October 2012
Cultural Viewpoints
9th October 2012

Do we take our attitudes to nature for granted?  Recently I’ve become more aware of cultural differences in perceptions of the outdoor environment.   Kirklees Council has commissioned Get Out More to engage the community in the development of Dewsbury Country Park.    This former landfill site is about to become the largest new woodland in West Yorkshire, one of the sixty Diamond Woods, marking the Queen’s Jubilee.  The large green space sits sits smack in the middle between the urban and ethnically diverse communities of Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury Moor and Heckmondwike, although our conversations with local people tell us that most people aren’t even aware that the country park is there.   Myself and Tom have been running outdoor sessions through the summer and autumn leading people to the site, showing them what they can do there and asking for their opinions for how they would like to see it developed to make them more likely to visit in future.  The feedback is an interesting insight into society’s attitudes to the natural landscape. 

Many people, especially women, say they feel unsafe, which is understandable given the stories we hear in the media and the evidence of anti social behaviour (litter, graffiti, vandalism and evidence of drinking etc) that is common in urban parks.  But ironically it is the lack of people around that also contributes to this sense of insecurity and if we can get more people to use the country park, the safer it will feel.  Dog walkers use the site regularly, but dogs themselves are can also be an issue; dog mess and uncontrollable dogs can make off-putting hazards.  Walking my own dog in Keighley I have noticed how many people shy away when they see her coming.  I had assumed it was straightforward fear of dogs until a Muslim lady on one of our group walks explained to me that in her culture a dog is considered unclean and if one touches your clothes, it is necessary to change them before prayer, which I hadn’t considered before. 

Going for a walk in the countryside as a leisure pursuit seems as old as the hills, but is a relatively recent phenomenon which was ‘invented’ by eighteeneth century asristocrats, to the exclusion of almost all but the leisured classes until in the 1930’s the Kinder Scout trespassers fought for rights of access for all .  You would be hard pushed to find a  cheaper, more egalitarian form of exercise, but going for a walk still retains the air of a middle class, white pursuit.  I had arranged to meet a local walking group to show them a route to the country park that they may enjoy on their weekly meets.  When the group of fifteen women turned up, about one quarter were wearing flip flops or high heeled shoes.  It turns out the walks they were used to were all on urban pavements.  They were as shocked at the mud and puddles I lead them through as I was at their choice of footwear for walking!  Hats off to the women though: they stayed the full route, carrying the pushchairs over hills and stiles.  Their feedback about the need for buggy-friendly footpaths will be help make the country park more accessible for people with different mobility needs too. 

Growing up in a village, in a family that enjoyed being outdoors, it is useful to be reminded that people engage with the natural environment from different cultural viewpoints.  What seems natural to some may feel alien to others and it is important not to make assumptions.  A good case in point: on the same walk mentioned above I was showing the women how to make a fire so we could have a cup of tea.  From the comments overheard round the fire, it became obvious that some of the women had grown up in Pakistan cooking all their meals over an open fire, and knew more about the process that I did.