The Call of the Wild

by thenewenglishlandscape


One of us read George Monbiot’s new book while staying in the house of friends who had gone canoe-camping in the Yukon. The precautions required against attacks by bears – both black and grizzly – were formidable, they told us. No cooking or eating within 100 yards of the tents, no food or clothing associated with food to be left near the tents, all pots, pans and cutlery to be scrupulously cleaned and stored at a distance, and so on. For added protection they had Mace cans and knives and axes to hand, non-Canadian citizens being prohibited from carrying guns.

In many parts of the world it is still dangerous ‘out there’, beyond the street lights, farms and houses. If it isn’t the dangers posed by dangerous animals and reptiles, there is hostile terrain of other kinds – mountain avalanches, land-slides, desert conditions – in addition to swollen rivers and treacherous seas. People take their lives in their hands when they go into the landscape, though rarely in Britain, where the topography has largely been tamed.

As Monbiot points out, we want wild animals in other people’s countries – we’ll even raise money to protect them there – but not in ours, thank you very much. Sheep – the bêtes noires of Monbiot’s chapters on the deforested bleakness of Britain’s uplands – are as wild and woolly as we can cope with. The UK now lags well behind most European countries in pursuing the new ecological strategy of ‘re-wilding’, a term which only entered the dictionary in 2011, but is now to be found everywhere. The arguments for bringing back wolves, bears, eagles, beavers, and other species once common in many parts of Europe, is not simply for their exotic, almost atavistic spectre, but for sound ecological reasons. The higher the range of the chain of predation, the greater the variety of species which are given a niche in which to flourish.  Or so we are told.

Apart from the ecological arguments, which are clearly and persuasively spelt out, Monbiot is happy to admit that he also wants to re-wild the British landscape because he is bored. We live today, he argues, a life of restraint and sublimation, untouched by the thrill of fields, rivers and skies populated with creatures which now belong to mythology or history, but which we have eradicated in the name of the common good. He is not alone in feeling that on those occasions when we see particular creatures still at large in the landscape or out at sea – a brown hare, a bittern, a sky darkened by clouds of Brent geese, a colony of seals or a school of porpoises – we regard those days as somehow blessed.

Farm subsidies, together with a high concentration of land ownership in the hands of a tiny proportion of the population, have rendered discussions about the ‘nature’ of the countryside in modern Britain beyond political debate. There is an assumption that what is good for farmers and land-owners must necessarily be good for everybody else. The same is true of the multi-national fishing industry and its industrialisation of the sea. But the absolute separation of economy from geography is no longer sustainable, and new forms of settlement and livelihood are surely needed to overcome the disastrous separation of town and country, work and play. Monbiot is honest enough to admit there are no easy answers, and that indeed on many aspects of re-wilding he may be wrong. There is much to discuss in this provocative book, but do we have enough time?

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, Allen Lane, 2013.