September 22, 2008

The Invention of the Countryside

I have long heard how the North American Wildlife Conservation Model (game animals as public property, not landowners' property; no market in wild game, etc.) is superior to the European models that permit such things.

Now I am ninety pages into Donna Landry's excellent The Invention of the Countryside: Hunting, Walking, and Ecology in English Literature, 1671-1831 and could easily generate twenty blog posts from it. But then I would get nothing else done, so here is just a quick summary of some of the ideas jostled together in those ninety pages.

Let me just say that Landry fulfills the historian's task of reminding you that the past was not simple.

Linked to the New Labour government's attempts to ban fox hunting with dogs, the book begins chiefly with the Game Act of 1671 and moves toward the Act's repeal in 1831. Passed after the Restoration of Charles II, the Act limited the taking of certain game to individuals with incomes about 100 pounds a year--meaning, for that era, only the well-to-do. (One could qualify to vote with less income than it took to shoot partridges legally.)

You can see how poaching might be viewed as "democratic."

I have heard, too, that the English landscape was shaped partly by the needs of fox hunters, who kept woods and hedges that otherwise might have been torn out for large-scale mechanized farming.

But Landry connects both fox-hunting and pheasant-shooting with the early 19th-century landscaping trends at the great estates, symbolized by the work of the landscape designer Capability Brown and his disciples, which not only created views that appealed to the new aesthetics of Romanticism but also facilitated the gamekeeper's job.

In the 1820s, the (pro-hunting) political reformer William Cobbett notes,

Invariably have I observed that the richer the soil, and the more destitute of woods; that is to say, the more purely a corn [i.e., wheat] country, the more miserable the laborers ... No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farm house.

He might be talking about large parts of the American Great Plains as well.

Or when he sees an estate with signs reading, "Spring guns and steel traps are set here [to keep out trespassers]," Cobbett knows that he has encountered "new money:"

Whenever any of them go to the country, they look upon it that they are to begin a sort of warfare against everything around them.

Think of Hollywood stars buying Montana ranches and blocking public access to trout streams, or the way that People of Money try to impose new values everywhere.

More of the book will deal, I can tell, with how "counter-cultural" and anti-aristocratic types promoted long-distance walking and landscape-viewing in ideological competition with hunting and shooting, whereas (mounted) hunting, once somewhat democratic and crossing social classes, became more and more the recreation of those who could paid hunt-subscription fees, demonstrate the correct social tone, and speak the correct hunting jargon (hounds having "sterns," not tails, etc.).

The naturalist, once a hunter himself, is now viewed as a trespasser and probably a clandestine poacher...

Yes, the North American Model looks better all the time. But we are not exempt from some of the same cultural memes as the Brits.

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