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Bringing the rainforest home

Feral front coverFeral begins with a recollection from Monbiot’s time in an illegal goldmine in Brazil 20 years ago. The glimpse he caught there, of the forest’s ‘trophic diversity’ and of the gangland atmosphere in his camp, clearly made a deep impression. He enjoyed both, whether or not he ‘should have’, and this book is an attempt to bring both of those insights home. To summarize a little unfairly: middle age, washing up and the school run are a drag. Let’s re-introduce wolves.

Dateable pollen from the Clwydian Hills recently provided the essential data from which this book sets out. Namely that the woodland which colonized Britain’s west coast at the end of the last Ice Age was rainforest, which can exist in temperate as well as tropical zones. Steadily cleared during the Neolithic, pockets of it survived as late as the medieval period. One or two of them still do.

The open upland areas we have learned to prize as ‘wilderness’, in other words, are nothing of the kind. They are the scenes of a human-made disaster. They should be ‘rewilded’, or fenced off and allowed to regenerate. In revering these landscapes we are the dupes of a colossal and collective failure of historical imagination. The proposed reintroduction of top predators like wolves will presumably generate most of the fuss around this book, but it really only follows from that earlier premise.

Monbiot is at pains to acknowledge the difficulties with this and all the wrong ways in which it could be (and has been) done. This readiness of his to face opponents’ arguments at their strongest is a likeable trait. He describes and interviews several people who do agree with him, but somewhere near this book’s core, for me, was his interview with Dafydd Morris-Jones, a young hill-farmer for whom ‘rewilding’ is a ‘post-Romantic ideology’. It would make of the Welsh uplands (his family’s home for generations) a visitor-attraction for outsiders, erasing the national, linguistic, religious and economic community to which Morris-Jones belongs. Monbiot claims at one point to be treating Wales as a ‘case study’. Morris-Jones’ response is, essentially, that people don’t live in ‘case studies’.


This interview evidently caused Monbiot much soul-searching. Are the re-wilders not in an uncomfortable lineage, stretching back (at least) to the landlords who cleared the Scottish Highlands after Culloden? Any decision to re-wild, he counters, would be taken, in this instance, not by foreign or aristocratic overlords, but by the Welsh (or whoever) themselves. The economic basis of this kind of farming could also be maintained, in some instances, he argues, by tweaking the subsidy-system, allowing some farms to continue.

So far so sensible, but there’s an omission here that goes to the heart of what is wrong with this book. The national and economic questions have been addressed, but what about Morris-Jones’ linguistic or religious culture? We can maybe forgive Monbiot on the linguistic charge. But in recounting his high octane adventures in Brazil or East Africa, he is powerfully affected by ceremonies which were, for those directly involved, essentially religious. Isn’t there another ‘double-standard’ here?

We deplore deforestation in the Amazon basin, whilst marvelling at the wisdom traditions of its native peoples. Conversely, and perversely, surely, we delight in the ecological wastelands we (Europeans) have created at home, yet either deplore or ignore our own traditions. From the one (dismissive) mention of the Bible here you would never guess that it contains, among other things, some of the greatest nature poetry ever written. T S Eliot and R S Thomas were believers both. Setting tags from them as chapter-headings won’t do the work for you.

My argument here is not with rewilding in itself, but with the relative narrowness of the language Monbiot is using to persuade people. He would argue, I assume, that a fresh awareness of what, say, Wales was like as the ice sheets withdrew, the complexity and beauty of what was lost with those forests, that properly understood this might form the basis of something like a new spiritual vision. That idea contains the seed of something important, but he doesn’t allow it to germinate. His account of the Mesolithic site at Goldcliff, also in Wales (where human footprints are mixed with those of aurochs, wolf, crane, oystercatcher, heron) is one of the book’s best passages. But he launches from it into a purple passage, which he identifies as a ‘genetic memory’ breaking through.

Genetic memories

Heredity was being described as a form of unconscious memory well before genes were ever discovered (see Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit, 1878). But if this form of ‘memory’ is actually, or occasionally, conscious, then why is it so selective? Faced with a farmyard or a flock of sheep, Monbiot does not feel ‘genetic memories’ coming on, though the descendants of those who left their footprints at Goldcliff were rearing sheep within two or three thousand years, the merest ‘twinkling of an eye’ in evolutionary terms. It’ll be memes next.

I would recommend this book, though, not least as an antidote to much of what currently passes for the ‘Europe debate’. Feral is a brave attempt to find and grow here, and in the long term, the kind of environments and wildlife which are mainly available, at the moment, via air travel’s instant gratifications. Rewilding is indeed a ‘work of hope’, and much further advanced on the European continent than it is in Britain, from Romania and Croatia to Spain and Portugal.

As the first continent to lose its megafauna, Europe has perhaps a peculiar duty to examine what went wrong. Its record on attempted reintroductions is also a mixed one. Hermann Göring cleared the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland of its human population in order to restore the pristine forest of once upon a time. Monbiot is very thorough on the grim story of how rewilding has, thus far, actually happened. But the longer history of this surely worth exploring.

Britain is unusually reticent about rewilding: that it was the first country to industrialize may well, as Monbiot suggests, help to explain that. But across Europe the advent of science both triggered a massive population explosion and made available the means to destroy the last of these creatures and their habitats. Many thinkers have traced the crisis in modern human consciousness to ‘the Great Unsettling’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. To relocate the critical moment to the Mesolithic, as he sometimes appears to, is to place much of its implications beyond the reach of study. What we do know about the Mesolithic is very tantalizing, I agree. But we don’t know very much.

A more attentive engagement with more recent European culture might help in other ways. Göring’s crimes in Poland are easy to deplore in themselves, but his actions had their roots deep in the intellectual culture of his time. The Nazi Party enjoyed the support of major German thinkers who denied transcendence, vaunting ‘the biological’, ‘the mysterious urgings of the blood, the urgings of heredity and the past for which the body serves as an enigmatic vehicle’ (see Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer Part 3, 4.3, Stanford University Press 1998). The psychoanalyst Carl Jung noticed how many Germans seemed to be dreaming about lions and panthers and other dangerous big cats between the two world wars. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was struck, during the 1970s, by the way students would ‘shout out’ during readings, demanding the poems he had written about St Sava’s wolves. The English poet Ted Hughes, another curious omission from this book, once asked him what he thought that meant. Popa said he didn’t know, ‘but I fear – very bad things.’ (see ‘Poetry and Violence’ in Ted Hughes’ Winter Pollen, 1995).

The case Monbiot has made for rewilding is a strong one – and I haven’t even mentioned his excellent chapter on the sea, in which he reveals how little our ‘Marine Protected Areas’ really amount to. The terms in which he has chosen to make his case are narrower than they needed to be, that’s all.

Feral by George Monbiot (ISBN 9781846147487) is published in the UK this week.

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