Wilding

I still owe myself a long post on Dewey’s aesthetics and my last conversation with Nick Gaskill on that topic.  Nick and I are now going to move on to some other writers.

But before I get to that, I have to write at least a short post on Wilding by Isabella Tree (NYRB Books, 2019).  My friend John Kucich put me on to this book—and now I have been buying copies for friends.  It’s an enlightening read, but (better than that) an exhilarating one.  It also gets me out of my rut, having me read something on an entirely new subject for me.

Basically, Tree is narrating the history of the conversion (by herself and her husband) of their large (3500 acres or 5.4 square miles) farm into a nature reserve.  They began the process of re-wilding their land in 2000; they own such a huge parcel—just miles from Gatwick Airport in Sussex, England—because her husband is an aristocrat who inherited the family estate that dates back to the 1700s. The estate is called Knepp.

For starters, “nature reserve” is really the wrong term.  Basically, the idea of “wilding” or “rewilding” is to get land to return to what it would be without human interference or management.  Hence, “return to” is not the right term either.  What the land will become if a hands-off approach is taken is unpredictable—and certainly not calculated to be anything that resembles what it might have been in 1650, 1750, 1850, or 1950.  The whole environmental context has changed and is always changing.  So what you will get if you let things go is just what you will get.

Of course, to say there is no human interference or management is also not completely accurate.  For starters, the acreage has to be fenced because one key—and another piece of human interference—is the introduction of animals.  Central to the whole project is the establishment of herds of herbivores: deer, cattle, pigs, and ponies.  The basic idea is that flora without fauna leads to unbalanced environments.  You need to establish the full food chain, from plants, fungi and insects all the way up to carnivores.  However, given their locale and the limited footprint, they have not seen fit to introduce carnivores, which means they have to cull their herbivore herds.

Tree is good at describing the various decisions made and their rationale, admitting limitations and set-backs.  But mostly the story she tells is of spectacular success—so much so that at times I felt skeptical.  But it is a tale of balance—and of intense interaction/interdependency.  By not trying to set conditions that would insure the flourishing of this or that endangered species, the result is the emergence of any number of species that were not expected to arrive.  What the experiment produces is an astounding wealth of life at every level, from the twenty-two species of dung beetle, to the reappearance of long-departed turtle doves and nightingales, to the flourishing of wild ponies.  And the landscape changes from year to year as it rebalances itself in relation to species that had been threatening to become over-dominant and to changes in this year’s as opposed to last year’s weather.  The whole story is one of a dynamic eco-system—and that dynamism, with its unanticipated interactions among different players, yields a dramatic tale that makes for a great read.

One big takeaway is that forests thrive when they are subject to constant clearing by herbivores.  Tree is adamant the “closed-canopy forests” are not the ideal they are often taken to be.  Meadows and marsh-land—what we often see as “scrub”—are richer, more ideal, environments.  The pictures in the book show land that is not picturesque or what has come to be considered “beautiful” or “natural” or “untouched” in contemporary sensibilities.  A fully occupied landscape—Darwin’s tangled bank—is not
“pretty,” but it is vibrant and teeming with life.

Tree’s book also offers an environmentalist screed.  A small part of the critique is directed at certain foibles of the environmentalist community—in particular, targeted conservation efforts that aim at the tunnel-visioned salvation of one or two species instead of taking a holistic approach, and at the whole notion of “invasive species,” as if the evolution of a landscape can be flash-frozen at some chosen moment of time.

But the main target is industrial agriculture and the demented governmental policies (and subsidies) that sustain it.  The wilding project itself is not about or enabled by walking away from governmental support.  Even if Tree and her husband could not garner governmental monies for their experiment, they still would have to contend with extensive governmental regulation about how they could manage their property.  The government (mostly the EU in their case, but also the UK) is neck deep in land management, almost all of it directed toward agricultural productivity.  Tree is most convincing that these policies—products of the post-war Green Revolution—are destructive and counter-productive in just about any terms you can imagine: economically, scientifically, environmentally, and in terms of both efficiency and nutrition.  It’s a crazy world out there, full of perverse incentives that have trapped farmers into a system that doesn’t serve them well and certainly doesn’t serve the food consuming rest of us.

There’s got to be a better way—and there is.  Now it’s a question of re-aligning government policies and governmental monies to put that better way into practice.  As always, the obstacles to change are formidable.  But Tree certainly makes the case that all involved would be better off if change was effected.

The great thing about the book is that, while awaiting more global change, it is the story of wonderful, tangible success in its own particular locale.  Instead of belly-aching about how bad things are, here is someone making things better, offering up a demonstration project of an alternative pathway.

Inevitably, I guess, Knepp has now gone in for eco-tourism.  Some way of paying the bills still has to be found.  However, in the time-honored English fashion, the grounds are also just free to walk via the footpaths that so often traverse farms in that country.  The land itself, like the book about it, invites us to enjoy a world that stands in marked contrast to the one we usually walk in.

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