The Lost Eden

“The living planet is our home. As of 2008, however, a global majority of people live in cities, where that idea is increasingly distant and abstract. We’re surrounded by a world that is, by our own description, “man-made” and “artificial”; nature is what rises up at the edges of cities and towns, or wherever else it has not been beaten back by human hands. We often put the two – natural versus unnatural – in opposition, weighing whether or not to preserve the former or make way for the latter, all the while assuming we can distinguish one from the other.”  – J.B. Mackinnon 

The Wilderness

To understand rewilding is to understand wilderness – or society’s definition anyways. As Rewilding European Landscapes explains:

“Wilderness” gradually entered the North American language of conservation in the nineteenth century after the end of the frontier exploration, especially promoted by the hunting community. It developed as an aesthetic and ethical concept related to the protection of pristine nature in the face of galloping technological and rapid disappearance of natural environments. Thus wilderness became synonymous with freedom, natural beauty, sanctuary and retreat from everything that was perceived as overwhelming in the modern lifestyle.

There’s just one problem: How do we measure wilderness? From what I understand, the metrics differ depending on who you ask.

On a global level, scientists have considered factors such as population density, intactness, area size, and the map of the human footprint.  On a national level, Australia, for example, measures their own national ‘wilderness’ through four explicit metrics: remoteness from settlements, remoteness from access, biophysical naturalness and apparent naturalness. The U.K., building upon Australia’s metrics, considers two more: altitude and remoteness from national population centres.

The impact humans have on the ecology of a certain area go beyond aesthetics. For example, light pollution has long prohibited one to fully see the natural night sky. But it also interrupts migratory routes by night light, such as bats and moths. Another example is the construction of roads. Not only do they dictate human settlement but increase invasive species and exotic and human-favoured predators.

The term ‘rewilding’ emerged from a collaboration between Michael Soule, a conservation biologist, and David Foreman, an environmental activist, in the late 1980s, which resulted in the creation of The Wildlands Project. It involved securing “large and well-connected core areas and releasing keystone species – most notably wolves.” Both men considered wilderness conservation and biodiversity conservation as complimentary goals. 

For George Monbiot, whose writing first introduced me to the term, rewilding is not an attempt to reconstruct the past and freeze it in the present. “The ecosystems that result are best described not as wilderness, but as self-willed: governed not by human management but by their own processes,” he writes in Feral:

…The ecosystems that will emerge, in our changed climates, on our depleted soils, will not be the same as those which prevailed in the past. The way they evolve cannot be predicted, which is one of the reasons why this project enthralls. While conservation looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.

But does rewilding demand such ambitious initiatives? J.B. Mackinnon, author of The Once and Future World, doesn’t think so. “To me, rewilding means bringing back wild qualities where they have been lost,” he explains to CBC, “That means it can happen at any scale, from your backyard to the wilderness. It can be cultural too – weaving nature back into our daily lives.”

This might seem strange to talk about in Canada, but Mackinnon argues that even here, in a country spoiled in natural resources, ecological diversity has suffered:

Worldwide, we’re living in what I call a “10 per cent world,” or a planet that has lost 90 per cent of its former ecological richness. Even in Canada, most places are missing major species that were present in the past, and we’ve definitely lost a lot of abundance. Read old explorer’s journals and ship’s logs and they describe a different country, one with grizzly bears in Saskatchewan, passenger pigeons over Toronto, mountain lions in New Brunswick, and just amazing numbers of birds and fish almost everywhere.

Mackinnon emphasizes how important George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature was to the conservation movement in the 20th century. “His concern was not first and foremost how much land to set aside here or there in parks and protected areas…” Mackinnon writes, “Instead, Marsh asked whether we were changing nature itself into something new, something lesser, something our ancestors might not even recognize. He had written what can be thought of as the first principle of historical ecology: to know what is, you must know what was.”

It’s Been Done Before

The concept of rewilding is not some pipe dream. In fact, it’s already been done before. Of past and current projects, the most famous was Yellowstone National Park’s initiative that reintroduced wolves back into the park.

Prior to 1995, the year the project commenced, the last wolf to roam Yellowstone was in 1920 where they had been hunted to extinction. But the extinction only brought new problems: the elk population skyrocketed, leading to erosion, overgrazing, and damage to certain plant species. And so, on January 12, 1995, seventy years after the last wolf roamed Yellowstone, eight Canadian wolves were introduced to the park. As of 2016, about eleven packs and 108 wolves are reported to be living in Yellowstone.

But rewilding hasn’t just been used as a tool to rebalance the diversity within a given ecosystem. In 2017, the UK reintroduced a family of beavers in a valley in the Forest of Dean in order to prevent a village from flooding. Beavers’ dam-building stores significant amounts of water, which slows the flow of water during flood events. Chris McFarling, a cabinet member of Forest Dean district council, told The Guardian, “Beavers are the most natural water engineers we could ask for. They’re inexpensive, environmentally friendly and contribute to sustainable water and flood management.” The village supported the plan and said, at worst, the beavers would do little to alleviate the flooding but would still increase “local ecology and tourism.”

And finally, just last year, the Netherlands declared their bison reintroduction program successful. The initiative began in 2007, roughly eighty years after wild European bison were hunted to extinction. Today, as a result of the Netherlands’s reintroduction program in conjunction with similar initiatives across European countries to reintroduce bison, about 7,000 bison roam the continent.

A Strategy Worth Exploring

For all the growing research and initiatives that focus on rewilding, it’s still a relatively new concept. With that comes the inevitable topics of debate including the definition of wilderness, what are the appropriate parameters of such an undertaking, and how much involvement should we have in letting nature unfold organically. I don’t claim to know the answers but to me this seems a strategy worth exploring.

In theory, this is not a very complicated strategy. The problem is our sentiments around the mythology we grew up with: that nature is an unrelenting, unyielding force to be conquered.

We have run out of frontiers. There is no glamour in shooting wildlife or clearing forests for development. Sustainability is now our most pressing issue and it’s time we consider unconventional tools.

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