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Friday, 24 August 2012

In my Counterfeit Paradise

There has been an extraordinary series broadcast by the BBC in recent weeks called Unnatural Histories. The programmes challenge the notion that our most dearly cherished perceptions of wild, untamed landscapes such as Yellowstone and the Amazon are not as virginal as they appear; that their very presence and shape is rooted in their historical relationship with human beings: These now empty wildernesses were once, and until relatively recently, teeming with people. The near-river Amazon bason, for example, had an estimated pre-Columbian population of 5.5 million people according to the best archeological and anthropological evidence.

It is of course churlish to compare the environmental impact of these historical populations to the sort of destruction we seem to effortlessly wreak upon these places in modern times. Even 5 million people living in harmony with the landscape would not have nearly the effect a few hundred people with chainsaws and tarmac in this century.

One particularly unsettling historical fact that the programme makers explored was the 18th and 19th century european concept of ‘the sublime’. This was, to all intents and purposes, a self-fulfilling spritual journey embarked upon by rich patrons of the arts: The wild, untamed and untameable landscape, with all of its natural inhabitants was a place in which one could be closest to God and His original blueprint for the earth. They flooded in to experience the sublime by being as close as possible to nature and, even better, capture it on canvas. The problem was, this required the absence of human interference and, in extreme cases, the absence of predators. Benign herbivores were, it was deemed, more befitting such a scene and artificially creating such sublime conditions was something we used to be quite comfortable with. The eradication of predators to produce something more ‘Godly’. The irony of this does not need to be pointed out.

Just how far is humankind prepared to go to better understand his relationship with not only the way the land looks now, but how it once looked? There are some obvious and laudable reasons why the return of a place to ‘how it once was’ is the right thing to do. There are some equally tense reasons why the constant interplay of man and nature should be a thing that continues and, in some cases, encouraged.

I’m as sure about this as I can be about anything. The very place I was raised, the fenland of East Anglia, is as it is because man was and is there. And we need to move on and accept that. Living in and being part of these unnatural natural landscapes should, as Richard Mabey neatly puts it, now be part of a ‘post-colonial’ view of nature and the best we can hope for is that our behaviour towards them is typified by that view.

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