I’ve recently read an amazing book called “Wilding” by Isabella Tree. It is the real life story of a large farm in the south of England that was returned to nature (let go wild, heaven forbid!) about 20 years ago. I loved the way the book was written and I learnt so many things. They were trying to make their large farm work commercially for many years, and were investing more and more into it, but couldn’t make the economics work. It was almost like they had no choice but to let the farm go wild. This was the beginning of an amazing adventure.
A few things I learnt from “Wilding”
I definitely don’t want to steal the thunder from the book, and there’s no way I can describe things as well as Isabelle does so, here, I’ll just give you a flavour of a few of the things from the book that really resonated with me. The chapter titles in the “Table of Contents” listed below give you a good idea of some of the key topics covered in “Wilding”.
I’d always assumed that the English countryside in the absence of humans would be wall-to-wall forests, or more specifically, closed-canopy forests. Well, this isn’t true. Since humans have killed off so many species of animal, including most of the animals that would have kept trees under control (by eating away most of the saplings), trees have become much more prevalent after humans arrival. Today, we think closed-canopy forests are normal, but actually the “natural” environment before humans was more like wooded grasslands.
Also, I didn’t know that human farming practices, and the elimination of animals like beavers, and our tendency to create straight canals all increase the risk of flooding during heavy rains. In areas where beavers are reintroduced and more low-lying wetlands are allowed, there is a lot less risk of flooding. The natural landscape is more capable of absorbing water and dealing with the excess.
Worms. I was surprised to read that conventional farmland does not contain worms any more. This sounds crazy, but ploughing and adding artificial fertilisers and pesticides have done away with these important creatures. In a normal woodland, all the leaves and branches that fall off trees just lay on the ground around the base of the tree. A whole host of insects and critters are involved in breaking these down and many different types of worms play a big part in drawing the material down into the soil. All this material enriches the soil for the roots of the trees. On a modern farm, if a tree is left behind when making the field, the common practice is to plough as close as possible to the tree (have to make full use of the land!). This damages the shallow roots and also ensures that no organic material is left available to enrich the soil. As a result, the trees gradually get weaker and sick, and commonly die.
These are just a few of the things that I learnt from Isabelle’s wonderful book, but there’s an enormous amount more.
One of the great things to see is the proof of the resilience of nature. If we can just stop giving it such a hard time, we can give it a reasonable chance to recover. Humans and nature cannot be separated. Without nature, we are not.
This quote from “Wilding” has tremendous impact.
But making the moral case for protecting nature for its own sake, because it is beautiful and important and we have no right to destroy it – the case campaigners have been making for half a century or more – has demonstrably failed. When nature is valued at nothing, when it is invisible in the economic system by which we live, that system invariably tosses it aside. Our story at Knepp mirrors the inexorable erosion of nature across Britain over the last seventy years. But Charlie and I were not wilful destroyers. We simply had no incentive to think about nature; no means by which to identify where nature is, how deep it goes, how broad its reach, what benefit it brings. We had no idea what we had on our doorstep, or what we could have if we changed our ways. Ours was the worst kind of nimbyism. Like most farmers we considered ourselves stewards of the land while, deep down, we felt that nature was not farming business. Nature was something that happened elsewhere, away from the hard-nosed economics of agriculture.Wilding, 2018, by Isabella Tree, Pan Macmillan / Picador – Page 305 – Chapter 17 – The Value of Nature
These days, we worry a lot about climate change and global warming, but this quote shows our human disregard for nature and our home runs very deep indeed. Can we quickly embrace nature and our planet, and see that must live together and survive together?
Is it really “returning to nature”?
The phrase “returning to nature” worries me a little. Everything is nature. We humans are fully a part of nature. However humans have been disrupting natural processes ever since the agricultural revolution. That’s certainly ok if it’s sustainable, but out version of agriculture and urbanisation are not. This is our problem, more than CO2 emissions and global warming.
Humans could decide to kill all life other than humans if we wanted (roughly what we have been doing actually), but that would lead to the death of humans as well, so it’s not sustainable. There are laws of life that have existed for all time. Rather than saying “returning to nature” I prefer something along the line of “stopping the violation of the natural laws of life”. It’s not up to us to determine if a species should be eradicated, the whole system of life will determine what prospers life and what doesn’t.
I feel this concept warrants more thought.
Words from “Resurgence & Ecologist” magazine
I like reading the “Resurgence & Ecologist” magazine and in one of their newsletters, they had this to say about Wilding by Isabella Tree.
An inspiring story of the resilience of the land and the diversity of British wildlife, this former Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month reveals in eloquent detail what happened when Isabella Tree and her husband gave their clay farmland back to Nature. As both an experiment in ecological innovation and a personal journey into the realities of farming in the 21st century, Wilding soars with passion, enthusiasm and an undying faith in the virtues of conservation.Resurgence & Ecologist email newsletter – May 9th, 2023.
You can purchase Wilding from the Resurgence & Ecologist website – https://shop.resurgence.org/product/view/REBK097/wilding:-the-return-of-nature-to-a-british-farm – although it appears to be out of stock now (August 2023). Hopefully, it will come back into stock.
Table of Contents
- Meeting a Remarkable Man under a Remarkable Tree
- At Odds with Everything
- The Serengeti Effect
- The Secret of Grazing Animals
- A World of Wood Pasture
- Wild Ponies, Pigs and Longhorn Cattle
- Creating a Mess
- Living with the Yellow Peril
- Painted Ladies and the Perfect Storm
- Purple Emperors
- Turtle Doves
- Rewinding the River
- Bringing Back the Beaver
- Rewinding the Soil
- The Value of Nature
Related Links – Wilding
- Wilding, 2018, by Isabella Tree, Pan Macmillan / Picador.