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This land belongs to ...

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Inclusion of minorities in access to the outdoors
We don't want your sort around here

As hacks everywhere know, it's good to start with an attention-grabbing and provocative statement, so here's one. I don't like 'the outdoors'.

As hinted by the scare quotes, and by all of the other content on this website, I'm not talking about what is signified by the phrase. I'm talking about the phrase itself. It makes the entirety of the world's non-urbanised, non-indoor space (i.e. most of it) a thing, something definably other to an assumed norm. Something you can be into, like cinema or baking, something with the conceptual solidity to define an 'industry'. The assumed norm is of course that we are 'indoors', and that 'outdoors' is somewhere else, something else, a safe bet for the do-before-you-die list, but ultimately optional.

To put this in perspective, I'm not losing sleep on it. I use the term myself, unthinkingly, on a daily basis. But if I scratch at what it is that I dislike, it's the implication that spending time in wild-feeling, untamed spaces is anything less than standard, expected even, as normal a part of everyday healthy life as eating vegetables. That said, I feel the spectre of Privilege ballooning darkly on the horizon of this proposal, because not everyone has ease of access to such places. So I'd better draw some boundaries around what I'm saying.

According to data, which I'm sure is imperfect for various reasons, 56% and rising of the world's population lives in urban areas. In the UK, as in Europe, it's about 84%. Rural-urban migration is a correlate of increasing prosperity, and a more urban lifestyle for many people in the world entails better opportunities and rising living standards. I don't want to oversimplify: the fact of someone living in a city says nothing about the time they spend out of it, and it's not as though all 'rural' places represent a more nourishing environment. Having a higher proportion of people in cities is also more ecologically efficient. But anyway, the point is that to someone who's moved from scraping a fragile living on the stony soils of a mountainside to scraping a slightly less fragile living in the city, the idea of the wild outdoors being distanced might not be something to complain about. To anyone whose living is being 'scraped' at all, perhaps. Even allowing for relative affluence, there are other barriers for people - physical, social, cultural. As a hierarchy of needs thing, it's not at the lowest foundation.

With that caveat dealt, I believe that spending time in places less impacted by humans has intrinsic value for everyone (I could say 'in nature' but I object to the way that word is used as well, setting 'it' apart from 'us'). This is hardly a radical thesis - there's plenty of research, not to mention ubiquitous anecdotal evidence, to back it up. That's not to say everyone is going to 'get it' as soon as they go for a walk in the countryside - obviously this isn't the case. It's not a panacea, everyone is different, and for any number of reasons outdoor experiences can be negative ones. My conviction that it's ultimately a good thing is basically anthropological: for nearly the entirety of human history, we have lived in close connection with the natural world, both part of it and pitted against it. A few industrialised generations does not make us a different species (at least not yet). There's nothing romantic or fuzzy about this: it is what we are. It puts us in our place.

So far, so Attenborough. But here's the awkward bit: while on principle I want what's best for my fellow species members, when it suits me I also want it all to myself.

That's not reasonable, obviously, nor is it always true. My own tribe is welcome, at least some of the time (who is part of my tribe varies and depends, I'll come back to that). I can even enjoy the presence of others sometimes too. But the unedifying truth is that my instinctive response to seeing lots of other people on a mountain summit or a secluded beach is to wish either they, or I, were somewhere else.

There might be some post-hoc justification for this feeling if it turns out the people are having an actively damaging impact on a place: littering or letting their dogs shit everywhere or causing noise pollution or whatever. Maybe even if the impact is no more than a by-product of their presence, like erosion or habitat damage, though as always you can't complain too much about traffic when you are traffic. Often factors such as these may play a part in my reaction and will certainly vitalise it, but even when a crowd of people is behaving impeccably I can resent them.

I don't want to let my cognitive dissonance off lightly, but part of this selfishness may be excused by the fact that the experience of a wild space is changed by the presence of lots of other people. I may be a bit introvert, but on a straw poll of the many people I've chatted to about this sort of thing, it's not unusual. It's also not surprising. We are socially complex creatures, and complexity is tiring. That is the magic of solitude and silence, the simplicity and immediacy of being in a wild landscape. The indifference of it. Many of my peak experiences, the kind of things that have inspired me to write in fact, are charged by the feeling of insignificance, of being no more than a wisp of atoms briefly stirred together, a tiny locus of consciousness in the vast whole.

There are sometimes other shades to my misanthropy. One is similar to that childish effect of liking a band before they were famous: this is my special place, it's not the same now that everyone is into it. It's not mine, of course, and I don't act as though it is. But ownership is at the heart of this, and in the special case of land, ownership can mean different things.

One of the most influential pieces of verse in my life, which also happens to be written about one of the most influential places, is Norman MacCaig's A Man in Assynt, from which these lines are taken:

Who owns this landscape? – The millionaire who bought it or the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? – The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?

False questions, for this landscape is masterless and intractable in any terms that are human.

This touches on so much: competing claims to a sense of ownership, the reversal of passive roles in that relationship; actual legal ownership; the hubris of any such claim.

Loch Roe, Assynt

Going back to that hierarchy of needs, above basic survival and safety from harm, is 'love and belonging'. In the model this means belonging in a social and kinship sense, but it says a lot for how much a sense of belonging matters to us: having strong bonds, intimacy, support, and there is obviously a large overlap between feelings of belonging and a sense of owning. When it comes to land that overlap is clearly pretty potent when you consider, at its worst, the wars that have been fought for that reason. No wonder that a feeling of affinity for a landscape can kindle a sense of possessiveness. That may be expressed for the good, as responsible stewardship, but when there is friction between one claim and another, whose belonging counts for the most?

When I was working a delivery driving job during Covid, there was a conversation one day at the depot about Mountain Rescue, which as usual let fly outraged anecdotes about irresponsible, ignorant people needing rescue, in this case on Snowdon - and not just any people, in the view of the deputy manager, but people of colour. The words came out of his mouth italicised, almost spat. I guess it speaks for my sheltered existence that I was stunned by hearing someone say something so overtly and maliciously racist. It may get me in trouble to say so, and it's obviously a generalisation, but having lived in several parts of the UK, North Wales is not the friendliest of places towards outsiders of any stripe. But in terms of actual racism, I have no idea whether it's better or worse than anywhere else in predominantly white, rural Britain. What is certainly true is that there are far more brown faces among the weekend tourists around Snowdonia than there were even five or ten years ago, and among those who don't want to see more brown faces, this clearly is not welcome.

'The outdoors' in general is of course very predominantly white. Overall it's probably predominantly middle-class too. There may be a gulf between those who actually feel that this is how it should be, and those who just take that status quo for granted without approving or even thinking about it, but either way it reinforces the effect that not everyone has equal freedom to feel that they belong in these places, or that these places belong to them. Bearing in mind this injustice is a handy remedy for my own miserliness - now I want everyone to feel welcome! Unless of course, they are riding a jetski or flying a drone, at which point all magnanimity is void.

More fundamentally unjust even than that is ownership of land in this country in a literal sense, the legal system around property: a state of affairs which excludes from outdoor spaces not only minorities, but all of us.

Britain is a crowded island, but it's not crowded very evenly. If you shared the whole of its 60 million acres out equally, every person would own about an acre each (you would hope not to get a chunk of the M25, or the neighbouring acre to Suella Braverman). Do you know how big an acre is? On my grandparents' farm all the talk was about acres, but as a quasi-modern man I don't habitually see space that way - it's a bit more than half a football pitch. When you put it like that, you realise a few things: that it's sort of remarkable we have any wild-feeling space at all, how small a percentage of the population must frequent it, and the fact that if they did, it probably wouldn't feel so wild. Suddenly everywhere would be more like the summits of Snowdon or Ben Nevis on a bank holiday weekend.

So how do 60 million people access the big outside without compromising what's actually good about it? Allowing access to the majority of it is a really good start, and a way in which Scotland is way ahead of the rest of the UK. Under the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act, only 10% of England and Wales is covered by open-access rights. Ten per cent! Granted, a decent proportion of the remaining private land is cultivated or industrialised or otherwise unsuitable or unattractive for recreation (at least right now), but there are vast swathes of beautiful countryside - woods, rivers - which are closed to the public.

And where does ownership come in? Simply, if you own land, you have a huge amount of influence over what happens on it. Access is one thing, but its benefits are limited if the land and everything that lives on it is spoiled by pollution, mismanagement or bad farming practices, or is sold off for unaffordable housing or whatever else. The institution of land ownership is so ingrained in the structure of our society that most people never even think about it. They should, because land is power, and land ownership in Britain amounts to a catalogue of scandals of epic proportions that we continue to live with unquestioningly.

As Andy Wightman puts it,

'land rights that appear legitimate and almost sacred today are, in fact, the product of a long and none-too-wholesome history...landowners today are the beneficiaries of the nefarious deeds of their ancestors thanks to the legitimacy afforded by a land law system that their ancestors themselves constructed'.

Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers

He's writing about Scotland, but the rest of Britain is much the same:

'Many of England's largest landowners have acquired their land through inheritance; an inheritance that often has been built on the back of conquest and enclosure'.

Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England

The history of this is a huge topic but it's fascinating, and anyone who hasn't read at least the above-quoted books really should - it's our country, and we should understand the power structures that govern it: the enduring legacies of feudalism, conquest, theft, enclosure, and a legal system which ensures that land is valued more as an investment and a hoarding of power than as a basic necessity for the thriving of people and the rest of the living world. One of the ways those structures remain unchallenged is deliberate opacity - it is still nearly impossible in many cases to find out who actually owns a piece of land. Go to other countries - France, Denmark, New Zealand - and you can access that information for free. Land reforms that have taken place in the past two centuries have been resisted every step of the way by the 1% who own, in the case of England, over half of it, and who will predictably continue to wield their powerful influence to do so.

Lord Newborough sends his regards

I'm going to reproduce this apocryphal story from Who Owns Scotland about a miner walking home with a brace of pheasants and meeting the landowner who demands he hand them over, not only because it chimes with the Norman MacCaig quote but also because it encapsulates the feelings the status quo should invoke so satisfyingly:

'Your land, eh?' asks the miner.

'Yes,' replies the laird, 'and my pheasants.'

'And who did you get this land from?'

'Well, I inherited it from my father.'

'And who did they get it from?' the miner insists.

'His father of course. The land has been in my family for over 400 years,' the laird splutters.

'OK, so how did your family come to own this land 400 years ago?' the miner asks.

'Well...well...they fought for it!'

'Fine,' replies the miner. 'Take your jacket off and I'll fight you for it now.'

It's easy to forget, in my world anyway, how powerful the aristocracy in Britain still is (the estimate in Who Owns England is that 'old money' owns about 30% of it), though I suppose the country's pathological relationship to the Royal Family is a reminder, albeit a bizarre and distorted one, of how deferential we are. It's not to say that the gentry are necessarily always the worst culprits as private landowners (or even public ones) for how land is treated or access to it restricted, but the concentration of land ownership in the hands of so few people, in a country that pretends to be modern and pays lip service to fairness and 'levelling up', is insane. Even conservatives to some extent recognise this: the Tory manifesto in 2017 proposed complete open source mapping of land data, with a mind to 'release massive value from our land' (there hasn't been much noise about this since, probably because of the forever-war of 'getting Brexit done'). Their reasons may be stolidly economic - addressing the housing crisis, promoting growth by putting land to more effective use - but if a side effect is putting in plain sight the disastrous inequality of a tiny number of people reaping unearned benefits at the expense of the common good, it will be a step in the right direction.

Warning: may provoke displeasure with the way things are

We need more land reforms, clearly: for the health of our environment, for us. I haven't even mentioned grouse moors, monoculture plantations, 'land managers' murdering anything that isn't livestock or game, fishing rights, camping bans, pesticides, overgrazing, dredging, water companies dumping sewage. But then, going back to the hypothetical idea of Britain split 60 million ways: even with proper rights to roam, expansion of commons land, extensive rewilding, better management of cultivated land, less pollution, fewer social barriers to wild places - is there enough space for everyone to have regular experience of real wildness?

Pragmatically, it's hard to imagine there ever not being honeypots, places 'sacrificed' to the crowds, either because of convenience of access (city parks), iconic status (the highest peaks), exceptional beauty, and probably most often a combination of the three. Opening up some ancient woods in Buckinghamshire, wonderful though that would be, won't save the Fairy Pools. And by the same token, you're never going to be queuing for a summit selfie in Knoydart. Those willing to make the effort, and to use their imaginations, will get their nectar.

Underpinning all of this, critically, is better education, amounting to a cultural shift in how we relate to the natural environment. Not much to ask, eh? As it stands in our state of disconnect, we cause more damage than the gains are worth when we turn up in plague numbers, and some fragile habitats are better off without us to such an extent that we probably should be banned. So even more than education, or rather as part of it, we need connection, because connection leads to love and caring.

There are tricky circles to square in this. We create National Parks for people to connect with the landscape, and then ban them from sleeping in it because they left a mess, which sums up rather a lot. Humans don't have a strong legacy when it comes to not shitting our own beds. But how can connection flourish if it's kept in a small box?

I don't have a tidy solution or unifying principle that satisfies everything at once. My busy and inefficient mind runs like water in limestone, dripping and percolating and running off sideways on bedding planes; and I have only a cryptic sense of the space in which a better way forward exists, but a sure one. It is something fundamental, something basic, in the relationship between the land, the unheeded bedrock of our existence, and us.

We can't be prisoners of history, burdened with the legacies of resource conflict and greed. There are simply too many of us for that. Land must belong to everyone. So I myself have something to learn about sharing, because I am not the only neurotic ape that needs its big outside.

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