What does a post-industrial relationship with the land look like? There are emerging clues

Walking recently to the top of Sugar Loaf, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny, brought my grandfather to mind. He died about 20 years ago, and had a lifetime’s love of walking, though living in Co. Durham he was more a creature of the the Lakes and (especially) the Dales. He wouldn’t have thought much of the walk (barely an hour from car to trig point) or that we drove to the car park, about half of the distance from the A40 to the top, or even of our comfortable modern walking boots: he once told a cousin of my mother’s, after a day hiking together, that it wasn’t a real walk unless you had blood in your boots. So far, this perhaps sounds like a set of nostalgic North(East)ern cliches, but wrapped inside it is a set of questions about the land and our relation to it which are coming back into our minds at the end of the long ascendancy of industrialism.

My grandfather would have taken the bus to the junction from the A40 because he never owned a car. He was past 50 by the time the car became a mass consumer item, during the 1950s, and at that stage in his life was not well-off. But the journey was part of the distance between town and country, just as the effort of leaving the city was a demarcation for the ‘chain-gangs’ of the cycling clubs in the 1920s, ’30s, and later. The nature writer Jim Perrin has described that experience like this:

just take ourselves off, sleep rough at weekends and holidays among moors and hills that were a very cheap bus-ride away from the inner city where we lived. What we saw there was what we did not have in the close streets of the slums: trees, skies, clear rivers, space, unthreatened journeyings, a sense of an older landscape that had always been, from which we ourselves had come and to which we were now finding our ways back.

My grandfather’s attitude to the land, and his access to it, would have been different too, if only because the law on both land and access changed so much during his lifetime. He described himself as a ‘Christian socialist’, without ever defining either term too exactly, but would not have thought it right that God’s land was closed off by landowners. Interestingly, this argument surfaced quite strongly a decade ago in the debate in Scotland which paved the way for its Land Reform Act in 2003.

Alastair McIntosh has documented this well, in his fine Schumacher Briefing Rekindling Community, and elsewhere (opens pdf). This quote, from Dr. Alison Elliot of the Church of Scotland, from Rekindling Community, can stand here for the whole:

The Earth belongs to the Lord. The land itself is a gift from God. We are stewards of it, and the idea of somebody ‘owning’ it in the same way you own a bicycle is something that is deeply offensive to people who have that perspective on life and creation.

My grandfather would have cheered the ‘mass trespass‘ in 1932 at Kinder Scout in the Peak District by ‘the ramblers from Manchester way‘. And he would have felt vindicated by the post-war Act which created the National Parks, in 1949, which have proved to be one of the lasting institutions of that post-war settlement. Indeed, it is striking how resistant the idea of the National Parks have been to the last quarter-century of globalisation and pro-market politics; it happens that the last of the National Parks proposed in 1949, the South Downs, will finally be opened in March of this year. The coalition of conservators and radicals which promoted them has proved to be effective and enduring.

In some ways, this history is a partial answer to a question posed by Jim Perrin in a recent issue of new welsh review (the article itself is not online):

“What measure of compensation can be found in contemporary life for the loss of connection with the natural cycle which was woven through the whole fabric of natural life in the pre-industrial world”?

But it is only a partial answer. In other ways, for all of their virtues, the notion of the ‘national park’ represents the industrialisation of open space, the creation of an opposite of the city, a separate domain with its own boundaries and its own rules. It is a space in which the land is used to ‘produce’ leisure, just as the relationship to the land of the new urban food movements (for all of their virtues) is also a relationship of production. Putting a ‘value’ on nature may reduce depredation (but may also just give permission to depredators, who may think they’ve paid for the right to do it). Either way, it is essentially an industrial model in which land which can be demonstrated to produce value in terms of ‘eco-systems services’ has a higher price when it goes into a cost-benefit equation.

Perrin’s answer to his own question instead looks at our experience of nature.

The key vocabulary here is: contact, connection, relationship … there is rigour, rurality, discomfort, patience, application necessary to be on close terms with nature. Dipping in and out of scenery or tarns, imposing patterns of attention deficit culture … these are not enough.

For McIntosh, answering the question goes back to how reintegrate the land into community, which he sees as being rooted equally in ’soil, soul and society’. This ‘triune’ basis of community – the three elements are intertwined – are ‘community with nature; community with the divine; and community with one another”. My grandfather, who lived in a village and was also an active volunteer throughout his life, would have understood this formulation intuitively, in a heartbeat. I understand it too, of course, but only rationally, and that’s what we’ve lost in the half a century between him and me. If our species has a long-term future, I suspect that recovering that lost visceral sense of the worth of the land and the soil is a critical task for the next half a century. My grandchildren will need their boots.

The picture of Sugar Loaf is from the photostream of Helen James, and is used here with thanks.