Ewan Allinson, audio transcript. 

 

I just want to set the scene really. Hi, my name’s Ewan Allinson. I’m a sculptor and drystone waller, based up here in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m actually currently about half an hour’s drive out of Edinburgh, doing some work which I can’t do from home, which is drystone walling – drystone dyking, as its properly referred to up here north of the border. I’m doing this beside a road, so you’ll hear occasionally the odd vehicle going past.  We are in lockdown, so the road isn’t, thankfully, as busy as sometimes it might be. It’s the A70 that goes from Edinburgh to Lanark, and on to Kilmarnock, and I’m really at the high point of that road, near the headwaters of the Water of Leith.

 

It’s March the 18th and it’s actually a glorious, glorious day. You can hear, hopefully, the birds making the most of this joyous weather, and what I want to talk about in this little piece is the different types of experience of place, and our approaches to that experience. 

Much of what we think about experiencing landscapes is actually derived from what, in the history of mankind, is a relatively recent formulation that, really, was developed by British and german philosophers in the eighteenth century. Discussions which culminated in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement – a masterpiece of philosophical aesthetics. Now, the interesting thing with Kant’s Critique of Judgement, one of his three great critiques, his system of philosophy which has come to define modern philosophy as a whole, is he’s essentially setting rules for how to experience properly. What he’s trying to do, is he’s trying to analyse what the experience of beauty is. What is it as an experience? What does it tell us about out own nature? And he wants to distinguish this from pleasures, such as eating food and other pleasures; he wants to distinguish it as something which is a revelation of a kind of truth.  

Now, unlike most of the aesthetics in philosophy that followed from Kant, that followed on from Hegel essentially, who turned the subject of aesthetic enquiry from nature to the arts; for Kant, and for the eighteenth century philosophers in the UK like Hutcheson, Alison and Addison, they were interested in the experience of landscape and nature. And it was very much an approach that centred around concepts like taste and judgement, and what good judgement might constitute. And, between them, they formulated this notion of disinterestedness; that to have a proper experience of beauty which, in its turn, reveals something truthful about the world that was only manifested in that experience of beauty, you had to be disinterested.

 

Which is to say, you had to have no utilitarian, shall we say, no utilitarian relationship to the thing that you were experiencing: to the landscape, the situation. Almost a condition of neutrality, of mental neutrality, which was a precondition for experiencing the kind of beauty that you could say: “well, if everyone approaches this scene disinterestedly, following the right rules, then they will also experience the beauty of it”. They referred to this as intersubjectivity, or at least that’s certainly how it translates into English. 

And he discounted, in one fell swoop, therefore, the experience of those who work the land, who do have a utilitarian relationship to that which they are experiencing. For Kant, and the other aestheticians of the eighteenth century, that was felt to pollute the experience, to compromise it, and therefore render it ineligible as an experience of beauty. So, these ideas become the basis for the Romantic movement. Become amongst the artists in the generation that follows – your Wordsworths, your Coleridges, all the Lakes poets, artists like John Glover, Claude, etc etc – they all develop an approach to rendering landscapes artistically that attempts to capture, express, these experiences of the beautiful and the sublime, as rendered by these philosophers.  

This, in turn, leads to the phenomenon of tourism. Wordsworth wrote his Guide to the Lake District, and the tourism that we’re so familiar with is directly a product of eighteenth-century aesthetics.  The idea of going to places for the experiences of nature, the mental experiences almost, which arise from having no utilitarian relationship to that place; you go there for the experience.  Now, obviously, this has been very liberating for a lot of people and I’m not being critical, either of the aesthetics are they are or of people’s experiences. However, there is an issue that arises from this notion of utilitarian relationships being somehow compromised.   

So here am I, working on this dyke. It’s going to be just a ten-day job, or something, in this particular location. Working with the local carboniferous sandstone, for the most part, from the Pentland Hills just behind me. Beautiful stone, excellent walling stone. And I’m doing this for the local farmer. Now the farmer’s relationship to the land that he or she farms is a very different one from this Kantian model. He or she is not disinterested, and nor is he or she, necessarily, and most likely not, seeking an experience of beauty or sublimity. But that does not mean to say that they are not, on a daily basis, having profoundly aesthetic experiences of place. Indeed, it could be argued that the experience of place that they’re having is actually a great deal more profound than that of the person who’s travelled several hundred miles to come and walk over his or her land.

 

There are truths about land, truths about nature, that are only revealed to you as you become intimate with a place. Its almost less about having an experience of that place, and more about becoming continuous with it. Because not only are you in it, and working it on a daily basis, you’re actually shaping it. You are as a farmer, in some senses, a sculptor of the land. A shaper of nature. And to be able to do that successfully, you have to know the land and you have to know nature. And by being in it, day in day out, year in year out, you come to know it in ways that you never could as - not only a tourist, but actually someone who is, say, doing some scientific studies in that place. It’s a whole other type of knowing.  

And it’s one of the great injustices of our era that this type of knowing is not given proper credence. Why is that? Well, because it’s not attached to professional degrees. It’s not the result of scientific experiments. It’s not tested in the same way that the scientific method tests the knowledge that it puts forward.  

But of course, it is tested.  It’s tested through the practice of farming, of utilising that knowledge to successfully rear livestock, to manage the land, to deal with the all the challenges that a year of nature brings. Of course, it’s tested over generations. 

This is something that I’m going to be expanding on over the coming years, as part of my part-time PhD at the University of Dundee. I’m going to be working with crofters in the Outer Hebrides. I’m going to start out by offering them a few days of drystone walling, free to them, in return for their involvement, participation, in this research project, which will be looking at how the knowledge they possess of the land they farm, how that is rooted in experience, immersion, in that place. And what that kind of knowledge that they have, that results from that immersion, what that has to tell us, philosophically, about the nature of being, overall.  

Because we’re stuck with the legacy of the enlightenment, which has created these false dichotomies between experience and nature, between society and nature, that are alive and kicking in all sorts of ways. And as we begin to address our impact on the planet, to do so using these false binaries will not result in the mending that we all know needs to happen. So my contention is, that it is the kind of relationship with land, with nature, that marginal farmers, crofters, hill farmers have, that by adopting and appreciating that relationship more, that is the way in which we will find ways to mitigate the worst of our impact on the environment. And, just as a disclaimer here, I should say that the main figure who I’ll be drawing on to help articulate some of this non-disinterested relationship to nature, and to land, is the American philosopher John Dewey, and I’ll speak more about him in the next bulletin, as it were.  Thank you.  

Ewan Allinson
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