Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

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

91wfR0v1kNL._AC_UY218_ML3_

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.

The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

012a

Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.

The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.

At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.

I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?

And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.

It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.

To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.

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.

037a

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.

050a

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.

034a

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.

057

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

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

040a

So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

023a

For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

021a

011a

Bridge over the railway

016a

024a

010a

I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

027a

And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

Grrr.

Grrr? Well, the reason I’ve been absent this last week or so is a trapped nerve in my neck that has been stupidly painful and stopped me doing most things I want to do. It’s on the mend now, but the last thing I’ve wanted to do up until now is work at a keyboard.

And Grrr! it’s a tiger.

Not a very good photograph, admittedly. It was taken over thirty years ago when I worked in Oman, and is of the butterfly known there as the Plain Tiger. What I remember in particular about it is the way it flies, or glides to be more exact. Unlike many butterflies that fly with continual, rapid wingbeats, the Tiger flaps a couple of times and then glides gracefully, as in the photograph. It is most impressive, and very lovely – especially where there is very little else in the way of insect life.

img20190418_10394707

It’s one of those butterflies that is very widespread, although it does not migrate. I’ve seen it in India, and apparently it is met with in South East Asia and Australasia, too.

I’ve got butterflies on my brain at the moment, as the weather has turned really lovely here and I’m suddenly seeing lots of them, even in the garden.

So on that note, I’m off to sit in the garden in the sun again for a while with a cup of tea and a book, resting my poorly neck and whimpering pathetically to myself.

Sad, isn’t it?