Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 8, 2012

Human-nature

I’ve always loved time spent in forests. There’s something about the stillness afforded by the protection of the trees, the spongy ground underfoot, the dappled light, the silence broken only by birds or the blowing wind and the sense of being alone, yet surrounded, which refreshes and calms me.

My idea of the forest as a place of escape and quiet tranquillity has been challenged these past few weeks as the staff and volunteers at Dunnet Forest have introduced me to the forest as a place of continuous hard work, subject to the same kind of politics as any other workplace.

As an example, I have been joining in with volunteers at the Thursday morning ‘Green Gym’ session run by Kirsty Rosie, the Dunnet Forest Ranger. The first task I got involved in was raking up grass that had been mown by volunteers earlier in the month throughout the glades along the forest front. The entire forest falls within a wider area, including the vast beach at Dunnet Bay and extending 3km inland, which has been designated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its nationally important sand dunes and associated links grassland. This area provides a habitat for rare species such as the Scottish primrose (primula scotica) and the great yellow bumble bee (bombus distinguendus – what a fantastic name!), so the management plan for the site stipulates that areas of grassland are appropriately maintained to preserve and promote wildflower diversity. Hence all the mowing and raking over the past month.

At a conservative estimate, I’d guess that the raking has taken up over 30 man hours already and there is still a good patch of land left to do.  Add to this the Forest Trust directors time in understanding and interpreting the SNH management plan and communicating it to staff and volunteers, not to mention the length of time SNH staff must have spent in assessing the area and determining its future. This all seems like a lot of human effort to make sure primula scotica continues to brighten our path as we wander through the forest glades. And that’s just one tiny aspect of the complex processes that go into sustaining this diverse environment.

The stark realisation that the peaceful forest ambience that I so cherish is largely the result of human labour is more than a little thought-provoking. We often consider places of natural beauty as being somehow ‘untouched’ by humans and this perception colours our view of what that environment symbolises and what it should or should not be used for. But there are few – if any – such pristine environments left in the 21st century.  I wonder whether, due to the legacy of the Clearances here in the Highlands of Scotland, people are more inclined to acknowledge the impact of human life on the environment, and vice versa. James Hunter, in his book On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands (1995, Edinburgh), says that:

“the unpopulated character of these landscapes…are every bit as symbolic of the eradication of human communities as they are suggestive of wild nature.”

How has ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ history entwined to shape your favourite landscape – for better or worse? Is it possible to conceive of a landscape here in northern Scotland that is not somehow bound up in human activities? Do you find it useful to distinguish between the human and the natural world or do you consider both to be part of the same process?

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