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Protecting what we love

Protecting what we love

Scratch the surface of any countryside campaigner and you will find a deep love for the wider environment, usually prompted by a personal connection to a specific place.  

Even one of the most cerebral defenders of ‘amenity’, John Ruskin, felt ‘the pure childish love of nature’ during a teenage visit to Catterick Bridge in 1837, where he was overcome by the ‘supernatural charm’ of the ‘clear pebble-bedded stream and dells of upland’. The experience took on an ‘extreme intensity’ after four years spent travelling the continent; reconnecting with the English landscape ‘was like coming home again’.

For so many of us, our love of the countryside is entwined with memories of childhood trips, or the familiarity of places we’ve grown to know intimately. In 1911, the Sussex poet Hilaire Belloc famously wrote that ‘a man comes to love with all his heart, that part of the earth which nourished his boyhood’. But the idea that we should feel love for where we live may never have taken hold without the thinking of Ruskin’s greatest follower, William Morris. At a time when only the most spectacular or ‘sublime’ landscapes were celebrated by poets and painters, Morris argued that we ‘must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what beauty and sympathy there is in it’.

As far as Morris was concerned, anyone who failed to be moved by the meadows and hedgerows of England was just as unlikely to appreciate a huge Swiss mountain. The secret to this love of understated natural beauty, Morris argued in 1894, was to understand that rural England had ‘character in landscape’ – in other words, evidence of human activity ‘telling a tale of life and incident’. The definition of ‘romance’, he had previously argued, was the ‘power of making the past part of the present’. It was the knowledge that every place has its own heritage that, for Morris, turned ‘almost all “flat and uninteresting country”’ into ‘a fairyland full of beauty and interest’.

With the decline of so many of our native species it is increasingly the wildlife of the countryside that has renewed this interest. Indeed, a new generation of nature writers have encouraged us to love our landscapes as living repositories of natural history, as well as human stories. And it is this renewed love that is inspiring campaigners and individuals to take action over issues like the use and disposal of plastic packaging. In the context of climate change, it is heartening to see how relatively small actions and changes in behaviour can help secure the future of our natural environment, and that we continue to be motivated by a desire to protect what we love.

As for Ruskin’s view from Catterick Bridge - it remains charming, if rather less peaceful than in 1837, being penned in on three sides by a car park, the A1(M) and an industrial estate. Perhaps this only serves to remind us of the need to be careful of encroaching on the special places that are capable of inspiring the environmentalists of the future. As Morris put it, ‘surely there is no square mile of earth's inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty’.

Our love of the countryside is entwined with memories of childhood trips, or the familiarity of places we’ve grown to know intimately

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