Cities can be enduringly fascinating, like London, or ineffably beautiful gems, like Edinburgh, or brash and youthful like Glasgow. And yet, having lingered in all these during three weeks abroad, I was reminded that cities are, in a profound sense, all the same. They are machines for the sorting, movement and interaction of people. If you can find your way in one big city, you can find your way in any. Moreover, cities have no meaning without the context of the countryside, the wilderness, that surrounds them. One of the great ironies of nature stewardship is that the biosphere is managed by an urban intelligentsia that seldom strays the confines of the pavement or the cobblestones.
I have always been fascinated by the relationship of city to country, and I thought about it as I set out from Glasgow on an eight-day hike into what Sir Paul McCartney called the heart of the country. My work in the UK all done, I was going to complete the Scottish heritage trail called the West Highland Way. The Way is like a trip through the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson, passing through the lands of Rob Roy and along the famous shores of Loch Lomond. It crosses some of the most rugged and remote parts of Great Britain. Like “sustainability,” “rugged” and “remote” are wonderfully relative terms. I would be staying in country B&Bs each night, eating hot food and sleeping in a proper beds. For a small fee you can even have your backpack transported from inn to inn — though I drew the line there and carried my own.
The Way officially begins at a suburb north of Glasgow, but I chose to walk from downtown so as to observe the transition from city to country. Emerging from the Kelvinbridge underground station, I took a photo to mark the start of things, then picked up the route north along the River Kelvin. It was oddly similar to my day walking to Wanuskewin (written about in an earlier post), down to the paved path, the graffiti, even the wrecked car.
Those first few kilometres were also sometimes demoralizing. The river and the rowan shrubs along its banks were appallingly strewn with plastic bags, bottles and cans. The trail led tediously alongside golf links and depressing suburban retail of a kind I hoped did not exist in Britain. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant attached to a garden centre, a commercial enterprise that could have been on the edge of Calgary. The roaring motorway was never far off, jets descending to Glasgow airport moved overhead all day, and I passed many places where selfish urban citizens had illegally dumped loads of garbage on the edge of town. North Americans do the same thing, of course. I just thought Europeans knew better.
In fairness, I should repeat that this was not the official start of the West Highland Way, and the trail did become much cleaner and gradually more secluded as it progressed northward in the days that followed. From certain vantage points in the highlands, you could convince yourself Scotland was wild and empty still, though in truth the trail never strays far from towns . . . . at least by North American standards.
Frame of reference is everything in such comparative matters. We have to guard against putting whole countries, whole regions on a pedestal. Or vilifying them. Or ourselves. Or failing to see the country from the city. Today I received an journal containing a glowing report on the sustainability of European cities. The author lauds the subcontinent for all sorts of green-looking urban initiatives. The corollary is that North America is far, far behind. But the report never once leaves the city. It never really factors in all the agricultural inputs to the urban space, questions the impact of, say, the produce flown in from Africa that makes European food markets so lovely. It does not tally the embodied energy of the leather, plastic, metals and precious stones in the high street shop windows, the things that make urban life so refined on the subcontinent.
Sustainability is an infinitely complex mathematics. It is a word much used, rarely defined, never quantified.
It is easier to lop off whole categories than wrestle with variables. For example, few writers mourn the passing of European forests, nor reckon the loss of connection to nature that it may cost school children today. It was all so many generations ago, who remembers?
Having walked through some of the forests that remain in that part of the world, I will explore these topics next time, a little further along the trail.