TLS commentary: Man-made Wilderness

Wildcat and pine marten roam the forests; hawthorn and rosebay willowherb choke the country pathways. Fox and falcon flourish, flocks of rooks darken the fields, and beaver build in the upland waterways. This is England – England After London, in Richard Jefferies’s post-apocalyptic novel (1885) of that name.

The alternative title of Jefferies’s book was “Wild England”. Wildness, wrote H. D. Thoreau in 1862, is the preservation of the world; Jefferies, the many-faced visionary of nineteenth-century rural England, did not agree. After London – which posits an England returned to barbarism by a foggily recalled “conflagration” – is a doomy and enigmatic novel; his “wild England” is a land of neglect and dereliction, and there is little relish in Jefferies’s reflections on the prospect. Like John Clare before him, Jefferies was a countryman at a time when and in a place where to be a countryman – whatever one’s politics – was to be a man of pasture and ploughed fields.

In his recent book Wild Kingdom, Stephen Moss emphasizes the agricultural underpinnings of much of Britain’s “wild” landscapes: “Everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand”. Moss writes from a vantage point in the Wiltshire downland; Jefferies country. He is reiterating a point made nearly forty years ago by Richard Mabey in his breakthrough workThe Common Ground (1980). “What we had regarded as a natural landscape was a much more complex product of growth and husbandry”, Mabey wrote. “The turf of the southern chalk downs . . . turned out to be the product of extensive sheep-grazing . . . . The wild sweeps of moorland in the Scottish Highlands had been created by a massive programme of forest clearance. The Norfolk Broads were the flooded remains of medieval open-cast peat-mines.”

The zoologist and activist George Monbiot has spoken frequently of the problem of “shifting baseline syndrome” in ecology; that is, the conviction that the circumstances to which one has become accustomed – the landscape in which one grew up, for example – are the “correct” circumstances, the default setting. The term can be usefully applied to our attitudes towards the “wild sweeps of moorland” of which Mabey wrote. The objective position is that these are denuded monocultures, industrial badlands stripped of biodiversity by sheep-farming and grouse-rearing. In the generations since their deforestation and clearance, however, we have developed – learned? – a sincere appreciation for the starkness of the bare moor and treeless fell.

The pegs that hold in place this post-clearance baseline were hammered in by the Romantics. Coleridge: “Oh! what a goodly scene! the bleak mount, / The bare bleak mountain speckled thin with sheep”. Wordsworth: “Such / As journey thither find themselves alone / With a few sheep, with rocks and stones, and kites / That overhead are sailing in the sky. / It is in truth an utter solitude”. The sheep in these poems – “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement” and “A Pastoral Poem” – are as completely integrated into the landscape as the rocks and stones; like the “stone-chat or the glancing sand-piper” in Wordsworth’s “Lines Left Upon A Seat”, the sheep is an inheritor of these landscapes, rather than their engineer, the reason why the mountain is bare and bleak. Telling, too, is Wordsworth’s deployment of the red kite as a cipher for upland solitude; not many generations before Wordsworth, the kite was a familiar bird of the busy city, a scavenger of gutter and midden; with its withdrawal (at gamekeeper’s gunpoint) into the wilderness, another baseline was redrawn.

Sublimity as an aesthetic concept had passed into the current of fashionable thought in Europe in the early eighteenth century. In hisPhilosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke wrote that, “in nature, the dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form grander passions than those which are more clear and determinate”. The idea had lost none of its potency in 1895, when Thomas Hardy suggested that “the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind”. (Presciently, he added that “to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of Scheveningen”.)

Few of Britain’s wild places, as we have seen, were by this time uncultivated in the sense that an Alpine ridge or Icelandic glacier is uncultivated. But “untouched” country – in fact, untouchable country, fastness – was the Romantics’ template for sublimity in nature, and Lakeland was stretched to fit the frame. Sheep were shorn of their problematic associations with industry and ownership and assimilated into a sublime totality of rock, stream and sky. England had a wilderness, of a sort. In this sense, wilderness in Britain is an introduced species.

Can the same be said of rewilding? George Monbiot’s compelling Feral (2013) dragged the concept of rewilding towards the UK mainstream. The book foregrounded the ecological depletion of the uplands and oceans and – in a brutally polemical passage headed “Sheepwrecked” – turned sheep-bashing into an art form (“the sheep”, he asserts, “has caused more extensive environmental damage in this country than all the building that has ever taken place here”). Rewilding, for Monbiot, is a process of “stepping back”. The Feral manifesto explicitly rejects any attempt to recreate (“as if that were possible”) an ecosystem of the past. There are no baselines in Monbiot’s vision – and no fences, either, or drainage ditches, as these would be torn down and filled in, and nature left to “find its own way”. Reintroduced species – wolves, of course, plus lynx, beaver, elk, perhaps even the elephant that last trampled England’s grasses 115,000 years ago – would act as a catalyst for undirected ecological change. “Rewilding has no end points”, Monbiot writes, “no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem . . . looks like. It does not strive to produce a heath, a meadow, a rainforest, a kelp garden or a coral reef. It lets nature decide.”

This is quite a vision – not in the sense of, say, the “wild England” that rose before Richard Jefferies’s appalled gaze (there is, by definition, no specificity to Monbiot’s projected future), but in that it is, leaving aside the persuasive ecological science of rewilding, a formidable work of imagination.

Nature, Timothy Morton has written in Ecology without Nature (2007), “wants to be both substance and essence at the same time”. The polar historian Roland Huntford, questioned as to the dubious authenticity of his descriptions of the Antarctic landscape, memorably retorted that “these are landscapes of the mind”. The phrase echoes Nan Shepherd’s words in The Living Mountain (1977): “[The Cairngorms’] physiognomy is in the geography books . . . but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind”. Where we, as a culture, have limited first-hand experience of a landscape, imagination has a tendency to make up the shortfall. What informs the rewilding vision? Where did it spring from?

In some ways it is quite certainly non-native; much of it bubbled up many decades ago from the deep rocks of Yellowstone. John Muir, a Scottish emigrant who became known as the father of the USA’s national parks and a sainted figure in North American conservation, wrote of a hike in the Yellowstone wilderness that “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees . . . . Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness”. Muir’s vision of the wild is a sunny one; the mountain, as William Cronon has observed, is his cathedral. Aldo Leopold, in his writings on land use in the 1920s and 30s, and as a full-time environmentalist in the early post-war years, established himself as a natural successor to Muir as a champion of the American wilderness. “Wilderness is a resource, not only in the physical sense of the raw materials it contains, but also in the sense of a distinctive environment which may, if rightly used, yield certain social values”, Leopold wrote in 1925.

The rocks and rills and templed hills of this America are something more than economic materials, and should not be dedicated exclusively to economic use. The vanguard of American thought on land use has already recognised all this, in theory. Are we too poor in spirit, in pocket, or in idle acres to recognise it likewise in fact?

Monbiot and many others in the rewilding movement share with Muir and Leopold a firm belief in the power of the wild to reinvigorate and restore to health the weary town-dwelling human; a conviction that wilderness, whatever we mean by wilderness, is good for the soul, whatever we mean by soul. There’s an echo here of E. O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia”, an innate human need for connection with wildlife (though we needn’t all go as far as Monbiot does in effecting such a connection: finding a dead deer in a wood and hoisting it on to his back, he declares: “I wanted to roar”).

It’s important, then, that humankind somehow finds a place in the wilderness. Muir was indulgent towards day-trippers in search of a brush with the wild (“Among the gains of a coach-trip are the acquaintances made and the fresh views into human nature; for the wilderness is a shrewd touchstone, even thus lightly approached”). Leopold was tactful and tolerant – up to a point – with regard to the “recreational use” of wilderness by hunters and fishermen. One of the most important lines inFeral is Monbiot’s quotation from Byron: the point of rewilding, he says, is to “love not man the less, but Nature more”.

But an undeniable misanthropic streak runs through wilderness appreciation in Britain. Wild Life on Moor and Fell (1937), a nature novel by W. R. Calvert, features a lead character named “Peter the Hermit”, a “strange and lonely man”, a “dweller in the Wild”, who retires to a remote Cumbrian cottage, his only contact with mankind being a reluctant monthly trip to a barber’s shop (where he is “irked” by a “desultory and one-sided” conversation). It’s a familiar archetype. Britain has had few John Muirs, hiking jovially to the mountaintop and beckoning to the city charabancs to follow him up (though of course Muir had no love for the city itself). Instead one might think of Henry Williamson and his fascist tendencies and disdain for the “spiciness and hyper-stimulation” of town life, or T. H. White, cloistered with his goshawk and his sexual anguish. Nan Shepherd echoes Thoreau in her severe choosiness regarding the people she welcomes in her wild: “To ‘make conversation’ is ruinous . . . . I have walked myself with brilliant young people whose talk . . . left me weary and dispirited, because the hill did not speak”. (Thoreau wrote: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking”.)

The cantankerousness present in much British wilderness writing goes beyond a justified grievance with mankind’s inhumanity to nature – such as might be exemplified by another voluntary recluse, Mike Tomkies, who in A Last Wild Place (1984) laments “the heedless greed” of man while writing of a wish to “sink myself totally into one of Britain’s last wild places” and smiling affably at his own pretentiousness. Introducing a collection of Muir’s writings in 2009, Graham White rails against wind turbines, Big Brother, the “tinsel-show of celebrity culture” and “the endless vacuity of fictional soap operas”. He has a kindred spirit in Jim Crumley, a valuable maverick in the rewilding movement, whose studies of beaver, wolf and eagle in a Scottish context are hugely significant texts. Crumley’s dislikes include tourists, mainstream media, scientists, “experts”, farmers and politicians (this last he may have learned from Muir as well as from experience: the American was no fan of “blundering, plundering, money-making vote-sellers”).

Crumley believes that wilderness can be restored to Britain – specifically to Scotland – “so long as we don’t try and do it ourselves”; the reintroduced wolf is the principal component in the ecological process that will do the job in our stead. His vision of humanity’s future in relation to the wolf and the wild is excoriating to the point of vengefulness. “If some people are disadvantaged by our willingness to allow the proximity of wolves back into our lives . . . then that is simply part of the price that we pay for the privilege of a closer walk with natural forces”, he writes. Rewilding is penance for past sins.

In his indispensable essay The Problem With Wilderness (1995), Cronon suggests that the “stepping back” proposed by wilderness campaigners leads logically to the conclusion that “the only way to protect sacred wilderness from profane humanity would seem to be suicide”. One senses that there are elements within the UK wilderness scene that would only grudgingly balk at the self-immolation of the species.

The wilderness with which Cronon found a problem was an American wilderness. This – the wilderness of Muir and Leopold – differs from a British wilderness in that it actually exists. Leopold wrote of an America where wilderness could (and still can) be preserved; the British, at the far side of a tipping-point, can only reinvent it. Leopold had the luxury of being able to pour scorn on such projects: “Wilderness certainly cannot be built at will, like a city park or a tennis court. If we should tear down improvements already made in order to build a wilderness . . . the result would probably be highly dissatisfying”. We have no such luxury.

In March 1890, the Bronx pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin released sixty starlings – then not present in the US – into Central Park. His aim, it is believed, was to recreate the avifauna of Shakespeare’s England (or, rather, Shakespeare’s stage: he supposedly planned to reintroduce all fifty bird species mentioned in the plays). It was a Quixotic project, but all reinventions require a vision, however sketchy, and it’s not obvious that the imaginative foundations of modern rewilding are much more rational (that isn’t, though, necessarily a criticism).

Folk memory and deep history are unreliable guides. Crumley’s The Last Wolf (2010) rebuts centuries of literary lupophobia but in rehabilitating the animal draws from the same well of dark romance that fed it. Jefferies’s After London – though ostensibly about neglect, not reinvention – sneakily allows itself a reintroduction in the shape of “escaped” beavers, which, while other escapees perish, are for some reason (perhaps their perceived moral worthiness) permitted to thrive. Monbiot’s Feral includes a list of ­species that could potentially – on the basis of historic or prehistoric precedent – be reintroduced to Britain; lion, spotted hyena, walrus, bison, bear, black rhinoceros and elephant are alongside the lynx, hazel grouse and blue stag beetle. The exhilarating improbability recalls Johann David Wyss’s children’s classic The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), in which shipwreck survivors are marooned on an island that maintains unfeasible populations of lion, wolf, crocodile, antelope, alligator, ostrich, buffalo and kangaroo.

Children’s literature furnishes another significant wilderness text in the joyous My Side of the Mountain (1959) by Jean Craighead George, in which young Sam Gribley runs away from the city and makes his home in a hollow tree in the Catskills. A British counterpart might be Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), with Billy Casper’s “Kes” a stand-in for Sam’s peregine “Frightful”, but of course Hines’s book describes a different kind of wilderness. Helen Macdonald has written of the “marginal pastoral tradition”, a sort of outlaw naturalism to which A Kestrel belongs (along with Melissa Hawthorn’s At Hawthorn Time and Cynan Jones’s The Dig), and which has more in common with the natural history of the “edgelands” (Richard Mabey’s “unofficial countryside”) than with the idyllic Catskills of Craighead George. Cronon, in his concern that a fascination with far-off “wilderness” might blind us to more local wildernesses, would have welcomed the questionable assertion in Edgelands: A journey into England’s true wildernesses by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011) that “edgelands make a great deal of our official wilderness seem like the enshrined, ecologically arrested, controlled garden space it really is”.

An important insight into the nature of wilderness is buried in an obscure entry in Mark Cocker’s encyclopaedic Birds Britannica (2005). Discussing the black redstart, a thrush-like bird that in Britain is noted for making its home in derelict spaces and industrial ruins, Cocker writes:

The inner-city wasteland in which it thrives completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape. But these unloved places are unique in one respect: almost every other part of the country is intensively managed at a physical level and we are, in some sense, guided towards a particular intellectual and emotional response. Even in nature reserves and national parks our attitudes are largely prescribed. By contrast, urban dereliction is entirely free of these restraints. Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we possess.

The recent rise in the popularity of edgeland aesthetics and ecology makes this less true than it once was, but the broad points remain significant, and recent incursions into urban areas by such “wilderness” species as peregrine, goshawk, fox and kite only reinforce the argument. “Unintentional” is the standout adjective. These are not wildernesses for which we make room; they are wildernesses that encroach. We don’t have a choice. We don’t have the means to arrest their spread. The power is all with the wild place.

Visitors to America’s wild places have long felt the force of this power. As John Muir notes in Our National Parks (1901), the earliest white visitors to Yellowstone gave its landmarks names “derived from the infernal regions”: Hell Broth Springs, The Devil’s Cauldron, Hell Roaring River. Muir rather blithely attributes this to the sulphur (“brimstone”) content of the region’s geysers. But it seems likely that the names were at least partly informed by a sense of dread, such as we find in Thoreau’s famously panicked response to the wilds of Katadhin, Maine – a landscape “such as man never inhabits . . . . Some part of the beholder seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs . . . . He is more lone than you can imagine . . . . Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage . . . .there was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man”.

The concept of “the Frontier” that is so central to American perceptions of wilderness is founded on this view of nature’s pitiless indifference to humankind – of landscapes, as Bill Bryson has put it, that can kill you. The pioneer is the underdog, the westering Mormon at the mercy of the desert (“Isolation and a landscape of grit were just what the Mormons were looking for”, Terry Tempest Williams writes in her memoir Refuge, 1991). The balance of power has always been different in the United Kingdom, and now it is completely turned about. Development, or its possibility, is a sword of Damocles suspended over Britain’s wild places. We accommodate, we move over, but the fact that we can always choose to move back – to build, to level, to exterminate – inevitably compromises any definition of a British wilderness.

The idea persists, though. The land theorist Henry George believed that America’s open country, its wilderness, provided “a wellspring of hope even to those who never take refuge in it”. The same might be said of a Cumbrian upcountry of wolf and eagle, a Highland wildwood of moose and bear, whether or not they can be brought to fruition. Wilderness, as Jim Crumley writes of “the real wolf”, is not seen, not heard; it exists beyond us.


Published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 18, 2016: 

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