The movement known as 're-wilding' goes much further than conservation. Its aim is not simply to maintain natural habitats and resist the encroachment of human-dominated concerns. It attempts to restore what humans have destroyed since the Industrial Revolution, to restore natural habitats and increase biodiversity, including the re-introduction of plant and animal species which have been driven out. Re-wilding can be seen as one method of ecological revival and the restoration of the natural ecosystem. TV programmes and publications celebrate the successful re-introduction of animal and plant species under threat of extinction.
The movement is worldwide in its scope and appeal. But Scotland is an obvious location for the activities of re-wilding. On account of its rough and rocky terrain, a great deal of it is not suitable for extensive farming. Indeed, much of it consists of what would be considered 'wilderness'. Hence, it offers an appropriate area for conservation and re-wilding.
Justifications of various kinds can be offered for the encouragement of this movement. For example, there are the immediate utilitarian justifications which vary from attracting tourism, creating employment and re-population, to using beavers to prevent flooding and natural predators to maintain a natural animal balance. And there is the grander justification of doing our bit to limit global warming. Scotland's peat wildernesses are effective as one means of carbon capture.
There is a second kind of justification, a kind of increasing guilt going with the increasing consciousness that humans have spectacularly messed things up by our attempt to dominate and exploit nature rather than living in partnership with it. Burns was on to it as long ago ago as 1785. As readers will remember his plough disturbs the nest of a mouse which flees in panic. Here is a telling verse:
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
All these and no doubt other justifications can be developed to justify the global movement of re-wilding. But rather than attempt to add my tuppence worth to arguments which others are more qualified to develop than I am, I shall suggest another way of looking at the re-wilding movement. I shall make some suggestions about it from the point of view of aesthetics.
The first major philosophical developments in the aesthetics of nature occurred in the 18th century. Francis Hutcheson (professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University 1730-46) expanded aesthetic appreciation beyond the arts, and included 'grandeur' in our aesthetic vocabulary. In his account of the narrower idea of beauty he used the classical criterion of 'unity in diversity', a criterion which is apt for Greek sculpture, a Mozart symphony, a theorem in mathematics or a portrait, such as the portrait of Hutcheson himself by painter Allan Ramsay.
But Hutcheson makes it clear that 'unity in diversity' does not fit our aesthetic appreciation of a glorious sunset. The reports of travellers on the 'grand tour' expressed their experience of viewing the Alps and cascading waterfalls. There was a need for a new aesthetic term to capture this experience. The idea of the 'sublime' emerged.
We can say then that out of Hutcheson's approach to aesthetics emerged two different ways of looking at nature. First there is the idea of the beautiful, which readily applies to cultivated gardens and landscapes, popular then as now. Here Hutcheson's neo-classical idea of 'unity in variety' applies.
Second, Hutcheson's concept of natural 'grandeur' was developed into the idea of the sublime. This term is appropriate to capture our experience of the more threatening and terrifying of nature's manifestations, such as mountains or a wilderness. They can be aesthetically appreciated, rather than simply feared or despised. These two notions were importantly elaborated by Edmund Burke and Kant.
In his Critique of Judgment
(1790), Kant investigates the sublime, stating: 'We call that sublime which is absolutely great'. He distinguishes between the 'remarkable differences of the Beautiful and the Sublime'. He noted that beauty is connected with the form of the object, its boundaries ('unity in diversity') while the sublime is to be found in a 'formless object', represented by a 'boundlessness'.
Kant (using somewhat odd terminology) further divides the sublime into the 'mathematical' and the 'dynamic'. The 'mathematical sublime' is Kant's term for the notion of absolute greatness not inhibited with ideas of limitations. We can think here of the universe and its galaxies stretching out in billions of light years. On the other hand, we experience the 'dynamically sublime' when we view some aspect of nature as fearful while being aware that it has no power over us. For example, viewing the jagged rocks of a Munro disappearing into the mist can create a fearfulness without our being afraid of it. To use the term Hutcheson introduced for the aesthetic attitude, we are 'disinterested' – we are taken out of ourselves and our ordinary pre-occupations.
Kant considers both the beautiful and the sublime as 'indefinite' concepts, but the sublime is a concept which 'shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense'. For Kant, we have an inability to grasp the enormity of the sublime – he writes of the 'starry heavens above'. This
inability demonstrates the inadequacy of our sensibility and imagination.
There is a poetic expression of the idea in Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey
, where he speaks of a spirit rolling through all things:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things….
In practical terms – for they follow grand ideas – the celebration of the sublime led to an interest in the Scottish Highlands, greatly encouraged by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott kick-started Scottish tourism.
An aesthetic appreciation of nature was introduced in America by our own John Muir. (There is an excellent small museum dedicated to the life and work of John Muir in Dunbar, his birthplace.) He stressed an approach to nature quite different from that governed by the idea of the picturesque. His approach led him to see the whole of the natural environment and especially wild nature as aesthetically beautiful and to find ugliness primarily where nature was subject to human intrusion.
His encouragement of the creation of national parks in the US was governed by this view of nature. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit Yosemite Valley in California will appreciate his aesthetic vision.
Western philosophical study of the aesthetics of the natural world reached a low point in the middle of the 20th century, when the focus of analytic aesthetics was almost exclusively on philosophy of art. But over the past decade or so there has been a renewed interest which has led to the emergence of environmental aesthetics.
Important in this revival was an essay by a former colleague – Ronnie Hepburn – who was a professor of philosophy in Edinburgh. His essay on aesthetics is commonly recognised as setting the agenda for the aesthetics of nature for the late 20th century.
Hepburn argued that the aesthetic appreciation of art frequently provides misleading models for the appreciation of nature. But he observed that in the aesthetic appreciation of nature, as in the appreciation of art, there is a distinction between the superficial ('The view from here is very nice') and the serious (when we are stunned into silence for a few minutes).
An aesthetic appreciation of nature can be as deep and overwhelming as an appreciation of art, music and literature. I hope the current enthusiasm for re-wilding will generate companion studies on environmental aesthetics.
Readers may be amused to learn that as I was writing this essay my MacBook Air persisted in correcting 'rewilding' to 'rewinding'. But, in a sense, my MacBook is right. 'Rewilding' is rewinding to a time well before the Industrial Revolution.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow