Thursday, August 23, 2012

The view from Pooh-sticks Bridge

There is a marvelous book by Oliver Rackham, first published in 1986, called The History of the Countryside. The countryside in question is England in particular, and the U.K. in general. The book is technical in its details, and profusely illustrated with maps and diagrams. It was an indispensible preparation for my own long walks across England in recent years, along the prime meridian for Walking Zero, and along the ancient Ridgeway with my sons.

The book might have been called The Making of the Countryside, because it is really about the human impact on the landscape -– the woods, the meadows, the ponds, the hedges. Hardly a square centimeter of England can be called wild. It is a wholly artificial landscape, but beautiful to walk through and uplifting for the human spirit. It is the landscape of The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, and Winnie-the-Pooh.

English nature writing is generally imbued with the spirit of a made landscape. It is comfortable with a human presence.

American nature writing has in recent decades been dominated by westerners. Its dominant theme has been the unmaking of the countryside, the ravishment of wilderness, and the burden of guilt we bear for putting our hand to the ax or plow.

Both kinds of nature writing have their place. I align myself with the English mode, maybe because I am an easterner who spent most of his adult life walking through an artificial landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, not far from Walden Pond. I am comfortable with a human presence.

In fact, I think it's high time we all got comfortable with a human presence. The wilderness is gone, except in so far as we construct it. There is not a square centimeter of planet Earth that is not in some sense artificial. North America is a big, raw continent, and may need a more muscular conservation ethic than England. But this I know: As an American, walking the English countryside, I was constantly impressed by the English conservation ethic at work. Towns were built up, densely, and then just stopped. One step you were in a suburb, the next step in unspoiled countryside. No American sprawl. No strip-malling of the margins. And the English countryside is criss-crossed with right-of-ways for walkers and protected by right-to-roam laws. No wilderness, but a gentle, welcoming caress of nature.

I fear that the American emphasis on untrammeled wildness and morally-culpable human trespass will in the end leave humans bereft of more of what we sorely need –- the solace of the natural.