Common Ground

Anna Souter

England

The sky was pale mauve-blue, as it can only be in the earliest days of the spring. We stopped for sandwiches and tea kept lukewarm by an ancient thermos in the lea of an immense pile of rocks dropped there by a glacier at the end of the last ice age. The coastline stretched out away from us, sepia like an old photograph.

A herd of handsome cows watched us dolefully; sheep and semi-wild ponies trotted away warily. We heard a single skylark singing as it swooped overhead.

We had found ourselves on Carningli Common, an area steeped in history. It seemed idyllic – blessed with beautiful views and imbued with memories of ancient peoples. It felt natural, wild even. But it isn’t.

Human beings have waged war on the environment here since the Neolithic period. As George Monbiot shows in his groundbreaking book Feral, human interference in the landscape – and particularly the introduction of grazing animals – has done a shockingly good job of keeping nature in check.

Carningli is not a tall mountain nor are its slopes particularly steep, and once it would have been covered by forest, with all its attendant biodiversity. Humans removed most of the trees, and grazing animals stopped young ones from taking root. The result is an area that, for all its beauty, is ecologically sparse. That single skylark could have been accompanied by birds of all varieties, the monochrome heather punctuated by flowers and trees.

This change of perspective came as a shock: it’s uncomfortable to discover that the peace you experience in a landscape is the result of a long-fought war. It forces you to confront your role a human visitor in these (un)natural places.

Anna Souter is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.