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The wild and the wind

JOHN Muir's presence in the California Hall of Fame might bemuse many people on this side of the Atlantic.

Steve Jobs, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood and Walt Disney may be household names here, but the Dunbar-born naturalist – celebrated in America as the founding father of the country's 400 national parks – remains an obscure figure in his native Scotland. And while his writings are familiar to conservationists and mountaineers, his name would leave most people scratching their heads in a pub quiz.

That may be about to change. Today is the first John Muir Day in Scotland, marking the 175th anniversary of his birth. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has made Muir a focal point for the Year of Natural Scotland (this year) and Homecoming (in 2014), partly in the hope of attracting visitors from the United States.

Yet our relationship with the man who pioneered the modern conservation movement is paradoxical. We want to reflect the glory of this champion of wilderness, but we exploit the land of his birth for commercial gain. We've been doing it for centuries through deforestation, hunting, large-scale sheep farming and sport. John McGrath exposed this most eloquently in his 1970s play, The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. If he were alive today, McGrath may well have expanded his title to add the latest Highland gold rush.

The spread of colossal wind farms across our wildest landscapes promises to generate billions of pounds in profits for energy corporations and private landowners. In return, we are supposed to be creating lovely, clean, low-carbon energy, plenty of jobs and a better world. So why does it feel wrong?

Wind power is meant to help us tackle climate change by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. But despite all the turbines built so far, carbon emissions continue to rise. We now burn more coal than gas, we are opening up 14 new oilfields, our economy is still based on endless consumerism, and most of our houses are draughty heat-leakers. Meanwhile, we attempt to save the planet by eroding the remaining places where nature might flourish, and where people can find peace, beauty, clean air and adventure.

If the proposed wind farm at Stronelairg goes ahead, 67 turbines, each 135 metres tall, will tower over the landscape from a 700ft plateau in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains, near Loch Ness. Much of the development will be built on peatland, an internationally important habitat that stores huge amounts of carbon, supports wildlife and helps to filter clean water. Around one million tonnes of rock will be excavated to build the site's concrete foundations and 40 miles of access roads. The entire development will create a footprint the size of Inverness, making Stronelairg not so much a wind farm as a wind city. It is just one of many wind cities being proposed for Scotland.

As a boy, John Muir loved roaming the Lammermuir Hills, and the woodlands and coastline near his East Lothian home. He was just 10 when his family emigrated to the US in 1849, but he would later recall his love of "everything that was wild" in Scotland. What would he have made of the current assault on wild places and open spaces in the land of his birth?

Muir dedicated his adult life to protecting vast swathes of the American wilderness. These weren't places devoid of human presence. Native Americans had inhabited and explored every inch of California, but they had a profound respect for the land that provided the food, water and beauty that sustained them. This connection to the natural world was alien to many of the Europeans who were exploiting California's natural riches with vigour in the late 19th century.

Following his first visit to Yosemite, Muir observed that "in a few feverish years", the "pick-and-shovel storms" of the Californian gold rush had severely damaged great swathes of the state, in sharp contrast to the centuries of minimal impact by Native Americans who, he wrote, "walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels".

By the time Muir wrote these words in 1869, much of Scotland's natural heritage had been destroyed. Most of her native tree cover had gone – felled over the centuries for houses, agriculture, and ships, and to fuel the Industrial Revolution. As a result, nutrient-rich soils were blown away by the wind that now had free rein over the bare hillsides. Plants and insects disappeared.

Bear, beaver, wolf, lynx, boar, auroch, sea eagle, red kite and other species were lost to merciless hunting and shrinking habitats, reaching a climax when the Victorians waged a programme of extermination across the Highlands to clear the land of any living thing that might compete for their prized game birds and other sporting targets.

Today, most of our bare hills and moors have been over-grazed by sheep and deer, and over-managed to favour the growth of heather for game birds to the detriment of the flora and fauna that would otherwise live there. Blocks of dense commercial forestry pockmark the land, lacking the rich biodiversity that thrives in native woodlands. Most us are so disconnected from nature, we can't read the landscape around us.

I grew up loving what little of Scotland's lochs and winding rivers, dramatic mountain peaks and woodland I had managed to explore outside of Edinburgh, where I lived. I didn't realise that the bare hills and angular forestry lines, which I didn't love so much, were representative of a landscape that has been devastated ecologically.

Understanding Scotland's landscape a little better now, I can see why my first trip to California stirred deep emotions. In California, and many other areas of the US, you can hike for days far from towns, wander through groves of giant redwood trees, sit by glacial rivers and saunter along upland trails alongside numerous types of birds, wildflowers and animals (including the occasional bear) that have thrived for millennia.

The US is by no means an undamaged land, but massive areas are protected in ways we Scots can only dream of. Thanks largely to Muir, the Yosemite Valley became a national park in 1890, and today nearly half of California's land – an area the size of Scotland and England combined – is protected in national parks, nature reserves, wildlife refuges and so on.

Speaking in support of building the Stronelairg wind city, one Highland councillor said: "This is the kind of landscape that breaks my heart. There isn't a tree – they are long gone. The whole area is huge sporting estates and the land has been hammered. It's not in its natural state."

The depletion of our precious natural resources is indeed heart-breaking, but to conclude that the land is degraded and therefore not worth protecting is dangerous. There could be no end to the damage wreaked on Earth if we hold up past destruction as a guiding principle.

As the American environmentalist Paul Hawken said recently: "We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy Earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it - We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it."

We need to break the habit of exploiting our land to the nth degree. Let's think differently. Let's heal the future. Wind power can contribute to our energy needs, and it's particularly suited to small-scale community and agricultural power generation. But it has downsides – most notably, the sheer number of hectares that need to be torn up to deliver grid-connected turbines. In Scotland, 176 wind farms (2136 turbines in total) are now either operational or under construction, with a further 229 developments (2648 turbines) in the pipeline. No end point has been agreed. We don't know how many turbines will be considered enough or how much of our natural landscape will be affected.

Some argue that Scotland is too small to have savannahs of wildness untouched by development when climate change is such a serious threat. But it's precisely because Scotland is so small that we need to cherish our natural resources and value our wild places. Scotland sits 117th in terms of land mass size compared to the rest of the world, but our coastline is the 12th longest. This suggests that Scotland's contribution to the fight against climate change might be better focused on unleashing the immense power of marine energy rather than sacrificing large chunks of precious, finite wild land to concrete and steel.

Wild land – with its amazing ability to store carbon, provide water and clean the air – is our ally in coping with climate change. As the weather becomes more extreme, plants and animals will need space to adapt. Nature cannot flourish under a spread of metal and concrete.

We need more imaginative solutions to provide hope for a future where the natural world, including that bit in our own backyards, can thrive. Before turning to diggers, to metal and concrete, we should be doing everything possible to reduce energy consumption. We could bring building insulation up to Scandinavian standards, offer free public transport to cut car use, reduce long-distance transportation of goods and even help convert rural oil-heated houses (which, though often situated close to wind farms, don't benefit from them).

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe," Muir famously wrote. By observing the natural world, he recognised that an intricate web of life sustains us all. That is what we are playing with when we destroy wild land.

We need to observe with keener eyes what is happening to our country, our home. Muir saw wildness as a necessity, not a luxury, and urged everyone to "keep close to Nature's heart - and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods".

During the Depression in the 1930s, young people from Glasgow found solace from poverty and urban misery in the hills and woods outside the industrial city. Many of them went on to found the country's first walking and mountaineering clubs. Nowadays, every weekend thousands of us flee the confinement of offices and houses for the great outdoors. Distant horizons and mighty mountains remind us of our insignificance. The sighting of a red squirrel or sea eagle excites us. Nature recharges us; it makes us better people.

I once heard a farmer say: "You can't eat a view." But as Muir pointed out: "We all need beauty as well as bread." Views matter. If they didn't, then landscape photographers wouldn't make a living; Yosemite National Park wouldn't build a trail to the edge of the valley so that visitors in wheelchairs can see the spectacular miles-long vista; and songs wouldn't be written about the bonny banks of Loch Lomond. If landscape was unimportant, people wouldn't travel halfway across the world to see Scotland.

The John Muir Trust is calling for a wild land designation, which would protect areas identified for their ecological and special landscape values. I think the world's greatest naturalist would have approved. Trust chairman John Hutchison said recently: "If John Muir could see what is being done to his native land today in the name of progress, he would be grief-stricken. He would agree we need to fight climate change, reduce our carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels – but not by trashing nature."

The truth is, we can build a great many things – roads and cities and technological wonders – but we cannot build wilderness. And this one small country, on this one habitable planet, is all we've got.

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