Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 4

This post has been a long time coming, and some things have happened in the meantime that have caused me to re-think what I should call the second landscape value I want to articulate. It seems worthwhile nonetheless to start from my original thinking, since the limitations I now see in it are themselves instructive.

Tree decoration encountered in the Children’s Wood. Photo from my Instagram experiment (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow)

I wanted to write about the value of ‘landscape sovereignty’, and by this I meant to highlight the surprising and bewildering qualities of neglected and unregulated landscapes. I was thinking in particular of the way different areas of the North Kelvin Meadow (particularly the Children’s Wood) change on an almost daily basis, such that any visit is likely to turn up new objects, structures and other interventions in the landscape–the intentions of which are sometimes clear (as with the addition of new gardens, ‘bug hotels’, birdhouses etc.) and sometimes not.  Overall, the frequency and the variety of these interventions turn the meadow into a vibrant as well as unpredictable and sometimes bewildering space of inscription. It is maximally inclusive of active participation in its shaping. The legibility of this inclusiveness makes it a welcoming place for a variety of experimental, marginal and sometimes illegal activities. I see the majority of these in terms of the provision of creative, safe spaces for people and activities that are not welcome or don’t have as free reign elsewhere. (Of course, this inclusivity also makes the meadow susceptible to destructive activities; I would guess that as many trees have been removed, burned or otherwise damaged as have been planted there over the last year.) Perhaps even more important, a diverse and open-ended space of inscription enables explorations similar to those described with respect to the value of visual density, but pertaining to the social dimensions of wilderness. They also invite further participation in the shaping of the landscape–even if that often ends up being preoccupied with repairing the damage caused by others.

I still believe all these things are true and important, and would attribute them equally to the woods at Kilmahew (perhaps especially the ruined seminary, which has been a pilgrimage site for graffiti artists, ravers and arsonists since its closure in the mid 1980s). Except that now a massive rhododendron removal is underway there and the landscape has been so thoroughly and violently altered, that the idea of it possessing any sovereignty seems painfully naive.

For the ‘before’ version, see a previous post:

I think the mistake is in attributing the qualities I have observed and value to the landscape itself–as if it were something essential or enduring, when in reality, landscapes such as Kilmahew and the NK meadow are only circumstantially (and usually temporarily) sovereign. In most ways, their specific qualities and local significance are much more tenuous than those of a well-established and regulated landscape (though these too can be vulnerable to economic pressures, as the proposed sell-off of Glasgow’s Victoria Park demonstrates). There are so many reasons for this vulnerability that I feel slightly embarrassed about wanting to write about landscape ‘sovereignty’. However, there is something in this wish that seems worth excavating.

I think the effect or impression of sovereignty signals something important, something to do with the relations that shape a landscape while it remains unregulated. Perhaps another way of reading inclusivity is in terms of instability and indeterminancy. The ‘community’ that coalesces around use of the meadow could be accused of not knowing what it wants, just as the state of the woods at Kilmahew was seen, not to constitute but to obscure the landscape. In other words, part of what is legible in such landscapes, is the ongoing failure–or more positively, the struggle to appear–of those relationships and ways of working that might shape and care for landscapes in ways that are different from those implied in top-down processes of design and regulation. From this perspective, there is no sovereignty of landscape, just different degrees of openness and indeterminancy in the relations implicated therein.

So while I no longer think it makes sense to write of ‘landscape sovereignty’, the ongoing event of its simulation, through more-than-human social processes and investments that are contextual in the extreme, is of great interest and value in itself. What can we learn from such landscapes about the circumstances of social change and the constraints on sustained innovation? From this perspective, between a simulated sovereignty and visual density (which, due to some of the long term side-effects of unrestrained growth is perhaps equally tenuous), neglected and unregulated landscapes start to have a pedagogic or social scientific value. Recognizing this value is perhaps less a question of aesthetic appreciation and more one of social learning and experimentation.

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