Image: “Beautiful vineyard” by Sasmit68 via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0
Last week I raised the apparently-dumb but actually rather interesting question of why humans consider flowers to be beautiful. Today, another question about beauty, this time with (I’m afraid) really unfortunate consequences. Have you ever heard someone talk about how beautiful a vineyard is? Have you ever been that someone? An awful lot of us would answer “yes” to both questions – and that’s a real problem for conservation.
It isn’t just vineyards, of course, and I’ll get to my broader point, but first I should back up my claim that humans think vineyards are beautiful – and that we shouldn’t. Google makes the first part of that easy: a search for vineyard beautiful returns over 82 million hits; a search for vineyard ugly returns just 9 million. But the contrast is actually much stronger than that, as a little deeper sleuthing will show. I checked the first 60 or so hits from each set. Of the former, the great majority really were about vineyards being beautiful; but not a single one of the latter was really about vineyards being ugly*. The Google jury has spoken.
But it’s very odd that we think vineyards are beautiful, isn’t it? That photo above is a photo of complete ecological devastation: row upon row of a non-native crop species, with a near-monoculture of non-native grass between the rows, both (in a large preponderance by acreage) drenched in chemical pesticides, to produce a product, most of which is water, shipped worldwide in heavy glass bottles. It’s entirely possible that the parking lot from which the photo was taken is more ecologically friendly.
I’m not actually so naïve to expect that there should be a 1:1 correspondence between spaces we find beautiful and spaces that are good for the state of nature. But the fact that there isn’t such a correspondence is a real problem for conservation efforts, in at least two ways. First, it pretty much torpedos the notion that biophilia will save our conservation bacon. (So, for that matter, does the fact that we consider plenty of invasive species beautiful.) Second, it regularly distorts development and conservation decision-making. Once, when I was living in Iowa, there was a proposal to build a new subdivision north of the city I lived in. Objections were raised, on the grounds that the subdivision would constitute a loss of green space. The green space in question: a cornfield**. I suspect (although I can’t prove) that such distortions are pretty common. Unconscious, often, to be sure; but none the less real for that.
My cornfield example should make it clear that the issue isn’t particular to vineyards; there are all kinds of heavily altered, and ecologically ruinous, landscapes that nonetheless appeal to us: from tidy lawns to sunny fields of blooming canola to tidily terraced rice paddies. It isn’t a particularly new human foible, either. In the mid- and late- 17th century, for example, European thinking emphasized what Andrea Wulf called the “perfectibility of nature” (she describes this in The Invention of Nature, her excellent book about Alexander von Humboldt). Linnaeus wrote that “all [natural] things are made for the sake of man”, and Montesquieu wrote that people had “rendered the earth more proper for their abode”. Tidy gardens, orchards, meadows, and (yes) vineyards were seen as an improvement over tangled, savage jungles and “howling wilderness”***. I think a lot of people – perhaps most – retain this inclination today. We like tidiness; we like symmetry; we like order. Vineyards have all those things.
So what do we do about this? Obviously, people will see beauty where they see it; beauty is a subjective, not objective, property of objects and landscapes (please forgive the fact that this post’s title, for rhetorical effect, pretends that this isn’t so). But it would be useful, I think, if we pointed out a little more often that those charming French landscapes of vineyards and châteaux have a steep ecological cost – even – perhaps especially – while we’re admiring them. Will that make us among those tiresome people who spoil things? Maybe. Unfortunately, those tiresome people are sometimes right.
© Stephen Heard September 27, 2018
*^A remarkable number of vineyards host ugly-sweater competitions. And not a few use “ugly” in their names – Ugly Bunny and Ugly Duckling, to name just two. One assumes “ugly” there is being used ironically.
**^None of this means we don’t get to have vineyards, or cornfields. It just means that we should see them for what they are: land taken away from nature to produce commodities. They are, ecologically, clearcuts. Well, worse than clearcuts, I guess.
***^We see this in the visual arts, too; although interestingly, the early 20th-century Canadian “Group of Seven” (among others) reacted against this by painting the wilderness. It was, to a considerable extent, a tidy wilderness, though – perhaps tidiest in the work of Lawren Harris.