Dossier: Paisatges sonors - Observatori del Paisatge

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7 Mai 2006

No tree has ever changed my life

Bill Bryson was famously born in Des Moines, Iowa, in America, where the first book that made him famous - Lost Continent - started. He moved to Britain in 1972 and has lived here on-and-off ever since. His love affair with the country is chronicled in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson now lives in a 19th century rectory in Norfolk.


The Guardian (Royaume-Uni) [Chronique]

'Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - old churches, country lanes, people saying 'Mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but,' people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordinance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings - every bit of it.' - Taken from Notes from a Small Island.
How did you get involved in the Woodland Trust and campaigning for trees?

I remember reading about it when I was working for the Bournemouth Evening Echo in 1977. I thought then it was quite a wonderful organisation, at the time I was just taken with what they were trying to do. I wasn't exactly a founding member but it was in the early days. I have kind of followed it ever since. It's just got bigger and bigger, but what it's doing is wonderful.

No tree has ever changed my life but I just do like woodland, but more to the point I really, really like the British landscape. The British landscape needs all the friends it can get. I think it's in a very bad way in all kinds of ways compared with 30 years ago when I first came here.

Firstly I think what's happening in the country at large is the way farming is changing and farmers used to more or less automatically look after the landscape in an aesthetic sense, but they are not any more because they don't have the incentive to do so. If you want a beautiful Britain people have got to think about that.

One of the best things we can do is get out and plant trees. But that's only part of the solution; we really need a whole countryside management policy.

Aren't changes part of an evolution of the British countryside which has been going on for centuries?

B&Q is not an evolutionary part of the process. A B&Q shed planted on the edge of the greenbelt is not evolution, that's just mismanaged. The argument the countryside is evolving and somehow it's a natural process, it's a dangerous and foolish way of thinking about it.

You have something really, really good compared to where I come from: a countryside that's man made, and I don't see any reason not to treasure that. If you do leave it to natural forces you're going to lose it, in fact you're already losing it. Look at hedgerow, there's hardly any hedgerow management in the country.

How has Britain changed in the more than three decades since you arrived?

The most striking thing is the loss of greenery, particularly hedgerows. When I first came, they were still grubbing out a lot of hedgerows and then they stopped doing that, government stopped giving grants to remove hedgerows. But in the last 30 years they have more and more been neglected. What's happened is they die out bit by bit; with every passing year you lose more and more hedgerows.

You know there are government programmes to give farmers incentives financially to encourage [them] to replace hedgerow, but it's left to the farmers to do it. Most farmers have plenty of other things to do but go out and plant hedgerow. The bottom line is you drive around the country and what you see is a lot of dying hedges and they are a crucial part of the landscape.

Hedgerows are what make lowland Britain lowland Britain.

It's dying in the sense if you have a field boundary of 150 yards long and there are gaps of 20 yards, it's [the] gaps. Often you see a line of trees which is just hedgerows which have been allowed to turn into trees. Sometimes that's fairly attractive, and in wildlife terms it's a good thing, it's good for birds and things but the trees then die.

I live in Norfolk and around here there are field boundaries that are just lumps of earth, there's nothing there at all any more. To me that's really unfortunate.

When you take away a lot of these things the British landscape is not terribly exciting to look at. The Cotswolds is fantastic, not because of nature but because of what's been put on top of it, the churches and field boundaries and farms. There are very few things that are spectacular, the Scottish Highlands and British Lake District maybe, but even so the nature there is actually fairly mild and fairly low key.

If you go and stand on a hill in the Lake District a big part of the beauty is what's been added to it, dry stone walls and barns and things like that. As an observer I think the country is not doing as fantastic a job as it could be, looking after the landscape. Essentially what you want to be doing is treating whole of Britain as a national park and looking after it that way. If you go to a National Park they are generally fantastic but I don't see why the Yorkshire Dales is any more of a treasure than Leicestershire or Rutland or the West Midlands. It all ought to be a national park and funded accordingly.

What would you say to people who think that turning the country into a national park would be backward looking and constraining?

I'm not saying you can't change things. I'm all for putting little workshops in old farm buildings and trying to get economic regeneration in the countryside, but what I'm really talking about is that feeling when you go out for a walk in the country and stand on a hillside and look across Dorset or Devon or somewherer and think 'Goddamn, this is really, really lovely, this is beautiful'. We're living in the first couple of generations that are losing that. For at least 200 years you have had a really, really beautiful landscape and it's there - you don't have to do anything, it's not like we have to go out and build it.

If that's constraining some hedgerows then yes, that's what I am [doing]. I just think you have something really fantastic and special that everybody appreciates, and there's a terrible danger of thinking somehow it will manage itself, and it won't.

You have to accept, things like hedgerows, if you're going to have them, they don't really have a purpose any more. They used to keep the sheep in - you don't need [that], you can put a string of barbed wire and If you do want to look at it as evolutionary, then barbed wire is where you should go but really that's not an improvement.

Will you ever stop saying 'you' and talk about 'we' when you talk about Britain and its countryside?

It's funny you should say that because I'm inching closer and closer to saying 'us' but it always feels so fraudulent. My feeling is I'm here permanently and this is home, this is where I've planted my staff and all of that, but I think you're sort of either born British or you're not. And I'm not. It's nothing to do with pride, it's just I'd feel the same if I dyed my hair. I would feel slightly self-conscious so I don't know if I could ever really call myself British even if the day comes - and I'm sure it will - when I get a British passport - I'd say I'm naturalised British.


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