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Nature and culture in Scotland
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Nature and culture in Scotland - Module 4: Case studies in sustainability - China and Scotland - Practising Sustainable DevelopmentLet's look at some of the thinking that has informed our understanding of nature. Culture influences the way we understand nature. This point will be illustrated with reference to the changing ways that people have viewed the Highlands and Islands.
Let's look at some of the thinking that has informed our understanding of nature. Culture influences the way we understand nature. This point will be illustrated with reference to the changing ways that people have viewed the Highlands and Islands.
While we cannot pick on one factor to account for the fact of the change that saw these landscapes become considered as things of beauty, we can unpick a few historical trends. The military conquest of the Highlands meant it was much safer to travel in. The emergence of geology as a science saw an increased interest in wild places.
As we conquered and subdued ‘wild’ nature, making it into agricultural landscape favoured by early landscape artists, so the interest in wild, sublime nature grew. Wild mountainous landscapes went from sites of fear - places that would corrupt the soul - to places of spiritual health and awakening (Hope Nicolson, 1959). This was coupled with an increased interest in ‘native people’ and was informed by European Romanticism.
The Romantic movement argued that we were born pure and natural, so an interest in (apparently) simple peasantry took hold. For example, Boswell and Johnson’s trip to the Highlands and Islands in 1773 was seen as chance to visit the ‘noble savage’ on their doorstep (Gold and Gold, 1995).
For early environmentalists like Dunbar-born John Muir, who was one of the main campaigners for the Yosemite National Park in the USA and founder of the influential Sierra Club in 1892, nature was no longer simply a supplier of raw materials and a sink for waste.
Nature, and being in nature, came to be seen as a cure for the mental and physical ills associated with the cities of the late 19th century (Hannigan, 1995). This attitude continues and informs the outdoor movements and the environmentalism of today.
The tension between the outdoor movement and those who promote renewable energy projects like wind farms as a source of income and green energy in remote rural places is an example of the way that the outdoor movement continually seeks to protect the outdoor experience as natural.
In a similar way the environment movement is split between local concerns about protecting landscapes from unnatural objects like wind turbines and global concerns about anthropogenic climate change. Our views and our background (our culture) condition the way we see nature or landscape and our attitude towards them.
One of the most interesting aspects of this changing view of landscape is the way that in the West Highlands the taste for ‘natural’ landscapes developed alongside social and economic processes that saw people cleared from their smallholdings to make way for sheep and later for hunting deer - the Highland Clearances. The architects of the clearances repositioned themselves as custodians of the wild landscape.
Landseer’s painting, Monarch of the Glen, is a typical depiction of an empty Highland landscape where the actual removal of the people from these glens is literally painted over in the painting that adorns the drawing rooms of the upper classes (Makdisi, 1998). Later, many of the families who actively cleared people from the landscape were the founders of the National Trust of Scotland (Lorimer, 2000).
The natural beauty of the empty glens in Sutherland is anything but natural. They are carefully managed landscapes that still carry the echoes (in the crumbled walls of people’s homes) of a culture that was forcibly removed. These are essentially cultural landscapes. Cultural landscapes can be understood as the landscape created by our practices (for example the managed grouse moors of the Cairngorms), and also the way we interpret and represent those physical forms, for example the picture postcards of ‘your wee bit hill and glen’ (Williamson, 1960s).
The division between nature and culture continues today in debates around nature and nurture. For example, is gender something that is biologically determined (it’s our nature, in our genes) or is it determined by our upbringing (nurtured)? We can also see echoes of Romanticism and the ‘noble savage’ continuing in our representation of peoples who live a subsistence existence in remote parts of the world. They are seen as being somehow primitive with some people arguing that these ‘primitive’ cultures are closer to, or more in tune with, nature. This seems to neglect the growing evidence that overhunting by our ‘primitive’ ancestors may have caused the extinction of a number of large mammals like the woolly mammoth in Europe.
These ‘back-to-nature’ ideals inform our thinking on sustainability, with debates about the environment sometimes split into those who think that the answer to environmental problems lies with using the knowledge and skills we have to solve those problems, and those who feel that it is those knowledge and skills that messed up the environment in the first place.
Thinking through questions about the relationship between nature and culture, it seems that culture is shaped by nature, and in opposition to nature. Then, in turn, what we do shapes nature. This ebb and flow prompts us to think about sustainability in lots of different ways.