I HAVE a bit of a problem with anniversaries. Well, a couple of problems. For a start, I’ve never really understood the apparently universal fixation with round numbers.
What makes, say, the 100th anniversary of something more worthy of celebration than the 101st? Attaching special significance to multiples of ten or 100 is about as rational as believing the Earth is flat, yet everybody does it – yes, on slow news days, even journalists. I also struggle to get excited about celebrations to mark the anniversary of a well-kent personage’s death. If you must insist on doing the whole round-number-party thing on behalf of some historical figure, at least have a bit of tact and celebrate the anniversary of their birth. Throwing an almighty shindig to mark the year somebody died feels far too much like dancing on their grave.
Having said all that, I’m more than willing to set aside these reservations in the case of John Muir – the great Scottish-American conservationist and author who died in 1914. Last year, plans were unveiled to mark the centenary of Muir’s death in 2014 by extending the existing John Muir Way from his childhood home in Dunbar right across Scotland to the Clyde, where the young Muir set sail for America in 1849. Other celebrations will no doubt take place both here and in the US.
Muir was born in 1838, so I suppose if we were to insist on only celebrating births rather than deaths we’d have to wait until 2038 to throw a John Muir party. Trouble is, Scotland – and more particularly, the Scottish landscape – can’t afford to wait until then. We need to take a good, hard look at what Muir stood for soon, and then hope some of his wisdom percolates into the halls of power before it’s too late.
The idea of the natural world as a place to go to feel better about ourselves may seem old hat now – almost a cliché – but it wasn’t always. In 1912, Muir was way ahead of his time when he wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
In Scotland we’re still blessed with huge areas of wilderness where we can leave the stress of our (mostly) urban lives behind for a while. But these areas are being rapidly nibbled away at by development and, if we’re not careful, we may lose them forever without even realising what’s going on. According to the charity Scottish Environment LINK, the amount of land unaffected by so-called “visual intrusion” (ie visible evidence of development) shrunk from 41 per cent to 28 per cent between 2002 and 2009. That doesn’t mean all that land has been built on, but it does mean it’s land that no longer feels truly wild. A friend recently spoke with real distress about the way wind turbines had affected the view from a favourite walk along a headland near Crinan – a walk he used to do regularly with his late wife. All it took was a couple of half-built wind turbines puncturing the skyline and, in his opinion, the view had been ruined; the psychic damage had been done.
The Monadhliath Mountains, just to the north of the Cairngorms National Park, represent the largest remaining area of wild land in Scotland, but later this year Fergus Ewing, the Minister for both the national energy and tourism portfolios, must decide whether or not they should become home to an array of 31 wind turbines operated by RWE Npower Renewables.
Ironically, 2013 has also been made The Year of Natural Scotland as part of EventScotland’s “Years of Focus” programme. Given that 2012 was supposed to be The Year of Creative Scotland – but in fact turned out to be the most disastrous year for the creative industries in living memory – it would start a worrying trend if the development in the Monadhliaths was allowed to go ahead in 2013. A better outcome might be for the Scottish Government to come up with some sort of coherent plan for wind farm development – a plan that ensures we use up every scrap of land already affected by “visual intrusion” before we start industrialising our last remaining areas of wilderness.
Only when the hills around our cities are bristling with wind turbines should we start messing with the places where, as John Muir had it, we go to wash our spirits clean.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West