In ‘La forêt loisir, un équipement de pouvoir: L’exemple de la forêt de Fontainebleau’, Bernard Kalaora and Valentin Pelosse discuss forests as landscapes. They use the Fontainebleau forest, a national park located southeast of Paris, as an example. They (92) start by pointing out that when one is situated in a forest, one does not not see landscape. They acknowledge that, frankly speaking, forest is a terrible example to begin with as trees that constitute forest make it hard to see it as a landscape. However, they add that forests can become landscapes. Firstly, positioned on ‘d’une allée forestière’, a cleared path in a forest, makes it possible to perceive a landscape, the ‘petit paysage’. Secondly, positioned on an elevated place, it is possible to see the forest as a landscape, as the ‘grand paysage’.
What is of further interest to me in the article written by Kalaora and Pelosse is the evident contradiction in understanding the natural environment as a landscape. They (106) note how ‘natural forests’ must retain their naturalness, to remain artificially wild. Related to this, in ‘The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays’ Mikhail Bakhtin (217) states that once “the struggle with nature had ceased to be the only arena for man’s encounter with nature and the world – then nature itself ceased to be a living participant in the events of life.” He (217) adds that nature became a mere backdrop for human action, having been “turned into landscape” and lacking any real or intrinsic connection to nature itself.
National parks, like the one discussed by Kalaora and Pelosse, by definition serve to preserve the natural environment while also often serving recreational purposes. My own experiences with such parks are limited to a couple of visits, namely to Torronsuo National Park in Tammela, Finland, and Goldstream Provincial Park in Langford, British Columbia. As one would expect, both function to conserve nature, both the flora and the fauna, while catering for the human visitors, namely in the form of roads and footpaths (Torronsuo also has duckboards), as well as resting places, camp-fire places, viewing towers, toilet facilities and most importantly parking. In the Finnish context, celebrating 100 years of independence, the 40th national park, the Hossa National Park was ceremonially opened in June 2017. The Suomussalmi, Kuusamo and Taivalkoski based national park has it all, all the bells and whistles you could hope for, ranging from your usual walking and hiking to scuba diving and snowmobiling, not to forget the best sights and scenery. What would nature be without its oxygen tanks, snowmobiles and, most importantly, landscapes?
Kalaora and Pelosse focus on the very issue of recreation. They (108-109) point out that only a small minority of visitors, namely hikers and climbers, delve deep into the forest, whereas the vast majority at best make short walks away from the parking areas, which has the effect that improvements are made to areas that seem to interest the vast majority. They (111) add that improvements in the accessibility of the majority focus only on certain historically valued must see places, judged by aesthetic and scholarly criteria. In other words, the bells and whistles become the main attraction rather than nature itself. One could say that, ironically, the habits of the majority surveyed, or rather mapped, by the planners are taken to signal their interests, leading to improvements in all things human rather than nature. Kalaora and Pelosse (113) argue that, as a result, people are segmented into advantaged and disadvantaged groups of people, the ones who experience nature and the ones who experience the amenities.
The article goes beyond what sparked my interest in it, the nature/culture or nature/human divide, but the rest is better left for future discussion. The intent here is not to devalue the experience of nature, but rather to point out how tangled our understanding of nature is and how it can get steered unbeknownst to us. There is something peculiar in having to visit a national park in order to experience nature, especially if it nevertheless involves built environments.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (C. Emerson and M. Holmquist, Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Kalaora, B., and V. Pelosse (1977). La forêt loisir, un équipement de pouvoir: L’exemple de la forêt de Fontainebleau. Hérodote, 7, 92–129.