The getting of ecoliteracy


I despair. What chance have we of valuing wild nature in Britain when any environment that no longer has a commercial use becomes a dumping ground for our waste? My local woodlands are plagued by the trash of decades, whether it is the farmer who regularly backs a trailer up to his field-edge to offload stone, rubble and rubbish, or the households that tip garden waste, old furniture and broken glass over their fences. Out of sight, but definitely preying on my mind.

We just don’t value wild nature. The problem is that wildlife is portrayed to us in a pre-digested state: it is masticated by conservation professionals and spat out by farmers so that we wouldn’t know what was wild because everything is tamed and at our convenience – it is either a 'wildland lite' of Disney-like portrayal, or some desperate voided landscape in which discomfort is equated with a 'British wilderness'. We are thus led by the nose to believe in whatever is dished up to us, and should be grateful at that.

How do I know this?

A poll for the recent Barker review on land use found that the land in England that people most want to protect from development are areas with important or endangered wildlife (71%) followed by land with scenic beauty (53%). But then the great English public blew it by revealing that 54% of them believe that around half or more of England was classified as developed. It is only 13%.

So much for believing the evidence of their own eyes, everybody instead falling for the bucolic rural scene as evidence of wild health since we are told that farmers look after the landscape on our behalf, and we must treasure it as we are also told that we live in an overcrowded island with little land to spare to give over solely to wild nature. Or am I being unfair - was that judgement on the state of development really some subtle comment by the English people on the value of our rural landscapes? If only it were so.

We play games with our idea of what wild nature is

I got sent details of a workshop in November on the transformative power of wild places. The workshop was being held near Glen Coe and would be an opportunity for outdoor leaders, educators, designers, guides, teachers and tourism operators to “share examples of the ways wilderness experiences have changed people”, and the outcomes of that change, backed up by a half-day walk in the Glens.

It could have been interesting, but what was wrapped in an appealing outward covering – the workshop leader hailed from New Zealand; did his Masters on wilderness experience; and writes about ecopsychology - was more likely to suffer from the illiteracy of experience in Britain, especially as represented by the landscapes of Glen Coe. As you may have read previously, I was persuaded to walk the West Highland Way less than a year after returning from an extended tour of wilderness, and the national and open space parks of North America. This highland walk was the most miserable, wet and cold experience of my life – apart from a short wooded stretch Loch Lomond-side in the Trossachs National Park (IUCN V). Feet hurting from unyielding military roads, and being laughed at by hooded crows as there were rarely any trees to shelter under from the weather, unlike any of the real wildernesses I have ever walked in.

The walk into Glen Coe over Rannoch Moor (National Scenic Area, IUCN V) was perhaps the most depressing part, especially lamenting the root stumps of long lost trees, bog-fossilised and revealed in a land that is gashed and puddled. The long and unchanging vistas of walking through empty valleys and over empty moors was relentless, and I vowed on that walk that I would never again accept second best.

Cruel, unfriendly, unkind - not man-friendly, gentle and benign

I have been criticised for my poor view of Rannoch Moor by a lichenologist from Scotland, who describes wilderness in Britain as above, and who threw down this challenge:
“Who is to say this is not a landscape to inspire, bewitch and make you feel humble and awed? The cold and damp chill right to your soul, your fingers are numb, your nose runs, your movements are stiff, and yet, your awe and amazement of life that exists here, when you long for the warmth of the nearby bothy, the crackle of the fire, the cover and comfort of a simple dwelling, yet the solid comfort that soon (for good or otherwise) you will be returning to 'civilization', to central heating, to double glazing, to hot-water on tap, to instant cookers and comforts, conveniences.... are we kidding ourselves about our desire for interaction with 'wilderness'? Is this not just another middle-class myth? An intellectual dream? I challenge you. Defend yourself.”

Well, Sandy, I write about what I see, and I do grapple with whether wilderness is a human construct, an anthropocentric conceptualistion that is subject to moods and fashion, or even Romanticism as you seem to deal in. We may also stray into the debate in American wilderness circles of whether wild and natural are the same thing, and become paralysed in our conjectural analysis. EO Wilson said so much in an essay on Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic (1993, Island Press):
“The great philosophical divide in moral reasoning about the remainder of life is whether or not other species have an innate right to exist. That decision rests in turn on the most fundamental question of all: whether moral values exist apart from humanity, in the same manner as mathematical laws, or whether they are idiosyncratic constructs that evolved in the human mind through natural selection. Had other species than humans attained high intelligence and culture, it would likely have fashioned different moral values.”

Wilson thought it an intractable problem for humans. He could not come up with any ethic, even when based on a different dominant species, that was free of the influence of that species (the example he worked through in the essay was termites). Wilson grappled with his innate feelings for wild nature – his biophillia – wanting to give it some credence in spite of the potential for bias. In the end, he had to put it another way: since he judged our survival was dependent on the natural world around us, then it was our enlightened self-interest that saw to its survival.

It can therefore never be a contest between different human ideals as to what constitutes a wilderness landscape, and our better judgment would be a withdrawal of our influence and sentimentality so that land becomes predominately self-willed. It doesn’t entirely matter what has happened before – it matters what happens from now on. This is the basis of wilderness in America, as it is all land categorised as IUCN Ib.

If it appears that I labour American attributes it is because there is contemporary experience available there, denied me here. There is nothing like disturbing a Californian bobcat during its afternoon siesta to evaluate your own threshold of fear. However, the fact that it looked annoyed rather than vengeful was more about it being the animal’s bit of space and not mine.

While some have said that we are of nature, as did Sandy, the flaw in that is that nature soon becomes a human construct, and it is N. American authors that have available experience to be able to articulate that. They write about what they see.

Barry Lopez has written an Afterword to a new edition of his classic book ‘Of Wolves and Men’ (Schreiber 2004). He says:
“Many of us subscribe to the idea that wild animals are not mechanisms. They cannot be summed up, any more than Homo Sapiens can be summed up.”

Talking about how things have moved on since he first wrote the book, he calls for restraint in our analysis of wolf populations:
“Interpreting wolf research too strictly along these lines, like placing too strong an emphasis on the significance of a predators “territory”, requires many large animals to carry the freight of human constructs, including “ownership” and “authority”, baggage no animal should be asked to bear.”

If only we could learn these lessons in Britain, experience landscapes that inform our biophillia, and which teach us the literacy of ecology. We are so deprived, when High School students in California can pretty much take it for granted, but I bet they don't. Twelfth grade students at Berkeley High School in California can take a course in ECOLITERACY. It’s essentially a course in environmental science that covers the principles of ecology; systems thinking; and the development and practice of ecological values. What gets me excited about this course is the unit entitled ‘The Experience of Nature’. It requires students to spend “at least 5 days backpacking in a wilderness area as a means of developing a deeper relationship with the earth along with enhancing teamwork, cooperation, group cohesion, and personal motivation.”

Wilderness means something in America

The students of Berkeley High have only to cross over San Francisco bay on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and head the 20 odd miles to the coast for the Point Reyes National Seashore (IUCN II). You can pick up a camping permit and a map of this national park at the Bear Valley Visitor Centre. The map shows the Philip Burton Wilderness (25,952 acres, IUCN Ib) as lying mostly within the southern area of the park and taking up about a third of the park’s area. It has around 140 miles of crisscrossing trails and there are four hike-in campgrounds.

We were there in 2003. It’s a fascinating landscape of Douglas fir and Bishop pine on the high ridge, a coastal scrub/brush (chaparral) that is sometimes dense in the numerous small valleys, and a shore cliff-line of aromatic shrubs and stunning flowers like lupin, paintbrush, and sand verbena. What we didn’t get to see were any of the Tule elk in the northern isolate of the wilderness - they must have seen us coming.

If the High School students fancied a bigger wilderness area to lose themselves in, they could cross over the bay on the Oakland Bridge and pick up the iconic California Route 1 going south. After about 100 miles, they would come across the Los Padres National Forest (1,752,400 acres, IUCN VI) which runs parallel to the road along California's central coast.

The national forest stretches 220 miles from the Big Sur Coast in Monterey County to the western edge of Los Angeles County, broken only by a small gap. It contains a wide range of ecosystems, from seacoast and marine habitats to redwood forests, mixed conifer forests, oak woodlands, grasslands, pinyon juniper stands, chaparral and semi-desert areas. Los Padres also has ten designated wilderness areas within it (48% of the forest area) of which the biggest is Ventana (240,024 acres, IUCN Ib).

Ventana Wilderness straddles the Santa Lucia Mountains south of the Monterey Peninsula. Elevations range from 600 feet where the Big Sur River leaves the wilderness, to 5,750 feet where the boundary circumvents the Junipero Serra Peak in the east. A wide diversity of vegetation is dominated by chaparral, and there are virgin coastal redwoods in the deep canyons of the fast-moving Big Sur and Little Sur Rivers. This wilderness area offers around 197 miles of trails from nine trailheads. It is said that the largest population of mountain lions in America lives in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

With a base in Santa Cruz, we drove down one day on Route 1, past Monterey and on as far as the Big Sur Coast and the Los Padres National Forest. We were so taken with the coastal State Parks and the rugged beauty of the coastal mountains that we didn’t make it into the Ventana Wilderness.

Given my choice, I would want to take the High School students to a California wilderness some distance away, but with a monumental mountainous terrain that is breathtaking. Cross the baking hot San Joaquin Valley and 140 miles on from Berkeley will get you into the Cathedral Range of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park (747,956 acres, IUCN II). Established in 1890, Yosemite is entirely surrounded by national forestland (and designated wilderness) in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Astonishing granite faces, domes and peaks stand above expansive meadows in the valley. Glacier-filled lakes empty along streams that fall over high waterfalls. Groves of giant sequoias tower above.

The valley and Glacier Point in Yosemite are perhaps the most popular visitor attractions of any national park in America. But get away from these honey-pots, and the real value of Yosemite comes from the fact that 94% of the park is designated wilderness (704,624 acres, IUCN Ib) with over 800 miles of trails.

We made our way up to Tuolumne Meadows, which at 8600ft is the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevadas. Sharing the trail with marmot, we headed off in mid-June in search of wildflowers only to be caught in a thunderstorm that had impressive lightening, and more impressive hail that came down the size of very large marbles. To cap it all, our trails were awash with floodwater as the creeks and rivers over-filled, and so we had to paddle with our boots off through ice-freezing cold water. It was exhilarating.

Three years on and my experience of wilderness is brought alive now in a walk I can do from my own backdoor. It’s a day-walk that skirts around my local moor in West Yorkshire, taking in eight fragments of ancient woodland. Hence why I am so concerned that people see the value in this woodland, that it doesn’t have to have a commercial use, and which people around it feel inhibited from using it as a backyard dump. It’s a two waterfall walk that has interest in every month of the year. Please come and walk it with me.

Mark Fisher 31 December 2006