Monday, 10 June 2013

Review of 'Feral: Seeking enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding' by George Monbiot.

When I first heard that George Monbiot was releasing a book on rewilding, my heart sank. Not because he could not do the subject justice, but because he had just scooped my own modest plans to write a book on these very issues. To begin with I tried to reassure myself. Perhaps it wouldn't be very good, perhaps he would look more globally, or take a very different angle. The answer, sadly for me, is that he has written the book I was trying to write, and happily for the movement, I think he has done a good job.

So while I worry about how to recast the rest of my project, and lament how after 10 years of thinking and dreaming about rewilding I have been usurped, I have decided to say a few words about the book.

First and foremost, Feral is a good read. Filled with personal stories and engagingly broad, it communicates the ethos of rewilding while providing enough detail to back up the argument. For those who have taken an interest in this area there is little particularly new, but it is very well presented. The strongest sections are when he focuses on his homeland in Wales, at the damage wrought by sheep grazing, and the madness of local conservationists' obsession with maintaining the artificial, impoverished and rigidly controlled environments they have inherited. As someone who has raged almost all my life against the assumption that farming is essential to 'maintaining the land', or that the purpose of wildlife conservation is to create little gardens surrounded by car parks and visitor centres, his palpable anger at the absurdity is a joy to share. 'A conservation movement which believes that the environment is threatened by a lack of cutting and burning is one that has badly lost his way'. Amen.

The intense hypocrisy of some of our management practices too is laid bare in simple terms, as we are asked to consider why in Britain intensively managed farmland is worthy basis for a National Park, preventing the return of our own Atlantic rainforests, while at the same time we rail against destruction of the Amazon. Nor is the human element ignored. Monbiot's sympathy for the small-scale farmers is obvious, as is his dislike of the large agri-businesses which rule much of our land.

Where the book is less successful in my opinion is when the story turns to tales of the Masai people of Kenya, or the author's early adventures in South America. Though Mr. Monbiot is well aware of the contradictions and realities of these people's lives, I do feel the narrative veered slightly into 'nobel savage' territory from time to time, and reminded me of my own gap-year musings on the lot of the Bedouin in Egypt and the freedom of the apparently simple life. Nonetheless these lapses are rare and should not undermine the overall point – our environment and our society is in crisis and rewilding can help.

In some instances solutions are offered – such as reforming the farm payment system to remove the requirement to keep the land in good agricultural condition (effectively preventing most landowners from allowing native wildlife to recolonise the land), and encouraging the development of large scale marine nature reserves – but these are of less importance, in my opinion, to the message of hope in this book. For that is the essential point. Things can get better. For too long environmentalism has been about fighting-off change, about protecting ever shrinking pockets of beauty and wonder. Rewilding is the antidote to that. It tells us that the future is not fixed, is not resigned to the relentless march of industry and sterility, but is a thing of our own making.

Already some of the species are coming back. The boar and the beaver have found their own way, as have the pine marten, polecat and otter, the last three expanding their range in recent years. Others have already been intentionally reintroduced, such as the sea-eagle and the red kite. More are being planned. The Lynx UK Trust is currently looking for sights in which to release lynx in Scotland, while English Nature is considering locations for the beaver in England. Trees too are coming back in some places, as are saltmarshes and fens. The scale may be modest, but the signs of a shift in attitude are growing stronger.

For a book that occasionally sees Monbiot channelling the spirit of Bruce Chatwin, I thought it might be appropriate to come to an end with a little quote from his story 'A Coup', which, to me, beautifully sums up the yearning for the wild inherent in each of us.

'no matter what the Persians said, Paradise never was a garden, but a waste of white thorns.'

Rewilding is about trying to recapture a fragment of that paradise, and Feral, by George Monbiot, is a good place to start.   

No comments:

Post a Comment