Plant and animal life on Earth is orchestrated to preserve humanity’s ideal of nature. We need to step back
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Rewilding is anti-teleological. Rewilding is anti-preservation. Rewilding is anti-conservation.
Traditional conservation movements aim to preserve a landscape in a particular state. They often champion the ecology of heather moors and bleak mountainous uplands, praising their ‘natural’ beauty and dramatic contours – though many of these places have been stripped nearly bare of wildlife through the interventions of tree-fellers, agriculturists and huntsmen. Traditional conservation seeks to ‘maintain’ these ecosystems in their current state of existence by systematically grazing them with sheep, ponies and cows, by allowing deer numbers to increase unchecked, and by burning vast swathes of the land to ensure nothing larger than a shrub can grow there.
Rewilding wants to avoid the tropes of traditional conservation movements, which privilege particular species or versions of landscapes over others. Instead, it wants land to become self-willed. Rewilding tries to approach a place with imagination and a sense of curiosity about what might happen if human beings stopped trying to manage nature.
But to rewild a place in order for it to become self-willed is a strange contradiction in terms. One half of the sentence linguistically contains the dualistic subject-object relationship between human and nonhuman that lies behind the current ecological crisis. The second half of the sentence wants the nonhuman to become the active subject. Are both possible? Perhaps there is a sense of temporality at play here, a feeling that rewilding is an action that unfolds over time, where agency is passed over from human to nonhuman and where the timescale and completeness of that handover depends on the specificities of the people and places involved.
‘Rewilding is anti-conservation’
To begin with, rewilding generally requires acts of human involvement; removing fences or building them (to keep grazing animals out, for instance), undamming rivers or filling in drainage ditches. It might involve making additions as well; reintroducing species lost due to human persecution (such as beavers), or planting trees to kick-start afforestation. Rewilding often expresses an anxious desire for its own brand of preservation; trying to protect a place from human interference, safeguarding biodiversity in wildlife reserves. Sometimes, it explicitly aims to recreate an imaginary utopian moment from the past, before human beings came along with traps and axes and ploughs. But the ecosystems of which we are part will always affect us and vice versa – because to have a body is to be messy, microbial and all over the place. It’s easy to forget this, though, because the human animal is predominantly presented as the manager, the preserver or – increasingly – the destroyer of nature.
This is part of what author Daisy Hildyard sees as the repeatedly reinforced sense we have that human beings are somehow apart from the natural world – not really animals at all. In The Second Body, she tries to discover new ways of talking about the position of the human animal within local and global ecosystems. But she is surprised to find that ecologists and scientists usually present humans as separate from their environments. ‘I thought that ecologists would describe how humans, among other animals, fit into habitats in different parts of the world’, she says. ‘I thought it would show me how my life is integrated with the foxes which go through my bins, and not only with my human neighbours.’ Instead, she learns that ecologists are reluctant to discuss the human ‘habitat’ or our integrated role in an ecosystem. The textbooks repeatedly claim that when the ‘natural’ habitats of animals come into contact with humans, they invariably are disturbed, changed or destroyed.
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Source: Richard Baker / Getty
Linguistically and psychologically, we are caught up in this dualistic relationship with the natural world. This is perhaps because, as Hildyard says, ‘the language of the human animal is that of a whole and single individual’. We place the human on top of or outside nature – never within it. We talk about this as if it were natural in itself; we are beside nature, but something has gone wrong if we are beside ourselves. Things become out of joint; the fabric unravels. Clinging to conformity and rejecting chaos, we make uneasy journeys through our verbal and physical environments.
Wild/willed. The two words are not etymologically connected. But the history of the word ‘wild’ is unexpectedly expressive of the problem at play in our relationship with nonhuman nature. It can be an adjective, a noun or a verb, stemming from the Proto-Indo-European *welt-, meaning ‘woods; wild’ – trees and wildness are intimately connected in early linguistic formulations. The root-word (trees again) also came to mean ‘forested upland’, emerging in older English languages as ‘weald’ or ‘wold’. With the passing centuries, these words transformed again and are now found in place names, used to refer to hilly, open country with sheep-bitten turf; linguistic evidence of de-wilding and de-forestation through the intervention of farmed, human-bred animals (sheep).
The rewilding movement is attempting to unpick the impulse to preserve these overgrazed, underwhelming landscapes. A re-examination and perhaps a reclamation of the language we use to talk about nonhuman nature can help us to reposition the human animal – and help us to understand our integral, mutual impact on bodies and places, and to recognise that preservation of ‘natural’ places is impossible, however hard we try. In an era of climate breakdown, we know – intellectually – that our collective and individual actions are affecting other beings and places. But Hildyard suggests that our talk of ‘global impacts’ is not working.
‘We place the human on top of or outside nature’
It feels metaphorical and distant; some internal scrutinising eye winks, half-knowingly, at the euphemisms. People often say that the tide is turning, that we are becoming more aware of the global consequences of our actions. But emissions are still rising, and consumption is increasing, even if we are recycling the packaging more diligently.
The language we are using is broken. Instead, Hildyard suggests, ‘There is a way of speaking which implicates your body in everything on Earth. Climate change creates a new language, in which you have to be all over the place; you are always all over the place. It makes every animal body implicated in the whole world’. Our actions have consequences; we are messy, interconnected, perforated, everywhere. Attempting to preserve a place, to freeze it in time, is bound to fail, because everything is always changing everything else, from the sweep of the tide, to the death of a whale, to the asexual reproduction of a bacterial colony, to the act of starting your car in the morning.
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To be in possession of (and talk about) a human body is to experience a paradox. In Hildyard’s terms, while we eat and breathe and live in a particular place in our first body (the body we know intimately), our second body hovers uncannily on the edges of our perception, directly influencing the chemical make-up of the atmosphere, and the death of a seagull from plastic pollution, and the injury sustained by a teenager working in a factory halfway across the planet, and the respiration of algae in a reservoir in the next town. She writes: ‘To be an animal is to be in the possession of a physical body, a body which can eat, drink and sleep; it is also to be integrated within a local ecosystem which overlaps with ecosystems which are larger and further away. To be a living thing is to exist in two bodies’.
The wild has become disconnected from its woodland roots, just as human beings have separated themselves from their local and global ecosystems. Our attempts to preserve the damaged ecosystems of the past are an example of our repeated misunderstanding of nonhuman nature, and our refusal to imaginatively and physically position ourselves as part of the ecosystems that sustain us. The rewilding movement is an attempt to change the narrative. To allow for the messiness of the interrelations between species. To do away with fixed outcomes. To abandon preservation and look to the future instead of the past.
The Second Body by Dasiy Hildyard, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017
This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today