Opinion: in this latest column Sam Jacob asks whether air fresheners boasting scents from the UK's National Parks are "surreal and distasteful" or a logical extension of the countryside as a product of modern urban life.
Novelist E.M. Forster described Surrey as a "landscape of amenity." It's a phrase suggesting that England is a rolling, green and pleasant place stuffed full of technologies providing convenience and pleasure; nature defragged. In Forster's world, one imagines gin and tonic is dispensed direct from hedgerows. But this idea of landscape as amenity is an idea that extends far beyond Forster's Edwardian Surrey: it's everywhere. Even - perhaps especially - the most apparently natural parts of our landscapes are marinated in this Forsterian spirit.
Head out to the Lake District for example, one of Britain's most celebrated natural landscapes. Even on the Kirkstone Pass you'll be able to avail yourself of a well-earned refreshment from a Coke machine as the topography swirls dramatically around you. Peek behind a dry stone wall and you'll probably glimpse ex-military amphibious vehicles carrying payloads of outward bounders. The verdant landscape is dotted with the bright dots of ramblers wrapped in high-performance materials. It's unmistakably nature, but nature fully ameliorated with technologies of pleasure.
The countryside is one of the places we go when we want to get way from it all; "it all" being the modernity that we normally all inhabit. Of course, there's an irony to this idea: it's "modernity" that invented both the idea of getting away from itself, and more importantly the place we go when we want to get away from it. The countryside is not nature as a pure, found entity, but a product of human civilisation and, in the Lake District's case, a product of the industrial revolution.
It was in the nineteenth century, as the fire and smoke of the urban industrial revolution was in full blast, that the Lake District began to assume its contemporary significance. It's then that the Romantic poets - Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth - wrote about the sublime beauty of the untamed countryside. Wordsworth wrote of the Lake District that it was "a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy".
However, at that point these kinds of places were not national property. They were enclosed by landowners as private spaces for farming and sport. In the early twentieth century public pressure increasingly demanded greater access to the countryside, culminating in a mass trespass in 1932 when over four hundred marched to the bleak moorland plateau of Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
It was only after the Second World War that these kinds of landscapes became protected and public areas. Used as images of the Britain that troops were fighting for in a series of propaganda posters, the post-war Labour government passed an act of parliament to establish National Parks in 1949. They were, in effect, part of the New Jerusalem of postwar reconstruction - a result of the kind of planning that also conceived of other armatures of the welfare state such as the NHS and New Towns.
All this argues that what we think of as nature - at least in the form of these landscapes - is as much a product of the modern world - of politics, economics and technology - as it is of geology and biodiversity.
Though on the surface it looks like nature, if we look closer we see how nature itself is a constructed idea. If you walk between land owned by the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and, say, English Heritage, the landscape subtly shifts. Differences in policy, in conservation plans, in the ideological meaning of the land are made visible. Politics is encoded into the length of grass, the type of fencing, planting strategies and maintenance policies.
Nature is, as far as we can engage with it, a place not to "get away from it" but rather to come into a more direct encounter with the contemporary forces that shape our world. It's our vision of nature that we actually experience. Not that I'm trying to devalue the experience of these places. In fact quite the opposite - surely they become more fascinating when we think of them as invented, synthetic, designed places rather than simply accidents of the "real" natural world.
They may be areas that have been given special designation - exceptional spaces - but they are conceptually contiguous with the rest of our environment. This idea of a continuous space between culture and nature meant that it was no surprise, slumped on the sofa watching Come Dine With Me, to see that Airwick have teamed up the National Parks to bring us a new range of scented room diffusers "to bring home the vibrant scents of British nature".
They come in four flavours: Yorkshire Dales (white roses and pink sweat pea); Peak District (the smell of radical socialism... I mean spring breeze and golden lilly); Exmoor (sea spray and ocean minerals); Brecon Beacons (wild blossom and fresh mountain dew). They come in a variety of formats too, if you can parse the techno-marketing speak: as Plug Ins, Freshmatic Max Refills, Crystal Air or Essential Pearls Candles.
Basically, these are things you can plug into a plug socket with a little bottle attached that atomises a fragrance so that your room no longer smells of your room but of something - or in this case somewhere - else.
Airwick explains: "These evocative fragrances not only capture the freshness of Britain's ‘breathing spaces’, but are also designed to bring the countryside... inside. As well as experiencing the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, Peak District, Exmoor and Brecon Beacons first hand, you can now enjoy fragrances inspired by these parks from the comfort of your own home. Whist supporting the UK National Parks with every purchase.”
If the National parks are synthetic spaces in the first place, maybe there's no reason why they can’t be synthesised in other ways. In this case by "The Air Wick Master Perfumers" as olfactory mirages in your front room.
For the National Parks, there's obviously a financial benefit, but they also argue that the partnership raises awareness and "inspires you to get out and explore even more".
Of course, there are perhaps some amongst you who find this not only surreal but somehow distasteful. You might think that the commercial tie-in of nature itself insulting. Or you may think that the possibility of experiencing the great outdoors without leaving your sofa is an inditement of contemporary society. And you may well be right, but then nature and culture are all of a single piece, made out of the fabric of each other so that they are entirely seamless.
The National Parks are already amenities, products of urbanisation and places designated partly for leisure, recreation and pleasure. Airwick's National Park diffusers are simply an extension of this. Not landscape of amenity, but landscape as amenity; as a idea and experience cut loose from the physical ties of geography to become floating, scented signifiers.