Thinking Like a Mountain

Our project is to examine the significance and role of the predator in every aspect of Scottish life and culture, to re-evaluate the concept of  ‘predator’ as it is, and has been applied in both human and non-human worlds and to relate these ideas to their effects, from current pressing conflicts in conservation to the powerful historic influences of cultural ideas on the fate of many species.  We aim to ascertain how far representations of predators mirror scientific knowledge and understanding of their role in the natural world, while evaluating the language of ‘predation’ from its origins to assess how far such language has removed us from a true understanding of the ecological role and importance of these often maligned species.

With reference to cultural texts— through poetry, prose, ballad and song, laws, film, myths and legends,  and through scientific study, we aim to trace prevailing beliefs and suppositions through history to set them against what we know of the natural world in Scotland today. From the 15th century legislative programmes of James 1st and 2nd to current ideas and portrayals, we will examine the way we have over time, viewed our own relationship with other species, from ideas of appeasement by symbolic gift to those of direct conflict, from seasonal ritual to gamekeeper’s economically driven ‘control’ methods.  We will examine the shifting changes in fortune and fashion of species such as raptors, corvids, wolves and mustelids as language and perception have altered the ways in which we act towards the natural world.

We take our title from an essay written by American ecologist, the late Aldo Leopold who, following his unthinking shooting of a female wolf, sees as she dies, ‘a fierce green fire dying in her eyes’; an experience which impels him to question and re-evaluate his entire understanding of the role of predators, and encourages him to ‘think like a mountain’, a phrase which, in its respect for time and place, seems to urge us to a new thinking on the topic.

We aim to examine the three areas of Scotland which best reflect our own interests and expertise— the Borders, Highlands and Aberdeen city, continuing our theme in each location.

Our aim is to create from the fusion of our separate areas of endeavour, an art-work which will have as its purpose the encouragement of fresh ways of looking at the natural world as an escape from traditional modes of seeing and accepting species and their behaviour. We aim to challenge traditional unquestioning views of the natural world as suggested by Aristotle’s doctrine of the ‘Scala Naturae’, one in which humans dominate and other species, in descending order of worth may be exploited or destroyed at will, a view reinforced by later, predominantly Western thinkers, one which has allowed and encouraged the unfettered exploitation of other species. In looking at three specific area of Scotland, we aim to review some of the major challenges to species, in the Borders at species such as hen harriers and red grouse—the subject of Steve’s long-term area of  study at Langholm— and in the Highlands at corvids and other raptors. We will look at them in the context of history, culture, hunting practices and tradition. As Writer in Residence at Kielder in Northumberland in 2012, I became interested in the long-term effects of human warfare and conflict as related to the reivers and the history of the border country. In Aberdeen city, I will examine the ways in which the natural world is viewed in an urban setting, while attempting to weigh myth and prejudice against the reality of reductions of species regarded wrongly as common at the same time as they appear on IUCN lists of the critically endangered.