“Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.”
Despite it’s terrifying, bewildering subject matter, I found This Changes Everything to be a hopeful, deeply inspirational book. We cannot continue on our current path of destruction for much longer, but that imperative offers us a chance to be better, to reform our society, and to question the systems and hierarchies which have led us into this awful dilemma. Feral takes a similar sense of optimism and turns it into something wild, brave and again, completely necessary. It presents the destruction of our ecology as a thing not to be feared just because of what it means for our environment, but as something which is undermining the very fabric of what it is to be human. We were not made to live outside of nature, in countries which have been stripped bare of wildness – and to continue to do so promises not just natural disaster but also a life without richness.
“On that raw December day soon after I had arrived in Wales, I was struck by the smallness of this life. Somehow – I am not quite sure how it happened – I had found myself living a life in which loading the dishwasher presented an interesting challenge.”
They are very different books and I don’t want to conflate them for the sake of it, but whereas Naomi Klein offers a kind of macro-level consolation at the end of her book, a chance for Western society to reinvent itself, George Monbiot offers a kind of micro, intensely personal opportunity to change, and one which was very, very welcome to me.
Essentially (and please forgive my ropey science), George Monbiot approaches rewilding from two angles. The first is the literal rewilding of nature – the proposal that we reintroduce key species of plants and animals into local habitats which we have decimated through centuries of over-hunting, industrialisation and commercial farming, on the basis that rehabilitating trophic cascades will reinvigorate our ecosystem. And the second is the rewilding of human life – not abandoning civilisation, but rather injecting some excitement and surprise back into our lives by reintroducing us to nature.
Both aspects of the rewilding proposition are fascinating. I am not much of a scientist, but George Monbiot has a wonderful talent for making the natural world accessible without compromising on any of the detail. I had not, for instance, realized the sheep are not native to the British Isles, and that the rolling heathland which we so associate with our national mythology is the result of centuries of over-grazing. We assume that the countryside of our childhood was the golden age, the way it is meant to be – but even Laurie Lee’s bucolic England is not our island’s true state. By filling Britain with Mesopotamian sheep and artificially large numbers of deer (for hunting purposes), we are stunting the growth of our native trees and flowers and encouraging monoculture. More than that, we magnify the results of the climate change by removing our habitats’ natural defences. In the 1990s, for example, and driven by a mania for tidiness, authorities ploughed huge amounts of money into removing untidy wooden “blockages” from the tributaries of the River Wye. Not only were these nests of branches – which had taken years to accumulate – prime habitat for numerous species, but they also moderated the flow of the river. When the nests were removed, flooding increased. Our desire to control natural systems we don’t understand is a dangerous thing.
His exploration of the impact this is having on the human psyche is also deeply moving. In one chapter, Monbiot links the increased number of sightings of big cats in the UK in recent years with a kind of unspoken yearning for the wild: “As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature have declined, as our physical challenges have diminished to the point at which the greatest trial of strength and ingenuity we face is opening a badly designed packet of nuts, could these imaginary creatures have brought us something we miss?” It is the same impulse which makes us revel in the journeys of people like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Nick Hunt or Cheryl Strayed – we feel as though they are stepping back into another world, a time of pilgrimages and Odysseys, in which heroes battled against the wildness in both nature and man and became legends.
In a kind of very, very pale imitation, the most wonderful holiday I’ve ever had with Neil is when we walked the Cotswold Way – one hundred and one miles in just over five days. It rained for most of the walk, our packs were heavy, my ankles were so badly bruised from my boots that I limped for the second half of the journey, but I can honestly say it was one of the happiest weeks of my life. All that mattered was the rhythm of walking, and finding places to sleep and eat. By the end I was almost meditating, completely free of any thoughts of the job which made my so unhappy, simply concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and marvelling at the beauty of the countryside when the sun finally came out. There are no wolves in the tea-rooms of Painswick – but it felt natural and like a mini-wilderness. If I can feel that good after a few days of walking in South England, only imagine how exhilarating it would be to live in the kind of world Monbiot wants us to return to.
Having reached the end of Feral, I find myself in the same dilemma I was in when I finished This Changes Everything – what now? What can I do other than just nod my head in whole-hearted agreement and pray for change? I’m still trying to work that out – any suggestions very welcome! – but at the very least I can start to look about me more, and try to engage with the natural world around me. Learn about the area of Oxfordshire I live in. Try to look at this beautiful part of England not just in romantic appreciation but with a more knowledgeable eye. For now, I would absolutely recommend Feral – it is riotous, full of life and imagination, and absolutely fascinating.