Rewilding as Process

To his many readers, George Monbiot’s book Feral has come to encapsulate the idea of rewilding.   His mix of gritty wilderness autobiography and sharp well-researched polemic is compulsive. His sheep-skepticism and his fluency (epitomized in the wonderful word ‘sheepwrecked’ to described Britain’s bare and long-grazed uplands) are a publisher’s dream, and it is unsurprising to find the book selling well on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Monbiot is a relative latecomer to the rewilding party in the UK. Its doyenne is the British Association for Nature Conservation, BANC. Since the 1990s, BANC’s journal ECOS: A Review of Conservation has been planting and watering ideas about the wild in conservation, and how to get more of it. BANC published Peter Taylor’s book Beyond Conservation, which set out the case for large wild areas in the UK, and for reintroducing carnivores to its busy pocket-handkerchief countryside. In 2011, Peter edited Rewilding, a collection of ECOS articles on wildlands and conservation values. The Autumn 2014 issue carried a series of articles on the wild and rewilding arising from the meeting Wilder by Design in Sheffield (the first of a pair: the next is in September 2015)

I was thinking about the development of ideas about the wild and rewilding a few months ago, at another excellent meeting organized at the University of Newcastle on Landscape, Wilderness and The Wild. The discussion made me confront how I personally think about the wild. On the one hand, I like remote places, and find myself naturally referring to them as ‘wild’. On the other hand, it seems a romantic fallacy to confine ‘wildness’ to the mountains and places where human action is not very visible: in the UK landscape history, from the clearances or the industrial revolution through to the twentieth century, show the mark of human hands everywhere.

So how should we think about the wild? Three ways suggest themselves, each with track record and merits.

First, we can think in terms of place. This I take to be the main approach to the wild in the USA, where the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. This definition has traction in the UK too (strange though it may seem to an American visitor stuck on the motorways between Stratford and Bath, or gazing from a hyper-compact ‘Ancient Woodland’ at the encircling ocean of oilseed rape).   The idea of escaping from the tumultuous city to the wild hills has been a deep vein in literature and culture since the Romantics. Even in the busy UK, the search for what Mike Tomkies in 1984 memorably called A Last Wild Place, has been an enduring one (a tradition in which George Monbiot’s canoe adventures knowingly fits). Steve Carver has made a great job of analyzing ‘wildness as place’, mapping ‘real space for nature’, for example for Scottish Natural Heritage.

Second, the wild can be understood in terms of state. This gives wildness a parallel meaning to naturalness, meaning something unchanged by humans. This idea is nicely captured by the US Wilderness Act’s wonderful term ‘untrammeled’ (how well-read legislators must have been in those days!). A wild ecosystem is therefore in its natural state, in some way complete. In particular, it will have its rightful component of species. Cue the foundational work of the Rewilding Institute and the seductive myth of frontier wilderness in the ‘big sky’ country of the American West. Rewilding’s signature policy is the reintroduction of large mammals, especially carnivores (or substitutes if they are extinct). This notion is a powerful animator of rewilding in Europe, and even in the UK, despite its limited real estate. Whether with carnivores of not, the ‘wild’ is clearly something felt to be apart from – and different from – the tame. For this reason, the wild has a particular value in conservation, and to society. It could be said to be a source of authenticity in a world of human-made and human-influenced habitats: perhaps that which is wild is, in a visceral way, authentic.

Third, the wild can be understood in terms of process. Nature, however trammeled, is capable of self-organisation, and self-recovery. Nature has agency, and the outcomes of particular management regimes (or equally of the devastation caused by natural resource piracy) are co-produced (we do stuff, the rest of nature does stuff, the outcome is a mess). The idea of geodiversity, or geomorphological processes working on geological substrates to create characteristic ecosystems, has been a staple of British conservation since the 1940s, but has now spread across the pond. I take this aspect of wildness to lie behind the idea of self-willed land that is beloved by British wild land advocates (although why just land? I agree with Monbiot about the importance of wild seascapes). It also lies behind the idea of open-endedness in restoration projects, or passive restoration.

In his 2014 ECOS article ‘Making space for real nature’, Steve Carver talks about a continuum of wilderness, from the un-wild city to ‘true wilderness’: British conservationists, he says, are stuck in the middle. We may be secret ‘wildernistas’, but we lack the courage of our convictions. We are, he says, too timid, have a socio-cultural need to be in control of nature, too influenced by shifting baselines to embrace wildness. He distinguishes between the ‘rewilding-lite’ of established recreation projects, and ‘rewilding-max’, demanding large-scale habitat connectivity and (crucially) the reintroduction of carnivores. The true rewildernista (like Monbiot) needs the flutter of fear to feel that nature is truly wild.

I like the idea of ‘rewilding-max’, but I think it is pretty specialized as a way forwards. Where it is happening, across mainland Europe, it is primarily because of the abandonment of uneconomic land, or rather the collapse of uneconomic communities. It is the other side of the coin of the new agribusiness prairies of Eastern Europe, the making and remaking of landscapes as economic change rips through them. As with so much conservation success and failure, large economic forces drive change and policy tries to catch up (with conservationists claiming and stoking success where they can, and apportioning blame where they cannot). Supporting rewilding can certainly be done. But making rewilding-max happen where land is highly valued and densely occupied is hard, and quite likely to be unpopular

But does this mean that rewilding can only work in Europe where there is room for signature polices like large mammal reintroductions? Here is where the idea of rewilding as process becomes important. If wildness is an attribute of natural systems, there can always be more or less human control. It is just as possible to rewild a city park as a bleak Scottish mountain (indeed, in terms of being a ‘landscape of fear’, some parks already feel pretty wild, even if it is humans and not squirrels that offer a frisson).

Rewilding rightly means many things. But one of them is a willingness to leave space for natural processes: stepping back from the compulsion to manage and control, letting nature do what it wills. Ecosystems – everywhere, but particularly in crowded islands like those of the UK – are co-productions between humans and the rest of nature, living and non-living. And living in nature inevitably involves a partnership: the question is whether we recognize it.

There is a cultural value to the idea of nature doing its own thing at all scales from window box to mountain-top, but it does not (or does not primarily) lie in the amount of wildness created or allowed. It is in the process of taking less control, and allowing nature more freedom, than we might. Ultimately, to me, rewilding is about self-control, about the social choice to stand back, and to let natural processes be.


4 thoughts on “Rewilding as Process

  1. It’s good to see rewilding understood as a process – extendable to city parks, the local brook or even a patch of garden, and hence a two-way process. We learn something about Nature herself when we let go of management and control, but we learn most, when that letting go actually costs us something, and nothing is more salutary than the risk of life and limb. Walking in tiger country wakes up those senses!

    And it goes deeper – into the ancestral wild self, the shamanic mind, with all its indigenous senses awake. This is the territory I am exploring -a very different connection to Nature than through the science of ecosystems! For which, I have returned to my old discipline of anthropology, particularly its social dimension, where poets and tricksters were as welcome as the most punctilious ethnographer.

    And I do so appreciate the introductory words about BANC – the whole spectrum of British rewilding is there in ECOS, and it is often ignored by the great-scheme rewilders.

    I look forward to reading the rest of the blogs,
    with very best wishes and hope to see you on 26th September BANC meeting wild in the wildwood!

  2. I much agree with Peter … ‘we learn something about Nature when…’ and I suggest a lot about ourselves. And yes … ‘a very different connection to nature’ must be how we have to go on.

  3. Thanks Bill! Nice ideas and some kind words.
    There is an further aspect to rewilding that we might also like to consider that is kind of hinted at here, and that is an inter-woven wildness that could allow us to rewild our cities and countryside (and our lives and senses as suggested by Peter) by sharing human spaces more equitably and sustainably with wildlife and natural process for the benefit of all. Yes, rewilding-max will be a challenging proposition in the British countryside unless large scale farmland abandonments kicks in here (say post-CAP reform and withdrawal of subsidies), but nonetheless we can weave rewilding into policies and actions across the whole of society at a range of spatial scales and using a range of different/complementary approaches. We don’t have to be limited to rewilding-lite even if big, whole landscape rewilding proves too difficult. As I said in my ECOS article, the only thing preventing the return of the wolf to Britain is the English Channel (oh, and a major shift in attitudes of land-owning interests). The next Sheffield conference should be interesting. Ian seems to have packed in the rewilding-lite glitterati …obsessed with cultural landscapes and conservation grazing to preserve human-limited natures shackled by convenient or comfortable shifting baselines. Perhaps I’m being unkind? Time will tell.

  4. Good stuff – but a key think about rewilding is that it is not primarily about saving places, or individual species, but about bringing back processes which have been greatly reduced or removed entirely. Thus rewilders are interested in bringing back wolves and lynx not primarily for their own sake, but to bring back predation processes and ecologies of fear. This contrasts with the place and species focus of much of European and British conservation policy. So when we think about rewilding in the context of a co-production in a small and crowded island with a long human history, the primary question is not what these landscapes should look like, or what species should be present, but what processes we want to be occurring (short term ones like predation and nutrient cycling, but also longer term ones such as soil creation and evolution). This involves both stepping back to let nature take its course, as well as stepping in to facilitate the establishment of these processes, such as by reintroducing locally extinct species.

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