Having just returned from the Lake District National Park in northwestern England, there are a lot of thoughts going through my mind. Most of them are regarding the exams we have coming up in two short weeks, but there’s been a nagging uncertainty about an idea that I’ve held close, and it won’t go away no matter how much I try to justify or explain it to myself. Simply put, it’s about nature.
I’ve taken enough classes and had enough theoretical discourse to understand that nature itself is a misnomer. For one, who defines what nature is and on what grounds do they do so? Depending on the definition taken, it might be impossible to even name one place on Earth that would qualify as nature. In general it’s taken to mean undeveloped wilderness or wild lands, but even then this raises arguments about what exactly is “wilderness” or what is “wild” (for an example, see writings from William Cronon). And even then again, this raises further arguments about how these concepts of “wilderness” are only prevalent in society because they were made by white males and why do we follow this kind of thinking when they didn’t represent the majority and on and on and on we go. These debates are cyclical and never-ending, and ultimately no one is right because no one can agree.
So we stick with what we do know. The Lake District is considered a prime holiday and adventure spot for the UK, and indeed internationally. Cumbria has been building off this status for a long time, ever since the 1800s with the literary Romantic movement and descriptions of the region from Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Potter (Beatrix), for example. Though only recently has the “adventure” aspect come into play, the marketing and advertising of the Lakes has been centred on experiencing a kind of wilderness and natural beauty that isn’t found elsewhere in England. It has been promoted as a place to go for reconnecting with oneself, for recharging, and enjoying the best of life before it’s too late (e.g. our field centre used to be a sanatorium [hospice] for people who had TB). Frequently in adverts we see breathtaking pictures of the fells and amazing views that make us want to go and see this beauty for ourselves.
“From the start this obsession [of the Lake District] was – for visitors – a landscape of the imagination, an idealised landscape of the mind. It became a counterpoint to other things…for many, it was, from its ‘discovery’, a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not. For many people, it exists to walk over, to look at, or climb, or paint, or write about, or simply dream about. It is a place many aspire to visit or live in.” – xvi
But let’s focus on what else we know. The Lake District receives roughly 20 million annual visitors yet has about 42,000 residents. Most of these are farmers (there are 172 farms spread out through the valleys), who wouldn’t be able to financially survive without EU subsidies (farmers get pennies to the pound for wool in the normal market). Some of the farmers have taken to different means to diversify their income, often through attracting tourists via crafts, walking trails, experiencing farm life, and staying in self-catering b&bs. No one has any doubt that tourism keeps the region financially viable. Only 4% of the park is government-owned, whereas the largest landowner is the charity of The National Trust. The National Park Authority for the Lake District has 3 main aims: conserving/enhancing natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage; promoting education and enjoyment; and has a duty to foster economic and social well-being of residents.
“Above all, in the years after I left school and grew up, I learnt that we are not the only ones that love this place. It is, for better or for worse, a scenic playground for the rest of Britain, and for countless other people from around the world. I simply have to travel over the fell to Ullswater to see the cars streaming past on the roads, or the crows milling around the shore of the lake, to see what this means.” – xvii
Now let’s move to the past: the Lake District isn’t natural, and it’s most certainly not wild. Archaeological evidence has pointed to the region being inhabited since at least the 1300s, and probably before that. Sheep-farming has most likely been the way of life here since about that time as well and, for hundreds of years, the people worked the land as they saw fit to survive (stone walls have been dated to at least 600 years old). Though the Romantic movement stoked interest for weary industrialites down south, only a half-century earlier the Lake District was described as “wild”, “frightful”, and overall full of “terror precipices.” But there were still farmers during this time. As a soon-to-be-retired farmer recalled to us, every farm used to be self-sufficient, and indeed the towns used to be self-sufficient as well. After WWII subsidies encouraged food production, which incentivised farmers to plough where they normally wouldn’t. The subsidy was based on the number of animals, so farmers got more until there was complete overgrazing; it didn’t stop until the farmers agreed amongst themselves to reduce stock to allow the land to recover. This has resulted in what looks like a land scar, whereby the tops of the fells are completely barren (common land, purportedly the largest amount in western Europe), and only below the stone walls are there fields of green, representing farmers’ individual plots. Indeed the entire region of Cumberland, north Lancashire, and Westmorland (now modern Cumbria…mostly) used to be wooded, but centuries of human activity led to a reality of only 4% wooded land by the end of WWI. The Forestry Commission works to abate further decline via plantations, but even their original remit was to do so in order to extract timber, not necessarily commit to afforestation for the sake of afforestation. Today its remit has expanded to include conservation and supporting local communities, but extraction has not vanished in any sense.
“I listened [to the teacher], getting more and more aggravated, as I realised that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a ‘wild’ landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers…people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had ‘really done something.’ Occasionally she would utter a name in a reverential tone and look in vain for us to respond with interest. One of the names was ‘Alfred Wainwright’, another was ‘Chris Bonnington’; and she kept going on and on about someone called ‘Wordsworth.’
I’d never heard of any of them. I don’t think anyone in that hall, who wasn’t a teacher, had.” – xv
What does this tell us? The Lake District isn’t natural. There is no naturalness about any part of the District except for the topography and probably some aspects of the lakes themselves. In fact, the park applied to be UNESCO World Heritage natural site, but eventually were rejected (they have since re-applied under being named a cultural site, for which they are expecting the positive announcement later this year). The anthropocentric format of the fells and the park then makes sense, and shouldn’t be hard to digest. But it still leaves a nag, and I think this comes from where I grew up.
It was nearing lunchtime, and we were nearing the peak-line of Walla Cragg, seemingly towering over Derwent Water but paling in comparison to its taller siblings on either side of the lake. I looked ahead to the rest of the group and saw the half-kilometre-long snake of students winding its way toward the rest stop. When I pulled myself up to join the last flat walk along the northern ridgeline, I was embraced by a majestic view of the western and northern fells, which only became grander as I followed the line to the lookout point, jumping over small streams and waterfall beginnings on the way. Pictures were taken in abundance, and it was fantastic: wooded areas hugging the water, the church steeple rising up above Keswick, hills looking like dark sleeves had been pulled over them to keep out the cold, the yellow splashes of gorse dotting the slopes; it was a brilliant image. Just before we all sat down to eat, however, the picture was shattered with the reminding words of one of our professors, “By the way, none of what you’re looking at is natural.”
Why does this affect me in such a way? Nothing has changed from the second before these words were uttered for the first time to the second after (I was first told this after a grueling early-morning climb up one of the tallest fells, Blencathra, and it still struck me as it did here). But in my head, this sentence is a slow knife breaking away at the mirror I was holding to nature and shattering the image at my feet. And yet, crucially, the view in the mirror is the exact same. So what’s the deal? Growing up I was exposed to the national parks in the US, and in particular the last several years I’ve been in the midst of redwood trees and other environments that could only have become the way they look today after having remained in that same state for hundreds if not thousands of years. I always hear about the 11,000 year-old trees in Oregon, and the old forests of the West. To me, these represent “natural,” which is reflected in how the park system differs between the US and the UK: the former is a fortress model of conservation (the only development is park infrastructure), whereas the latter is patchwork (the park incorporates existing towns and villages).
However, it’s not like the US parks weren’t affected by human presence; ironically, they were shaped by human presence for arguably as long if not longer than those in the Lake District. But this doesn’t change how I see the parks at home. Is it because the natives at home generally lived with the forests instead of deforesting? Is it due to the overall majesty of the topography that doesn’t show itself in the Lakes? To be fair, when I learned that the oak woodland habitat of the northern Californian foothills are relics of the fire management done by Native Americans, that also turned my world upside down a bit, but not to the extent the statement in Cumbria did.
Actually, I’ve just thought of it..this feeling – you know what it is? It’s one of being lied to. It’s a sense of betrayal. I’m not British. I come from a state where we have the Redwoods and well-known landscapes like Half Dome and Big Sur, which are advertised as natural. Though I’ve lived where people have been for thousands of years, I haven’t embraced a land which has been worked so intensively that it is unrecognisable. Yes of course I’ve always stood at the lookout in my hometown, allowing my gaze to sweep over the complete urban sprawl that is my community and my region, and wonder what this would have looked like all those years ago. But I was never told this was a natural area. We don’t joke about that; there are few who would look at where I was raised and say with all certainty it’s natural. The national parks up north and east from where I live don’t directly say natural, but that’s the implication, which the fortress model of conservation reinforces. Isolation to some extent is almost always guaranteed. Maybe the Lake District never has advertised itself as natural; maybe I’m just recalling an idealised version of adverts and yearnings I’ve heard from family from years past. Maybe I’ve learned to associate the Lake District with natural because of how the pictures online and on social media mimic the Romantic, English literary poems that bring to mind the landscape paintings by artists like Bierstadt. Maybe it’s because these pictures are – intentionally or not – reminiscent of the pictures we always see of the US National Parks. Whatever it is, the reality of the Lake District is damning to this ideology, and I feel this deep sense of betrayal.
“Sitting in that assembly was the first time I’d encountered this (basically romantic) way of looking at our landscape. I realised then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as ‘the Lake District’, had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood…there are places where it doesn’t feel like it’s ours any more, as if the guests have taken over the guest-house.
So that teacher’s idea of the Lake District was created by an urbanized and increasingly industrialised society, over the past two hundred years. It was a dream of a place for a wider society that was full of people disconnected from the land.
That dream was never for us, the people who work this land. We were already here doing what we do.” – xv, xviii
I’ve always wondered how I would be able to fully understand a country and its people with as complex a history as England, especially regarding the countryside and its environment…I think I’m finally on that path. It’s ironic that it’s hitting me as deeply as this, considering this is my degree and people will hopefully continue to enjoy the region for generations to come. For of course, the Lake District is beautiful. It’s inspiring. It’s foreboding. It’s picturesque, and it has its own admirable identity. But it is not natural.
*Quotes taken from The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, also known as “The Herdwick Shepherd.” Page numbers are referenced.