Stowe Landscape Garden and the birth of conservation: A legacy we wish to continue?

From the colorful, vocal occupants in the aviary of Waddesdon Manor, and the rolling hills and dark waters of Stowe Landscape Gardens, the idea of nature arose as a worthy subject of intellectual thought. However, its consideration by British elites can be considered a byproduct of political discourse – exotic birds meant to impress upon visitors of the Rothschilds’ power and influence; grand, sweeping vistas with temples scattered across the landscape, expressing not only power but a particular ideology of virtue and vice. From the BCM study day at these two gardens, it is clear that the roots of Western conservation are deeply entangled with the politics of an elite class, creating a legacy of conservation that continues to this day.

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Waddesdon Manor Aviary: The aviary showcases a spectacular menagerie of birds from all over the world. (Photo taken by Mibby23).

However, it is up to us to decide whether this is a legacy we wish to continue. Both at Waddesdon and Stowe Gardens, we saw how humans had attempted to sculpt the countryside into an improved “nature” that resulted in dramatic alteration of the landscape. At Waddesdon, gardens were designed in geometric patterns and at Stowe, huge excavations were undertaken to create a lake out of a hillside and when the venture was unsuccessful, exotic trees were planted to mimic the idealized vistas of the Italian grand tour. Perhaps rather ironically, the importance of nature conservation seemingly emerged from these greatly transformed human landscapes and the political activities associated with them.

Moreover, conservation efforts born from the political discussions at Stowe can be attributed only to high society. The Enclosure Act in the 17th century permitted the Stowe family to apply for exclusion, making the gardens their private property and displacing the nomad farmers from the land. In fact, a large statue was erected on one side of the Palladium Bridge to obscure the peasant village from sight and direct attention to the rest of the gardens. This troubling practice of removing people from the landscape gives a false view of nature, and pioneered the unfortunate habit of fortress conservation that has plagued the movement.

Stowe Landscape Gardens: the grand view of the Palladium Bridge and the Temple of Liberty. (Photo by ukgardenphotos).

So while the political elite must be credited for the rise of conservation, I believe, as a movement, we should not continue their brand of nature appreciation and conservation. For a start, I say we should stop taking a shovel to the Earth in an attempt to create a new, “improved” nature, and explicitly acknowledge humanity’s place within the natural world and put people back into the landscape.

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