Pandaemonium

THE BEAUTY IN THE BLEAKNESS

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In his book Feral, the environmentalist George Monbiot describes the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales as a ‘desert’ devoid of life. It is, he says, a ‘dismal, dismaying’ landscape, venturing into which makes him ‘almost lose the will to live’. Feral is a polemic for ‘rewilding’ Britain, which means for Monbiot covering moorlands with trees and forests.

John Bimson (who helps run a wonderful little b’n’b, Bron y Llys, in the heart of the Cambrian desert) wrote last year about the disingenuity of Monbiot’s argument. During his walk in the Cambrian desert, Monbiot writes, ‘No bird started up – not even a crow or a pipit. There were neither fieldfares nor redwings, larks nor lapwings.’ But that was because, Bimson points out, Monbiot had decided to take a walk at the end of October. In spring or summer, the Cambrian landscape echoes to the music of ‘skylarks, meadow pipits, pied and grey wagtails, stonechats, whinchats, wheatears, red grouse, peregrines, buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, merlins, ravens – and of course those crows’. There are ‘stoats, weasels and brown hares (admittedly all secretive and rarely seen), common lizards, newts, frogs and toads’. Carpeting the Cambrian Mountain with woodland would, Bimson observes, mean losing not just ‘the long views and wide vistas’ which make upland moors so stunning, but also much of the actual wildlife in the area, as most of the birds, for instance, are ‘upland species that would lose their breeding habitat if the moors were transformed into forest’.

Monbiot clearly has his particular aesthetic preferences. But that is all they are – aesthetic preferences. He has merely dressed them up as arguments for an ‘authentic’ wilderness. Human-shaped woodland is no more ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ than human-shaped moorland.

There is, to my eyes, real beauty in bleak landscapes, not just in the Cambrians, but in the Scottish highlands and islands, the Yorkshire moors and the Suffolk coast. There is a vastness here that itself draws the eye – big skies, great horizons, stretched perspectives.  There is often an ethereal, almost unreal, beauty that has to be felt as much as seen. The cloudscape can seem like an extension of the land, throwing upon it a light that renders it almost haunting. I have written of the Isle of Lewis that ‘In its moodiness and broodiness lies its preternatural beauty’. That is true, too, of many other landscapes of bleakness, though nowhere is quite as magical as Lewis.  So, here are some of my favourite landscapes of bleakness, from the Isle of Lewis, Assynt, Sutherland and Caithness in the Scottish Highlands, Orford Ness, a strange, almost hypnotic part of the Suffolk coast, to a glorious sunset over the Cambrian desert, as seen last week.


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Isle of Lewis

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Assynt

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assynt 3

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Sutherland

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Forsinard Flows, Caithness

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North Yorkshire moors

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Orford Ness, Suffolk

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Sunset in the Cambrian desert

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24 comments

  1. One of the pleasures of where we live on the rainy side of mountains in the Mexican state of Veracruz is that it is a short distance up and over to desert, a world of difference and, as you note, beautiful, too.

  2. nik

    The UK has something in the region of 1% of its native woodland left. Yes, barren landscapes have their beauty, and yes some animals and plants live there, but the loss of biodiversity and the overall loss of habitats makes such landscapes depressing – not for pure aesthetic reasons, but because they physically embody the human activity that has taken so much natural variety away.

  3. Now I should add that Mexico has a huge problem with deforestation. It also has sophisticated and dedicated resources for working with the problem although I think the loss of forest still exceeds the replanting of trees. The natural desert regions are beautiful; deforested areas not so much, although in some you can see new trees pushing up. The issue with forests and lack thereof is that trees are critical for a number of natural processes that life depends on, not only for protection against climate change. I don’t know how critical forests are/were in the UK, but worldwide, their destruction has grave consequences.

      • Vanessa

        Conversely, Monbiot’s concerns about the areas you’ve photographed haven’t anything to do with aesthetics.

  4. Your seen to miss the point of Monbiot’s book – did you read it? He advocates rewilding, not the “human managed woodland” to which you refer. Such rewilding would not carpet the uplands as you imply and would not therefore deprive upland bird species of habitat. Rather, it would likely provide a mosaic of different habitats that would in turn encourage a wider diversity of birds and other wildlife. Such a mosaic would certainly be hugely beneficial for the mammal species to which you refer.

    It is widely accepted that most of our uplands are heavily overgrazed and biological diversity is greatly limited as a result. Rewilding may or may not be the answer but it deserves serious consideration.

    • Yes, I’ve read the book. My point here was that the creation of moorlands or recovering them with woodland are both human decisions. There is nothing more natural about the one rather than the other. Yes, there are ecological arguments for reforestation (and against deforestation), but that is a different discussion.

  5. gaskap

    The fact that Monbiot wrote this does not affect the argument neither for nor against the reforestation of the moorland.

  6. IanT

    Your photos are spectacular I don’t dispute it. However I agree with @marcusajohn. To me, the important part of the word rewilding is “wild”, which is the opposite of “human-shaped”, contrary to your suggestion. Our species is treading too heavily on our planet, largely to the detriment of other species which also have a right to be here, and the worst of it is that if we don’t learn to rebalance, we will devastate our own habitat as well as those of others.

  7. Lee Towers

    There are clearly tradeoffs between your and GM’s views. However, your love of a nice view does not, from my perspective, overcome the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In addition, if we are counting the number of species that will return, or be introduced, would outnumber those lost, and you wouldn’t have to go there at a particular time of year. So yeah, it is a human adapted land – we will see which view is applied and deal/feel the consequences.

  8. ngir

    Hi Kenan. IMHO you have missed the point on Mombiot’s criticism. The sheep-pasture tree-less slopes do not absorb rainfall the way in which wooded slopes would. The immediate run-off overloads the becks and rivers of the Lake District area and the flooding a couple of years back and also more recently is the result. And not just in the Lake District. Aesthetically I wouldn’t disagree with you, at all; ecologically I suspect that you are mistaken.
    Best
    Tom

  9. Les

    If you like emptiness tinged with desolation (is that more in keeping with our era’s notion of the sublime?), and you happen to find yourself in the US, you should definitely spend a week or two in Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Big sky country is what they call it. It’s not just a place where you can get lost in the landscape, you dissolve into it.

  10. Chris

    To re-emphasise @marcusajohn comment, where I live in central Portugal forestry, particularly Eucalyptus, has got out of control, all in the name of profit. Net result: no diversity, few birds, dearth of wildlife and appalling forest fires devastating what agriculture there is left. “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” GM Hopkins.

  11. Tim Smithers

    Nice pictures! It’d be nice to know some about the camera, lens, settings, and any effects you use for each photo, if that’s not asking you to give away too much.

  12. Thanks for all the responses (and hundreds more on Twitter…). As I am on my way to Sydney, I can’t easily answer most of them. I am, however, somewhat bemused by the tenor of many of the responses. I have written many controversial posts, quite happily taken a lot of heat, and responded in kind. I didn’t expect this to be one of those posts. It was a photographic post, with a few paragraphs of musings attached, not a polemic or a critique (people who talk of my ‘critique’ of George Monbiot don’t seem to know what a proper critique is). Some of the responses have been truly bizarre, especially on Twitter – I apparently wish for mass extinction or argue like a climate change denier. There has been valuable discussion (both for and against the rewilding of moorlands). But with many of the responses, it feels as if I’ve transgressed some kind of religious taboo and blasphemed. Certainly, it’s made me think that I should do a proper critique, though that will have to wait. In the meantime, hope you enjoy the photos…

  13. Proofreading: in “There is, to my my eyes, real beauty in bleak landscapes, not just in the Cambrians, but in the Scottish highands” you double “my” and leave out the l in highlands.

    The feeling that we can’t appreciate moorland for what it is feels like arguments against desert, or that we should only write poems about spring and summer, and not winter or autumn:
    Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

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