Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding
By George Monbiot
Allen Lane, 2013, 316 pages
The year was 1995, and the farmers and townsfolk in the countryside of Cornwall were positive that some kind of big, wild cat was roaming the moors. “The Beast of Bodmin,” they called it. Some people said it was a panther, while others claimed it was a black leopard. The gruesome corpses of sheep – plus a nighttime video sequence of a cat jumping what looked to be a large stone wall – seemed proof that a beast was out there. But when government investigators went to Cornwall to check it out, all they could find were the prints of a housecat; the stone wall in the video was only knee-high, easy enough for a domestic cat to leap over. There was no beast.
No matter. Similar sightings continue to this day. Each year some 2,000 people claim to see a big cat in the wild in Britain, even though there is no such thing. The persistence of this collective delusion makes for one of the more endearing anecdotes in George Monbiot’s latest book, Feral, and serves as a tidy parable for Monbiot to make a larger point: We are so desperate to experience something wild that we’ll even conjure hallucinations. Such visions are a natural response, Monbiot argues, for trying to “escape from ecological boredom.”
Monbiot – an environment columnist for The Guardian – is probably best known for his writing about climate change. With Feral he’s on the hunt for something deeper, something more primal: wildness itself, and how in this worrisome new century of “reduced expectations” we can hold onto the wild as a touchstone for our relationship with nonhuman life. To cure the ecological boredom of our overly tamed world, we need to dive into an ambitious program of rewilding and reintroduce large mammals – especially predators – to the landscapes from which they have disappeared. Monbiot writes: “Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which … destructive processes are thrown into reverse” as well as, for humans, “a life richer in adventure and surprise.”
In making rewilding his subject, Monbiot isn’t engaged in the journalist’s usual task of chronicling (though there is a lot of engrossing field reporting here) so much as he’s involved in the advocate’s endeavor of aspiring. Rewilding – especially in Europe – is still an adolescent project, subject to constant pushback from those who prefer the convenience of the domesticated. So Feral is mostly a book about something that doesn’t exist – yet. Rewilding’s place in the future-tense is part of what makes the idea exciting. It’s a form of conservation that is forward-looking, that can, as Monbiot writes, “open up the ecological imagination.”
And what an imagination Monbiot has. The writer has a good time fantasizing how it might look to bring back to Britain elephants, hippos, and bison, all of which thrived there before the last glaciation. If some of this seems calculated for shock value – well, mission accomplished. The daydreaming is useful for illustrating the way in which historical baselines complicate any effort at ecological restoration. What’s the point in time to which we should peg our restoration? The British landscape of 1650? How the place looked when the Normans invaded in 1066? Even earlier? In Britain, the most common conservation baseline is the countryside as it existed before industrialization took off. But the protection of that idealized scenery has just resulted in the preservation of an already degraded ecosystem, a landscape that is thoroughly sheep-wrecked and usually devoid of forests – the heath of the national imagination. The Brits have ended up with “a conservation prison,” Monbiot sneers.
Much better, then, not to try to manage ecosystems to conform to some arbitrary historic baseline, but instead to encourage the quality of wildness by halting our destruction and then getting out of the way. “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature,” Monbiot writes.
As an American, Feral is a startling reminder of how very small, tame, and denuded Britain is. Monbiot can hardly find a tree in the whole country, and when he wants to really get wild he has no choice but to strike out on a kayak into the wilderness of the Irish Sea. Another parable: As an island, the UK is the perfect analogue for the world as a whole, the island Earth. Or the world as I fear it could become – completely domesticated, without a shred of wilderness left. Which is why the rewilding of Britain is such an important effort. If we can rewild Britain, we can rewild anywhere, and that, as Monbiot says, would be a “work of hope.”