Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

In Praise Of Trees

It has been mind-buggeringly hot and humid for most of the last week, breaking records for mind-buggeringly hot heat here in the UK. But now, with heavy rain and gloom and a delicious green light filling the kitchen from the trees and bushes outside in the garden, it not only feels refreshingly cooler but looks it, too.

During this last week, almost the only way I could bear to be outside at all, was sitting on our lawn in the shade of the gorgeous hazel tree that dominates the garden.

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In so many countries, trees are planted to provide shade whether it be for travellers, or for residents in towns and villages or city squares.

They understand the value of the shade the trees provide in hotter climates, but in the UK we, and by that I mean governments and entrepreneurs and business people, we seem to be obsessed with cutting down trees, almost for the sake of it.

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Yet we can no longer pretend we have no idea how vital trees are; for us, for the ecosystem, for the planet. We need them to remove the carbon from the air and to replenish oxygen. They are habitats for huge numbers of wildlife. Their roots help bind and provide stability to the soil, preventing erosion, landslides, and the spread of deserts. Where they exist in sufficiently large numbers the water vapour they give off helps to bring down local temperatures and increase rainfall.

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They are sources of food for animals and for people, and for thousands of years their wood has been used for building dwellings, making furniture and utensils, fencing, tools, boats and wagons, and as a beautiful raw material for artworks.

And they soothe the soul!

Used intelligently and sustainably, they will continue to perform this role for as long as we wish.

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Yet despite all we now know, we continue to cut down trees at a ridiculous rate. In Brazil, we are losing rainforest now the size of three football fields per minute! The rainforest in Indonesia is also being cut down at a rapid rate. The HS2 rail link planned for the UK will cost a stupid amount of money and destroy massive amounts of woodland, just to take a little time off rail journeys that already happen.

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Yet there are many smaller – petty – instances of trees being cut down that amount to official vandalism, no less. I feel particularly strongly that in many towns in the UK it has long been the policy that when trees planted along streets have become larger than the council thinks appropriate, they cut them down but rarely if ever replace them with new, younger, ones.

The call to re-wild areas of the UK is growing, and I feel we should now be devoting as much land as possible to the creation of new woodland, as well as re-planting hedgerows to replace fences, and individual trees in gardens and parks and along roads.

And stop cutting them down!

The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.

The Beastie From The Eastie

Yes, we’ve had some snow.

And oddly, despite this being the UK, lots of things are still working.

Although, to glance at the newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking the End Of The World was here.

But the sun was out this morning, so I wandered out for a bit of a bimble in the countryside.

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Fresh snow always feels magical.

I suppose this is because it is a pure white, because it sparkles in the sun and even in the night time it appears to glow.

It covers things up, but sits lightly upon them.

There is a purity to fresh snow that causes the landscape to feel cleaner and purer, too.

While the snow is falling, sound seems to be muffled and absorbed, so that one exists in a silent wonderland.

Shadows

It transforms a dull winter landscape into something bright and very special.

some paths are still clear

Some of the paths are still easy to find,

Some paths are less obvious

While others have become less obvious.

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The animals have their own paths, that we are often unable to tread.

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But there is a silence over everything, and every now and again a breath of wind sends a thousand sparkling snow diamonds drifting down through the branches of the trees.

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The snow hides much…

Footprints

But it reveals where we have been.

Some shapes become more mysterious

And it makes some shapes more mysterious.

The Enduring Lie of a Golden Age – Part 2…This is Personal

Two weeks ago I wrote of the idea so many people have that somewhere in the past there was a ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much better than today.

I am now going to post what might seem a bit of a contradiction to what I wrote then.

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More and more, we are losing our connection with the natural world.

Everyone would have a different opinion on what is meant by the phrase ‘quality of life’, but for me if I am surrounded by concrete structures, with a lack of trees and flowers and birds, animals and insects, if the building I am in consists of electronic devices, plastic, steel, and artificial floor coverings, if my engagement with the day to day tasks of this building consists of pressing buttons, then I feel my own quality of life is much diminished.

A common post appearing on Facebook is of a picture of a cabin or cottage in the wilderness somewhere, with the caption ‘Could you live here for a month without TV or phone signal or internet for $25,000?’

Could I do it? I’d bite your hand off for the chance to do it. And I wouldn’t even need the money as an incentive.

No press-the-button entertainment. Setting and lighting a log fire instead of switching on the heating. No dishwasher. No constant barrage of emails, texts and phone calls. No street lights – or streets.

I’d bite yer hand off.

Whether I am at home, working, or walking in the country, always there seems to be the sound of aircraft passing overhead. Day and night. Constantly.

And unless you’re in the middle of a national park, there always seems to be traffic noise. Even when I’m walking in the midst of woodland, or through fields, it’s always present as a background noise.

And anywhere near a road or street, it is just constant. And I find that extremely stressful.

This is one reason why I love being amongst mountains. Usually, they are remote enough that the traffic noise is finally silenced. Frequently, they are away from air routes. And, of course, there are far fewer people around. And those that are there don’t usually seem to be glued to mobile phones or playing music.

And I’m nostalgic. Well, I’m in my sixties now, I’m allowed to be. And that brings us back to the post about a supposed golden age. Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, with the inference that it was better than the present day. There are, of course, many things about today that are much less than perfect – I’ve called out a few of the things I don’t like earlier in this post – but only a fool would deny that huge medical advances have improved all our lives for the better, social security has largely alleviated the horrors of abject poverty and, at least in the affluent west, our lives are not subject to the whims of despots.

But although I can expect to live to a greater age than my forebears – at least in theory – I would be willing to trade some of that for a time when life was less complicated, a life where I didn’t feel constantly bombarded by social media and advertising. A life that was lived more slowly.

Not a Golden Age, certainly, but one I would happily live in.