Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding
London: Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2013
Part of a review by Ned Hettinger
In this book, Monbiot–an activist, adventurer, U.N. environmental hero, and columnist for The Guardian–presents a compelling case for rewilding both nature and human life. By liberating ecosystems from human management, restoring long-gone species, and making available self-willed nature, we can overcome “ecological boredom,” enchant our world, and achieve a “richer, rawer life.
Rewilding human life involves enhancing people’s ability to engage with and delight in the natural world and bringing back self-willed land and magnificent animals will help this occur. Monbiot is not a primitivist and argues that rewilding will enhance, not shred civilization. He sees no conflict between enjoying the benefits of advanced technology and having a richer life of adventure and surprise.
Chapters seven and eight are the heart of the book where Monbiot makes his case for restoration and rewilding. He describes significant rewilding in many parts of Europe: Wolves, bears, lynx, and bison are increasing their numbers across the Continent. Rather than managing and controlling the land for fixed human objectives, rewilding does not seek a particular end state. It involves restoring ecological and evolutionary processes (e.g., by reintroducing absent plants and animals, controlling problematic exotics, and pulling down fences and dams) and then stepping back and letting nature find its own way. The result is not wilderness ecosystems, but self-willed areas, governed not by human managers, but by nature’s own processes. With a changed climate and depleted soils, these ecosystems will be unpredictable and unlikely to duplicate the past. Nonetheless, Monbiot thinks rewilding can produce local ecosystems as captivating as the one’s people now travel around the world to see. The goal is areas of self-willed land and sea, re-populated by missing beasts, in which we humans can freely roam.
One might wonder about a tension between restoring extirpated species and letting nature decide. By restoring species aren’t humans deciding what nature will be like? If there are no fixed goals for nature, shouldn’t one adopt a hands-off policy and let nature take off from its current (too often impoverished and degraded) state. Monbiot’s response is that “just because there are no end points does not mean there should not be beginnings” (personal communication). Furthermore, because many of the species considered for restoration are keystone species that drive ecological processes and “trophic cascades,” nature without such species is broken and the ecological processes occurring are human-damaged enterprises. By restoring species, we rehabilitate and re-invigorate natural processes and free them from human control. One does not let a person go free simply by stepping back while leaving on the chains.
Monbiot thinks “we live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again” (89). Consider some extinct American megafauna: Nine-foot long sabertooth salmon, armadillos the size of small cars, and ground sloths the weight of elephants, standing twenty feet on their hind legs and pulling down trees. Monbiot wants us to seriously consider restoring such monsters into our lives. We must be cured of the “shifting baseline syndrome” that has us seek to restore nature only to an earlier depleted state rather than recapture the superabundance that once was. Monbiot points out that some of the habitat of these missing species still exists: Many trees in Europe developed their ability to coppice in response to elephant predation and the antelope that roams the American plains evolved its speed running from cheetahs. Once we realize that today’s ecosystems bear the mark of these ancient monsters, the world becomes enchanted and the idea of restoring them becomes more plausible.