No, vineyards are not beautiful (a conservation conundrum)

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.

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4 thoughts on “No, vineyards are not beautiful (a conservation conundrum)

  1. Manu Saunders

    This is a huge generalisation & ignores the decades of literature on agroecology. I got a bit confused with confounding visual ‘beauty’ (a totally subjective opinion) with ‘ecological costs’, which can be quantified & there is absolutely no evidence that all vineyards, or even all crop systems, are ‘ecologically ruinous’ in that sense. There’s so much context involved in understanding agriculture’s impacts on ecological processes, it’s not just a simple case of agriculture vs nature. If managed ecologically, vineyards (& other types of agroecosystems) do support biodiversity & ecosystem function!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Manu, thanks for commenting!

      On your first point – I’m sorry I confused you, because the fact that subjective beauty *isn’t* nicely correlated with ecological value is the whole point of the post – the fourth paragraph attempts to lay that out explicitly.

      On your second point – yes, of course some agroecosystems are better than others at providing some ecosystem services or at sustaining biodiversity. But: are you suggesting that a significant number of crop monocultures (vineyards or otherwise) would have aggregate ecological value anywhere close to the value of native habitat? I don’t mean single “ecosystem services” – I’m sure a canola field is great for bees, and an alfalfa field is great for nitrogen fixation, etc. etc. I mean, are there important cases where nature (broadly and vaguely defined) is better off with agriculture? Even as I type this, it sounds like a straw man, and yet it seems like the argument you’re making. “Absolutely no evidence” that crop monoculture doesn’t have steep ecological costs?

      (None of this means we shouldn’t have vineyards, alfalfa fields, subdivisions, etc., of course. It just means we should be conscious that people’s subjective idea of beauty may include those things, and so can’t be counted upon to protect nature.)

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      1. Manu Saunders

        Of course I’m not arguing that intensive monocultures are good for nature…I think my whole blog is evidence I don’t agree with that statement! 😉 There is plenty of published evidence showing monocultures negatively impact biodiversity & ecosystem function, including from my own research. But not all crop systems are intensive monocultures. Compared to some of the monoculture deserts I’ve worked in, the vineyard picture you include above looks reasonable, from an ecological perspective! It has living ground cover, which can enhance soil health, support numerous beneficial insects & vertebrates, the field boundary is visible, & the landscape shows there are diverse habitats nearby enhancing complexity…if the owners are managing this system without pesticides, even better! A lot of ecologically-managed crop systems can provide more resources for some wild animals than ‘wilderness’ areas, depending on the region/habitat/species etc…. Historical systems can also be more embedded in local ecological networks than recently-cleared/planted ones, e.g. farmland birds that have adapted to old ag landscapes in Europe. I’ve worked in a lot of different fruit systems, including vineyards, and I often see more wildlife species in the ecologically-managed systems than I do in my nearby ‘natural vegetation’ controls. So yes, of course people’s individual ideas of beauty are subjective & maybe not representative of ecological function. But all vineyard landscapes do not have a steep ecological cost, the agriculture vs. nature dichotomy is misleading.

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  2. William

    I used to give a talk on Tom Thomson when I worked at Algonquin park and one of the things that was trendy to point out whas that much of the G7/TT art isn’t about wilderness per se, but rather about natural resources that can be exploited. I know TT better but just look:

    Old lumber dam:

    Pointer boats:

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