The Values of Desolation

 desolateadj. giving an impression of bleak and dismal emptiness from Latin ‘desolare’ meaning abandon and ‘solus’ alone >> v. to desolate ; n. desolation

A wide expanse of sandflats riddled with tidal streams, deserted in the early morning. A wedge-shaped tidal island at the end of a concrete road: blown dunes empty of human life, the air above the sifting marram sliced about by swallows and martins and pierced by the lonesome shrill of a curlew.

A moorland scene drained of colour under an overcast sky. so cold in summer I wore two coats, a scarf and a pair of gloves to brave the path. A large landscape focusing in the eye on the tapestry of life below knee-level. A loud dam at the head of a reservoir hiding a spectacular waterfall descending through towering crags to the unpopulated landscape below.

Wild winds and the remains of a Roman stone carving depicting three or four sentinels at the Milecastle, hooded and cloaked with only their miserable faces exposed. No wonder the Romans didn’t want to go any further north than this forsaken place.


Holy Island in Northumberland, Moor House-Upper Teesdale Reserve in County Durham, and the Steel Rigg-Housesteads section of Hadrian’s Wall: all of which spring to mind when I think of the North East of England, and all of which could well be considered as desolate places. They can all be undeniably bleak at times – I wouldn’t mind betting if I’d visited in better weather I might be able to paint a better picture of them from memory – but the emptiness is subjective. Two of them are National Nature Reserves: one being the highest and largest of these in the country in addition to being a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Two of them are hugely important sites of historical heritage and archaeological interest. All of them are valuable, compelling, beautiful and full on many levels in their desolation: positively desolate I might venture without wanting to sound precious.

“There are large and uninhabited and desolate areas certainly up in parts of the north-east where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where it could be conducted without any kind of threat to the rural environment.”  – Lord Howell, 30-07-2013

I am not here to make a case for or against hydraulic fracturing as a viable method of mineral extraction of Britain’s shale gas reserves: quite simply I don’t know enough about it and there are plenty of others who have made better cases for and against more eloquently and informatively than I could. Not that I’m not concerned and interested in the whole fracking thing (which still sounds like a euphemism or regional dialectic variant of the other f-word however many times I say or write it) – but when Lord Howell opened his mouth and put his foot firmly in it (it transpired afterwards that he didn’t even mean the North East, but North West!) it called into question, I felt, something more than whether or not he was right about the desolation of the north-east.

His comments were met with laughter in the House of Lords, shortly followed by a barrage of responses on Twitter to prove how wrong he was about the worth of the north-eastern landscapes. And I’d agree wholeheartedly with the twitterers even if my own experience of the north-east is limited to a two week speed tour of the best of its cultural and environmental highlights, but not because I don’t think that any part of the north-east could be considered desolate, more that I don’t consider a wild, uninhabited or isolated area that could be labelled thus as therefore being of little value.


What constitutes desolation? The fact that it is uninhabited ergo empty? Or does the emptiness require some further blight be it manmade or natural in order to be truly desolated? I’m starting to have the same mixed feelings about the word desolation as I do about wild: a word which became loaded and virtually unmentionable during the course of two semesters discussing a small snippet of the vast nature writing canon. Wilderness is problematic. Why should a landscape be more highly valued because it is ’empty’ and ‘untouched by’ or ‘unreachable to’ people? Are maybe the more accessible beauty spots not more valuable, the smaller scale ‘natural’ areas just as viable a form of Wild as those so-called wild places, or, as one of my MA tutors would have it:

[those] special places set aside for the special people who think they deserve more space than the rest of us. Many of the books by writers the MA students have started to call ‘the wilderness boys’ are just men exciting themselves about being higher up or further away than anyone else.

There isn’t, of course, a real answer to any of this. What is important to remember is that there are many reasons why a landscape is valuable – as many reasons as there are people to value it, and more. What I’m having trouble with at the moment – well always, I’ll be honest – is how one area can be placed at a higher worth than another, and how could this ever be quantified?


The key is perhaps in the word value: which becomes particularly pertinent when the discussion is placed in context with the minerals industry. I’d already drafted a more immediate response to last month’s political desolation howler (Howeller?) when I read David Shukman’s article floating the idea that there is gold to be mined from the White Cliffs of Dover: at what price would it become a viable option to dig up such an iconic piece of British landscape for mineral extraction? Establishing the value of a landscape, be it beautiful, desolate, wild, hideously contaminated but home to some incredibly rare species due to its unique soil chemistry and ecobiologcal conditions, is always going to be fraught with difficulties. Factoring in actual monetary value retained within the land itself in the form of quantifiable resources creates even more of a challenge. The value of the landscape itself, for its aesthetic, historical and ecological qualities has to be taken into account when calculating the cost of obtaining those resources, which deducts from their net worth. However great the value of the resources held by that land there are always going to be some detrimental effects caused by their removal. Compromises always have to be made when trying to make industry and environment compatible with each other. At the end of the day resources are necessary to our established way of life. At some point some decisions have to be made to preserve some areas of our landscape for their cultural heritage or scenic qualities, while others are dug up to get to the stuff underneath that we need in order to be able to make other stuff that we need and or want.

Sometimes the end result – and the financial rewards that go alongside – allow for investments and improvements to be made to an area that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Much of my local area is included in the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape UNESCO World Heritage site, but if the industrial boom of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries were to happen today I wonder just how much of it would get past the Environmental Impact Assessments? Huge tracts of land have been transformed – for many decades degraded immeasurably, some only now starting to recover. If I had to give an example of a desolate landscape anywhere I only have to walk up a hill in Falmouth and look east to be able to see the china clay mounds thirty miles away near St Austell. Even considering the financial, industrial and technological gains that were gleaned from the process would these, if the ventures were being newly embarked upon now offset the aesthetic, cultural and sentimental values attributed to the Cornish landscape enough for the schemes to go ahead? We’ll never know. Likewise no one knew when the industrial revolution took off in Cornwall the huge contribution that would be made not only to the area, but on a worldwide scale.

picture credit: Jonathan Billinger

Environmental awareness, both scientifically and within the cultural collective is so much greater now that mitigations on developments are more stringent than would ever have been possible in the 1700s when no forethought was given as to what would happen to the land when extraction had finished. Now these considerations legally have to be put in at the planning stage before any sort of development can be undertaken. As David Shukman summarises at the end of his White Cliffs article:

Battles over how we use our land, and what we save and what we don’t, will become tougher. The population is growing and Britain is becoming more densely settled. The definition of what is sacred will become more contested.


Of course when it comes to fracking, there is a lot more to be considered than the visual ‘surface’ effects of the process. Arguably hydraulic fracture is less severe on the landscape than say, open-cast china clay extraction; however it is not just the visual effects that need to be considered. There hidden and less controllable costs of contamination risk associated with fracking which are fuelling the controversy of the practice regardless of whether it is taking place in a desolate wasteland of little ‘value’, a wild place accessible only to those ‘wilderness boys’ with their waterproof notebooks, or a highly regarded national treasure that any of us can access and enjoy with ease. Investment in desolation is a far more complicated than any of us knew.


More on this?

How do we decide what’s worth saving and what we would happily see destroyed to
make way for development? BBC Science Editor David Shukman asked what price, for example, for the White Cliffs of Dover in this article which is well worth a look:

You may also like on Open the Curtains:

Docks and Monsters

which is more important when considering how to keep a 21st century maritime industry afloat: cruise ships or coralline algae? The debate continues over the sea floor of the Fal Estuary.

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