Rewilding: Who are we to dictate what species live where?

The idea of “rewilding” the environment with depleted species seems sound. But, warns John Burnside, we mustn’t manipulate the world — which wasn’t built around us — just to suit our impractical fantasies.

 
Unnatural instinct: some of our ideas about wildlife conservation are as absurd as putting a stuffed deer in a concrete jungle
Photo: JFB/The Image Bank/Getty Images
 
In the western Swiss town of Saint-Léonard there is an underground lake, 300 metres long and 20 metres wide, a chill, black reach of primeval water (the air temperature a constant 15°, the water cold enough to freeze in winter) that stands in stark contrast to the warm, mineral-rich vineyards 70 metres overhead, where Pinot Noir and Cornalin du Valais grapes are raised on the valley slopes to produce the Saint-Léonard appellation wines that remain one of Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets. For many years, the lac souterrain was also a secret; known only to the fungus gnats that bind their larvae to the walls of its cave, it remained unexplored until the 1940s, when it was first opened up to the public. Today, it is run as a commercial tourist attraction, with the usual gift shop and café, the cave illuminated discreetly from end to end to reveal the various features – incidental marks in the stone roof resembling a witch, a gorilla and various other creatures, including a fairly credible sea lion with a beach ball poised precariously on its nose – that are pointed out by the gondoliers who punt around 80,000 tourists a year back and forth across the enchanted waters, doling out jokes and geological data and singing snatches of opera and other songs.
 
One of the lieder that recurs throughout the 40-minute visit is Schubert’s “Die Forelle”, sung wordlessly, but rather tunefully, by the gondolier who piloted my boat – and, soon enough, the reason for this choice is explained. Those fungus gnats may be the only living species native to this lake, but in the black depths, moving slowly and, for the most part, invisibly between the lit grottoes and the darkest water, waves of huge trout glide back and forth, waiting to be fed.
 
Introduced some years ago, they have grown large and, it would seem, prosperous in this alien habitat; though by the time the guide announces their presence with a longer phrase from “Die Forelle”, while tossing them the only food they will ever eat, I am wondering if anyone else on the tour boat shares my sense of irony. It’s a mixed group and several of them recognise the Schubert and hum along; most are German speakers, and may well have grown up with the song or the poem (by Christian Schubart) on which it is based, so I imagine someone else here remembers the images of brightness and clarity that run through the text, beginning with its invocation of “einem Bächlein helle” (“a bright little stream”) and continuing with a description of “Des muntern Fischleins Bade/Im klaren Bächlein zu” (“the cheery fish’s bath/in the clear brook”), the only hint of darkness coming when a treacherous fisherman deliberately muddies the water (“macht/Das Bächlein tückisch trübe”) and so captures the disoriented and temporarily blinded fish. 
 
In this poem, the trout’s fate is poignant, not just because it is caught and killed, but also because it is cheated of its natural element, which is as much light as it is water. Granted, the darkness in which these subterranean lake trout dwell is hardly the worst environmental sin that anyone has ever committed (in fact, it is clear that the guides are rather fond of their charges); nevertheless, there is no small irony in gaily singing this particular song to fish that have been plunged, like prisoners in some medieval dungeon, into a condition of unchanging murk, bewildered, lightless, and as strange to themselves as they are to the world into which they were spawned.
 
On the other hand, I may just be overreacting. As a child, I was consumed with a near-obsessive curiosity about what the world felt like for other creatures. How did the moles in our neighbour’s garden experience the bottles he buried over their runs to catch the wind, and so fill their domain with eerie howls and whimpers? What was the poisoned mouse thinking when it crawled into the corner of our kitchen to die, much more slowly than I had been led to believe, the horrified, intrigued child huddled over it, unable to take the decisive step of “putting it out of its misery”? I had been told about that duty we human beings had to other animals: if they were suffering, we had to be capable of plucking damaged songbirds from the grass and necking them as we walked, just as I’d seen an older cousin do, without a moment’s pause. Yet it always seemed odd to me that we did not visit similar mercies on our own kind. If it was wrong for animals to suffer needlessly, why was it right for people? The implied explanation for that, of course, was that human suffering is never needless: we are put on earth to be divinely tested and redeemed (which, to my seven-year-old self, seemed particularly cruel and just a little perverse, considering God had created the world and everything in it, sinners included. Why hadn’t He just made us virtuous and happy, and saved everyone a whole heap of bother?).
 
Theology aside, other contradictions remained: if we were to show mercy to animals at the hour of their death, who was it that gave us licence to be so very vile to them while they lived? And why were we so incurious about their ways of seeing and knowing the world? In my first year of high school, a teacher read us the story where Leonardo da Vinci goes to the market each day and buys up all the caged songbirds just so he can set them free, but all of us, pupils and teacher alike, knew that, two classrooms away, the biology lab was full of caged mice and frogs, some, if not all of them, waiting to be dissected.
 
When I was obliged to perform that experiment, I remember being puzzled that nothing in the internal workings of the animal seemed to relate, in any way, to how it experienced the world: these now-diminished bodies were mechanisms for respiration and excretion, furred bundles of kidney and liver and heart, the brain ignored, the possibility of a soul passed over or denied. I was painfully disappointed because, though I could not have put it into so many words then, I wanted to catch a glimpse of myself through another animal’s eyes, to imagine the confusion or delight I might occasion when I walked home through the woods each afternoon, a strange cloud of scent and movement to a passing bird, or a hunting fox, and I wanted to feel the kinship that might arise out of the knowledge that, like the other creatures with whom I shared my part of the world, I lived inside a web of signs that could, by some magical transformation in my own nature, become legible: wet musks suspended in a hedge, trails of pheromone streaking across a dew-sodden lawn, dialects of song in the hawthorn bushes along Oakley Road.
 
Meanwhile, in geography class, I learned why this state of awareness was unavailable to me. There was no critique then of modern agricultural methods and the many “improvements” in farming and land management that my parents’ and grandparents’ generations had witnessed, but even as a child I felt, rather than understood, the harm done: whole, complex terrains cleared on one continent in order to create vast monocultures of crops from another; the buffalo of the Great Plains, with the grasses they fed upon, eradicated by cattle and railways; swaths of Kenya, or Brazil, denatured by the introduction of coffee or rubber; local farmers and hunter-gatherer communities across the world ruined to create golf resorts and hunting trails for the ultra-rich. This cavalier attitude to the supposedly God-given world was not confined to foreign parts; as I came to learn, the entirety of Scotland, from John O’Groats to Gretna Green, had been rendered fiercely non-native, for entirely commercial reasons: first, with the enclosure of land for sheep, the rural population displaced to Australia and Wyoming (where many visited the very tragedy they had suffered upon native peoples), and then with the introduction of grouse and pheasant to land that had once been Caledonian forest.
 
Whenever any of this was acknowledged as mildly unfortunate, my teachers quickly pointed out that it was inevitable: after all, no one could stand in the way of progress, and to imagine otherwise was naive, or sentimental – and so we progressed, to rampant deforestation, the acidification of the oceans, a depletion of the soil that is now, to any sane person, terrifying, and an alienation from other life forms that, in spite of a constant diet of educational nature documentaries, allows us to contemplate wholesale species depletion and extinction with something only just short of equanimity.
 
To my child self – and to the angry and bewildered adult I became – the only explanation for that placid compliance with somebody else’s progress was a fatal insistence on human entitlement to the land and the sea and all that dwells therein. To preserve that sense of entitlement, we erected a complex web of superstitions and misinformation about the natural world comparable, say, with those erected by whites in regard to native people and slaves, because the gravest threat to that cavalier sense of entitlement is our own curiosity about the other, and the consequent shame of eventually understanding, and being unable to reverse, the harm we have done – not to the other, but to what we once felt more comfortable describing as our own souls.
 
In 1913, Gertrude Stein penned the now celebrated line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” It is an appealing idea: no matter what symbolism or significance we impose upon the natural world, it remains itself, intact and indifferent to our representations, to what one might call our schematics. A rose is a rose is a rose; it is not a symbol of romantic love, or beauty – or Rosa moyesii var fargesii. It exists before, and independently of, its name, or our perceptions. Stein’s is an attractive, if rather blithe proposition – but the truth is, because human beings are so powerful, so ready and able to manipulate other living things, the independence of the rose per se from its nomenclature, or from any other aspect of our perception of it, is moot. In metaphysical terms, a rose may well be entirely separate from its name or imposed significances, but in the physical world, how human beings see a living creature may, quite literally, determine its fate. So, while there is something wonderful about Stein’s New World assertion of the rights of the rose to be itself and apart from us (and there is a truth here, too, at the level of more than the simple law of identity), for a more complex appreciation of how perception influences its object, and the possible damage that can ensue, we must turn to a prose poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in French towards the end of his life (while he was living 30 kilometres or so from Saint-Léonard’s underground lake), a few years after Stein’s first (though not final) assertion of essential roseness. What follows is my own rough version of that poem, published as “Cimetière” in Exercises et Évidences:
 
Is there an aftertaste of life in these graves? And do the bees find in the mouths of these flowers an almost-word that is silent? O flowers, prisoners of our instinct for happiness, do you return to us with death in your veins? How to slip free from our hold? How not to be our flowers? Might not all these petals be the way a rose distances itself from our gaze? Does it not want to be rose and only rose, a rose that is nothing but rose? Nobody’s dream under so many eyelids?
 
As attractive as it is, the idea that nature can exist beyond our dangerous “instinct for happiness” is never the whole story. We may be prepared to stand and wonder, we may be capable of respect for other lives, but we are just as likely to dissect, or genetically modify, or patent the natural world as we are to revere it. More likely, perhaps. Rilke’s question, here, is not about the nature of the rose, but about the nature and power of our perceptions – or rather, the unwarranted power we grant ourselves when we name things, the widespread notion that, once a living thing has been named, or categorised, or genetically decoded, it belongs to us, ours to do with as we please.
 
Clearly, some changes in that proprietorial view of the world as “resource” and “natural assets” have been slowly and painfully formulated over the past four decades and, with this gradual shift in attitude, new ways have emerged of imagining our relationship to what we think of as “nature” (an entity from which, it seems, we still feel at least partly exempt). With each step of the way, new concepts have been introduced, only to turn into buzzwords and finally, as the business world sensed the coming danger, either “obvious fallacies” or interchangeable items on the PR greenwashing menu. To combat this constant threat of appropriation, the ecology movement has had to keep moving all the time, reformulating, reimagining, redefining – and now, as the supposedly new term “rewilding” transmogrifies from great idea to cliché before our eyes, we have a chance to observe the machinery at work.
 
In eco-critical thought, rewilding is not a new idea – it emerged partly from the establishment of national park initiatives in various countries, in a number of different guises – but it has certainly become more inventive and even radical in the past several years. The Florida-based Wildlands Network, for instance, exists to support and encourage those who are “urgently restoring, protecting and connecting our best wild places throughout North America because people need nature, and nature needs space to survive”.
 
I, for one, rather baulk at the word “best” here, but the project itself is hugely deserving of support and it would be good to see more networks of this sort in place elsewhere, perhaps with more ambitious agendas regarding land ownership and use. Other “rewilding” projects concentrate on specific animals and habitats, such as the recent and so far highly successful reintroduction of hairy-nosed wombats into a 105-hectare eucalyptus forest in Queensland, or the RSPB’s longstanding project to bring white-tailed/sea eagles back to the UK – and it has to be said that only the most miserable of cynics would not be cheered by such schemes: any initiative that helps to reverse even a little of the damage done so far should be applauded.
 
If we are not careful, however, we might well end up patting ourselves on the back for achieving what amounts to yet another series of manipulations of other species and the environment we supposedly share, while maintaining the proprietorial status quo. We may succeed in reintroducing wombats or sea eagles to places that have lost them, but at the back of our minds Rilke’s ghost may still be asking the same, possibly eternal, questions: are they our sea eagles? Are they our hairy-nosed wombats? If they are, then they depend on our goodwill for their survival, so we can easily predict what will happen to them if they even hint at interfering with some local worthy’s commercial interests. In the past six years, the RSPB’s sea eagle project has chalked up an advance with the establishment of a new population on the east coast of Scotland – yet even as that story was released, concern was being expressed about the future of these birds, whose survival is threatened by many of the same hazards that caused them to vanish from our shores in the first place (the last British white-tailed eagle was shot in 1918). As the naturalist Stephen Moss pointed out on BBC Nature this spring, a range of factors threatens the long-term establishment of sea eagles in the UK, from “collision with power lines and vehicles to the continued use of poisoned bait by some land managers on the mainland which, although illegal, is still widespread”.
 
This is an important point: rewilding projects at present depend on the goodwill of “local communities”. (As the Guardian noted in its coverage of the wombat story, the creatures’ new home is “part of a cattle property, owned by the Underwood family, near St George in southern inland Queensland. The Underwood family donated the land to the government for the wombats to live in. It was an unusual partnership between a farming family and the government, but one that is working, because of the family’s interest in wombats.”) Although I would be the first to argue that the mere existence of the likes of the Underwoods – and other such families worldwide – is cause for celebration, this approach to rewilding does raise the same island-enclave questions with which classic conservationism has been plagued for centuries now.
 
Under certain circumstances, it may well be possible to introduce protected areas of “wild” in an otherwise hostile world, but this should be only the first step in an overall process of deep change and expansion. As the Oxford University biologist Clive Hambler notes, “Reintroducing species to ranges they have been driven from in historical times is a key conservation tool. It’s particularly important to reintroduce species which are ‘ecological engineers’ – such as burrowing wombats, because the way they change the physical landscape benefits so many other species.”
 
This clearly points to rewilding as a step in a larger transformative process – and perhaps the most interesting development in the concept over the past 30 years has been the recognition that there is an alternative to managed, local rewilding based on possibly temporary or grudging goodwill. If some researchers are to be believed, the most successful examples of this alternative may be found in the most surprising places. 
 
Chernobyl, for example. For some time now, reports emerging from this supposed dead zone have suggested that almost everything ecologists predicted after the 1986 meltdown has failed to happen. Indeed, as far as the wildlife around the old nuclear plant is concerned, things could not be better. When researchers from Texas Tech came to the area to study the dynamics of a radioactive wasteland and the damage done to local ecosystems, they were amazed to find a kind of modern-day Eden that, in spite of the high radiation count, was lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life. There were several reasons for this happy accident. One member of the study team (Ron Chesser, a radiation biologist) pointed out that “proximity to the reactor has very little to do with how much radiation dose an organism is experiencing. You can come to the reactor from the east and actually not experience a huge change in the radiation background. However, if you approach it from the west . . . you’ll see a very dramatic increase in radiation background.”
 
Nevertheless, the evidence of natural abundance was astonishing; indeed, Robert Baker, the director of Texas Tech’s Natural Science Research Laboratory, has described the 20-mile exclusion zones in glowing terms (no pun intended). “The countryside is beautiful,” he said. “The animals and plants are in greater numbers now than if the reactor had not gone down. The ecosystem is as it was before humans started living out there – except for the radiation.
 
“It seems as though normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown.” So – could it be that, to save the world from ourselves, we need not one, but many Chernobyls?
 
Well, not as such; though there are those who, like Susanne Posel, the chief editor of OccupyCorporatism, think that this is what the powers that be have begun to envisage. “It may be quite possible that the global elite may be willing to allow current nuclear plants to continue to deteriorate and become hazardous because they provide the means by which conservation lands could be established,” she says. “By using their globalist think-tank universities and controlled arsenal of scientists, the radioactive effects could be amplified in the public’s perception, simply as a ruse to keep humans off the land. If this scheme were successful, eventually there could be massive areas of land deemed uninhabitable for humans across the globe simply by allowing a nuclear disaster to occur.”
 
I see no reason to be blasé about such suspicions – if US policy in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that governments are prepared to contemplate the virtual destruction of significant human populations in their pursuit of resources. However, setting aside such justifiable fears for a moment, I do think we can learn a good deal from the Chernobyl example. For, with all the goodwill and local initiative in the world, we are not about to rewild anything until we change our way of thinking about our place in the creaturely world. We will not be in a position to rewild, or even preserve what is left of what we now think of as wild, until we can picture ourselves as wilder and more of a whole with other creatures.
 
As Robinson Jeffers suggests in the 1938 poem “Carmel Point”, we must learn to “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident/As the rock and ocean that we were made from”. If it is to become an important force, “to rewild” will have to mean not merely the reintroduction of attractive, “useful” or symbolic species to designated stretches of terrain, or the setting aside of conservation islands and post-meltdown nuclear sites, but an unhumanised reconsideration of what we mean by “wild” – and, to my mind, such a reconsideration would be purely academic if it did not contain a revaluation of the wild as truly indispensable, more vital in every sense to the overall narrative of this world than any and all human wishes and appetites.
 
Legend has it that Rilke, whose love of roses informs his oeuvre from beginning to end, died from complications following a wound he got by pricking his arm on a thorn while gathering a bouquet of roses for the great Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui. On one level, this seems a cruel irony, yet I cannot help feeling that Rilke might have seen it otherwise – and the inscription on his grave may even bear this notion out.
 
A variant on the final lines of “Cimetière” it reads: “Rose, o reiner Widerspruch, Lust,/ Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter so viel Lidern” (very roughly: “Rose, o pure/sheer contradiction, passion/delight/inclination, no one’s sleep under so many eyelids”). Surely, if we accept the legend, we must also accept that no other epitaph so honours the instrument of the deceased’s passing. Death is a death is a death is a death, but legend, at its best, transcends contingency to reveal the allegorical details we lost sight of centuries ago. In that light, might we not see Rilke’s death and transfiguration as a kind of symbolic rewilding, in which the roses he set out to collect were no longer his, and so no longer endangered by an all too humanised instinct for happiness?
 
John Burnside regularly writes about nature for the New Statesman
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