I recently stumbled upon a term that I had never heard before: rewilding. I was watching the TED Talk by British writer and activist George Monbiot, who in this talk tells about his devotion to the term, and I was immediately captivated.
When you look up rewilding the definition goes somewhat like this: rewilding means to restore an area of land to its natural uncultivated state, or to a wild state.
But perhaps rewilding can also concern nurturing an uncultivated side of human nature? I will get back to this, but firstly, let’s take a look at the way Monbiot explains the concept of rewilding in his talk.
Monbiot initiates his explanation of rewilding by talking about the effects of the 1995 reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone National Park in the US. The park was suffering from the increased number of deer, because there were no animals to hunt them, and as a result a large part of the diverse vegetation had been reduced. When the wolves were reintroduced at first, as intended, they of course started killing some of the deer in the park.
But importantly; something else slowly started happening as well. As the deer were hunted by the wolfs, they moved away from the valleys where they were vulnerable and could easily get caught, which resulted in the bare valleys quickly turning into forests with a great diversity of trees and other plants. And because hereof, birds started to move in, and the numbers of beavers started to increase, and the dams the beavers build in the valleys created habitats for otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, and reptiles.
The wolves also kept the population of coyotes down, which resulted in the number of rabbits and mice increasing — and that meant more hawks, foxes and badgers. Furthermore, the bear population began to rise; probably because of the berries on all the trees that were growing in the valleys.
On top hereof, the wolves changed the behaviour of the rivers. More pools were formed, more narrow streams were made; all of which is great for wildlife. The reason for the changes was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks of the rivers, and hence mudslides were limited.
Conclusively, the small number of wolves that were reintroduced to the park not only transformed its ecosystem radically; they also changed its physical geography. They reversed it to a natural state, which allows for the diversity necessary in order to foster resilience.
The wolf-story highlights an important point: Making everything and everyone homogeneous is not a resilient, sustainable way of life. Allowing for and fostering diversity on the other hand is!
In Denmark, where I am from, wolves (that have been extinct for a very long time) were recently seen in the countryside of the Mid and North-Western part of the country. And a lot of residents felt really scared. Even though the number of wolves spotted was extremely low (we are talking somewhere between five and ten), and despite the fact that in Denmark’s neighbouring country Germany wolves have lived freely since 2000 without any registered attacks on humans, people were concerned. The wolf-discussion filled up the news for a while, and there were stories of sheep being eaten by wolfs during the night etc. For and against wolf-groups arose, and families in the areas where the wolfs were spotted were afraid to let their children play outside and of walking their dogs. Hence, in June 2018 it became legal in Denmark to shoot down wolves that were considered a problem. The problematic wolves were defined like this: 1. wolves that are not naturally aversive near people, 2. wolves that prey on farm animals, 3. wolves that attack dogs, and 4. wolves that are dangerous to humans.
Obviously it is uncomfortable to feel threatened. And particularly to feel that your children could be in danger. However, wolfs and other wild carnivores and humans have lived side by side for centuries, and the wolf is an original part of not only the Danish, but the European nature. And, as the Danish Nature Association points out; wolves are natural foresters (as also demonstrated in the Yellowstone Park example), and they fill out a void in the Danish nature, which hasn’t contained large predators for over 200 years. Furthermore, the wolf is an endangered species.
Rewilding involves bringing back some of the missing plants and animals to a region – and then stepping back and allowing for nature to develop its diverse magnificence. It is a way of helping nature finding its own way.
Another dimension of the concept of rewilding that deeply fascinates and resonates with me is the idea of rewilding human nature and human life.
In Monbiot’s TED talk he starts of by talking about how he as a young man spend six years of “wild adventure” in the tropics, and how he, after returning to England found himself ecologically bored — and quickly longing for a richer and rawer life.
Ecologically bored? What does that mean? Or rather, what does it include? When I think of this term, I think of the dullness of experiencing only one, homogenous, tame kind of nature. But being ecologically bored also means that our instincts are dormant and sedated. In our late-modern, capitalistic reality there is no use for natural instincts and intuitive hunches; rather, being able to make rational choices and act in a cultivated, normal, civilised manner is celebrated.
Rewilding one’s life does not (necessarily) mean moving out into the woods to engage in an offline and off-grid lifestyle a la Thoreau. Rewilding is a mindset! And it is closely connected to freedom. Not freedom in the way we usually think of it, as Monbiot rightfully points out in this column: i.e. freedom to develop ones business, to carry guns, to say whatever we want, or to believe in whatever or whoever we want. No, the wild kind of freedom is related to our inner wildness; to listening to our intuition, our instincts, and to going against the societal and cultural norms if necessary.
In this article by Positive News’ Lucy Purdy the following questions in relation to rewilding human nature are raised:
“Just as ecological rewilding succeeds by letting nature do what it is designed to do, could we take the same approach towards ourselves? What would happen if we were more aware of and driven by our own dynamic processes?”
Purdy suggests that we perhaps (just as nature) are tamed and restricted; limited and held down by should-do’s and cultural norms. That we too are becoming uniform and monocultural. That diversity is disappearing – and that that is not a resilient, sustainable way of life.
There is something very Michel Foucault (1926-1984) about this notion. In his seminal work Discipline and Punish from 1975 he argues that modern society is the most efficient “prison” that has ever existed. It doesn’t even need prison guards! Its rules and restrictions are stored in each of us, as well as exercised by each of us. Just like in an actual prison the modern social prison disciplines and forms us into good employees, good consumers, good neighbours, good students, good friends etc. And on top of this we are constantly told through tv-programs, magazines and social media what our bodies should look like, what beauty is, what our homes should look like (and how we should tidy them up), what we should eat, what we can and cannot say etc. etc. No prison can make people do what they willingly do to themselves in our modern social prison.
We have created a world in which we are under constant surveillance by ourselves and others; a world in which we seek to meet societal expectations on everything from what we should look like to where we should go on holiday.
As Monbiot says in the previously mentioned column:
“We entertain the illusion that we have chosen our lives. Why, if this is the case, do our apparent choices differ so little from those of other people? Why do we live and work and travel and eat and dress and entertain ourselves in almost identical fashion?”
I plan to return to Foucault and the “modern prison” (which by the way has become even more efficient since Foucault wrote his book in the 70’s) in future posts, as I am currently writing about his thoughts in my forthcoming book on Anti-trend. And, I recommend highly the podcast Philosophize this! for a more thorough – and very entertaining – introduction to Foucault.
The longing for rawness, for a rawer life that Monbiot mentions in his TED talk makes me think of our current smooth, friction-less reality. A lack of tactile stimuli characterises our late-modern cityscapes and work spaces. Or rather, a lack of anything that can “endanger” our safe, smooth comfort zones. We shelter ourselves from natural temperatures through air conditioning, we only experience cultivated nature, we celebrate convenience, and we allow for our senses to be tamed and sedated by the smooth surfaces of endless tablets, smartphones and computer screens.
But something is lost in this equation. We have become alienated from the natural world. And when you don’t feel connected to nature, you are, simply put, less inclined to take care of it – and perhaps also more inclined to feel that nature poses a threat (apropos the Danish wolf-story).
My friends and family in Denmark often ask me how I can live with the presence of huge spiders and other oversized insects, scorpions, snakes and big bats — not to mention wild dogs, the threat of mosquito borne diseases, and the sudden heavy tropical thunderstorms. The truth is that besides the street dogs, by whom I have felt threatened a few times (but am now finding my way to cope with), I don’t give it much thought. And, the truth is also that I kind of like the wildness and the rawness of this place.
Living in a state of fear and worry is something that you choose. And, as it is with choices; you can also choose not to.