Dreams of the bog in the bowels

Thoreau's Country - A Right to Roam
October 29, 1999

Both these books deal with the relationships of human societies to their landscapes and both, in different ways, show that their authors are troubled by what they find.

I n the case of Thoreau, we know that he was an advocate of wildness and of the protection of nature, to be achieved by people living lightly on the land.

He was , though , down to earth en ough to say in 1856 that it was "vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels ... that inspires that dream."

There is no shortage of editions of and commentaries on Thoreau but what we have here is an ecologist selecting passages from Thoreau and relating them to ecological history, discussing the effects of forest succession on animal populations, the role of fire in the ecology of New England, the history of abandoned farms and the management of forests then and now. This is not simply a piece of ecological commentary using the journal instead of the satellite image but an outworking of (if he will forgive me) the bog in the brain and bowels of David Foster, the d irector of Harvard Forest . W e have interesting and solidly based ecological information here but suffused with the felt flow of the natural world. As such , it is worth its price for both scientist and humanist; further more , it is a lovely book to own .

Nobody would try to argue that there are more than a few square metres of the British Isles that are " natural " , though the public perception of , say, the moorlands of England and Wales is often at odds with their known history.

One of the consequences of this historical depth of settlement and use is an equivalent extent of ownership and the evolution of the rights that pertain to that possession. A current issue in British society and the concern of both citizen groups and the p arliaments in London and Edinburgh is the degree to which increased access to non-urban land for recreation should be enshrined in further legislation so that people may use various types of land for a variety of recreations even though the owners of existing rights of production may not wish it.

Those who have read Marion Shoard's previous books will know that they will find a detailed history and analysis of the history of land ownership in Great Britain, an account of the attempts to open up access in this century and, centrally, a committed argument in favour of the extension of the rights of the public to access to most kinds of rural land. The political context includes the Labour Party manifesto of 1997 with its promise of "... greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside.We will not ... permit any abuse of a right to greater access."

The outcome in terms of legislation and regulation will no doubt be decided in terms of the balance of political forces when it eventually comes to p arliaments and the Welsh Assembly. (I wonder if we will get a new l ong- d istance f ootpath called " The Middle Way " ?) But the very use of the word " rights " raises a whole set of issues which for most of us appear as part of what Thoreau called the bog in our brain and which raise some issues beyond the behind-doors political compromises that usually underpin change in Britain. One of the interesting considerations is that rights of admission do not pertain in towns, a point often made by the anti-access movement ( would you like it if ...?) , yet the liberty to change almost any use or structure is very restricted in towns compared with the freedom from planning legislation enjoyed by farming and forestry ( how would you like it if ...? ). There seems also to be an element of class conflict since the grouse moors are one highlighted focus of the mass trespasses designed to underscore general exclusion - rather than the actions of individual landowners in blocking footpaths. We might suspect that apart from the activists the attitude of the population to hunting with dogs has a strong class element.

Again, if we have even a small Malthusian corner in our minds, then the oft quoted right to go almost anywhere in Sweden (which is in fact subject to quite strict understandings) becomes a symbol of population - density considerations and so can be written out of our inhabitant- resource equations. Lastly, is the use of the countryside relevant to the great questions of our ecology , such as carbon balance? Any shifts which increase per capita emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases must be viewed with anathema.

Rights , then , carry costs. Some of these can be quantified and appropriate people compensated for their loss. Some " rights ", however , are built into myths, such as those of the moral virtues of the countryside of Britain (and especially England) or the wilderness of the US. Their costs are less easy to examine with any degree of detachment but anybody who comes anywhere near it while being also sure of the course to take - as do both Foster and Shoard - deserve s our thanks. They can help us to tell when it is a matter for the brain, for the bowels, or for both.

I. G. Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Thoreau's Country: Journey through a Transformed Landscape

Author - David Foster
ISBN - 0 674 88645 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 0

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