Book review: Wilding by Isabella Tree

(cover image courtesy Pan McMillan)

We live in an increasingly blighted world.

This is not an assessment borne of alarmism or sensationalist tendencies; study after study is showing that the Anthropocene age, the dates of which have not been conclusively agreed but which aligns roughs with humanity’s impact on the Earth’s geology and environment, is having a calamitously deleterious effect on the planet.

Of course, it is climate change which is quite rightly in the spotlight at the moment, but step by step with it we are witnessing too the degradation of the natural environment with biospheres increasingly losing to the demands of agribusiness, logging and urbanisation.

In the midst of all this destruction, which passes unnoticed by most people who, thanks to predominantly now living in cities, have lost their connection to the beating heart of the natural world, there is a growing movement known as “Re-wilding” which aims to return agricultural and other altered land back to some semblance of its former self.

“Wilding” by Isabelle Tree, noted author, travel writer and one half of the couple (with husband Charlie Burrell) behind the Knepp Wildland Project, tackles what this starkly different approach to conservation means for people who increasingly see the world solely through the eyes of industry and an urban landscape.

While many of us are almost instantly attracted to the idea of bringing beleaguered ecosystems back from the brink, the reality is that this often-romanticised notion doesn’t always happen we expect it to.

Nature is, by its very nature, wildly unpredictable.

“With contract farming we were still asking the same of our land – only at a further remove. We were silent witnesses to the Sisyphean struggles, locked in the same gritted-teeth compact with the clay. With those labours gone within the sightline of the house, there was a deeper sense of release. Something gentler, more harmonious, seemed to be stirring into life. For the first time, the park restoration showed us, we were doing something with the land, rather than battling against it.” (P. 43)

Tree explores the often gaping chasm between people’s perceptions of what nature, new or existing should look like versus the reality of what actually ends up taking place when you step back and simply let the natural world heal itself.

She does this against the backdrop of the decision that she and her husband made back in the very late ’90s when the Burrell family-owned Knepp estate in the heart of Sussex in England’s crowded southeast was in severe financial trouble from unsustainably intense farming practices and they had to make some tough decisions on whether to continue business as usual or take a wholly new approach to managing the estate.

She recounts with refreshing candour how they decided, to the undisguised horror of neighbouring farming folk to de-stock the estate of all livestock and to return the 3500 acres of arable land to its former natural estate.

Or, and this is an important point to make and one Tree is at pains to make clear is more complicated than it looks, as close to its former state as can be managed.

The truth is that such has humanity’s impact on the natural world been that many of the building blocks once in place may never be able to be recovered and that what you end up with it when you return land to a non-agrarian state will likely not be the same as it once was.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, but acknowledging that what nature does when we take a hands-off approach to its rehabilitation – in other words, rather than the micromanaging that accompanies much of the current conservation efforts around the world, people sit back and let nature restore things in its own way and at its own pace – may not match what we envisage is vitally important.

Isabella Tree (image courtesy Pan McMillan)

The reason why this is important is because people by and large, at least in the English context, see nature as being represented by closed-canopy forest.

Lots of trees close together is therefore seen as natural, anything else not so much, which presents a problem when, as Tree demonstrates so beautifully at Knepp, nature returns not with trees aplenty but a more open scrubby tree-dotted grassland.

Tree argues that what took place at Knepp, which was seeded with native grasses and which has ancient breeds of cattle, pigs etc added to the mix of newlu-resident animals, did not meet with people’s expectations, either those in the surrounding area not with many ecologists and conservationists who have very set ideas of what a post-agrarian landscape will look like.

The reality is that left to its own devices, plants, animals, insects and microbes have, in Knepp’s twenty years of observable experience, not behaved at all according to expectations.

The types of plants that returned first surprised people as did the sheer number of species of just about every living thing that might have been expected to return when the pesticides, nitrates and tractors were removed, and adjusting to that is critically important is projects like the Knepp Wildland Project are going to be allowed to fulfill their potential.

“For Charlie and me it is the closing of the circle. It was a conversation about mycorrhizal fungi that set us thinking in the first place. Now, nearly two decades later, rewilding has returned us to a deeper appreciation of the ground beneath our feet. It is the invisible foundation of all that we see emerging before our eyes; it is the great recycler, the connector, the key to life itself.” (P. 290)

At the heart of Wilding‘s utterly engrossing story is the call for a new relationship between humanity and nature.

This new relationship goes far beyond simply adjusting what we think is or what it will be when take the hands of the earth-altering wheel; it also asks that we stop seeing the world simply in terms of its industrial usefulness and viewing things as industry vs. nature, but that we understand that a healthy natural world is vital to our continued existence on this planet.

That may sound like a lofty call to arms, but what Tree is saying, with an impressive array of facts, lived experience and obvious and understandable passion, is that by, say, letting beavers return to the river systems of Europe and the UK that boundless advantageous developments come into play, many good in and of themselves but also beneficial to humanity as a species.

Divorced as we often are from the natural world now, it is hard for us to move away from the us vs. nature mindset but the truth seems to be that if nature is fit and healthy and allowed to exist within the altered world we have sculpted that every living on the planet will be better off.

Some will, of course, dismiss this as mung beans and kum ba yah New Age idealism, but as Knepp and other wilding projects across Europe have shown time and again, there is a practical benefit to letting areas of abandoned land return to as close a natural state as possible in a way that involves as little orchestration from people as possible.

Shortlisted for the Richard Jeffries Award for Nature Writing, Wilding is a passionate plea to revisit how we see the world and to take a far more sophisticated and enlightened approach to the relationship between people, the urban landscape they have created and the natural world which struggles to survive alongside it, and to understand that we when take the admirable step of turning the clock back, what we get may not be what we expect and that that is, at its very heart, not a bad thing at all.

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