Beauty and the Bomb
Sheep are no more natural to the landscape than a wind farm. Landscape is a way of seeing – a point of view.
YOU ONLY HAVE to scan the letters pages of The Scotsman or the Glasgow Herald to see that in Scotland, as in other countries, wind farms are causing something of a stramash. Either they are praised for providing clean and renewable sources of energy, or damned as an act of environmental disrespect for our wild and beautiful landscapes.
Tangled up in the conflicting passions aroused by wind farms lies the very idea of landscape. If, as the environmental historian Christopher Smout remarked, landscape is “a way of seeing, a point of view”, then terms like ‘wilderness’ and ‘beauty’ have as much to do with ideology as they do with topography. When an anti-wind-farm group protests that a proposed development will desecrate a wilderness, its ‘way of seeing’ the land is as much at stake as a particular hill or moor.
Of course, ideology and passion can go hand in hand, and when it comes to passion for ‘wild nature’ few thinkers have proved the equal of that singularly eminent Victorian, the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins celebrated wilderness in his poem ‘Inversnaid’, written in 1881, some fifteen years after he made a fleeting visit to the tiny settlement on the banks of Loch Lomond:
This darksome burn, horseback brown, His rollrock highroad roaring down, In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home. A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth Turns and twindles over the broth Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning. Degged with dew, dappled with dew, Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn. What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Hopkins’ poem recalls Old Testament descriptions of wilderness as a kind of echo-chamber for the voice of God, but what makes ‘Inversnaid’ so relevant, so modern, is the idea that it is the space itself that matters. Wilderness is not seen as the expression of something sacred: it is sacred in its own right.
In his celebration of and advocacy for wilderness, Hopkins is part of the genesis of the ‘wilderness movement’ in the latter half of the 19th century. In this respect the name John Muir rings loud and proud, as followers of Deep Ecology and supporters of National Parks can testify. But Hopkins deserves his fair share of praise. Loch Lomond may not match the scale of the Yosemite Valley, but the feeling for the redemptive allure of wilderness is of a piece with Muir’s evocation of the wild grandeur of the American West.
Our debt to these writers is immense. They helped to forge what is now regarded as an ‘environmental sensibility’. However, in acknowledging this debt we should also acknowledge that the modern reverence for wilderness was born, and continues to flourish, as the result of specific historical circumstances. Hopkins and Muir lived through a time of rampant industrialisation, mass migration and the growth of cities. New ways of seeing the land became philosophical and artistic imperatives.
Of course, a sense of history comes a poor second to the vibrant sensory experience of wild places. In a way, that is the point of ‘wilderness’: we can let our thinking rest. Give me a wet hill in November, ravens in the sky over some crags, neither sight nor sound of traffic, and I’m a happy man. It all seems so ‘timeless’. However, even if the feeling is ‘timeless’, the land isn’t. We need to think as well as feel, and in the case of the Scottish Highlands I might want to think about the sheep I can see grazing the hillside on my way up, and how they are no more ‘natural’ to the landscape than a wind farm. In the 18th and 19th centuries these glens and hills were emptied of people to make way for sheep. Indeed, if the current crisis facing Britain’s hill farmers isn’t addressed, sheep themselves may well become little more than a memory.
The Highland Clearances are a profound and painful example of the convergence of history and landscape, and the legacy of the clearances goes to the heart of the writing of the 20th-century Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, as his great, late poem ‘Screapadal’ shows. Sadly, I shall forgo the power and subtlety of the original Gaelic by using MacLean’s English translation; but consider how landscape and history are welded together in these lines (incidentally, Rainy is the name of the man who ‘cleared’ fourteen townships from the island of Raasay in the mid-19th century):
Screapadal in the morning facing Applecross and the sun, Screapadal that is so beautiful quite as beautiful as Hallaig. No words can be put on beauty, no picture, music or poem made for it. Rainy left Screapadal without people, with no houses or cattle, only sheep but he left Screapadal beautiful; in his time he could do nothing else.
MacLean’s reading of landscape in this poem acknowledges that we experience natural beauty as something transcendent, but he also understands that our reading of landscape is never in itself ‘pure’. There is always a context. In this respect, ‘Screapadal’ is a poem about human history and natural history. Indeed the two are inextricably linked. The clearances may have been brutal, but the saving grace of their legacy is the physical beauty of the landscape.
This evocation of wild land seems to conjure up exactly the kind of
‘sacred’ landscape anti-wind-farm protesters have in mind. And indeed, MacLean does lament the incursion of modernity, but it is not the massive
affront of a wind farm that ignites his ire. The threat is all but invisible:
A seal would lifts its head and a basking-shark its sail but today in the sea-sound a submarine lifts its turret and its black sleek back threatening the thing that would make dross of wood, of meadows and rocks, that would leave Screapadal without beauty just as it was left without people.
As far as MacLean is concerned, the nuclear submarine off the coast of Raasay ‘ruins’ the sanctity of place as much as any visible human construction.
MacLean’s premonition is terrible enough, but the real power of ‘Screapadal’ lies in his insight that the holocaust has already begun. The “black turrets” of the submarine may leave no enduring trace, but they mock “the flagstones of Maol Rubha and the Giant’s cave in Rona”. In other words, the presence of the submarine doesn’t just threaten the future; it corrupts
MacLean’s relationship to Raasay, and our relation to the planet, here and now. In effect, MacLean is forced into a new way of seeing Raasay and enlarges the scope of landscape aesthetics to include human purpose in the landscape. The submarine does not belong. Beauty and the bomb – even an unfired bomb – may not be reconciled.
IF HISTORY TEACHES us anything at all, it teaches that questions of power and authority, and especially perspective, are prone to shifts. MacLean helps light the way towards just such a shift in perspective. Suppose we invert the relationship between ethics and aesthetics exposed in ‘Screapadal’. If a landscape can be corrupted by something that leaves no tangible mark but has a destructive purpose, can the palpable physical impact of a wind farm be redeemed if we take account of its beneficent purpose? In other words, can we employ our moral imagination as well as our visual imagination in ‘seeing’ the land?
At first sight a proposed wedding between wilderness and modernity seems unlikely. After all, heather and concrete make uneasy bedfellows. However, in looking for examples of arranged marriages between earth and stone, we could do worse than turn to the Isle of Lewis, and the standing stones of Callanish. Erected some three to four thousand years ago, these fifty-odd stones overlook Loch Roag on the north-west coast of the island, and in arrangement and shape, if not in scale, they bear an uncanny resemblance to a wind farm.
I cannot altogether exclude the possibility of Neolithic protest groups railing against the despoliation of the landscape wrought by the erection of these stones, but the sense of their embeddedness suggests how we could, in time, come to perceive wind farms. If our planners and engineers get it right, wind farms might give expression to new ways of seeing that acknowledge our dependence on Planet Earth.
But if wind farms are to be seen as ‘cathedrals of the hills’, we need artists and poets to do the work of imagining the land and our relationship to it. Long may Hopkins’ cry “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” continue to echo, but he didn’t know about global warming and the violence of oil politics. We need MacLean to remind us of our ambiguous, inescapable human presence.