Why we need wild land

Sustainable agriculture is a much bandied-about phrase, no less than by Jules Pretty, a significant advocate of emerging people- and community-based agricultural systems around the world. So I wonder why he felt it necessary to take a pop at wilderness in his latest book (see Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, 2002)? Is the planet only for people? Where is the balance between the needs of one dominant species and the needs of all the other species? What do we lose if we lose wild nature?

Pretty’s disdain for wilderness is a continuation of an especially frustrating argument in wilderness debate that tends to diminish the North American experience (and perhaps, by implication, all others) because the state of nature on which it is based was not the pristine, untouched wildland that it was first perceived to be by early European settlers. William Cronon is most well-known for this view, and he would suggest that the landscapes that these settlers saw were an all-too-human cultural and historical construct, based on millennia of human land management, and thus the “creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history” (see The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon, 1995).

For those early European settlers in North America, the landscapes they would have seen would have been the result of shaping for at least two millennia by native north Americans (perversely labelled red Indians). The native ways of living varied across the Americas, with populations and landscape impact mirroring the greater urban civilisations in (what is now) Mexico, the Amazon floodplain, and in the highland areas of the southern Americas. In the immense forests, grasslands and mountains of the northern Americas, population was sparse and landscape impacts were almost ephemeral, being less obvious due to their lighter patterns of land use and to the apparent unchanging nature of the landscape.

Many native north Americans lived in villages that were moved seasonally between the interior, river valleys and the coast (the native Americans of the Pueblo lands of the SW were probably more rooted). Property was vested in the village (tribe) and not with individuals. Trees were cleared to create space for villages, for opportunist agriculture and to provide fuel wood. Some of this clearance may have been through the use of fire, but it was probably only an occasional measure since it wouldn’t make much sense to meaninglessly destroy resources in fuel wood and other woodland products. Land away from the village would have been lightly used as hunting grounds. Overall, the pattern of land use allowed for renewal and regeneration with the substantially extant natural vegetation providing a necessary wildlife refuge and seed bank.

Contrast this with the contemporary land use pattern that the Europeans (particularly the English) would have been familiar with in the seventeenth century: static settlement; extensive historical land clearance; feudal and individual property rights fixed by boundaries; concentrated use of livestock; and intensive cultivation. They would not have been prepared for what they saw in north America - landscapes that supported so much more wildlife and climax vegetation cover, and were naturally regenerating. It would have been an easy assumption that much of the landscape was untouched by humans.

And for a few hundred years after those first settlers, the apparent wildness of the landscapes would only have increased since diseases from the old world (and perhaps conflict as well) are thought to have accounted for a 90% reduction in the native north American population. Thus the wholesale abandonment of native settlements and their fields, allowed a regeneration of forests and a retreat of savannahs, even before the impact of European agricultural methods could take widespread hold (see The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492 by William M. Denevan, 1995). It is likely therefore that there was much more forest of a primeval nature in 1850 than in 1650. A possible reflection of this comes from John Muir who, in his memoir The Story of my Boyhood and Youth, talks of a 10-mile journey(!) through Wisconsin woodland in the mid 1800s to reach the open, sunny woods next to a lake where they cleared the land to make their farm.

The chroniclers of north American wilderness that burgeoned from the eighteenth century onwards could thus easily construct a pristine inheritance for the landscapes, so giving rise to the accusation of a romanticised concept of wild land, and a continuing sore over the driving out of native peoples when a human-free, protectionist approach to wilderness areas developed in the second half of the nineteenth century.

I believe this argument about whether landscapes in north America represent true wilderness is missing the point. What we should be considering is the lessons from the patterns and relative intensity of land use that was represented by the native American way of life, and contrasting it with the dominating approach of European human land use. In Britain, this approach to land use has all but eradicated vestiges of wild land and thus the ability of the land to richly renew and regenerate to any great extent. It is perhaps fortunate that the importation of the European approach was not successful in doing the same in north America, and that the settlers were eventually able to recognise that danger, even if their protectionist approach to their wilderness is evidence of a reaction to their own proclivities to over-exploit nature rather than what would be the lighter touch of the native American way of life.

Depressingly, the colonisation of Australia can be seen in parallel to north American settlement, but with a nasty twist. If the settlers in north America were originally mistaken in not recognising the influence of native Americans on the landscape, then the colonisers of Australia do not even have that excuse since, shortly after arriving, they declared the whole continent empty – terra nullius. In contempt for indigenous inhabitants, they did not explore this land to any great extent, or discover the relationship that the aboriginal population had with it. Instead they set about to exploit its resources, and to modify the landscape to have a likeness to the pastoral scenes of England that they were familiar with. An erasure of aboriginal land use (and aboriginal culture) and a substitution of a land use unsuited to the soils and climate (see, for instance, White Fella Jump up, Germaine Greer, 2004).

There is evidence that many thousands of years ago, a part of England had a similar approach to settlement and land use to that of the native north Americans. Richard Mabey, in his memoir of a life-changing move to East Anglia (see Nature Cure, 2005) says that the natural woodland of the thin, chalky sand of the Breckland was easily cleared by early farmers in a form of slash and burn. The flush of fertility, aided by the wood ash enrichment of the soil, supported crop growing for a few seasons, and then the farmers would have moved on, leaving the area to go back to a naturally wooded landscape for 20 years before they returned to do it all again. (Breck is a term for land ‘broken-up’ for cultivation. Hence the name of Breckland for this region of East Anglia).

The exploitation of landscapes through slash and burn has negative connotations for many. However, it is a logical application of a workable, seasonal approach to settlement and agriculture, and has significant adherents amongst modern-day peoples in the forested highlands of the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Called shifting cultivation, this forest-based land use is estimated to currently support between 300-500 million people worldwide. A clearing is made in the forest by selectively slashing the natural vegetation with simple tools. The wood is burnt so that the nutrients are released as ash, which dissolves and is washed by rain into the soil as natural fertiliser. The fallow period between croppings of the same area of land is at least 20 years or longer, allowing the forest to regenerate and the fertility of the land to be restored. The nutrient content of both vegetation and soils is replenished, and the regeneration protects the soil from erosion and controls the spread of weeds and pests.

Shifting cultivation is unpopular with foresters. They see only the poor practices of the inexperienced (or selfish) who leave no, or a very short period of fallow rotation, and whose aim is the production of cash crops rather than subsistence needs. But research studies on shifting cultivation that uses traditional knowledge of long fallow periods and for which production is subsistence, show the strength and resilience of many of these systems; the significant yields for the labour involved; and, importantly, the species enrichment and retention of biodiversity that they allow. It has been noted that in areas with the longer fallow periods, there is no change over time in overall forest cover. (For a description of the forest farming continuum between long rotation, short rotation, and no rotation, read Shifting Cultivation and Deforestation in Indonesia: Steps Toward Overcoming Confusion in the Debate, by William D. Sunderlin, from the Rural Development Forestry Network, Network Paper 21b Summer 1997.)

A trend is emerging amongst some shifting cultivators whereby the fallow is enriched and its period is extended, so that the land can be used in complex multi-strata agro-forests (e.g. dammar and rubber agroforests of Indonesia). Although variations on forest gardening have existed throughout history, this emerging and constantly evolving land use system is proving to be productive for smallholder farmers and also significantly maintains biodiversity. The enriched fallow can either become a permanent perennial crop system, or have a lengthened duration, in which commercially important tree species provide an income as well as other social and environmental benefits.

Even I would have to admit that it is probably too late for England to go back to a shifting cultivation of slash and burn – too many people to support, a landscape denuded of trees, and land rights vested in the individual and not the community. But we can make more use of what is the natural vegetation cover of our landscapes, the broadleaved and pine woodlands that used to enfold our island. Agroforestry, forest gardening, and forest forage – all can provide a much-needed balance to our landscapes in contrast to the endless grassland of broadscale agriculture.

As a Permaculturist, I have put forward a view of our countryside as a continuum of decreasing intensity of use until wild land is reached, and in which we as a significant species interact with dynamic climactic landscapes in that continuum, reserving the wildlands for our observation and education only, and as our gift to wild nature (see Trees in the Landscape, 2005). As I have hoped to show here, that wildland is important to our use of landscapes since it acts as a reservoir of biodiversity and knowledge from which our landscapes can renew and regenerate. In very welcome support of this view, the Forestry Commission has recently launched Keepers of Time, a document that puts the attributes and importance of our ancient and native woodland at the centre of its policy for England, and which seeks to create new native woodland to extend, link or complement existing woodland and other habitats.

Mark Fisher, 25th July 2005

Is Keepers of Time a National Wildland System for England? - read about the policy here.

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk