FERAL – Searching for Enchantment

• November 14, 2013 • Comments (0)

Rewilding: Dream Big

Picture the scene, or better, close your eyes at each full stop and immerse yourself in the evolving memory of it.

It is 2060, but not as you expected it to be. You’re walking through a deep forest, high in the Lake District (bear with me) and there’s a dappled coolness upon the mossy ground, cast by whispering leaves. All around you the trees reach to the sky, some making better progress than others. Tendrils of willows brush the earth, the mushrooms spring unbidden from fallen boughs. Green is the dominant sensation in the wood, but its hues are innumerable and so is the variety of bird song that fills your ears. Here and there the red of haws, the dusty blue of sloes, the dark jewelled pitch of blackberries peers out at you. This place is rich.

Every now and then you spot the ochre back of a deer, skittering off through the unfurling bracken at the sound of your deliberate footsteps. They are on high alert here, and for good reason. You round a bend on the rough edged path, seldom walked for there are so many now, and the temperature seems to drop noticeably, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, the air seems to shiver with silence. You stop, you do not move.

Ahead of you, standing stock still in the centre of the path is the wolf. His head and body are a tense steel grey, but appear white against the dark foliage that now encloses you in a blurry glade. Your heart, beating a relentless tarantella in your throat excludes all other sound. You have been searching for him, and from the look in those yellow eyes he knows it.

For a moment, one that has left centuries of folklore in its wake, each of you holds the gaze of the other, your being reflected in spiralling irises, and there is an ineffable understanding between you, perhaps of oneness. Then, dipping his head to the side after some new and intriguing scent, the wolf turns and pads from the path, his loping shoulders and huge paws rolling beneath relaxed, luxuriant hackles. He pauses only once to cast a backwards glance at you, through a gnarled whorl of blackthorn, and then transfigures into shadow.

The spell is broken.

Wet English Forest. cc Flickr user: tredford04

Wet English Forest. cc Flickr user: tredford04

As you walk towards your home once more, following the babbling brooks that link arms toward the lakeside, you reflect on how, for that moment of recognition alone you are eternally grateful. Grateful that the world has not become one gargantuan metropolis of steel and cement as foretold in feature films, a monument to disappearance and extinction. Thank goodness.

Instead another vision has taken the world by storm, one that reforested barren uplands and brought the wolves back. One that began to bloom in discontented minds some fifty years ago, entering the English Dictionary in 2011 under the emboldened title of Rewilding.

In the time of myriad crises we call the now, this green-fringed vision may sound like the utopian ramblings of a naively hopeful environmentalist. But, as George Monbiot made crystal clear to all those gathered for his talk at Burgh House last month, Rewilding can present us all with genuine hope for an alternative future; One rich in human wonderment and biodiversity.

At its heart Rewilding, explored in George’s new book ‘Feral‘, refers to the mass restoration of ecosystems, and with it the enlivening of our own souls – too long locked away behind walls and beneath sun-baked, moon-drenched roofs. As a new guiding principle for positive environmental orthopraxy it is based on breakthrough scientific discoveries that reveal the natural world’s incredible restorative powers.

FeralIn his spirited talk George regaled his audience with examples of this healing capacity. Jumping from topic to topic, tropic to tropic, he described how healthy whale populations and their ablutions can fill the seas with teeming life, and change the composition of the atmosphere; how reintroducing two families of wolves to Yellowstone National Park regenerated a whole ecosystem and changed the course of rivers; and how we in the UK still live in an elephant adapted ecosystem of hardy trees and hedges.

Backing up these engaging, revelatory case studies with the growing proof of ecological phenomena such as the evocative ‘trophic cascading’, George presented a vision that resonated deeply with understandings of Earth as interconnected and self-regulating.

Professing a new-found respect for Gaia theory, he animatedly dissected how our current conservation paradigm in the UK (and further a-field) is out of check with emerging understandings of how ecosystems organise. Our current models, rather than making a few decisive changes and trusting to the intelligence of interlinked ecosystems, as Rewilding suggests, are based on fastidious control measures. The madness of these extends to authorities dictating the length of grass in protected areas and the classification of indigenous trees as weeds.

This chronic over-management can be attributed in part to a fundamental misapprehension of what is ‘natural’ and healthy on behalf of conservation authorities. Explained by the intriguing ‘shifting baseline theory‘, this deep misunderstanding holds us all back from working to recreate flourishing ecosystems, and has us curating barren natural museums instead.

The wolf is a totemic example of conservation led by such misguided and anachronistic assumptions. In America last year not a single person was killed by a wolf… ten were killed by vending machines. Wolves are still widely reviled, feared, persecuted and, despite the species’ proven positive impacts on ecosystems, are therefore often ignored in conservation efforts along with other apex predators. Meanwhile vending machines lie in wait in their millions in cafeterias across the globe and no-one so much as shakes a pitch fork at the deadly plastic fiends.

Nothing less than radical changes to this conservation paradigm are required if we are serious about having healthy, properly functioning ecosystems into the future. Rewilding can be integral to this effort and initiatives recognising the potential of ecosystems for regeneration after historical degradation have already begun in earnest. Trees for Life in Scotland, for example, are sowing the seeds for the restoration of the great Caledonian Forest, whilst similar initiatives are now under way in areas of Wales and England.

Ultimately the benefit of this work will be our own too. If the ‘shadow lands’, the degraded spaces of our anthropocentric conservation and development, can be rewilded, then our own hearts and minds will surely follow suit. The hope is that the rejuvenation of ecosystems can help bring about a turning within ourselves too, mending our broken relation to the planet.

This inner rewilding, like the ecological reality, is not so much the search for something ancient. It is a rekindling of an inherently human flame that burnt much brighter for our ancestors, in wakeful hours and ardent dreams, across the face of rocks in ochre fervour. A flame that responded to the wonders of the world with excited leaping, and made us feel alive. That affirmed us as one being amongst other beings, rather than stranding us, a species a-top a tower of abstraction built from wayward dreams.

Ensnared by a natural wonderment long since forgotten by many in these islands, yet tantalisingly achievable, if George had one message to end with it was this: Dream Big. A Lake District flooded with verdant, balanced forests should be the most modest of our ambitions as “together, we turn our silent spring, into a raucous summer”.

In other words, never rule out elephants in England.

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Hannibal Rhoades

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Hal Rhoades is a writer, occasional drawer of things and part-time poet. Studying anthropology at the University of Durham kindled his passion for traditional knowledge, indigenous rights, hunter gatherer culture and human ecology as well as developing a keen interest in mythological and folkloric systems, the power of stories and the use of body art to establish identity. Since graduating Hal has worked with these issues in a number of ways: As a contributor to Intercontinental Cry magazine, an online journal dedicated to providing an independent source of Indigenous news from around the globe. As communications and public outreach assistant at the Gaia Foundation which assists communities to revive their indigenous knowledge and secure land, seed, food and water sovereignty and to protect Sacred Natural Sites. And also in his own time, writing and drawing creatively.

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