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Isn't It Romantic?

Wild means wild, and natural means natural -- doesn't it?

Even those who have never visited England's rain-soaked northwest would find somehow familiar its landscape of bare mountain crags enveloped in low scudding mists, hillside heaths, browsing black-faced sheep, stone-wall-bordered meadows, meandering streams, hammock valleys, and deep glacial lakes. For the Lake District, as it's known, is the moody English landscape of film and TV, where Wordsworth and Coleridge walked, wrote, and imagined a new relationship between people and nature.

The irony is that if left to nature, these iconic landscapes would disappear. Left to run freely, streams would eventually leave their channeled courses and form braided deltas. The tidy, manicured lakeshores prized by Lake District devotees would turn into ragged wetlands.

So is this a natural landscape or a living picture book? "The Lake District has applied for listing as a World Heritage site," National Trust archaeologist Jamie Lund says, "not because it's a biosphere reserve but because of its value as a landscape that inspired writers and artists who, in turn, inspired the ideals of the Romantic movement and formed the roots of the environmental movement."

Concern for the environment would seem to follow, and efforts to conserve natural resources and wildlife have been ongoing (and, in the case of osprey and peregrines, heroic). But not without conflicts. Although the Lake District is a national park, 42,200 people live within its 885 square miles. Management of the park falls mainly to England's National Trust, which must concern itself not only with the iconolatry of the 15.8 million tourists who visit each year but also with agricultural and economic development.

At Lake Windermere, England's largest, the Trust works with other groups to allow reed beds to spread, reduce fertilizer inputs, and manage boat pollution. In Ennerdale, as areas of the Sitka spruce forests planted to increase timber reserves following World War I are harvested, natural succession may reestablish the oak woodlands that dominated England's northwest coast prior to fifteenth-century deforestation.

"Who would argue against new native woodlands?" Lund asks. "But what if they might result in the loss of an iconic landscape that our visitors know and enjoy?"

In the English context, the Lake District is a wild place. But to an American, wild means wild, and natural means natural. Or does it?

Different as the Lake District and Yosemite National Park may seem, the words of the Yosemite Scenic Vista Management Plan being implemented this fall could apply as well to both: first and foremost, "Yosemite National Park is an icon of scenic grandeur ... protected for public benefit and appreciation of the scenic landscape."

The Yosemite planners found that out of 181 special vistas, vegetation changes had partially obscured more than half and completely obscured another one-third. So the plan, for example, calls for removal of conifers that now obstruct the iconic view of El Capitan as photographed by Carleton Watkins and commemorated in a 1934 1-cent postage stamp. Offending conifers will also be excised from Yosemite meadowland vistas. These are not unnatural acts, says Kevin McCardle, the park's historical landscape architect. Yosemite was never the completely natural landscape early visitors imagined. Its first native inhabitants had practiced fire management that once controlled conifer growth.

The plan will preserve historic views "with the least impact to the natural environment," McCardle says. "We're not trying to manage based on people's assumptions of what these places look like." Yet the fact is that "we, as a species, connect to nature visually."

When Wordsworth was asked why he and Coleridge never completed their planned epic poem, "The Recluse, " an attempt to explain the relationship between humans and nature, he replied that the poet Thomas Gray had also attempted such a work but never finished it, "because he found he had undertaken something beyond his powers to accomplish. And that is my case."

image of Bruce Stutz
Bruce Stutz, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, became a contributing editor to OnEarth in the fall of 2004. He is the author of Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season (Scribner).