What better way to escape from city life than to go out into the countryside and wild camp. No amenities, no convenience stores, not even any tap water. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you might be upset to find that this is not technically allowed unless you have permission from the someone-or-other who owns the small piece of the country you would like to stay the night in or are in Dartmoor for up to two consecutive nights, over 100m from any roads… Alternatively, you could head to Scotland instead, where wild camping is completely legal on 97% of the land.
To me it seems absurd that a tax paying resident of a country is not permitted to go and stay in the forests, valleys and lakesides which their taxes should rightfully be going towards the upkeep of. The problem, of course, is the fact that someone owns almost all of the land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the law is such that these landowners have the final say on who can or cannot be present on their land.
As George Monbiot describes in his excellent book on ecology and re-wilding entitled Feral, the UK is plagued by absentee landowners who claim ownership of vast swathes of the countryside and yet rarely visit or even use this land, except for perhaps grazing sheep. As mentioned in a previous blog piece on flooding, the commonplace practice of sheep farming does little more than turn rich ecosystems into barren expanses such as are common in Wales, Cumbria and Lancashire. But the presence of these sheep is used as an excuse for disallowing folk to pitch up their tents for the night by a brook or shelter in what remain of the woods.
To make matters worse, as a condition for acceptance of grants under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), these landowners must ensure any non-agricultural protrusions are kept at bay in the fields. That is, the trees and bushes which would naturally grow there should be removed, further insisting on what Monbiot decries as natural pornography (i.e. naked hills).
A sense of scale
On holiday by the coast in Anglesey, where I have enjoyed weeks every year since I was born, I started reading a book called The Overstory, by novelist Richard Powers. As far as I am aware, Powers is not particularly well known, but those who do know of him will be aware of his diverse range of previous subject matters, from artificial intelligence, to music, to genetics. The book is remarkable firstly because humans are not at the centre of its stories, secondly because trees are instead the overarching, omnipresent agents of storytelling and thirdly because it is still gripping despite the pace being so different to the way we experience life. Generations of human lifespans fly by at high speed whilst the chestnuts, maples and willows of the stories grow, bloom and weather the elements with eternal wisdom. What start out appearing to comprise a collection of separate short stories later begin to mesh together, mimicking the interrelatedness of the natural world.
Reading The Overstory, one gains a sense that there is no way that we could ever really own trees which might outlive us for hundreds of years. Yes, we can plant them, replant them and even kill them if we wish, but they are never truly ours. To me, this strikes a resonant chord regarding this notion that mere people could ever be the masters of nature. Nature on Earth is a complex system which has existed far longer than humanity, who owe their existence to it. In the opinion of James Lovelock, it is deserving of its own name, which he calls Gaia. Moreover, the Gaia hypothesis holds that, no matter how hard humanity might try, it could never truly destroy Gaia. Even after a nuclear holocaust wiping out every human on earth, other forms of life would find a way to continue surviving. For a sneak-preview, see the image below showing how, now that humans have deserted the 2011 nuclear meltdown site in Fukushima, Gaia has reclaimed what is rightfully hers.
The opening story in Powers’ book concerns the chestnut tree planted in the Iowa back garden of a Norwegian immigrant called Jørgen Hoel in the mid 19th century, and plays out the four generations of Hoels living in the house. Every day they see the tree. Each generation of children climb it countless times. A sequence of male Hoels take up the tradition of photographing the glorious tree from the same spot on the 21st of every month for the best part of a century. Whilst each generation may claim possession of the house built by their descendent, none of them ever truly owned the chestnut tree he planted and all of them end up buried by its base.
In an interview in the Guardian by Emma John, Powers expands on the themes behind The Overstory. He says
“Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.”
Returning to the point on camping rights, how could a city-dweller ever truly connect with nature when the best chances they have at experiencing it in its true glory is a sheep grazed hillside, garden-like park or a potted plant wilting on the windowsill?
That the hedonic treadmill of modern life can be so unfulfilling is indicative of the fact so many of us have lost our mooring to the natural world to which we owe our existence.
To Powers, it is the modern assumption that wildlife is ‘just property’ at the heart of issues relating to detachment and nonchalance. Indeed, he holds this assumption as the root of our much greater species problem. Powers does not see a positive future for a humanity which remains as detached as it largely is from the natural world:
“Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death and it’s mastery or nothing.”
By taking humans off the centre stage and highlighting our ineffable insignificance, The Overstory restores a humbleness which our species lost a long time ago.
Even the environmental movement, which seeks to restore the natural world to its former glory and protect it from greed, is often revealed to have lost its sense of humanity’s place in the order of things. Environmentalists are often so confused as to what exactly they want (see this blog piece on nuclear power) and many proponents (including myself) are guilty of advocating action in the name of preservation of the human race, rather than the infinitely more important home in which it resides.¹ To Powers, environmentalists are usually humanists in disguise:
“[W]e say we should manage our resources better. What I was taking seriously for the first time in this book was they’re not our resources; and we won’t be well until we realise that.”
What to take from all of this? Other humans will always be at the heart of our own stories. However, we should be careful to recognise and be grateful of the multitude of entities out there which allow humans to play a role at all.
 Of course, as Lovelock rightly states, Gaia will live on without us, albeit in an adapted form. However, that does not mean natural systems and species which exist today should be sacrificed at the altar of human technological progress.
 Feral, George Monbiot.
 The Overstory, Richard Powers.
 How to Connect with Nature, Tristram Gooley.
 The Revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock.
Image sources: header