Monday, 7 December 2009

Conservation kitsch

Article in the Observer about beavers being introduced to Scotland (I nearly wrote 'reintroduced' but there's very little evidence that they were ever there). The main reason to bring them back appears to be that man made them extinct (if they were ever there, that is) so it's man's duty to restore them. Other creatures may follow in their wake, such as wolves and lynxes.

The main argument against doing this is that a family of beavers gets through about three hundred trees a year, they dam rivers, flood valleys and eat fish, including salmon: evidently strong practical grounds. I'm sure I wouldn't like a local valley to be beavered: have its trees turned to stumps, footpaths flooded. If I owned or fished a beat of river I'd obviously be particularly upset to lose not just the fish but the river itself.

This story brought to mind the insistence by planners in the Cotswolds' Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that barn conversions can't have proper chimneys. Instead of a solid, traditional stone-built chimney to vent all the lovely wood smoke produced by your cheap and ecological wood-burner, you have to have a shiny steel pipe. The rationale is that a steel pipe is more authentic as it's true to the original, functional purpose of the building.

At first sight these might seem very different projects but both are driven by a desire for authenticity, a desire to rectify some sort of Fall. In one case, it's to restore a species destroyed by man, to go back to a posited Eden - but one whose re-creation is destructive to the interests of people today. In the other, it's to preserve the functional integrity of a building - but it's a functionality that's now purely notional and historical, the usual smoke-venting appendage for a building that is now a dwelling being a chimney, not an ugly and incongruous steel pipe.

Neither project serves the purposes of the people living in the countryside today. Neither fits into an existing, living context whether it's the local ecology or the vernacular aesthetic. Indeed, both seem to be instances of academic enthusiasts going out of their way to say 'fuck you' to the sensibilities and interests of local inhabitants.

So rather than being authentic, they're founded on fantasies and affectations. The beaver isn't there to fill a gap in the ecology: the Highlands have managed perfectly well without it. The area isn't a whimsical playground for beavers; it's a place where people live and work. Thinking that you can make a barn stay true to its eighteenth century barn-ness by sticking a twenty-first century steel pipe on it is just silly. There's an exaggerated, antiquarian respect here that would elicit ridicule from the farmers who once used these barns (in fact, it does). The structure is four Cotswold stone walls and a roof, which was once used to store grain, and is now used to house people. It should be allowed to adapt, to continue to make the material history of the future.

Projects such as these represent nothing so much as a bizarre form of reaction: whilst striving for integrity, they result in a sort of studied, intellectualised Disneyfication. As such, it's far from being a brainless phenomenon: you have to be highly educated to justify this sort of rarefied bad taste and self-indulgence. Unfortunately, there's only one word for fakery and sentimentality of this kind, this straining for insubstantial effect. The word is kitsch. It may be carefully theorised and academically founded kitsch, but it's kitsch nonetheless, conservation kitsch.


Brit said...

Did you ever read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island?

Several times I nearly threw the book across the room. He goes from town to town whingeing that people who actually have to LIVE in these towns every day of their lives go to Tesco or Marks and Sparks instead of preserving quaint shops for the brief and passing amusement of Bill Bryson, whingeing Yank tourist.

Sophie King said...

Kitsch beavers? I really wouldn't recommend Googling that one.

Gaw said...

Brit: I hesitate to say it but I think BB has a point. Too many local towns charge through the nose for parking, driving shoppers to the out-of-town supermarkets and killing town centre shops. It's a horrible distortion that's turning towns into heritage sites or wildernesses.

Sophie: I did wonder about making a beaver joke. I usually can't resist them. I blame it on having heard at an impressionable age, 'Stop beavering Mr Beaver', spoken by that sexy West Country Caramel bunny. Still gives me a frisson. Anyway, moving swiftly on...

Brit said...

BB's complaint was that they all had the same shops, ie. a tesco, a M&S etc. He wanted each to be unique heritage site and, therefore, a wilderness of no use to the inhabitants.

Sophie King said...

Did you know that Beverley in Yorkshire was so named because of the profusion of beavers in that part of the world? I read this fact on a plaque in the lovely minster so it must be true.

Sean said...

In Canada they are controlled (where they need to be controlled) by coyotes, wolves, bears feeding on the young.

Sounds like there is going to be some good shooting up north in the coming years, I am all for it.

Gaw said...

Brit: Town centre blandness is fine by me as long as it's a live town centre.

Sophie: I shall hold this place in my affections despite it being in Yorkshire. In fact, you couldn't wish beavers on a better group of people.

Sean: They're edible and valued for the aspirin-like qualities of a substance secreted from their anal glands. Make nice hats too. No wonder they went extinct.

worm said...

Bill Bryson actually looks a lot like a beaver (either kind)

dearieme said...

What the Highlands need is deer-eating beavers. Time for a spot of genetic modification, I'd say.

Sean said...

So too is Camel meat Garth, but that does not help the outbackers.

This is a link

Gaw said...

Worm: He also looks like PZ Myers. Or PZ looks like a beaver. Either kind.

Dearieme: And beaver-eating deer. I'd like to see a murderously savage beaver-deer clusterfuck with Sean wading in blasting everything in sight. That would do wonders for tourism. Probably.

Sean: Under siege by 6000 feral camels! Do you think they're muslim?

malty said...

Now that Borders Edinburgh have gorn bye byes there will be a significant reduction in Bryson's income, he and Alexander bleedin' McCall Smith were their staple diet.
Makes a nice change for the highlands, bunging in beavers, for the past thirty years it's been retired post office engineers from Bromley, sold the mud hut, thick wad, headed north, bought a mansion, can't stand the wet / locals / lack of shops.
Bleedin' cold up 'ere mite.
Beavers don't shop, ignore locals and like cold and wet.

Polar bears, that's what's wanted, sort the locals out, bunch of whining nationalists.

Gaw said...

Malty: Excellent plan. The polar bears need re-housing, I gather.

Sean said...

I doubt if the camels have any religious affiliation Garth.