A re-tweet by a colleague took me to a very useful blog post on the likely consequences of fracking on rivers. The subject of fracking is one that seems to have generated more heat than light over the past couple of years and this post looks like a useful resource for my students. Having read this, I browsed around The River Management Blog and found several other posts that are worth a read. One, in particular, caught my eye as it touched on a topic that I wrote about last year (see Constable, Gainsborough, Turner”). This post suggested that we could use old landscape paintings as a clue to past river conditions. Simon Dixon, in his post develops this idea. Though he describes it as “slightly tongue in cheek”, I think there are some very serious points here. He argues (as I did) that the Romantic painters have helped to shape stakeholder’s perceptions of what a river “should” look like. We also both pointed out that they often depict landscapes which have been heavily modified by human activities and he has helpfully annotated some of Constable’s paintings to point these modifications out. The point where we differ is whether such landscapes are “good enough” (the line I adopted) or a perceptual barrier that professionals need to overcome (Simon Dixon’s position) if we are to improve the condition of our rivers. My position comes partly from other evidence which suggests that the chemical state of water at the time Constable was painting would have generally been better, but we also need to remember that England’s population at the time was much lower: just under eight million, compared with 53 million in 2011, with all the added pressures on catchments that come as a result.
Constable was unusual, amongst his contemporaries, in his focus on heavily modified landscapes, reflecting his own love of Dutch landscape painting. It would be interesting to see how some of Turner’s riverscapes fared under Simon Dixon’s analysis. Turner was in search of “sublime” landscapes that took him to the north of England and Scotland and my suspicion is that these would tend to show less modification. In both cases, of course, we have to be aware, that any inferences derived from 18th and 19th century landscape paintings, are biased by the artist’s own far-from random strategies of site selection.
Yes, river managers have to work against perceptions of what rivers should look like that arise from the tradition of English romantic landscape painting, but I am also convinced that river managers are not very good at portraying the benefits to society of restoring beyond the public’s perception of an pleasant river corridor. It is easy enough to make the case to specialist interest groups (such as anglers) and, indeed, easy to make the case for broader societal benefits to uncritical conservation-oriented audiences (see “Bring on the Dambusters …”). However, the focus of my work has been on the interactions between organisms and their chemical environments. The reality is that the benefits which we ecologists believe will accrue from water quality improvements almost always translate into very tangible costs, manifest as higher utility bills. The prospect of higher bills is at least as big a barrier to improving the state of our rivers as our tradition of landscape painting.
One other difference between Constable’s paintings and modern rivers: the absence of Himalayan Balsam (see previous post). It was not introduced to this country until about 30 years after these pictures were painted.