Ecological restoration is a work of hope.
— George Monbiot

Monbiot’s Feral is an astonishing book. I have become something of a book skimmer, but his stories of daredevil fishing in the sea off Wales in a kayak drew me in. And then came the marvelous tales — of a young man and his friends regrowing a forest on the bleakest sheep-ravaged land high in the Welsh mountains; of returning beavers to the land; of stalking the wisent in the Polish wildlife reserve and fishing and kayaking in Slovenia’s regenerated forests and rewilded rivers. Another soggy but heartwarming chapter tells of Trees for Life, a group in Scotland attempting to rewild many miles of interconnected lands despite opposition from elite hunters who favor deer overpopulation.

Not all of the book gave me heart. His encounters with the lies and subterfuges of the bureaucrats with “other” agendas and built-in stupidity were dispiriting, as were his accounts of ocean damage. (I am not surprised that now Britain is poised to Brexit, there is talk of protecting its sovereign coastal waters where trawler over-fishing has ruined fishing village livelihoods.) Apart from living a more rugged life, Monbiot does not have many pointers on how humans can rewild. He seems unable to distinguish between gleeful psychopaths and stubbornly free mountainmen. He also suffers from the delusion that the primary purpose of rural politics in Britain and America seems to be to keep the farmers happy. If only! Small criticism, this – the book was well worth my time.

Let me use his writings to flesh out a coherent sense of rewilding. Here are a few pointers:

• Reinstating ecosystems in which man’s power to dominate is consciously withheld
• Becoming feral – becoming wild(er) after captivity or domestication
• Permeable landscapes through which animals can move once more
• Restoring predators and keystone species that begin to drive the dynamic ecological processes which permit so many other species to thrive
• Permitting the ecological processes inherent to the place to resume (rather than trying to recapture and restore some prior state)
• Restraining our push for privileging safety over experience
• Richer, rawer, more strenuous life for humans

He says: “Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding of the kind that interests me does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.”

“The scientific principle behind rewilding is restoring what ecologists call trophic diversity. Trophic means relating to food and feeding. Restoring trophic diversity means enhancing the opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other; to rebuild the broken strands in the web of life. It means expanding the web both vertically and horizontally, increasing the number of trophic levels (top predators, middle predators, plant eaters, plants, carrion and detritus feeders) and creating opportunities for the number and complexity of relationships at every level to rise.”

“Much of the richness and complexity – the trophic diversity – of these food webs was lost before it was recorded. We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of there could be again.”

Quoting the founder of Trees for Life: “Seeing the stumps in the peat and the remnant trees, I asked myself: what is the message in the land? What’s the story it’s telling us? My question was: What’s Nature seeking to do here? That is crucially different from the ethos of human domination. Rewilding is about humility, about stepping back.”

And now I would like to tell you why I reached for this book. I got the fanciful idea that farms and farming ought to be rewilded, and I am fishing for pointers. I imagine the farms of the future as places teeming with life, places where soil is grown at an astonishing rate and creatures large and small have once again repopulated the landscape. For me, it began with the realization that the permacultural ethic of “fair share” really means sharing with the critters who too have a claim on the fruits of the land. Our biomass, and the biomass of our domesticates, is crowding out everybody else – and then we grieve over species lost. Humans need to stop grieving and start shrinking, is my own thought. Not just births added are the problem, but pounds of human flesh! Not just pounds of human flesh, but pounds and bushels of human food we crank out like there is no tomorrow.

Once I had a garden upstate New York, and grew some pretty and much fussed over scarlet runner beans. And a delight they were. Then one day, I spied a creature with a big runner bean leaf in its mouth as it slunk off. Oh no, a woodchuck! Well, those of you having lived in North America’s eastern parts know that woodchucks are remorseless eating machines. And they climb fences. So my runner beans went the way of all flesh, and the woodchucks multiplied and multiplied until nature noticed and predators came out that-a-way. Back then, my thinking was, well, no more runner beans. I never even tried again. But now I think, why not grow runner beans and other veggies for the woodchucks? They certainly repaid me richly with the antics of the shortsighted babies staring me down a foot away, and the sight of them grazing the lawn in the early mist. And eventually, they fed the coyotes passing through, or the owls, or the red-tailed hawk family nesting by. Back then, despite myself, I felt possessive of the produce of my my my! garden. But now? My next garden will grow not just for me, but for the critters as well. And leave plenty of room where I neither trample nor gather; room of their own.

baby woodchuck