Monday, April 24, 2017

Feral: a book review

My buddy Gwyn's copy of the book.

[...] I had banished my ecological boredom. The wold had become alive with meaning, alive with possibility. The trees now bore the marks of elephants; their survival in the gorge prefigured the return of wolves. [...] the depleted land and sea were now gravid with promise. For the first time in years, I felt that I belonged in the world. 

Warning: You might hate sheep by the end of this book.

A year and a half ago I reviewed J.B. MacKinnon's book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. This is its more dangerous, passionate twin. Published in the same year (2013) the two books, were they scientific papers, would have been bitter competitors; as it is their authors give each other flattering blurbs. They both examine how humans have steadily subdued the Earth into fewer dimensions, reducing its natural state of nearly unimaginable abundance to a toy version where we seldom even recognize what we've lost because of quickly shifting baselines. MacKinnon and and Monbiot both use many of the same references, mining deep history for stunning examples of environmental change and shifting baselines. They both show us the hope of regeneration, not through intensive management with prescribed end-goals, but through the concept of rewilding: the restoration of a few key ecological interactions that then do the work of transformation with little or no human intervention.

Monbiot's approach is more anthropological and more personal than MacKinnon's, and that's why to me this is the better book. He spends more time exploring the idea of the inner rewilding of people themselves - and in particular of his own self. The book is punctuated by his increasingly ill-advised expeditions in his kayak out from Cardigan Bay, near his home in Wales, as he attempts to hook, harpoon, and bodily wrestle sea creatures with indifferent skill but increasingly apparent enthusiasm through the soaking rain and stiffening winds. These missions - in a denuded, poor piece ocean on the tame Welsh shoreline - nonetheless bring him (and us) into contact with a bit of danger, a bit of rawness. I think this is the feeling Monbiot wants us to get - the feeling of primal energy that despite being soaked and cold, you are holding a trident and trying to kill something which you will eat, raw, on the shore not long after. He wants to trigger a genetic memory in himself and his readers of what it might feel like to take part in an ecological world with all its complexity and interacting parts. This is what he means by being released from ecological boredom (a great phrase). Of course Monbiot offers the usual caveats: he acknowledges that life is better now than it ever has been, less violent, longer, cleaner, etc. He knows that the primal violence of a wild life often involves trampling the freedom of others, and he doesn't defend that. But he wants us to remember the feeling - perhaps a feeling most of us have never felt.

Though Monbiot brings examples from all over history and the world, I especially enjoyed the time he spends on his home country of Wales and Britain. It's in these parts where we get to enjoy his biting wit as he roasts local politicians and conservation agencies for their counterproductive efforts. In contrast to Europe, where people are in part embracing the reforestation of formerly agricultural land and the return of wolves, bears, and other creatures, Britain, Monbiot argues, is the most zoophobic country on Earth. They have no more predators and they would like to keep it that way, thanks very much. This absence has had disastrous results for everything else as unchecked deer (game for rich absentee landlords) and sheep farming (unprofitable but heavily subsidized) graze woodland and pasture to the roots, preventing regeneration. These sheep- and deer- scoured uplands of Scotland, England and Wales, which used to be covered by rainforests but now resemble blasted moonscapes, are themselves the objects of "environmental" protection (!). The tiny bits of forest that are left are dying of old age because no new tree can survive the grazing. Yet, governments and nature agencies claim that this grazing is critical for the conservation management of the desired upland environment. Monbiot dismantles this circular logic with thorough and devastating effect. I will never see the iconic treeless rolling hills and cliffs of Britain the same way again. 

This book is really good at showing how rewilding and human thriving aren't necessarily at odds. The poisonous trope in environmentalism that people are cancerous growths on the planet dovetails very eerily with horrific political ideologies that have asserted similar things, usually about specific types of people, whereupon they are removed or murdered. In the end, Monbiot's greatest triumph isn't his command of science, his rich historical research, or his sharp writing (though they're all on point), it's his tenderness towards the people that he encounters on the land. As environmentalists, feeling and enacting that tenderness is the only way we can hope to justly live in a wilder and better world.

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