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Accidental Poetry of Extinction: Straight-Tusked Elephant

Straight-Tusked Elephant

Straight-tusked elephant, tall as three men,
Grey bulk hidden in the thick hawthorn wall, 
Pushes white tusks like huge ivory
Needles through the branching boughs, smooth tusks,
Long and straight to the quick curve of their ends, 
Where the tips reach almost to the ground, 
To the hawthorns’ roots, but straight as poles till then.

Its great trunk snakes up, grasps the spiny stems, 
Tosses its massive head; cracking wood
Snaps and flings sap upwards in a stream;
The falling stand of thorn reveals the cow, 
Magnificent in her hugeness, her
Great humped dome dappled by the oaks
That shade the thorn, her sagging, weighted skin
Doubly mapped, lines riven like runnels
In the rock of a broken riverbed. 

Next to her is a calf, bull-calf with ears
Too big for the head that he swivels
To mimic his mother’s crushing blows.

All this I see, my spear with its flint head
Motionless, haft smooth in my dry hand,
My held breath as still as certain death
Should I be sensed, and crushed and speared.
I have heard tales of these domed elephants,
With their strange straight tusks too long, unbent; 
I have never felt, before, so close
To such an immensity of power.
 
I know the cow will be dangerous
With her calf so near, and I fear, then,
For my son, still so young, and for the
Bump in my woman’s belly, new child.

For a moment, inevitable,
Light from my eye locks with the light
Pulsing from that of the straight-tusked cow, 
And my body loses substance, form;
She holds my gaze and seems to feel my fear,
Weighs my intent, weightless as I am, 
And I sense she knows me, or knew me once.

I feel, absurdly, that she foretells
What my human presence portends, end-song –
Then her trunk flicks down to nudge her calf
Closer, and she releases her grip
On my gaze, gently draws her calf’s trunk
To the tender new leaves at his feet, 
Shredded and stripped from the arching thorns.

Beyond the hawthorn ruins and oaks, massed pines
Stretch endless to the sea; below, what  
Will be called Loch Ness sparkles in its glen.  
The matriarch with the long straight tines
Moves on into deeper, darker wood; 
My insubstantial body drops down,
And I wait a long while in silence,
Before I move too, back into the
Coming world, the whittling world of men.

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Poem in Blank Verse

Sphinx statuette from San Michelé

Sphinx statuette from San Michelé

Sphinx Statuette from Capri

This sphinx is weighted bronze upon my desk,
with sandstone plinth new-hewn from ancient rocks:
in silent riddling immortality
it mocks our human time and life’s short spark.

Symbolic gift, from son to me; as I
received before, paternal dreams and more
to walk San Michelé and Caesar’s home
cast high above the blue Tyrrhenian sea.

Cool souvenir, of pyramids and kings
entombed in dark and silent sands; 
my father gone, and I now next to be
from four to two, to three, and grave, and entropy.

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Death of a Jack-Rabbit

Death of a Jack-Rabbit

Driving late night, or early morning, the long-distance thrum of
Soporific rhythm, high speed with heavy metal reassurance, 
And warm in the comfort of the coming day, gently I
Rounded a rise, when suddenly in front of me weaving,
Crazy hip-hop drunken Jack Rabbit heaving,
A macabre flip-flop breakdance in the middle of my road.

Split-second that I saw him so, long, fatal ears
Flattened in a dervish-like, death-accepting run, 
And yet: 
Time stretched, pulsated, to teach me of the killer and the killed;
In those long and anguished, torturous moments, I was the hare; the hare was me. 
I knew the horror and the pity of the death to come, and felt
A cord of will tying me to him, and I being him – futile in that fumbling, stumbling run.

There seemed ample time to think – back in my own mind now – and I willed him to lie still; 
Lie still, lie flat: don’t jump, to jump is certain death – 
O let the body of the car hurtle bloodless over;
But yet I knew the hare would jump, would spring, and that death would come.

I could not swerve; I had been taught.

Time snapped elastic back with a muffled, heavy clunk – an unreasonable solidity
For a hare, too heavy, much too heavy, the weight, perhaps, of inevitability. 

Was its an instant death? I think it was, all vital force crushed,
A bone-mashing instant extinguishing
Of everything that had been, once, sprung and coiled hare. 

There is no comfort in trying to rationalise its death, and I will not say:
I killed a jack-rabbit on the road. 


What I killed was greater, deeper, and when I ripped the body of the hare,
And unnerved my own mind, somehow the fabric of the world lay bare, exposed,
And I caught the merest glimpse of some connected soul.

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Wild Ennerdale, Swifts, and Inner Wildness

At Ennerdale – a tributary of the RIver Liza, crystal clear while rivers elsewhere are in muddy flood

At Ennerdale – a tributary of the RIver Liza, crystal clear while rivers elsewhere are in muddy flood

WIld Ennerdale work – this is how trees grow when sheep and deer – and even cattle – can't reach them

WIld Ennerdale work – this is how trees grow when sheep and deer – and even cattle – can't reach them

I caught no trout today
But saw two swifts
Flickering above the lake,
Intertwining courtly circles
From 'Two Swifts at Standlake' by Tom Rawling (1916-1996) – transcribed from a recording of the poem, so the layout may not be as Rawling wrote it
 
. . . who would not spare
Those mighty forests, once the bison's screen,
Where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair,
Through paths and alleys roofed with sombre green,
Thousands of years before the silent air
Was pierced by whizzing shaft of hunter keen!
From 'To the River Duddon' by William Wordsworth
 
Not where the green grass hides
His kindred before him;
Not where his native trees
Droop to deplore him;
But in the stranger's land
Must we bestow him.
Leave there his sword and shield,
That all may know him.
From 'Honister Crag, Cumberland' by Letitia Elizabeth Landon
 

It is early December, and I am on my way into Cumbria when I am overtaken by a storm. It is only six in the evening, dark as pitch, and the rain sweeps across the windshield in thick foaming sheets as though I am in a carwash in Hades. The wild weather makes driving treacherous, and I reflect on the personal rewilding that I seem to be undergoing. I embarked on this journey to see ecological restoration and rewilding of landscapes in Britain and Europe, but I begin to understand that a significant journey of discovery without requires a concurrent and commensurate journey of discovery within. I would usually avoid driving in such dangerous conditions, but here I am negotiating my way along dark tree-tunnelled lanes quite unperturbed. Yet Google Maps is with me; it is the rod and the staff which comfort me, and it guides me through the flooding Cumbrian valleys as the tempest called Desmond roils around me. It is hard to think oneself wild, even in the dark and stormy night, when we are all so connected to and dependent upon the latest technology. But driving along unknown lanes in the dark and through a raging storm and loving it must mean I am recapturing some of my wilder side.

About twenty miles from Ravensglass, where I have hired a cottage, my Google rod and staff abandon me when my phone loses all mobile signal. I immediately take what must surely be a wrong turn. The narrow lane soon becomes a slippery single track skirting what seem to be sheer cliffs. Rain sluices across the shining remnants of tarmac, blotting out the future and limiting vision to a few feet. The wind howls and roars with the fury of a typhoon. For over an hour I expect the Landrover at any moment to be blown over the cliffs and hurled into whatever abyss lies unseen below. It isn't, and I survive to make my way onto level ground, where I pull off the track to find my bearings and to check the instructions to reach the farm cottage I have rented for the week. I find only a phone number and the postcode where the cottage is to be found. They are both useless to me – the phone signal remains quite dead. I spend another hour trying to find the farm by logic and via analog. When at last I do locate the cottage, I am greeted by the pungent and overpowering stink of fermenting silage, and a strange crackling hum in the darkness which mixes with the hiss and howl of the driving rain. I sleep deeply until morning, woken eventually by the frantic barking of a chained border-collie in the courtyard – visible through the kitchen window and a lull in the falling rain. To the front of the cottage, the view of huge steel pylons hoisting heavy cables across the landscape explains the eerie thrumming I'd heard on arrival. The thick lines buzz and fizz with ferried electric current, and I know that this cottage isn't situated in wildness. 

I think back to MRI appointments I have had, and how on each occasion the radiologists would scuttle from the room before switching on the scan, in the very human desire to preserve and prolong health and life. And I wonder about our electromagnetic selves, and whether living within earshot of the crackle and hiss of such immense power-lines can do anyone – or any chained dog – any good at all. I think of the storm the previous night, and how the electricity lines hissed their presence into my consciousness, and I wonder whether the border-collie barks during the night at the electric hiss it must hear so much more intensely than I. I reflect on the electric workings and misfirings of my own brain, of all brains, and I wonder if anyone has ever recorded the sound of synapses firing, and if they have, whether it has some of the sibilance of the Ravensglass air. 

I am here to see Wild Ennerdale, in Cumbria's west. Before the arrival of the storm, the drive from Kington to Ravensglass is mostly beautiful and uneventful. During a brief fuel and food stop at a garage with an attached diner just out of the lovely Shropshire Hills, there are two men at the table next to mine who can only be Elvis impersonators. They are dressed, however, quite normally, and as I pick at my all-day breakfast I wonder if perhaps there is some local barber who cuts and dyes all hair in homage to the King. When I look up again the Elvises have left the building. 

My first visit to Ennerdale is in pouring rain, but the valley is lovely, and I walk as far up as the youth hostel building, which has to be in one of the most wonderful settings for a youth hostel. I walk across the bridge over the River Liza, and am amazed how clear and clean the water is. It must surely be a result of the hills and hillsides being forested, I think. The rivers and streams I have driven past to reach Ennerdale have been red with clay and mud from the torrential rains of Storm Desmond – but in those places the hills are bare and cropped, the landscape resembles bleak moorland, and the inevitable sheep chew miserably on whatever greenery they find as I amble past. Here in Wild Ennerdale, the sheep have been confined to the lowland flats, and fenced out of the regenerating woodlands of the slopes. Wherever the sheep cannot go, the trees are returning, and some of them are already tall. I remember Wordsworth's lines about the 'mighty forests' that screened the bison and the 'huge deer' – these in Wild Ennerdale are not mighty forests, but they are at least forests, and the trees now include native broadleaf because of the alliance and vision that is 'Wild Ennerdale', and it is delightfully different from the blasted landscape that Dartmoor has become. Wordsworth is not the first poet to call for wildness to be cherished, and revered, and protected from commercial rapacity and human greed, and I know we need more poets who champion wildness – which means, for all intents and purposes in modern England and Britain, reforesting, rewilding, replanting, this time with real forethought, and with the purpose of repairing devastated landscapes. 

Ennerdale is not yet very wild, although I know it is wilder in its upper reaches than the areas I have walked, but it does have peace and solitude, and a sense of wildness that is a reminder of what has been lost in so much of England. No, Ennerdale is not wild in the way Daniel Defoe thought in 1698 that Cumbria was wild and ‘most barren and frightful’ – but it is wonderful to walk in, and I am overjoyed to realise that for a few hours I have heard no sound of human activity at all. And I have seen buzzards, and kites, and kestrels, and got close to robins and blackbirds and thrushes, even if we don't yet have wilder fauna than those. At least the sheep are being properly managed here, and kept off the hills. There are Galloway cattle on some of the slopes, to keep bracken down, but they are more selective about the saplings they eat than are sheep, so the native broadleaf trees being inter-planted or that are self-sown in amongst the conifers of old plantations stand a chance of survival. Where even the cattle are fenced out, the recovery and height of the planted native trees is a wonder to behold, and it convinces me even more deeply that the number and impact of browsing animals need to be rethought. Browsers which eat saplings need to be eaten in turn, by the predators that used to kill them or at least frighten them into almost constant movement, so that no patch of saplings was ever irrevocably grazed to oblivion. We need the lynx, I think, as I clamber down from the higher crags, and stroll back to the River Liza. 

Landon's poem about the Scottish boy killed in battle, and buried at Honister Crag, makes me glad that there are trees that are able to 'droop to deplore' – broadleaf trees, rather than the blanket conifer plantations that blight so much of England, and I applaud the vision of Wild Ennerdale's partnership between the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and United Water – and of course with the community around Ennerdale. It can only be good for wildness, and for the people and animals and plants that share an ecosystem. There is a sense of freedom and beauty here that is desperately necessary as a counter-balance to landscapes of windfarms, and power-stations, and electric power-lines. There is real power here, in the recovering woodlands where I am away from most of the sights and sounds of man-made objects and activities. The peace, the tranquillity here, even though it is not yet rewilded and restored to what I would like, is still cause for celebration and hope. I have not visited in the season to see the Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling's swifts, but the loveliness of Wild Ennerdale renders special even an encounter with a goldfinch, and I experience many of those. 

 

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Rewilding, Rain poetry, and Wales

Pwll-y-Wrach in the Brecon Beacons

Pwll-y-Wrach in the Brecon Beacons

The River Wye in flood. Behind me was a field of sheep.

The River Wye in flood. Behind me was a field of sheep.

 

Venus lies star-struck in her wound
And the sensual ruins make
Seasons over the liquid world,
White springs in the dark

(From ‘Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait’ by Dylan Thomas)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die

(From 'Rain’ by Edward Thomas)

I hear leaves drinking rain; 
I hear rich leaves on top
Giving the poor beneath
Drop after drop

(From ‘The Rain’ by William Henry Davies)

My plan has been to spend a week at a time in each wild or rewilding place I choose, and after seven glorious days walking Dartmoor, I pack up the Landrover and head into Wales, to see a little of the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains. It is my first trip beyond Cardiff within Wales, even though the Welsh landscape and history have always been an interest. Poetry written by Welsh poets or poets with strong Welsh heritage has likewise fascinated me. There is a curious rhythm and sound in lines written by Dylan Thomas, say, or by William Henry Davies, or even by Edward Thomas, born in England but with strong Welsh roots – and for years I have felt that the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems somehow to belong with this group. So it is with almost a feeling of relief that I discover that Hopkins began writing poetry again – after a long abstinence from the first poetry-writing fervour of his youth – in Wales, during his training as a Jesuit priest near St Asaph. 

I think I now understand why these poets exhibit similar sound and rhythm patterns: it is a response to the rain of Wales. Rain has been very much on my mind during the week here. Rain has been omnipresent, beginning with drizzle on Saturday in Hay-on-Wye over the Hay Winter Weekend Festival, where I spent an afternoon and evening. In Hay I listened to a captivating talk by author Rob Penn on what led up to his book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees – a record of the 44 separate uses and hundreds of objects he commissioned to be crafted from the wood of a single ash tree he'd had cut down for timber. I didn't get to ask him why he chose the particular title for the book that he did, but I suspect it must be part-homage to French author Jean Giono's lovely fiction 'The Man Who Planted Trees', which has had such a profound impact on inspiring tree-planting around the world. I love Giono's story. Many people have believed it to be autobiographical truth, but it's not, although Giono's artistic fiction and the world's physical reality have mingled and melded over time – millions of trees grow today in the real world because the fictional character Elzéard Bouffier loved planting acorns. To me, that seems a natural and credible love: whenever I have had a pot, or a plot, and access to acorns, I have grown oak saplings. I realise now that I should add another question or two to what I ask the volunteers who plant trees in pouring rain on the sheep-stripped hillsides of Britain: have they read 'The Man Who Planted Trees', and do they count it as one of the reasons they do what they do? Soft anecdotal research, unsuited perhaps to science but vital to art and literature. 

The drizzle in Hay-on-Wye turns into driving rain-showers when I visit Pwll-y-Wrach waterfall and pool in the Brecon Beacons National Park, near Talgarth in south Powys. I am the only person wandering the fenced nature reserve, in the rain, and I have time to reflect and think, about rewilding, about reforestation, about poetry, and about time. Pwll-y-Wrach means 'Witches' Pool' and so I scan the sandstone and mudstone of the waterfall's structure to see if I can discern the shapes of witches, or even features of women in the rock. I have always done this, as far back as I can remember: looking at the rocks and cracks and chutes of waterfalls to see what shapes I see, the same way children gaze at clouds and see hares and horses and giants. Adults mostly see cumulus or cumulo-nimbus or stratus or cirrus cloud types, rather than climatic art. We know, at some deep level, that we have lost an essential magic when we no longer see figures in the clouds – perhaps that is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince remains a perennial best-seller. At university, I was trained to differentiate between the various types of clouds. Now, I am unlearning some of that, or pushing the knowledge into a filing cabinet in the brain labelled 'Open only in case of imaginative failure'. I see no images of witches in the waterfall, although to my dismay a Ninja Turtle shows up. There's a Buddha-figure in there though – and then I see the Earth-goddess, amply-proportioned to withstand famine, as all fertility-goddesses should. The water pouring over the limestone lip of the waterfall gurgles in base notes, Welsh-accented, before showering and renewing the goddess in the rock and then tumbling into the pool. 

That's when I realise that the sound of the lines written by Welsh poets and poets of Welsh heritage is infused with the sound of water – the notes splash liquidly from the page, the rhythm is the soft metre of falling drops, or the sweeping of successive sheets of rain. Water is everywhere in the poems of the Welsh: it drops from above, swirls from below, washes through the air and streams though each poet's being, opening the vowels and ushering in the mellifluousness of languid consonants. 

I have been keen to see the site of the proposed rewilding and reforestation project for the Cambrian Mountains called the Cambrian Wildwood Project, something which could serve as a model for other rewilding projects in Wales. One of the project founders, Simon Ayres, very generously offers to show me the site in the Cambrian Mountains that the organisation wants to purchase and reforest, with a view to later introducing or allowing the recovery of important animal species – like the Pine Marten, to start with. Driving along the border between Wales and England, history fuses with geography and I realise why there were constant battles in the Welsh Marches and the Welsh Borders. The landscape is a dramatic series of ridges and gorges, and I wonder about the magnificent forests which would have been there, hiding entire armies of the Welsh or English – or Normans, I suppose – before the arrival and devastating triumph of the sheep, and before the large-scale clearing of the woodlands took place. Some of the ridges are dense conifer plantations, which allow a glimpse of what could be, again, if groups like Cambrian Wildwood prevail – but the woodlands would be closer to what they once were, broadleaf forest for the most part, and filled with birds and insects and animals. 

Simon Ayres is unworried by the sheets of water bucketing down upon us as we climb from the Landrover. The rain gods pelt us with ever-heavier downpours, and the wind alters direction constantly, to ensure that no part of our clothing or our bodies remains unsodden, but still we tread upwards and across the mainly cropped land that Cambrian Wildwood wants to buy, protect from sheep and deer (although in Wales deer aren't nearly as prevalent as they are in Scotland), replant with native broadleaf trees, and nurture until natural processes can take over and the forest is restored. It is an admirable and worthy vision, and one that will take prolonged and inspired leadership, with a tight circle of loyal and inspired volunteers, to accomplish. Simon tells me that the property abuts an estate belonging to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, and I wonder if Robert Plant would support the establishment of the Cambrian Wildwood on his doorstep. I think of the influences Robert Plant has cited over the years, and believe that he would be in tune both with the philosophy of rewilding and the ambitions of the Cambrian Wildwood group.

At Hay again, I wander into the little churchyard and one of the gravestones which has been set into the wall of the church itself catches my attention. There is a date chiselled into the old granite, telling me that a man named Richard Wellington died on the 8th of September, two hundred and thirty one years earlier. His day and month of death is the day and month of my birth. It is a reminder of mortality, of time's passage, a central concern of Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas and William Henry Davies, from whose poems I have quoted at the beginning of this post. I am not concerned about the mortality of humans en masse, because we seem a particularly resilient and dominant species – but I am concerned at the loss of wildness and the loss of animal and plant species that we have caused and are still causing. As for personal mortality, the gravestone is a reminder to me to live more intensely, to live more wildly, to seize each moment while I still can. You can learn a lot from a gravestone. 

I have supper at The Blue Boar, on my own, and I wonder about the possibility of wild boar being once again as common in the woodlands of Wales as they are on pub signboards all over Britain. The rain falls steadily, heavily, outside, but I am so used to it now that I hardly notice how much water is sluicing down the streets and the pavements. Only on the way back home do I realise that the Wye has flooded its banks – the road winds onto high ground and I am able to look down on the plain.

Red muddy water covers all the low ground, and again I think of George Monbiot's book Feral, and his suggestion that the sheep-cropped hillsides with their compacted soil cannot absorb even a fraction of the rain that the soil under a broadleaf forest would – that too many sheep on the hills means frequent floods on the plains and in the towns.

To my right, I see the flooded Wye valley. To my left, I see green paddocks almost overflowing with sheep. They munch away at whatever grass they can find, unconcerned at being a point of controversy and discussion in the place where conservation, politics and farming meet. Their little hooves press down on the sodden earth, the rain falls with increasing intensity, the river rises further, and I take my photographs and drive on. 

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The seasons alter, and I like 'each thing that in season grows'

Road near Glen Cannich, Inverness area, Scottish Highlands

Road near Glen Cannich, Inverness area, Scottish Highlands

Ger Tor in Dartmoor, Devon, with the granite clitter in the foreground

Ger Tor in Dartmoor, Devon, with the granite clitter in the foreground

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.
. . . 
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?
From ‘Reluctance’ by Robert Frost


This is my first blog post written since arriving in Britain – two months after my arrival. Those two months of seeking out and immersing myself in 'wild' and 'rewilding' landscapes of England, Wales and Scotland have already allowed me to cast off several skins and skeins. Life is simpler in wild places. Thinking is clearer in the quiet of natural spaces. And after the heat and constant sounds and noise of city life in inner city and North Shore Sydney, the absence of human sounds in places like Dartmoor, where I went soon after arrival, or Glen Cannich in the Scottish Highlands, where I am now, enable quiet and intuitive reflection. Places like these allow the intellectual side of my brain, the academic side, to switch off for a while, and to rest in neutral while the heart, or the soul, or whatever it is that can receive solace from the natural world, drinks in the almost palpable energy underneath and all around me, the energy spilling out of the earth and the air and sizzling and crackling in the few wild places that remain in Britain.

In Dartmoor at Ger Tor I am reminded that I am in a wonderfully pagan setting, a fit place for a Hardy novel or a Hughes poem. Reading Robert Frost's 'Reluctance' and his observation on 'the end/ Of a love or a season' is made more poignant when I am sitting on the granite boulders of 'clitter' (what a delightful and redolent word, too) below Ger Tor, where the only sound I can hear is the plashing and gurgling of a brook or burn cutting its way ever downwards through aeons of time, and I can't even see the burn for the mist and snow swirling around me – I have just flown directly from Sydney's summer into the depth of Dartmoor's winter.

At Ger Tor I can feel the presence of the Bronze Age huts that lie just to the east of the Tor – or perhaps I can feel their presence because I have researched them earlier, and the knowledge of their position nestles securely in my memory. Whichever it is, I make my way towards them through the mist, which is turning now into sleet. The foundations and walls of the houses are still visible after almost four millennia, and I wonder about the landscape the Bronze Age people found here. There would have been forest all over what is now moor, oak-dominated woodlands like the tiny remnant at Wistman's Wood – one of the few pieces of ancient forest those Bronze Age people and their predecessors didn't cut down. I go to visit Wistman's Wood the next day. I sit in the Landrover and read about it, another cognitive and intellectual exercise before putting on my ski-jacket and rain-pants and heading over to experience the remnant of ancient wood for myself. This is a constant flip-flopping that I do – reading up on a place, or a process, letting the information settle somewhere in a recess of my brain, where a gaggle of synapses decide its relevance, and its meaning, if it has any meaning for me yet. Then I get out of the book, or the Kindle, or the notes I have made, and out of the car, and go and drink in the place itself and how it feels to me. I can find out later what poets have said about it, or what ecologists argue for its present state, or what the rational and analytical side of my brain will suggest to me – for now, for a brief time, the wild place is my entire world, and I want to experience it with every sense I can muster. 

It is on the path to Wistman's Wood that my rational brain refuses to be stilled, and I surprise myself by speaking aloud: 'George Monbiot is right.' There are sheep littering the close-cropped hillsides along the way, and strands of wool on the gorse that lines the track, and when I walk on the grass of the moorland and through the ancient stone gate leading to the Wood, I can feel how compacted the soil is, and how the water puddles in the clay of the moor. Rain is no longer absorbed into the soil – it runs straight off, and I can see erosion gullies on the far side of the valley. And there is a curious absence of wildlife and trees, so surprising to me when I think how much life should be supported here, with the rich black soil and the water sluicing from the sky. But there is only the shorn grass of the moorland, and gorse, and sedge occasionally where the water is most evident. Apart from the sodden sheep and shaggy ponies there is little evidence of animal or bird life. 

Wistman's Wood in Dartmoor National Park

Wistman's Wood in Dartmoor National Park

 

A sign at the old stone wall, just over the stile leading to the Wood, tells me how important the sheep and the cattle and the ponies are to preserving the delicate nature of the Wistman's Wood reserve, and I wonder whether the sign is the work of a PR company. It sounds very much like the Newspeak of Orwellian politics, because what the Stone Age and Bronze Age axes didn't cut down, livestock has decimated. Looking at the Wood, I decide that the only reason the ancient oak trees have survived is that they are on steep ground absolutely strewn with great granite boulders, and the sheep and cattle and ponies can't get into the Wood without breaking their necks on the rocks. There are the remains of about one hundred Bronze Age houses about a bowshot-distance from Wistman's Wood, and I wonder what the forest looked like when they were collecting clitter to build their walls. Nine thousand years ago all of Dartmoor would have been covered with forest, and now I sit on one of the mossy stones at the edge of Wistman's Wood, 'Devil's Wood' or 'Haunted Wood' from 'Wisht' meaning 'Devil' or 'Haunted', and I close my eyes and see if I can imagine the sounds of the wind moving through uninterrupted broadleaf forest, nine thousand years ago when elk and bear and wolf and tarpan and aurochs and lynx and wolverine would have roamed through it. I see in my mind's eye the human settlers huddled in a clearing in the wood – perhaps just east of Wistman's Wood – fearful of the great predators of the wild, terrified of the dark, and hacking down the forest and building walls to solidify their presence, and I wonder what it must have been like, to live in a wilder Britain. Dartmoor isn't wild now, but it is still lovely, and wilder than the heart of Woking, say. I would dearly love to see it with great swathes of oak forest, and although the aurochs is gone, perhaps one day its replacement, the tauros, will haunt the British woodlands again.

My ‘rewilding’ journey has begun, my exploration of wildness and rewilding, of landscapes, of woodlands, of animal species, in poetry, and of self – because the term ‘rewilding’ doesn’t apply only to ecological processes.

There is a parallel ‘rewilding’ movement in psychology, in literature, in education – in multiple disciplines outside of the ecological sciences, in fact – which looks at what happens in the human soul and psyche when wildness has been lost. Psychological rewilding suggests that we have become so tamed, so repressed, so shrivelled by social norms and the expectations of mostly urban communities that we have lost touch with the wilder part of our human nature. This parallel ‘rewilding’ movement advocates rediscovering our own wildness, in multiple facets of our lives, to enrich our experience of life, and it mirrors what many poets have said for centuries. Wildness is a way to get in touch with the divine in our natures, and simultaneously a path to experiencing our primal side – wildness is sacred, and wildness is sexy.

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Rewilding and the Human Soul

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Rewilding and the Human Soul

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Conservation in Africa has been in the news lately – what with the deplorable death of Cecil the lion, and the Zimbabwe government’s almost immediate banning of the hunting of lions – and then almost as immediately removing their own ban. On a recent trip to South Africa, I was struck by how much of what had been farmland perhaps a dozen years ago has been allowed to regenerate into wildlife conservation areas. Particularly heartening was to see that wildlife corridors are being created between some of the bigger national parks, so that African animals are able to move more freely between the parks and improve the genetic base of various species.

And it was good for the soul to encounter close up some black rhino – a species brought back from the very brink of extinction. It got me to thinking about what is happening in Britain and in Europe with the growing rewilding movement, and what can be done to accelerate the preservation of threatened species in Britain and Europe, and the restoration of trophic diversity that goes hand in hand with reintroducing keystone species.

This morning I was listening to a podcast, which is an interview on rewilding with George Monbiot, conducted by Transition Network’s Rob Hopkins – an interview after Monbiot’s book Feral had been published but before the recent launch of the Rewilding Britain charity.

It’s an excellent interview, and in it George Monbiot says something rather profound, I think – or certainly something that resonated as being true in my own life. When asked what had started him on Feral, and writing something purely to do with the environment, Monbiot said that it was actually a return to his first love, his first interest. The important change for him was to reject explanations of the need to preserve or restore the natural world because of its economic or even scientific value, but to admit what all environmentalists know in their deepest selves: that the natural world holds a fascination for humans firstly because we love being in it. At our deepest cores, the less the natural environment that we experience has been modified by man, the more our souls are replenished or restored.  

And Monbiot also says in this interview that in Europe, Britain is alone in treating the great national parks no differently from the areas surrounding them – real wildness and real wilderness is not protected or encouraged.

It was useful that I was listening to the podcast with the hindsight of the launch of Rewilding Britain, and also of the increasing momentum of the rewilding movement. As Monbiot mentions, a number of conservation agencies and organisations who were either cold or indifferent to the concept of rewilding have become converts, or are at the very least warming to the idea. As I have said in a previous post, I think that rewilding is a concept and an idea whose time has come, and Monbiot’s book has helped to fuel the tremendous public interest in what we can do to restore a wilder landscape and widen the diversity of species across Britain. That includes reintroducing those we have lost, like the beaver and the lynx and the wolf, and also stemming and preventing further loss of those birds and animals which have seen terrible decline, and bolstering their recovery.

Having just listened to this podcast and then another on ‘What happened to the soul?’ by Iain McGilchrist on RSA Events Audio – another superb interview and talk, by the way, I then read an article posted on the website of the organisation Rewilding Europe, who are making great strides in the rewilding of large tracts of landscape across Europe, and who are constantly breaking new ground – metaphorically speaking. In terms of the goals of the rewilding movement, the literal objective is a little like that of the permaculture movement within agriculture – embracing natural processes as far as possible that will achieve the objectives of increasing diversity and enriching the landscape as well as our experience of it, without literally breaking ground or modifying natural systems.

The Rewilding Europe article was on the reintroduction – in fact, the re-creation by the Tauros Project, as far as possible – of the aurochs, the species of wild cattle which roamed Europe for thousands of years and which was hunted to extinction by man, with the last individual of the species dying in captivity in Poland in 1627. The new, re-created version of the aurochs is to be called the tauros, and its creation by selective breeding is the goal of the Taurus Foundation. As stated in the article on Rewilding Europe’s website, ‘The final goal of the [Tauros] programme, to be met in some 20 years, is the presence of the Tauros as a self-sufficient wild bovine grazer in herds of at least 150 animals each in several rewilding areas in Europe.’ Rewilding Europe, and the Taurus Foundation also, believe that a ‘wilder Europe’ requires herds of wild bovines to ‘prevent further loss of the biodiversity of the open areas’. 

George Monbiot’s opinion differs markedly from this with regard to Britain – in contrast to Europe’s landscape, which has seen so much farmland and pastures abandoned, the UK landscape is heavily overgrazed, by both sheep and deer, neither of which animal allows saplings to survive long enough to become trees and then woodland. During the course of the next year, I shall visit the rewilding areas of Europe and also those (far fewer) areas in Britain, as well as the national parks and woodlands, so that I can see what progress is being made in Britain and Europe towards a wilder environment – one which rejuvenates and inspires the human soul while simultaneously helping species and landscapes to recover from human depredation. 

I look forward to meeting those people who have had the foresight and the courage to begin working on the reforestation and rewilding of Europe and Britain long before the movement to rewild ourselves and our landscapes began to gather the momentum that it now has. 

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Can rewilding restore wild nature and reverse the trend towards extinction?

This morning I caught up on a few articles that have great relevance for the importance of rewilding in helping to halt the decimation of the natural world and the ‘Sixth Extinction’ that is currently taking place.

The question is whether rewilding makes a difference within a short enough timespan. If rewilding helps to restore the numbers of endangered faunal and floral species in a century, that may be good – but rather academic, because we don’t have a century in which to halt the tremendous loss of species diversity occurring around the globe.

The first article that caught my attention is one from the 15th July in National Geographic, by Isabella Tree, titled ‘Can Rewilding Bring Nature Back to Modern Britain?’ Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell (the chairman of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England, and long a campaigner for the reintroduction of beavers into English rivers) own and operate a 3,500 acre rewilding project in West Sussex – at Knepp Castle – which hardly springs to mind as a place one would expect to find wild nature, or where we might see the slide towards extinction of iconic species reversed.

Yet wild nature – rewilding nature – is certainly making a comeback, less than two decades after Isabella and Charlie’s 2001 decision to abandon conventional farming at Knepp and allow the land to return to a wilder state. As Isabella Tree mentions in her article, the U.K. has lost 44 million birds since 1966; what I find absolutely wonderful is that one of the bird species hardest-hit, the turtle-dove (which has declined by 96% in those same years) is to be found breeding on the Knepp estate. 

What would the world be like without the turtle-dove? Diminished in so many ways it hardly bears thinking about. 

Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell’s experiment with ceasing farming and instead embracing a wilder landscape is not an isolated case, even though part of the great rewilding that is sweeping across Europe has not been the result of a conscious decision as in their case. The great opportunity for rewilding that is happening right now – certainly in Europe – is partly to do with the effects of urbanisation that have resulted in farmers abandoning their lands or placing lesser demands on their farmlands, especially if they find themselves increasingly remote from a vibrant urban area. That demographic and economic fact, coupled with the concurrent and growing public demand for wilder experiences with nature, has allowed the establishment and flourishing of organisations such as Rewilding Europe and now the fledgeling Rewilding Britain

It’s a matter of economics. As Rewilding Europe suggests on their website, the state of the world economy dictates that nature conservation in the future will have to cost less and deliver more economic value – and rewilding fits that bill just perfectly. 

Another article I read this morning, also pertinent to species extinction, was in Matter magazine: 'It’s not climate change – it’s everything change’ by Margaret Atwood, long one of my favourite authors and thinkers. In her article she mentions a piece written for The Guardian by the British author Piers Torday, ‘Why writing stories about climate change isn’t fantasy or sci-fi’. Torday’s article reminds the reader that the 2014 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that over the past forty years, the Earth’s vertebrate population has halved. Halved! If ever there is a sign that conventional conservation measures have been failing the natural world over the past four decades, surely this is it. 

Charles Harper Webb’s disturbing poem, ‘The Animals are Leaving’ comes to mind. I shall quote just its first stanza, but it is well worth reading all of it.

One by one, like guests at a late party.
They shake our hands and step into the dark:
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.

We don’t want the animals to leave. It is mortifying thinking that they would step into the dark. The world – and we – should not permit it. 

If the rapid results at Knepp are anything to go by, and likewise the astounding success of rewilding in Europe, it is high time to give rewilding a chance not just in Britain, not just in Europe, but everywhere. 

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What is ‘Rewilding’ and why is it so vital to conservation of the natural world?

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What is ‘Rewilding’ and why is it so vital to conservation of the natural world?

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ (probably written in 1881) has always been one of my favourites, and I realised this morning that its fourth stanza is particularly apt to rewilding, and could be a rallying cry for the movement gathering such enthusiasm among the British (and world) public:

 
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Hopkins knew that the weeds and the wilderness of the natural world were and are key components to the wholeness of the human spirit, and that a reduced wildlife diminishes all of human society. The rewilding movement aims to create conditions of landscape which enable the natural world to repair itself and to enrich human experience. 

If you aren’t up to speed yet with what ‘rewilding’ is, Wikipedia’s broad definition of rewilding is as workable as any: ‘Rewilding is large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species.’

In practice, this involves finding large areas of landscape which have been degraded ecologically over decades or centuries, giving those areas a nudge to re-establish a greater range of floral and arboreal species than they have had while degraded, and then either allowing or facilitating the re-introduction of keystone faunal species. By ‘keystone’ is meant that their presence actively promotes trophic cascades which increase plant and animal diversity and ecological health. The rewilding ideal is that each of these restored and rewilded regions is connected by a corridor to another, allowing the animals greater range in which to roam, and that the landscape becomes increasingly ‘self-willed’ or allowed to operate according to natural processes, without much or any interference from Man.

I believe that rewilding is our last chance, our last hope, of rescuing vulnerable wildlife species from mass extinction. Rewilding’s wildness and wet, and weeds, are elements of a conservation strategy which kindles public passion for conservation such as no strategy hitherto.

In the Independent on Monday 20th July 2015, there is a wonderful piece by Michael McCarthy, a rejoinder to Boyd Tonkin’s earlier article suggesting that rewilding in Britain would be largely theatre, that rewilded areas would be little better than ‘theme parks’. McCarthy rightly points out that Tonkin ‘has completely missed the biggest point about [rewilding], which is that it seeks to restore and to repair a wildlife which in Britain (as in much of the rest of the world) is catastrophically damaged’. 

Amen to that. Something has to be done, and seventy years of post-WW2 conservation policies haven’t prevented the populations of iconic British wildlife species spiralling down towards extinction. Rewilding offers the best shot yet at reversing the trend, and it has the benefit that it has sparked massive public interest and support. 

Talk of rewilding is especially pertinent right now, with the launch in mid-July of the conservation charity Rewilding Britain, spearheaded by George Monbiot and riding the wave of enthusiasm generated by his superb book Feral. The launch of Rewilding Britain comes at the perfect time: Chris Foote in STV news on the 27th April 2015 writes that in an online survey of 9000 people in the UK, 91% backed the reintroduction of the lynx, made extinct in Britain about 1300 years ago, and a staggering  84% of those surveyed suggested that they would like the reintroduction to take place within the next 12 months. This is an astounding level of public support for the rewilding movement in Britain, and it bodes well for Hopkins’ plea for the preservation of wilderness and wildness. 

Not everyone is keen; in an article in The Scotsman on Saturday 25th July 2015, Alistair Munro reports that the National Farmers Union (NFU) is concerned about potential reintroductions of species: whether those are beaver, lynx or wolf. Munro quotes NFU vice-president Andrew McCornick that ‘Farmers are justifiably concerned at what the introduction of predators could mean for their livestock’. It seems that various bodies are posturing for a potential battle, but no such battle needs to be fought. Farmers and rewilders can work together with minimal antipathy, and I predict that these same farmers will at some point in the next decade bless the rise of the rewilding movement. Successful rewilding in places such as Scotland will bring record numbers of eco-tourists to areas which have not seen the economic benefit of eco-tourism before – and those who will benefit most will be the farmers and the local communities around the great rewilded landscapes. 

There is abundant evidence from Europe that people and wild nature can live together to the benefit of both. Carolyn Leckie in an article in The National on 20th July 2015 writes that Italy’s Abruzzo National Park – about a tenth of the size of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park – is ‘home to a multitude of species, including lynx, wolves and brown bears’. The Park is also far from being an isolated wilderness; it houses five towns and villages. Farming, forestry, wild nature, and a thriving woodcraft industry exist peacefully alongside a resurgent tourist sector. 

This is what I hope for, but also foresee, for those areas of Britain which take up the challenge and rewards of rewilding.

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