I grew up in Quebec City, on the edge of the cape overlooking the St. Lawrence River, the city of Lévis and the Quebec and Pierre-Laporte bridges. When I was young, we used to play in parks, cemeteries and abandoned sites overlooking the river. At the time, I didn’t realize the unconscious impact of the landscape I saw every day. Now I know that it’s an integral part of me. When I see it, I’m always filled with that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, and I know I’m home. You, too, probably have landscapes that affect you in a special way.
A Trip to Austin…Quebec
On May 27, I was invited to give a talk about my father, Larry Hodgson, the Laidback Gardener, as part of the Passion Jardin event in the small municipality of Austin, on the shores of Lake Memphremagog. I was so warmly welcomed by the event organizers, including Judith Grenon, who showed me around Les Serres Magog and welcomed me to her home. I was invited to spend the weekend at the warm and welcoming Échappée Belle B&B. In addition to excellent coffee and conversation with Robert and Odette, my wife and I admired the moon and starry sky, the likes of which we can’t see back home in Montreal.
I also had the honour of meeting the mayor of Austin, Lisette Maillé, who welcomed me into her home. The mayor, who has been in office since 2009 and whose family cleared and farmed the land not far from where she now lives, spoke to me about a subject close to her heart: the protection of cultural landscapes.
The notion of cultural landscape is rather vague. I like the Quebec government’s definition, which defines it as “a territory [that] possesses remarkable landscape features which deserve to be preserved and enhanced”. I think it encompasses both natural and human-made landscapes. Over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, human activity has modified the natural landscapes. Agriculture is partly responsible for opening up the landscape to our gaze, but so is architecture. It is this blend of nature and man that defines the cultural landscape.
Sitting on the terrace at the back of Ms. Maillé’s house, you can see the Saint-Benoît-du-Lac abbey, a castle-like building, with Lake Memphremagog and Owl’s Head Mountain in the background: one of Quebec’s iconic landscapes. “The scene gets a little tighter every year,” says the woman who has seen it evolve over more than 50 years. “Nature is reclaiming its rights on former lands where fallow land is gaining ground, for lack of manpower, for lack of projects.” Elsewhere, a new owner has planted a cedar hedge that he never trimmed and which now forms a 30-metre-high screen. Elsewhere again, the construction of new buildings blocks the view of neighbors who have already been living there for… quite some time. The degradation of cultural landscapes is a complex problem with multiple causes, but human activity is once again to blame.
… And Solutions
How can we prevent the loss of these landscapes? At municipal level, we could regulate the construction of new buildings and other landscape elements, such as hedges or fences. But you all know how these increasingly restrictive regulations will be received! We could also ask owners of land opening onto landscapes to sell parts of it to municipalities, who could then maintain it to keep the views “unobstructed”. An expensive solution, which will take time to win unanimous support. Add to this the fact that landscapes often straddle several municipalities, so imagine the complexity of coordinating regulations.
We could also encourage the revival of agricultural activity to prevent the abandonment of land that our ancestors cleared by the sweat of their brows. I suggested using market gardeners, small-scale farms with little mechanization, to occupy the land. Easier said than done. The difficulty being that they can’t afford to buy the land, which is worth millions, and it’s hard to come to an agreement with the owners of these properties for the long-term lease required to set up a farm. One thing is certain: a legislative framework is needed, otherwise the pitfalls will be insurmountable for small municipalities like Austin.
Landscape Protection Around the World
In Quebec, the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec (MCC) can designate a site as a “Heritage Cultural Landscape”. This requires a colossal amount of work on the part of the municipality wishing to do so. To date, only one place has been designated: the Pointes-aux-Iroquois-et-aux-Orignaux heritage cultural landscape. Located in Rivière-Ouelle, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, this 1.16 km2 territory includes two rocky points of land and the coastline in between. The site was chosen for its panoramic views of the Charlevoix mountains, the culture of eel fishing, the history of seasonal indigenous occupation and tourism activities.
In Switzerland, since 1966, the Federal Law on the Protection of Nature and the Landscape has made it possible to “preserve and protect the characteristic appearance of the landscape and localities, sites evocative of the past, natural curiosities and monuments of the country, and to promote their conservation and upkeep”. Article 5 of the law includes a federal inventory of landscapes, sites and natural monuments of national importance.
I myself spent a summer working on a goat pasture near Menzonio in the Swiss region of Ticino. Our mandate was to look after a herd of goats and produce cheese, but in reality, the important thing was to occupy the land by practicing a traditional activity. Funding came more from subsidies than from cheese sales.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) includes cultural landscapes in its World Heritage List. These include the Palace and Park of Versailles in France and Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Tongariro National Park is the first cultural landscape to be recognized by UNESCO, for its mountainous landscape with active volcanoes and its cultural and religious significance for the Maori people.
How Do You Protect a Cultural Landscape?
Perhaps there’s a place near you that deserves to be designated a cultural landscape. As you can see, it’s no easy task to protect a landscape you hold dear. Start by contacting your municipality to find out whether any steps have already been taken in this direction. If you know people who have the same project at heart, set up a citizens’ association to help you. Above all, don’t be discouraged! It’s going to be a long and winding road, punctuated by small victories, as others have shown elsewhere, but it’s one that deserves to be undertaken in the collective interest.