees because they spoiled the views. And way back in the late 1970s I remember talking to a rock climber who said he didn’t like having to walk to a crag because it was boring, and the ideal climb would start at the roadside so the belayer could sit in the car. He had no interest in nature.

Whilst there were always some mountaineers, walkers and climbers who didn’t think there was a divide between nature and landscape and outdoor activities going right back to John Muir and earlier I think there are more now. Mountaineering, backpacking, and walking books and articles now often include an appreciation of nature as a given. Not that many did in the past. Concern for biodiversity, climate change, and the environment in general has grown throughout my lifetime. Partly this is due to more and more easily accessed information, partly it’s due, sadly, to ongoing degradation and destruction – there’s nothing like seeing a favourite place wrecked by a bulldozed road, windfarm, plantation, or ski resort to make you think about conservation. Guidebooks contain more information on nature than they used to and there are books like the SMC’s Hostile Habitats specifically about nature in the mountains.

I’ve never understood this divide myself, maybe because I started out on the nature side. My first walks in flat coastal Lancashire were to watch birds, look at plants, collect seashells and more. My first outdoor books were not backpacking guides or mountaineering accounts but field guides to birds, animals, and plants. The first piece of outdoor gear I ever owned was a pair of binoculars, which I treasured. When I discovered mountains and hills I didn’t forget the birds and plants, I just had a new world in which to see them.

Reading a natural history guide to the Sierra Nevada on a road walking stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982

I’ve always liked knowing what things are called and how they relate to each other, how nature and a landscape works. On walks in unfamiliar places a natural history guide was more likely to have a place in my pack than a route guide. Now I don’t think being able to give it a name is needed to appreciate a bird or a tree. Enjoyment and connection can be felt without doing so. I do find being able to do heightens my appreciation and understanding. In the same way I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way to enjoy the hills or wild places. Walking slowly is not better or worse than walking fast. You can ignore or appreciate nature at any speed and while doing any human-powered activity.

In his piece Alex Roddie writes “One of the most damaging ideas in history is that humans are above nature. But we aren’t. The natural world is more than just a playground or a gym; it’s a home for countless other creatures, and it’s under threat as never before. That includes our mountains.”  I agree. I wrote something similar in my first book, forty-five years ago: “our modern detachment from nature, from the force of which we are a part, our futile attempt to prove ourselves separate from and superior to the ecological system that allows us to live, our view of the world as an enemy to be conquered, and a bottomless treasure chest to be exploited, are the very escapist and selfish attitudes that have led us to the brink of the abyss of annihilation on which we are poised. Re-establishing our place in the natural scheme of evolution and the real world is essential if we are to have a future”.

I feel sad that after all these years my words still apply and that the need to do something about this has grown more urgent. I do hope that we are at a turning point though. Pieces like Alex Roddie’s help and are needed.

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