A scene shot in Stowe for a James Bond movie is my excuse for stealing from a dialogue in Skyfall for the title of this blog. Watching the BBC documentary on ‘Four British Gardens in Time’, I imagined Stowe to be a large canvas in which Lord Cobham was able to express himself through buildings, sculptures and landscaping in 17th century England. I reasoned that if the 2015 batch of BCM students from Oxford arrived in Stowe for a field visit, there has to be a contemporary conservation relevance.
By design, Lord Cobham’s house overlooked the vast expanse of land, his own and of others. This was made possible by an invention called ‘ha ha’ which is a boundary wall at the ground level that is invisible from the house because of the gradient. However, the wall is visible when viewed from outside which was where peasants typically resided. Lord Cobham, somehow, had gained enough legitimacy to exert his power so that he could visually own nature. The wall served different purposes to different parties. The scheme reminded me of the boundary wall in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in India. Curious about its impact on wildlife movement, I asked a high ranking official about the thinking behind constructing the wall. He emphasised that the wall was only to keep ‘people’ out. Neither could villagers ‘encroach’ on the reserve nor could their cattle jump over. However, he assured me that most wild animals could cross the wall. Tigers, Leopards and Nilgais could jump over, birds could fly over and snakes can crawl through crevices. Human-wildlife conflict is ever present in and around Ranthambore. Between July 2010 and May 2015, four people have been killed by one tiger (T-24) alone. Nilgai continue to raid crops outside the reserve causing extensive economic damage. The wall of course have gates through which ‘people’ are welcomed. Many of them travel from faraway places and countries to get a view of the tiger. Miraculously, the same physical structure served different purposes to different sets of people. And I am left wondering if conservation is stuck in time.