Orion magazine: One day, the British environmental writer George Monbiot was digging in his garden when he had a revelation—that his life had become too tidy and constrained. While exploring what it would take to re-ignite his own sense of wonder, he waded into a sea of ideas about restoration and rewilding that so captured his imagination that it became the focus of his next book. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding was published in the United Kingdom in 2013, to much acclaim, and is forthcoming in the U.S. in 2014. Orion editor Jennifer Sahn caught up with Monbiot to talk about rewilding — what it means for people, for nature, and for an environmental movement that is in great need of having far wider appeal.
Jennifer Sahn: It’s sort of an obvious starting place, but I think it makes sense to begin by asking how you define rewilding.
George Monbiot: Actually, there are two definitions of rewilding that appeal to me. One is the mass restoration of ecosystems. By restoration, I really mean bringing back their trophic function. Trophic function involves feeding. It’s about eating and being eaten. Trophic function is the interactions between animals and plants in the food chain. Most of our ecosystems are very impoverished as far as those interactions are concerned. They’re missing the top predators and the big herbivores, and so they’re missing a lot of their ecological dynamism. That, above all, is what I want to restore.
I see the mass restoration of ecosystems, meaning taking down the fences, blocking up the drainage ditches, enabling wildlife to spread. Reintroducing missing species, and particularly missing species which are keystone species, or ecosystem engineers. These are species which have impacts greater than their biomass alone would suggest. They create habitats, and create opportunities for many other species. Good examples would be beavers, wolves, wild boar, elephants, whales — all of which have huge ramifying effects on the ecosystem, including parts of the ecosystem with which they have no direct contact.
Otherwise, I see humans having very little continuing management role in the ecosystem. Having brought back the elements which can restore that dynamism, we then step back and stop trying to interfere. That, in a way, is the hardest thing of all — to stop believing that, without our help, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. I think in many ways we still suffer from the biblical myth of dominion where we see ourselves as the guardians or the stewards of the planet, whereas I think it does best when we have as little influence as we can get away with.
The other definition of rewilding that interests me is the rewilding of our own lives. I believe the two processes are closely intertwined—if we have spaces on our doorsteps in which nature is allowed to do its own thing, in which it can be to some extent self-willed, driven by its own dynamic processes, that, I feel, is a much more exciting and thrilling ecosystem to explore and discover, and it enables us to enrich our lives, to fill them with wonder and enchantment.
Jennifer: So you’re using rewilding in part as a reflexive verb?
George: Absolutely. Of all the species that need rewilding, I think human beings come at the top of the list. I would love to see a more intense and emotional engagement of human beings with the living world. The process of rewilding the ecosystem gives us an opportunity to make our lives richer and rawer than they tend to be in our very crowded and overcivilized and buttoned-down societies. [Continue reading…]