Steyn on Baroness Thatcher

I thought this was a particularly excellent bit from Mr. Steyn's remarks:
Some years ago, I found myself standing next to her at dusk in the window of a country house in the English East Midlands, not far from where she grew up. We stared through the lead diamond mullions at a perfect scene of ancient rural tranquility — lawns, the “ha-ha” (an English horticultural innovation), and the fields and hedgerows beyond, looking much as it would have done half a millennium earlier. Mrs. T asked me about my corner of New Hampshire (90 percent wooded and semi-wilderness) and then said that what she loved about the English countryside was that man had improved on nature: “England’s green and pleasant land” looked better because the English had been there. For anyone with a sense of history’s sweep, the strike-ridden socialist basket case of the British Seventies was not an economic downturn but a stain on national honor.
Americans have a different attitude about this, but possibly because we have failed to improve on nature in so many cases. Georgia was entirely stripped of its forests during the post-Civil War era by the colonial cotton monoculture that was imposed upon it by the banks and politicians who became so important in that era. To have gotten back the 'wooded and semi-wilderness' is an achievement, one that has restored a beauty long lost. From John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to our love of National Forests and Wilderness areas, in many cases we tend to think of nature as being incapable of improvement by human hands.

On the other hand, then Dr. Hanson has written movingly about how California had once been like Ms. Thatcher's England, and how it is dying from a refusal to maintain the dams and innovations that allowed the state to flourish from Mexico to its northern border. In the Dustbowl regions, man destroyed and man restored, but not by allowing nature to resume: rather, by learning to plant trees in such a way as to allow for farming without the loss of the topsoil. In California today as in the Dustbowl of old, the failure to maintain the gardens leads to a loss of beauty and strength.

The English have a wilderness tradition too, of course. Dr. Corrine J. Saunders wrote an excellent book on the forest in Medieval romance, which she convincingly links to the Biblical desert tradition: the Wild as a place of hermitage, of testing and spiritual renewal. That is also a good thing, and a necessary thing. But perhaps they understood gardens better than we do.


Eric Blair said...

Well, population density will do things to the landscape. Comparing that to North America is sort of comparing apples and oranges.

Everybody forgets scale.

douglas said...

Honestly, parts of the national forests and a large part of the national parks is as artificial as any English garden. It's done in a way that is in keeping with the English garden philosophically- as opposed to the French garden, which is geometrically precise, and is made to the forms of man- nature ruled and ordered by man- the English garden is meant to re-present nature in an idealized way, a fantastical natural landscape. We pretend that at the easily accessible areas in National Parks that we see nature, but it's pretty well modified, preserved (which is almost the most anti-natural thing you can do), and kept with the intent to keep man from actually getting in touch with nature (lest he 'destroy' it) by various circulation devices and prescribed pathways. It's all pleasant enough, but natural? Not if you take man-made to be 'the other' to nature.

There's a pretty good comparison of English to French gardens here.

Anonymous said...

The reason the Dust Bowl blows less is because of changes in farming technique, irrigation, and the reversion to ranching. But it still blows, just as it always has. if you look at archaeological sites that go back to the end of the Ice Age (12,000 Years Ago), you find periods where it blew worse than during the 1930s and 1950s. There are reports from Kansas in the 1800s about dust storms, likely in part from what is now Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, as well as Western Kansas. Dust blew in the 1850s and early 1860s, and the Comanche contributed to deforestation of the river and stream valleys by stripping bark to feed their horses. Aforestation has not been all that successful, because of the need to irrigate the trees. If you want a somewhat technical book about the process, I highly recommend Cunfer's "On the Great Plains," especially the later chapters.

Sorry for the sermon, but I've written two books on this topic. One is due out in the Fall of 2014, and the other should come out (crosses fingers) in 2016.


Grim said...

There's no reason to avoid sermons. We get them from time to time when the wide-ranging conversation happens to touch on someone's hot-button issue. :)

In any case, let us know when your book comes out!

Douglas, I was thinking of the parks when I intentionally omitted them. Now forest service roads can be a good example of how even the Forests are limited in the way you're talking about, but there are also wilderness areas (like the Slickrock Wilderness, where I've spent some time) in which the idea is that you can go out and really be in something like a wilderness. Those areas are as wild as we can let them be, though of course the fact that we go there at all makes for some human/nature interaction.

Texan99 said...

As passionately as I love nature, I agree with you entirely. It's true that there's a special horror in what bad stewardship does to nature, but that doesn't mean there isn't such a thing as good stewardship.