Conservation: Tales of ecology and the unexpected

There is room for change in the countryside, as long as there's still room for us, says Richard D North

The countryside is a palimpsest. And that's official, or at least it's semi-official. The three quangos which inform government about the great outdoors - the Countryside Commission, English Heritage and English Nature - so describe the countryside in their latest co-operative venture: "Conservation in Local Plans".

We are in trouble here. Once we start talking about the countryside as a "document" which has to be "read", or still worse, as a "narrative" to be interpreted, before we know where we are, we will be deconstructing hedgerows instead of grubbing them up, and we shall be unpacking sheep fleeces instead of sending them off to market. The countryside we messed about in as children, when we dammed streams and hacked down branches for bivouacs, will become a text for swots, not a robust playground for the young.

The trouble is that the landscape really is full of messages. The natural world means a lot to us, not just in a visceral, wind-in-the-hair, sort of way. It means things to us because we think so hard about it, and our thinking flows very naturally from our first having felt things about it. I can remember as a teenager the heart-swelling effect of clifftops and sunsets when place and time seemed to offer both the excuse and the opportunity to be alone with a girl. But one was in love with everything then, swept into a giddy unity with the smallest drop of spray and the largest ordering principle of the whole scene.

We go into the countryside for solace and solitude, to mountain-bike, to play war-games, to shoot. It is a place in which we pray and play and work and work out. We try to make sense of it, because we think God or the Earth Mother has left coded messages in it. We sense, too, that our ancestors have left messages in the terrain: a barn or stone wall, or the waves in the field left by a medieval farming system seem to be speaking to us even more tangibly and almost as clearly as the words on a manuscript of the same period.

The countryside has both to be an alternative to the real world, and the place where we hope to find the solid, enduring things and cycles against which to match our ephemeral and inadequate ways.

And then, of course, nearly everyone wants to live in the countryside, or motor through it. In bizarre twists, "green"-minded people are now buying posh jeeps in order to assert that they have country exigencies. The new owners of gas-guzzling four-by-fours with bullbars are declaring that come Independence Day or terminal gridlock, they at least will be able to barge their way out of the urban collapse and start again in the country whose restorative powers will somehow remain intact.

In the meantime, we have each to decide how we think about the countryside because how we feel about it - whether we find pleasure or despair there - depends crucially on what we have decided we believe its present condition and likely fate to be.

When I see the network of horrible aerials which beams me my cellular phone messages, or hear nearly everywhere the distant thrum of a motorway, I try to remind myself of the dozens of places I know, and which anyone might find, where real loveliness remains, and where - and this is the extraordinary bit - I am very likely to be alone if I want to be. There are, for instance, the 30 acres of meadow at Hendre Eynon, near St David's in Pembrokeshire, which were saved by a farmer a quarter of a century ago, which are thick with orchids and flag iris, and which no one ever visits. Most people are too busy heading for the area's exquisite beaches and coves, which absorb crowds and deliver solitude, as even crowded woodlands - in Hampstead or Herefordshire - also can.

I believe that the state of the countryside - its continued capacity to offer most people most of what they demand from it - is a perfect miracle and a huge testimony to the British genius for government, specially as represented in its planning system, itself a work of genius. Similarly, I am immensely proud of the official and unofficial bodies -the National Trust for instance - which debate, rule or own the public countryside.

"Conservation in Local Plans" is just the latest example of how public bodies are trying to deliver a subtle change of language, a hint of new policy, without shocking us. The document speaks of the growing realisation of just how delicate one has to be in messing around with countryside because the character of each part of it is the result of so many different remains of so many historic activities. And then it says that we need to swing a little away from satisfying people's demands for new development and towards "demand management".

This last sounds obvious. And yet the loveliness of what we have is the result of the development of previous generations, not of "demand management". And we live still in a society in which the right of a person to live in the countryside, or drive through it, is as important as his or her right to read the book of their choice. So we can't suddenly become dirigiste about the countryside, any more than many of us want to become precious about it. Shotguns and saffron robes, Shoguns and Oasis gigs, all have to be fitted in, and somehow are.

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