Wild landscapes and Wind power

A ‘Twitter friend‘ of mine, Tom Wilkinson, recently wrote a very interesting blog posting that I want to recommend if you haven’t already seen it: Land of Confusion. He asks questions about the ways we construct the idea of the natural landscape:

Centuries of land-shaping activities such as clearing forests for farming and the building of infrastructure have left the landscape far removed from its original pre-human form. Is the ‘natural landscape’ these days just another manufactured environment, built upon layers of already commodified space?

Questions about wildness and natural landscapes are occupying my mind quite a bit just now, not least since I have (finally!) started putting the first chapters of my Wind power exploration on line. Part of this series, of course, will be about exploring the concepts of ‘wild land’ and what that means, and I don’t really want to discuss that at length just now since it will come up in forthcoming chapters.

I have been prompted to think about this now by seeing reports today from the John Muir Trust and the Scotsman. What I find particularly interesting here is this idea of ‘threat’ from wind farms: altering the landscape is treated as something new, as if human beings have not constantly altered and changed the landscape, even if that means leaving it unaltered (National Parks etc.) – that’s a form of human intervention and change too! And in any case, climate change is bringing about more changes in the landscape than we can possibly imagine.

I wonder if a more constructive way of engaging with this is to reflect on what changes are desirable, and what are not. I think much of this might have to do with size, as Rob Hudson suggested in his comment on my first Wind power chapter.

Iona North End, looking across to Mull, August 2012 (Fuji Velvia 50)

Iona North End, looking across to Mull, August 2012 (Fuji Velvia 50)

Perhaps the fence – designed to keep sheep in, and low enough for me to jump over – and the disused lobster nets are small enough not to diminish the calm beauty of the early morning scene here? Would the scene be less beautiful if there were tall wind turbines on the hills on Mull?

I don’t really have definitive answers to these questions, but I’m also wary of those who claim that there are definitive answers…

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4 thoughts on “Wild landscapes and Wind power

  1. tomwilkinsonphotographyTom Wilkinson

    Great picture here Michael, it really highlights my interests in this ‘altered landscape’ discussion. What strikes me is the traces of past land-usage- something that often goes unnoticed and is taken for granted. Thinking about these micro-histories leads me back to how wild land has been tamed and used. I think our preconceptions of wilderness, and what we now expect it should be, are borne from cultural imagery, stories, myths and memories, but what we call ‘wild’ today is actually as managed as anything else, in the name of conservation. I can’t help but feel a touch of hypocrisy in this. Most of my local Nature Reserves here in middle-England were once quarries, gravel pits and other sites used to profit from the land at one time or another, but are now presented as SSSI’s to a new generation of people who are unaware of their past. Wind farms are modern conundrum, giving the promise of renewable energy, at the cost of spoiling pretty views. There is, of course, no mistaking their presence and I think people are wary of them as it points to the shameful way we have exploited fossil fuels and they act as a marker on the land as retribution for this. The images in your project so far give the turbines a mysterious presence, as if they are as uncomfortable being placed in the landscape as we are looking at them; very interesting!

    What I think is important in my own particular photographic exploration of this (rather large!) topic is how I represent the way I feel about such sites. I could easily show topographical photos laced with irony, and that would be suitably British of me, but I want to give the land itself a voice- what do I think it is telling me? Its beauty still shines, but is dulled by traces of the scars of industry which it has tried to conceal in a humble, dignified way.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Tom, thanks for commenting, these are exactly the kinds of questions that I want to ask! Your point about SSSIs having been quarries etc. is a good example of what we mean by ‘wildness’ in a contemporary context.
      An interesting aspect of this is the concept of ‘rewilding’ – if I wanted to be acerbic about it, I might say it is the perfect example of human (re-)intervention seeking to create a supposed idyll that previous human intervention destroyed. See for example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/opencountry_20080719.shtml and George Monbiot from this week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22706729 and http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8920911/meet-the-greatest-threat-to-our-countryside-sheep/. There is much to think about in this regard.
      I very much like the idea of wind turbines representing a kind of shame. Your articulation of this is provoking all kinds of interesting thoughts for me. You may see the results of this at some point in the future! 🙂

  2. Mike Green

    Hi Michael,

    A shortened version of my bizarrely lost comment on this.

    To give a view on your question at the end: yes, I think the scene would be less beautiful were there to be wind turbines on the far horizon; and yes, it’s to do with scale.

    Stepping back slightly, I certainly concur with your point that the landscape has been dramatically changed by the presence of humans over many centuries, and it’s in many ways arbitrary to suddenly say “this is how it should be”. The Yorkshire Dales is a prime example, one which I live in and am looking at as I write. There’s virtually nothing which is not man-made here, at least on the surface! Essentially it’s a large set of sheep enclosures and everything on it is devoted to house and rear sheep. (There are exceptions to that, but they’re relatively few in the national park itself.) I happen to like it as it is: those thoroughly unnatural changes are all smaller than the landscape itself. There are walls everywhere, yet viewed from a distance, Ingleborough is not fundamentally changed: its outline is untouched, the walls in the valleys are constructed of the limestone – the human changes are certainly both significant and all-encompassing, yet they’re unobtrusive.

    Looking at a form of energy production: I can gaze westward and see the huge block of a nuclear power station near Morecambe. It’s certainly noticeable, but it barely alters the view; it’s not obtrusive. Indeed, it’s not dissimilar to many lumps of ‘real landscape’ surrounding Morecambe Bay. It’s thoroughly unnatural, yet in keeping with its surroundings (at the large scale).

    Critically, all these unnatural features – walls, fences, nuclear power stations – mimic nature in that they don’t move. The entirely natural landscape (which doesn’t exist in England of course) has numerous straight lines, large blocky things and small, boxy things (lobster pot equivalents); few of them, in the normal course of events, move.

    Wind turbines are completely other, in those terms. Firstly, humans have evolved to notice movement; it helped with fleeing from predators and finding prey. We notice movement very, very acutely; so, we notice turbines since they rotate. Secondly, their scale is considerably greater than any other man-made artefact placed in ‘wild’ landscapes, at least given that they’re planted in clumps. Looking westward from Ingleborough, the nuclear power station at Morecambe is very hard to discern much of the time (the light has to be on it, or it has to be backlit against the bay); the half a dozen [small!] turbines on a [small!] hill near Caton are, however, utterly visible at all times, even in the dark when moonlit.

    Whilst the land is undeniably industrialised already, turbines do far more than anything else to shout INDUSTRIALISED. I like the illusion of non-industrialisation, of some remnant of wildness; turbines destroy that over an enormously large radius of visibility.

    So, whilst the argument to ‘stop changing the countryside’ will always be liable to the objection that ‘we always’ have’, there are some types of change which can be absorbed gracefully and some which are considerably more radical and obtrusive. It’ll be interesting to see how obtrusive ‘solar farms’ are. My guess is ‘not very’, in that they’ll be largely on flat land, not over-looked and, most importantly, both low and immobile!

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, I’ve been meaning to respond for days…
      I think a key word in your comment is ‘illusion’:

      I like the illusion of non-industrialisation…

      For the vast majority of our landscape, non-industrialisation IS an illusion, and as you suggest, the nuclear power station only works in that way for you because you’re at a distance from it. Of course, such things can also be portrayed as objects of beauty (Bruce Percy’s images of Torness move into that kind of way of looking), but they are obviously much less inconspicuous when close up, as are wind turbines. Of course, wind turbines are conspicuous from a distance too, but nuclear power stations – or indeed coal power stations, as the image in my first blog posting on wind farms showed – can be conspicuous from a distance as well. I wonder if that is just by chance that “your” nuclear power station is not so conspicuous (or perhaps part of your choice of where to live?).
      Tom’s thoughts on ‘shame’ intrigue me, because I wonder if wind turbines can legitimately be seen as a “price” we have to pay for our profligate and irresponsible use of fossil and other fuels in the past. The industrialisation of large parts of the landscape is something that our society has pursued over many years, and though some more rural areas have been impacted, at one time what we now think of as industrialised landscapes were also rural, of course. That raises issues about the “return” of industrialised land to a more rural context. Related to this, the next issue for me is about broader environmental impacts as well as environmental aesthetics: the consequences of using nuclear power (in terms of disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, but also simply in terms of the unresolved question of waste fuel disposal) and the pollution from coal etc. require urgent consideration from our society. If renewables such as wind farms, tidal or solar power can resolve some of that, perhaps we need to accept them more readily?
      The question of movement is a key one, I agree. Whilst we may see smoke coming out of a chimney, I’d suggest that we don’t tend to think of that as movement. Turbine blades clearly do involve movement, and that is something I am picking up on, also photographically. I’ll not say more about this just now.

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