Lush, verdant forests. Majestic and imposing snow-capped mountains. Those valleys and creekbeds that seem as though they are worlds away from human civilization. These are the images that usually come to mind when I think of nature. But the funny thing is that few places (if any) on Earth have escaped direct human influence (and not one is safe from anthropogenic climate change). And yet we try to preserve the things that evoke these images of untouched wilderness. A few days ago, I sat in on a presentation (followed by a quite stimulating discussion) on cultural landscapes and the practice of nature conservation in the United Kingdom. The conservation paradigm here contrasts drastically with that of the US, where small scattered reserves amongst towns and farms are the default in the former, and large swaths of seemingly untouched terrain dominate the latter.
|Protected areas (Tier 1 = highest protection) in England.|
|Protected areas in the contiguous US|
Getting a wee bit too philosophical? The inhabitants of the British Isles have had millenia of interaction with their environment, to modify it, to cultivate it, to recultivate it, to 'tame' and then mimic what was considered nature. Naturalists abound here - birdwatchers control the small reserves and woodlands that pepper the countryside. Pastoral characteristics of the countryside are accepted as natural, as being part of a common resource to ramble. It seems to me that the definitions of nature and agriculture have gotten intertwined, not from either a more enlightened or perverse perspective of natural, but rather out of necessity due to land scarcity and a long history of land cultivation and pasture.* Despite knowing that North American human habitation dates back at least 14,000 years, large animal extinctions were attributed primarily to humans at that time, and considerable associated landscape change has occurred, we still hold this conception of nature as distant and separate from us.
So getting back to my initial interest in this topic, I wonder how the relative proximities to what is considered nature influences our relationship to what the land produces. Though the proportion of large farm holdings is pretty comparable (around 20% of farms are over 250 acres/100hectares) in both the US and UK, size may not always be the best indicator of character, nor of how people connect their food to the environment. In the US, are we doing ourselves any favours by sequestering so-called nature in large reserves, removing people from a daily (or at least somewhat more frequent) interaction with a non-concrete environment? But in the UK, is there a misconstrual of the concept of 'nature', a conflation of a heavily managed pastoral landscape (which produces our food and other services) with something 'natural'? It's a hard nut to crack - determining where the manmade ends and the nature begins. But even more difficult is deciding if it even matters.
Decidedly more muddled than when I began, I humbly welcome any comments, thoughts, and ideas.
* Since my UK wanderings are still limited, I should note that I don't know the extent of ruralness in the country. However, considering I do live within an hour of London, and it is only a hop, skip, and a jump (or a ten minute run) to "countryside", the lines seem pretty blurred between nature and human inhabited landscapes.
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