Wilding

Some good news! Isabella Tree’s Wilding: Returning Nature To Our Farm has been published. This is a revelatory story of a family’s abandonment to natural processes of their losing-proposition farm in the clay-laden Weald, some 44 miles southeast of London.

Tree is a very fine writer. It’s worth reading this just for the great way she tells it, mixing history, memoir, and natural history, along with strong opinions. She’s the latest in a line of writers who have revealed that England’s lyrical “green & pleasant land” trademark is a charade, a hoax, a mask covering over an astonishing diminishment of natural heritage, habitat, and biodiversity. Since the Second World War, the UK has become one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world.” (See also Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm.) Hedgerows vanquished, chemicals poured, sheep fetishized, a necrophilic orderliness established hither and yon — all have led to the stripping away of the very nature that spoke through Shakespeare, Clare, Keats — hell, even people’s grandparents — as the quintessence of Britishness.

Turning their marginal agricultural land into an experiment on re-wilding, Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have seen an explosion of life-forms, including rare birds, bats, and butterflies, as well as dung beetles, fungi, orchids, and a host of others creatures. Knepp Castle estate is now on all the twitchers’ lists — but of course it’s only an island in the wastelands.

But, but, but… what about food? Tree covers the topic extensively, since a generation in the UK has been taught to value productive farming above all else. Yet the world produces so much grain and pulse (think soy beans in the burning Amazon) that they are pumped into animal feed, ethanol, and ever more tricksy-marketed junk-food instead of directly into people’s mouths as actual food. (Famine and malnutrition are political results.) Also, Knepp’s balance sheet is helped immeasurably by selling pasture-raised beef — meat that’s much better health-wise compared to the sick-cow stuff sold most places. They aren’t out of the food chain completely. But her argument that land that’s marginal for farming is better not farmed is a strong one indeed. It’s even better for the neighboring farms.

Key to Knepp’s transformation has been the introduction of long-horned cattle, deer, Exmore ponies, and pigs, stand-ins, essentially, for the extinct megafauna that once browsed, churned, and fertilized landscapes. The idea that megafauna made and unmade meadows and forests, to a much greater extent than has been traditionally thought, is a controversial one (for some). The UK has a myth of closed canopy forest covering it after recovery from the glaciers. (We share this myth in the U.S., too, with tales of the forest running uninterrupted from the Atlantic to the Mississippi upon the arrival of Europeans.) But animals have been geo-engineering long before there was such a word. Consider the beavers, herds of grazers, large herbivores.

The Knepp couple were inspired by Frans Vera, whose project in Holland, Oostvaardersplassen, has rewilded a portion of some of the most human-intensive land in the world. Vera: “We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants. Species may be surviving at the very limits of their range, clinging on in conditions that that don’t really suit them. Open up the box, allow natural processes to develop, give species a wider range to express themselves, and you get a very different picture.”

Controversy at the Dutch experiment has been sparked by the “animal rights” activists, who protest against culls and starvation, a natural process of population balance. At Knepp, meanwhile, they aren’t allowed to leave large animal corpses to decay, and foster more life via scavengers, decomposers, etc. Nor can they have large predators — keystone species in habitats, as the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone have shown.

Tree: “Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no predetermined targets to meet, no species or number to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking. It particularly unsettles scientists who like to test hypotheses, run computer models, tick boxes and set goals. Rewilding — giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself — is largely a leap of faith. It involves surrendering all preconceptions, and simply sitting back and observing what happens.”

This… is difficult to do. Burrell inherited Knepp. The land was and remains bound up in EU and UK regulations (farmers are some of the most cosseted and straight-jacketed people in the western world). Neighbors were outraged when B & T left farming and let “weeds” and “wasteland” — the horror, the horror — grow, although many seem to have calmed down since. Some “animal lovers” forced them to kill one of their pigs because she tried to protect her young from their off-leash dogs, which of course weren’t supposed to be off-leash to begin with. (Entitled “dog people” are emerging as some of the worst enemies of the wild, in prioritizing their domesticated pets over all else. They’re joining the feral cat-lovers, who are already solidly against nature with their fetish for this deadly invasive species.)

The literal bottom line: you will be fascinated, inspired, and perhaps even empowered by this book.

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