Wild AND natural? What do you think?

We are creatures of our experience. As a fairly new species, we’ve been around in contact with wild nature for some 120,000 years, except that in the last 5,000 we have withdrawn from that wild nature as we became its master. Some have called this the extinction of experience. Nevertheless, through out that history and hopefully for all time, children given the freedom to play will always seek out the nearest wild place, be it a big tree, a pond, a watercourse or nearby woodland.

There is a recreational element to this in adults as well, when we seek out an experience of wild nature, albeit that the ingredient of play is replaced by a sympathetic contact with nature that some understand as spiritual, and others appreciate as a simple but powerful pleasure. How ever and in what way we react to it, there are certain key physical attributes that research into our experience of landscape has regularly identified. These attributes are the scale or extent of the view; the variation in topography; the presence of water; and the naturalness of the scene.

Few would argue over the merits of our attraction to water in the landscape, nor to the geological and topographical delight that is afforded by hills and valleys, while not forgetting our varied coastal scene. The scale or extent of view is more challenging as an attribute as it contains elements of legibility and coherence together with mystery and complexity.

While I increasingly favour the close-up scale of walking within woodland, it is perhaps understandable that some people don’t like being faced with impenetrable scrub – it is often a physical barrier, it holds no mystery for them and it’s not an easily “readable” component of the landscape (albeit that it is not that common and is probably a transient before forest cover develops). By contrast, the sparsely vegetated, wide-open views of most of our landscape completely lack mystery and complexity for me and, while I accept that for many people this is a legible landscape, research shows that given the choice, we tend to plump for a more complexly vegetated landscape closer-up to us, providing it is not dense; and we are happy with densely vegetated landscapes within the wider view.

Naturalness is often distinguished as the most powerful factor in our preference for landscapes and is manifested by our liking for native vegetation in the landscape scene, especially trees, and for the absence of any overt man-made elements or discernible human-induced change. These are relative and scalable elements of the attribute, and our reaction to them may alter with experience as our “eye” becomes tutored; particularly with human-induced change as we begin to discriminate between structurally intact and altered forms of vegetation. Thus the influence through external management of a location has a direct bearing on this, as we can observe the effects of physical management, clearance or grazing. This also bears on other elements of our discrimination - our experiential values - where the total amount of the vegetation and its density are as important as its intactness.

Wildness is something else again. In an ecologically perfect world, wildness would be essentially equivalent to naturalness, but in the same way that human influence can decrease naturalness, so can it also detract from wildness. Even worse, our manipulation of landscapes, extirpation of species and the introduction of non-native species, presents us with a situation that a landscape may be wild if it is allowed to be self-willed or self-shaping, but it does not necessarily have high naturalness because the species mix and its ultimate ecological processes and function could not be what they were. It becomes increasingly inauthentic by any yardstick of native-ness. Examples would be the burgeoning presence of larch, sycamore, spruce, bay and rhododendron; the subtraction of higher predators; and the hybridising of our landscapes with non-native herbivores.

This poses us the dilemma of whether we should intentionally manipulate landscapes to compensate for the consequences of the unnatural effects of human activity or, to avoid exerting human control, should we allow conditions to become increasingly unnatural? Do we go on shooting grey squirrels and ruddy ducks? Should we continue with fire suppression when frequent, small, low-intensity fires may have been the norm? Can we learn to love the feral goat?

To this can also be added our propensity in nature conservation to play the numbers game when we “farm” wildlife through landscape management to yield a maxima for a target species. Natural? Perhaps, on the basis that the target species may be native, but it’s not wild. Wildlife in conservation areas should not be symbolic of our management prowess. I believe wild land must be a refuge for wildlife where our efforts are directed at restraining our management and control.

I want to finish this look at wild and natural with an often-used quote from Neil Evernden, certain in the knowledge that there will be some in sympathy, some will be infuriated, and the semantically obsessed will be in apoplexy.

“Wildness is nature’s most important feature, because it cannot be encompassed by human horizons: Wildness is the one thing that never can be ours. It is self-willed, independent and indifferent to our dictates and judgements”

Mark Fisher 3 April 2007

Preference and naturalness: An ecological approach, A. Terrence Purcell & Richard J. Lamb, Landscape and Urban Planning 42 (1998) 57-66
Visual perception of wild land in Scotland, Dominic Habron, Landscape and Urban Planning 42 (1998) 45-56
Public Understandings of Nature: A Case Study of Local Knowledge About “Natural” Forest Conditions, R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson & Angelina Kendra, Society and Natural Resources, 14 (2001) 325–340
Naturalness and Wildness: The Dilemma and Irony of Managing Wilderness. Landres, Peter B.; Brunson, Mark W.; Merigliano, Linda; Sydoriak, Charisse; Morton, Steve. 2000. In: Cole, David N.; McCool, Stephen F.; Borrie, William T.; O'Loughlin, Jennifer, comps. 2000. Wilderness science in a time of change conference - Volume 5: Wilderness ecosystems, threats, and management; 2000 May 23-27; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-5. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 377-381.
The Social Creation of Nature, Neil Evernden (1992) The Johns Hopkins University Press