Evolution created utterly fantastic masterpieces. The megafauna of the Americas grew to enormous size, in the absence of too-clever two-legged tool addicts. Ground sloths weighed as much as elephants. Beavers were the size of bears. The Argentine roc had a 26-foot wingspan (8 m). All of them vanished between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, about the time you-know-who arrived, with their state of the art hunting technology.
On a damp gray dawn, the English writer George Monbiot woke up screaming once again. He suffers from a chronic spiritual disease that he calls ecological boredom. Living amidst endless crowds of two-legged strangers can become unbearably unpleasant for sensitive people with minds. Human souls can only thrive in unmolested wildness (the opposite of England). He leaped out of bed, packed his things, and moved to the coast of Wales, where there was more grass than concrete. He hoped that this would exorcise his demons.
They weren’t demons. Obviously, ecological boredom is a healthy and intelligent response to the fierce madness of twenty-first century life, and it’s curable. What’s needed to break this curse is a holy ceremony called rewilding. During five years of country living in Wales, Monbiot wrote Feral, to explain his voyage and vision. It’s a 500-decibel alarm clock.
Humans were wild animals for millions of years. In the last few thousand years, we’ve declared war on wild ecosystems, in our whacked out crusade to domesticate everything everywhere, and lock Big Mama Nature in a maximum-security zoo. Rewilding is about throwing this sick, suicidal process into reverse.
It’s about allowing long extinct woodlands to become healthy thriving forests once again. It’s about reintroducing the wild beings that have been driven off the land — bear, bison, beavers — a sacred homecoming. It’s about creating marine reserves so aquatic species have places of refuge from the insane gang rape of industrial fishing. Importantly, it’s about introducing our children to the living planet of their birth.
Wales was a land of lush forests 2,100 years ago. Today, it’s largely a mix of sheep pasture and other assorted wastelands. One day, Monbiot climbed to a hilltop in the Cambrian Mountains, where he could see for miles. He noted a few distant Sitka spruce tree farms, and a bit of scrubby brush, but otherwise, “across that whole, huge view, there were no trees. The land had been flayed. The fur had been peeled off, and every contoured muscle and nub of bone was exposed.”
Some folks now call it the Cambrian Desert, whilst shameless tourism hucksters refer to it as one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.K. To Monbiot, rural Wales is a heartbreaking sheepwreck, reduced to ecological ruins by the white plague — countless dimwitted furry freaks from Mesopotamia that gobble the vegetation down to the roots, and prevent forest recovery.
One day, Monbiot met a brilliant young sheep rancher, Dafydd Morris-Jones, who had no sympathy for rewilding at all. His family had been raising sheep on this land for ages. Every rock in the valley had a name, and his uncle remembered all of them. Allowing the forest to return would amount to cultural genocide, snuffing out the traditional indigenous way of life, and erasing it forever.
I had great sympathy for Dafydd’s view. In 1843, my great-grandfather, Richard E. Rees, was born in the parish of Llangurig, Wales — deep in the heart of sheep country. His mother was a handloom weaver. They lived down the road from the wool mill in Cwmbelan. My ancestors survived for many generations by preventing the return of the forest, deer, and boars, by preventing an injured land from healing. Of course, for the last several thousand years, none of my ancestors had been wild people — they suffered from the tremendous misfortune of having been born in captivity.
Every generation perceives the world of their childhood as the normal state, the ideal. Many don’t comprehend that the ecosystem was badly damaged long before they were born. What they accept as normal might give their grandparents nightmares. Monbiot refers to this shortsightedness as Shifting Baseline Syndrome. The past is erased by mental blinders. Each generation adapts to an ongoing pattern of decline. Humans have an amazing tolerance for crowding, filth, and stress. The result is the wounded wheezing world you see around you.
Monbiot gushes with excitement when describing the amazing changes that followed the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park. They promptly corrected deer overpopulation, which led to forest regeneration, which led to healthier streams, which led to more fish. When they reduced the coyotes, the result was more rabbits, mice, hawks, weasels, boxes, badgers, eagles, and ravens. Here is Monbiot enthusiastically discussing this process in a 15 minute TED talk.
A number of European organizations are promoting rewilding. Pan Parks has protected 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres), and is working on a million more. Wild Europe is working to create wildlife corridors across the continent. Rewilding Europe promotes the reintroduction of missing species (here is a brief video trailer). Pleistocene Park in Siberia is reintroducing many species in a 160 sq. km. park (62 sq. mi.), which it plans to expand to 600 sq. km. (232 sq. mi.).
In continental Europe, the rewilding movement is building momentum. Wolves, bears, bison, and beavers have begun the path to recovery. Not every effort succeeds — Italy reintroduced two male lynx, and the cute couple mysteriously failed to produce offspring. Britain and Ireland remain out to lunch. Most of the land is owned by wealthy elites who are obsessed with preserving a “tidy” looking countryside — treeless and profoundly dreary. They enjoy recreational hunting, and wolves would spoil their fun.
Monbiot delights in goosing every sacred cow along his path, and readers of many varieties are sure to foam at the mouth and mutter naughty obscenities. For me, Feral had a few zits, but they don’t sink the book. He leads us to the mountaintop and allows us to view the world from above the haze of assumptions, illusions, and fantasies. Who are we? Where is our home? Where are we going?
He rubs our noses in the foul messes we’ve made, hoping we’ll learn from our accidents and grow. He confronts us with big important issues that we’ve avoided for far too long — the yucky stoopid stuff we’re doing for no good reason. I like that. This is important. He recommends intriguing alternatives to stoopid. It’s about time.
Monbiot, George, Feral — Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, Allen Lane, London, 2013.