This essay, on humanity’s entangled relationship with the ‘wild’, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on race, class and diversity.) It was published on 18 August 2019, under the headline ‘Last week, I gazed on a truly wild land… and saw art reflected back’.
Achmore is a nondescript hamlet on the A858 that cuts across the isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This is a gnarled, fractured landscape, swaddled in wind and rain, and built out of some of the oldest rocks on Earth – Lewisian gneiss, the bedrock of the island, is some 3bn years old, two-thirds the age of Earth itself.
We had gone to Achmore to search out an ancient stone circle. There are dozens of these, including the most famous one at Calanais, scattered across Lewis’s melancholic moorland. The Achmore stone circle was disappointing, with little to catch the eye. But then we turned to look south. And almost gasped. For Lewis’s forbidding landscape, caught in a delicate light suffused through the late-afternoon cloud, had been transformed, becoming draped in an ethereal, almost unreal, beauty. Dozens of lochans – small lochs – dappled the foreground. Behind them, where the hills of Harris rose, were layer upon soft layer of pastel colours, from gold through green to blue, laid like chiffon scarves across the horizon.
I love bleakness. Not as a human condition but as a physical landscape. Not for me the well-tended orchards of Kent or the Constable-painted loveliness of the Stour valley. Give me, rather, the menace of Dartmoor, the strangeness of Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast, the emptiness of Ranoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands and most of all the dark, brooding allure of the Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles of Orkney and the Shetlands. These are all places that can be desolate, even hostile. Yet they are also landscapes imbued with beauty, even grace, such as that moorland in Lewis.
As a human condition, bleakness suggests that one is in a place empty of joy or hope. Much of the landscape that we call bleak is bleak in a different way – because it isn’t manicured or domesticated. There is a wildness about it by which we can be discomfited and yet often also celebrate and romanticise.
In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane, one of the most expressive nature writers of our time, observes that throughout history there have been two broad responses to wildness. On the one hand, it is perceived as ‘a dangerous force that confounds the order-bringing pursuits of human culture and agriculture’. On the other is a perception of wildness ‘as an energy both exemplary and exquisite, and of wild places as realms of miracle, diversity and abundance’. Wildness as a threat and wildness as a refuge.
Neither perspective, though, captures humanity’s complex, entangled relationship with the wild. Human societies have in large part been carved out in defiance of nature. From the houses we build to shelter us from the elements to the medicines we develop to protect us from pathogens, from the piped water without which millions still die from diarrhoea and other illnesses, to the weather stations that provide warnings of hurricanes and heat waves, we are constantly in a struggle to shield ourselves from nature’s furies. There is a rational root to the fear of the wild and of the threat that it can pose.
At the same time, the eulogisation of nature, and a yearning for a wilderness that has been lost or despoiled, is inextricably human. There are many threads to such a yen. For some, the depredations caused by human activity, from river pollution to global warming, outweigh the benefits. Along with human development has developed a disdain of progress and civilisation. For others, modernity and urbanisation have brought with them a spiritual loss, a severing of our elemental ties with nature.
Whatever the roots, wildness does not simply lie ‘out there’, but inside, in the human imagination. We project upon the wild the fears and hopes, the emotions and passions, nurtured by history and culture and community. It is through culture and imagination that we imbue the wild with meaning.
And what we call ‘wild’ is often humanly created, physically too. The moorlands of Lewis, for instance, are bleak not just because of its natural features but also because of human activity and social policy. From ancient tree-felling to modern land clearances, humans have long shaped the landscape.
The beauty of the Western Isles and the Northern Isles is remarkable, their wildness and bleakness something to be treasured. But when I look upon them, what I see is coloured by far more than the landscape itself. It is a landscape created in the novels of George Mackay Brown, the poetry of Kevin MacNeil, the paintings of Wendy Sutherland, the photography of Rebecca Marr, the writings of Macfarlane. That, too, is remarkable and something to be treasured.
The photo is mine, and is of the view south from Achmore.
I’ve never been to the Western Isles, but I’d really like to spend some time there and in other remote places in the British Isles. I just looked up some stats on Wikipedia, and saw that the Isle of Lewis has an area of 683 square miles, which is just a bit bigger than Surrey, which is 642 square miles. Their respective populations though are 18,500 and 1,185,300 – which makes Surrey 64 times more densely populated than Lewis.
The Isle of Lewis would look a bit different if it had the same population density of Surrey. And really, with our rising U.K. population and some calling for open borders, it would only be fair really if places like the Isle of Lewis were developed up to the same levels as everywhere else. Because although I can see great beauty in places like the Western Isles, I can also see it in inner city bits of scrappy woodland or even “brownfield” sites that are usually earmarked as the places our rising populations coming from overseas should be housed.
There’s a housing estate at the top of the road where I grew up in south London which is surrounded by woods and playing fields.
The places where I once played and rode my bike are still popular with dog walkers and the local people to this day. But it’s one of those areas that would be ripe for “redevelopment” and the expansion of the housing estate.
It could easily double its size and still leave one or two football pitches and a bit of the woods.
But I’d be really sorry to see that happen as it would seem like a desecration.
But then on the other hand – where else are the new people going to live?
My solution has been to give up on London, and go off and try to enjoy the wild, less developed and remoter, quieter parts of the world before they all get trashed by modernity.
I just saw that Belfast is undergoing some hideous office building projects (which some local working class people in “The Markets” housing estate are opposed to) and Dublin where I am now, is also under the demolition and rebuilding cycle. It too needs to build to accommodate rising populations.
A final thought, given the other piece on class that Kenan wrote in the paper on Sunday.
Is enjoying holidays on the Isle of Lewis a middle class thing?
You’d have to say it probably is – but so what?
I don’t really agree with these strong class distinctions in the first place. They often seem like general prejudices.
The few comments I’ve read by this “damon” person seem to have one thing in common: a hatred for other people, especially those who aren’t exactly like him. Perhaps, given his reference to “hideous office building projects ” he’s Prince Charles incognito. So I’ll raise his seemingly-racist hackles with these:
“there’s one political shore that remains stubbornly beyond the horizon. It’s an idea almost nobody in mainstream politics will address, other than to hurl the label as a bloody cudgel. I’m talking about opening up America’s borders to everyone who wants to move here.
Imagine not just opposing President Trump’s wall but also opposing the nation’s cruel and expensive immigration and border-security apparatus in its entirety. Imagine radically shifting our stance toward outsiders from one of suspicion to one of warm embrace. Imagine that if you passed a minimal background check, you’d be free to live, work, pay taxes and die in the United States. Imagine moving from Nigeria to Nebraska as freely as one might move from Massachusetts to Maine.”
“….. hatred for other people, especially those who aren’t exactly like him.”
I wouldn’t say that at all. From my travels in the last few years, my favourite people in the world would probably be in Sri Lanka and in Uganda. And I don’t look like them. They’re probably far nicer than my own ethnic people (the Irish) and Brits are a long way down the list too. It’s why I’m trying to spend as much time as I can outside of the U.K. I’m hoping to retire in Eastern Europe somewhere, so I can’t be that hateful.
The open borders argument, like the ones argued in those links you did, is a fine idea, but there’s loads of things that they ignore too. The first article is by a guy who immigrated from South Africa because he said that his racial minority was systematically discriminated against there. It’s meant to be the “Rainbow Nation” and is more progressive on stuff like that than almost anywhere else in Africa. It’s America that’s always being called the racist “white nationalist” country, so why does he want to go and live there?
This isn’t the right place to go into all of the detail of this subject right now, but one thing about Ireland going diverse and multi-cultural that’s slightly annoying, is that you are now reminded “not to be racist” every day.
These posters are all over Dublin, on the buses, the trains and the trams. There’s even a huge banner of the woman in the hijab hanging off the outside of Ireland’s tallest building. It‘s pretty “woke” – but too in your face.
“Whatever the roots, wildness does not simply lie ‘out there’, but inside, in the human imagination. We project upon the wild the fears and hopes, the emotions and passions, nurtured by history and culture and community. It is through culture and imagination that we imbue the wild with meaning.”
That’s a very nice bit of writing (prose?). For some reason, reading that brought up this sad feeling I’ve had upon seeing the passing of a time and a culture here in what was called the Dublin “north inner city”.
It was – and still is to a degree, the poor working class areas right down in the city centre, which had a very unique and quite fragile culture based on community and location. And time now of course.
Basically, it’s been under the threat of modernisation and gentrification. And new human diversity too.
Where it still exists, it seems to be doing so almost in parallel with the new modernity. And is retreating and being forced out of some areas which are seen as just too valuable to be left for traditional poor working class people. New dockside apartments and developments have displaced old communities and in Parnell Street, which is right next to the city centre, old and decrepit dive pubs have been closing down and reopening as Chinese businesses and restaurants. In fact, so keen have some of the new Chinese entrepreneurs been to consolidate their business plans, that they applied to the council to erect a Chinese arch at the beginning of the street and make it an official Chinatown. Which would be harmless in most ways, but also seems disrespectful for the life that was there before. It’s the way of the world of course and my own parents were like that when they went from Ireland to London in the 1950s. They didn’t really know or care much about what was there before they arrived.
I’m not saying none of this should have happened btw, or ignoring that as a long term tourist travelling all over the place, that I’m part of this process too, but I feel that it’s OK to mourn a bit for the lost past also.
And the reason why Kenan’s article here about the Isle of Lewis reminds me of these things, is that it too sounds like it’s experiencing a certain moment in time, and is still quite lovely, but could be changed forever by thoughtless development and increase in human activity. Would those views look so evocative if they were festooned with wind turbines for example? Or if there were new roads, bypasses, housing estates, tower blocks, hospitals and schools all over the place? You could argue that Lewis is so remote that the population is unlikely to rise that much to make a difference, but that isn’t the case down in more populous parts of England.
Down there, many natural places are under population pressure. Just see the national parks in the summer months when there are traffic jams and full car parks in places like the Lake District.
You can build more houses all over the place to house the growing population, but you can’t grow the natural places that many of us like to get out to to experience nature.
Although it would just be the normal process of time, it would be a sad day if the working class Dublin accent went the way of London Cockney. Because of the new diversity, Cockney has faded away and has just kind of gone out of fashion with young Londoners today. The same thing could happen here as Dublin racially diversifies and old traditional communities are broken up and people move away. To hear the pure “Dub” accent is actually a real delight. You used to be able to hear it in full flow from the women in Moore Street market, but that too now is a centre of diversity and is mostly Chinese and African businesses, with just a few old fruit and veg Dublin women still there. If an area is poor, run down and cheap – and in a central location – the forces of change and redevelopment will want to make it into something else.
Which is pretty inevitable, but can be sad also. That’s my main point.
To Damon – re: ” It too needs to build to accommodate rising populations.”
Conservative economists over here point to declining birthrates as “a threat to growth.” Most industrial nations’ birthrates are near or below replacement rate. Their political guard notoriously oppose both abortion and birth control, but are equally vociferous against immigration.
More liberal thinkers (viz NYT’s Krugman) say growth is needed to support expanding populations.
Which is it? It can’t be both: what if it’s neither?
in rural Kentucky, US
I can’t argue against someone like Paul Krugman, who is a macroeconomist apparently.
Much of that would be far beyond my ability and understanding.
However, growth upon growth can hardly be sustainable in the long run.
If you keep growing your population, in small countries like Britain, you are soon going to find you’ve made getting around quite a challenge. Even just walking down the street in the city. I’ve been in a few huge cities and many of them have serious problems. Why go beyond ten million? What’s the point of that?
In Kentucky you don’t really have that problem as you have the space. But your growth isn’t done the best way I bet. I’ve traveled around the US, and there is far too much sprawl and businesses moving out of downtowns and out to retail parks and along the suburban highways. That’s the way you do it there. It’s not pretty.
You could do it different. But you just don’t. But I’m sure it fuels the local economy.
All those jobs building yet more fast food places and gas stations. And the extra suburbs for the new immigrants from all over the world.
I’m sure there is a way that capitalism could be made to work in a shrinking population.
They must be managing it in Japan. And Lithuania too.
I’ll be going there later this year and I bet it’s doing fine. Even though it’s population has gone down quite a lot because of so many young people leaving the country to work overseas.
I’d rather live in a country that was under populated rather than over populated.
It’s nice here in Ireland because of that.