The challenge of Lost Island - making ourselves wilder

ADDENDUM  November 2014

Ideas radio program on rewilding is broadcast

A few of us got to vote on the name of a new charity that is being set up on the back of George Monbiot’s book Feral, and which is currently seeking funding. The word “rewilding” has been killed off for me (1) and so I resisted the five options with that word in them, instead plumping for Wilder Britain. As has been revealed in a recent article in the Observer, my choice lost out, and it is to be named “Rewilding” Britain (the inverted commas are mine (2)). It may seem that I am swimming against the tide, when the up swell of support for a wilder Britain is being mobilised under the commonality of that word, but then I’ve lived with issues of meanings and values about wildness for a long time now, and I think words that describe wild nature are too important to give way on (3).

I have been trying since last year to find an alternative word for “rewilding”, facing the difficulty that so many verbs that could convey some of the meaning I want, inevitably have re in front of them and ing at the back – renaturing, restoring, reintroducing, reinstating, re-establishing. Nature-led land came up during discussion, but it’s not an action and, while I like it as a description of wild land, it is another way of saying self-willed land. In seeking an alternative, I came across Miles Olson and his book from a couple of years ago Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive (4). Olson spent the past decade living on the forested edge of a sprawling small city in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island, along with the red alders, black-tail deer, cougars and “many others who share ancient wisdom and make this world alive”

Everything on this Earth is inherently wild if it lives and dies

With a small group of likeminded individuals, Olson pursued an off the grid experiment in immersion with the surroundings of his homestead, an exercise in experiential learning that has equipped him, as he puts it, for a life as a “future primitive”. His book passes on his practical experience, but also his take on bridging the gap between wildness and human experience – “Until we realize that our survival depends on the health of a wild land base, until we can again become an intimate part of that wild land base, we will continue killing the planet”. He gives a definition of the “R” word as a “return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication”. He also gives two synonyms for the “R” word that are themselves actions: undomesticate, uncivilize. This is very much the language of those people who accept a need to return themselves, their outlook, to a wilder state at the same time as they seek to nurture a wilder land base. It is an analysis that says that it is civilization that has driven out all the wildness through its domestication of not only the land and its species, but of ourselves as well. Olson observes:
“Everything on this Earth is inherently wild if it lives and dies, it is part of the wildness that is life. Our word "will" is rooted in the word "wild"; the will of a creature, the will of the land — the driving force at its essence is its wildness. In a culture built on denying this truth, we tend to think of wildness as an exception, as something that exists in isolated pockets of wilderness here and there. Wildness is the rule, not the exception. Where it exists, it either lives unhindered in a wild state or is the victim of domestication”

Uncivilize can only be understood as the antonym of civilize, as it has no definition that I can find. On the other hand, undomesticated is defined variously as to “make wild or roving”, to “untame”. Turning to my favourite etymologists of the nineteenth century, the word “tamed” pops up in both of their definitions of wild, and behind those definitions are connotations that civilizing and domesticating are its antithesis. Thus for Tooke, wild is (5):
“”Willed, Will'd” (or self-willed) in opposition to those (whether men or beasts) who are tamed or subdued (by reason or otherwise) to the will of others or of Societies”

Trench also includes people in his definition (6):
“‘Wild’ is the participle past of ‘to will’; a ‘wild’ horse is a ‘willed’ or self-willed horse, one that has been never tamed or taught to submit its will to the will of another; and so with a man”

Continuing with the opposition between the words tame and wild, a few months ago, I wrote about Peter Rhind’s proposal, made 10 years ago, for “Untamed Nature Reserves”, based on his concern at the lack of focus on naturalness in nature conservation, and the lack of non-intervention reserves (7). I have since followed that up with a submission to the Environmental Audit Committee where I recommended a review by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) of the terminology used in nature conservation legislation with the aim that it better reflects the reality of natural systems, instead of avoiding any distinction between natural and agricultural landscapes (8). I proposed that Natural England should inventory all of the protected areas in England with a policy of non-intervention, using that information to review the approach to protected areas. JNCC has this submission, and will be holding a workshop next month entitled “Protected areas now and into the future – their role in biodiversity conservation” (9).

The Once and Future World

Canadian writer James MacKinnon also grappled with the “R” word in his book from last September entitled The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (10). He noted that the meaning of the word has continued to evolve, but that its most widespread current definition is "to make wilder":
“The term is increasingly used to acknowledge that it may not be possible to achieve some specific natural condition from the past, the way a team of heritage experts might restore an old cathedral and instead describes attempts to bring back species and ecological processes that have been shunted aside—to give nature fuller expression in a world in which it is muted”

I was interviewed by Mackinnon for his book in late 2011, as he thought that Britain would be a good example of what every country could end up as, the gradual loss of its wild heritage leading to a generational erosion of reference points for wild nature, and whether it meant that we had also lost an attachment to that heritage (11). I told him that we had no value system for wild nature, and that we wouldn’t have unless there were readily accessible areas of wild land to experience. I put the loss of wild land as also a loss of freedoms, something he had not considered. I forgot about Mackinnon writing a book. In the course of events, though, I stumbled across a blog that described me as “one of the different ones, an advocate for rewilding” (12). The writer, Richard Reese, noted my emotional reaction on seeing wolves in Yellowstone, and welling with tears on an overlook observing the 800,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest, his comment: “Ancestral memories returned with great beauty”. I didn’t read on, as his blog seemed mostly about the “R” word, but I was puzzled as to where Reese had read this about me. If I had read on, then I would have seen at the bottom that it was a review of MacKinnon’s now-published book. Towards the end of March this year, a copy of the book arrived, posted to me from Canada by MacKinnon, a generous gesture that not all authors make.

I read the book, and then immediately read it again. His experience and empathy with wild nature comes strongly through his writing:
“When I walk in a place like Yellowstone, it's always with a slight but solemn recognition of the slender possibility that I will die, that some wild animal will kill me. My senses come alive: I taste the air, listen for sounds beneath the wind. Suddenly, nature is not the backdrop to life, it is life itself, and I am no longer myself, but myself in nature”

MacKinnon notes his perspective has been characterised by the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston as a “participatory state of mind” in his book Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication (13). Livingston suggested that among wild animals it is the ordinary form of consciousness. Mackinnon agrees:
“It's possible, of course, to stumble through the wilderness while locked inside yourself, mentally racing over day-to-day worries, but that is not a good way to remain alive. It's not that self-awareness is absent in animals- it has been tentatively revealed in experiments involving such species as apes, dolphins, magpies, even octopuses - but it is a less useful tool than an outward mind: to endure among other species, you must experience the world as a place you share with them”

Livingston contended that people had become so domesticated, and had domesticated everything around them, that they had abandoned their innate wildness so that they can no longer relate to wild nature, making them careless of its destruction. You can guess from the title of his book, that it is humans that are the rogue primate, the exceptional species that has dominance over every other. He argues that there must be an alternative to "the destiny of earth as a human monoculture", and that is respect for the wildness of all living beings:
“Wildness is not acquired through covenant or dispensation. Wildness is, and has been, from the beginning. It is not merely an evolved phenomenon: it is a quality of being, and a precondition of having become. As such, it is beyond the reach of rationality; it is previous, and transcendent. It has no missing parts, either through mutation or amputation. It requires no prosthetic devices, no fixing, no reordering, no moral overlays. Wildness requires no organizational intervention, even of the purest and highest democratic sort. Wildness is whole. It is the antithesis of the domesticated human state, uncontaminated by power, claims to power, or the need for power”

Memory conspires against nature

I would say that MacKinnon’s book makes the same argument as he traces the losses in species populations across the world, and across time, often leading to extinctions amongst animals, birds, fish and vegetation. It is a remarkable compilation of examples as stories, such as revisiting a time when lions roamed North America and many more whales swam in the sea. There is the extinction of the short-faced bear of the Pleistocene era, “a flesh eater large enough to look you in the eyes while still on all fours”. He looks at the disappearance of sea otters off the SW coast of Alaska in the 1990s, having first rebounded after the slaughter by the fur trade had ceased, and traces it back to the US ban on whaling in the 1970s, the cascade that followed saw declines in harbour seals, fur seals, and then sea otters. As the otters declined, another chain reaction occurred, with a rise in sea urchins leading to losses in the underwater kelp forests on the North pacific shores, and which altered the diet of bald eagles and the height of waves breaking on the shore. What had initiated this trophic cascade? In all likeliness, it was the rebound in killer whales after the ban on whaling, the top predator that can be linked through all the trophic levels to the kelp forests. He gives the cautionary tale of Macquarie Island, south of New Zealand, where, over the nineteenth century, the introduction of non-native cats, wekas (a flightless omnivore) and then rabbits, by visiting sailors wrought ecological havoc to the islands native vegetation (the Macquarie Island cabbage, shield fern and lush tussock) and bird population (an endemic parakeet driven to extinction).

He recounts the loss in captivity in 1936 of the last thylacine, a marsupial predator dubbed the Tasmanian Tiger, quoting the extraordinary charge in counter to their decline in the face of European settlement, that they were “unadaptable and so ill-fitted for survival in a changing world” and, when they were gone, the excuse that no one had known that the animals were so close to the brink. For MacKinnon, “memory conspires against nature”, the “knowledge extinction” of the “shifting baseline syndrome” (a generational slippage in recognising loss) the broken link between people and nature as a “double disappearance”, a form of environmental amnesia of living in a world in which wild nature today is roughly 10% of what it once was. MacKinnon riles at the “change blindness” and denial, what I would call wilful ignorance:
“Denial is the last line of defence against memory. It helps us to forget what we'd rather not remember, and then to forget that we've forgotten it, and then to resist the temptation to remember”

Elephants as ecosystem engineers

Pamela Banting, a lecturer and researcher in environmental literature at the University of Calgary, wrote a review of Mackinnon’s book in which she recognised a few similarities with Monbiot’s Feral (14). She noted that both had visited the Trees for Life project in Glen Affric, an area in the Scottish Highlands where a large-scale reforestation project is in process; and that The Never-Spotted Leopard, Chapter 5 of Monbiot’s book, and Ghost Acres, Chapter 6 of MacKinnon’s book (and where my interview appears) both recount the undocumented panther sightings each year in Britain. Banting also spotted that as well as my being in MacKinnon’s book, Monbiot had recorded in a footnote that my work had been influential in shaping his book. The similarity I noticed is that the ecosystem engineering of elephants that Monbiot champions, also crops up in MacKinnon’s book:
“Remove just this single species, elephants, and you end up with a different environment. Now consider the fact that Africa was once home to ten million elephants, or twenty times as many as live there today. Note that, at the end of the last ice age, elephant-like animals roamed every continent except Antarctica and Australia. There were even dwarf pachyderms on many islands, from the Channel Islands of California to Wrangel Island in Arctic Russia. Elephants, mammoths, mastodons and the like have disappeared from 90 percent of their Pleistocene range, and they probably affected their habitats in much the same way as modern elephants do in Africa and Asia”

MacKinnon avers that the reason why there are grasslands in many parts of the world that have adequate soil and rainfall to support forests is because elephants and other plant-eating megafauna kept the trees from encroaching and allowed prairie ecosystems to take hold:
“Even the far north, today a world of wet tundra, was once widely covered with a dry, grassy steppe—which may have depended for its existence on heavy grazing by mammoths. Supposing ancient mega-herbivores shaped only the world's grasslands (there's little reason to imagine their influence stopped there), we are already talking about nearly half of the earth's terrestrial surface”

I’ve read this as an explanation for the persistence of grass balds in the Appalachians, areas of treeless montane vegetation on well-drained sites below the climatic treeline in what are predominantly forested regions. The theory is that these grasslands owe their origin to forest suppression by glacial climate, followed by the ecosystem engineering of megaherbivores and then their mid-sized successors (15). The extinction of the megaherbivores would have unleashed a significant woody invasion, although remaining herbivores such as deer, elk and bison would have continued to keep some areas open, albeit much reduced in extent. Leap ahead a few millennia, and the authors assert that some of these grass balds were maintained by the activities of European pastoralists, whose domestic animals acted as ecological surrogates for the extirpated native grazers. As is usual, those who press the case of megafauna never consider the influence of predators, and this is the case with these authors. I’ve walked a grass bald in the Dolly Sods wilderness of the Alleghenies at 4,000ft, seeing evidence that this treeless state arose from clear felling (16) an origin the authors acknowledge, but cannot rule out for all sites of grass balds. Moreover, as the authors observe, the only balds that are currently open and relatively stable are those that have been, or are being, grazed by livestock, or that are maintained by cutting and mowing: the rest – like that on Dolly Sods where sheep grazing was removed before wilderness designation, and where there are both native herbivores and predators – are being reclaimed by the surrounding trees.

Nevertheless, taking it at face value, MacKinnon has an interesting speculation on this opening of the landscape, that elephant trails made it easier for the dispersal of modern humans:
“Archaeologists continue to argue about how it is that early humans spread with such remarkable speed around the globe once they finally left Africa. It's not hard to imagine that, often enough, we followed in the footsteps of elephants and other animals. The first human beings to arrive in these new worlds thousands of years ago were perhaps similar in at least one way to the Europe explorers who came in the age of sail: they discovered a world that had already been engineered by its inhabitants, and would forever be changed by the new arrivals”

Inevitably the extinction of the megafauna is linked by MacKinnon with the arrival of humans, and he rehearses the events, as I have done (17) of that weekend in 2004 when a group of scientists, ensconced in Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico, came up with the idea of populating America with modern-day analogues of that extinct megafauna, a Pleistocene rewilding – “Without megafauna, the scientists argued, the planet’s landscapes would forever be ecologically incomplete”

I have given before my concerns about the consequences of Monbiot’s revelation of an elephant-adapted temperate ecosystem (16,18) and want to add to those, but first I echo the words of Brandon Keim, a journalist on science and nature, as he bemoans the increasing surrender of nature conservation in the Anthropocene – a world entirely engineered by humans – in giving up on wilderness (19). Keim contrasts the contradictions in this thinking, that “restoration to pre-industrial ecological baselines is considered impractical, but so-called Pleistocene rewilding – parks managed to contain analogues of million-year-old ecosystems – is celebrated. Trying to keep species from going extinct is old hat, but ‘de-extinction’ to biotechnologically recreate them is fashionable”

Keim believes this thinking reflects a self-centred sense of Anthropocene nature that easily turns toxic when we abandon protecting nature for its own sake, and instead judge conservation by the extent to which it furthers human interest. In considering the large-animal extinctions that followed once stone-age humans arrived in the Americas and Australia, Keim writes (19):
“Yet those extinctions hardly constitute the end of wilderness, or fall on the same spectrum as industrial-scale development. Once we outcompeted 20-foot-tall giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers: now we have trouble sharing even with kangaroo rats and tiger salamanders. That’s the difference between the transformations wrought by several million people and by 7 billion, with drastically different resource requirements, and it’s obscured by a narrative of human omnipresence”

I made a similar point in a comment on an article by Monbiot where he speculated on the mode of hunting of an extinct marsupial lion. He linked its extinction to the arrival of humans, and which I questioned (20):
“I do wonder whether the coincidence of extinction of “Thylacoleo carnifex” with human arrival is causally related, when it is the case that many other extinctions of megafauna had occurred over the period 50-350ka before that. However, interesting as that is, as also is understanding the specific ability of this predator in tackling particular kangaroos, I am still waiting to hear from you what you think is the relevance of this in the contemporary need to overcome the more recent millennia of ecological simplification that agriculture has left us with?”

Out of Africa

Monbiot aside, it is often the case that only the ecological significance of herbivores is considered in these megafaunal extinctions, and not the carnivores. I would suggest that big predators nowadays are wusses by comparison with the sabre-tooth tiger and the short-faced bear, the predatory nature of these ancestor carnivores must have impacted the effects of the mega-herbivory, both in affecting their spatial movements, but also in easily taking neonatal if not even adult Proboscidea, the trunked mammals. We have to go to modern day Africa for evidence of their predation and ecosystem engineering: elephants do avoid lions, thus as in any trophic cascade, effects on vegetation depends on the spatial distribution of both predator and prey. It is the older matriarch elephants, engaging in prolonged periods of intent listening for the sounds of lions, that react to predatory threat, initiating a group-defensive behaviour of bunching and, in some cases, even approaches to harass predators (mobbing), which can serve to directly discourage attack (21). Lions take kudu, warthog, Hartebeest, zebra, and buffalo in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa, at a greater extent than just chance encounter – they seek them out (22). The lions have few encounters with elephants and no kills, despite there being a population of 300 elephants, who must be avoiding them. In general, lions take prey within a weight range of 190–550 kg, the most preferred weight is 350 kg (23). There is though, a pride of 30 lions in Chobe National Park, Botswana, that switch to preying on elephants during the dry season, killing one every three days, the age range of the prey being 4-11 years (weaned “teenagers”, probably >1,000kg) (24). It is suggested that this maternally less dependent age class may be more vulnerable to lion predation, but it may also be force of circumstance due to the density of ungulate prey being reduced through the annual migration. Either way, these lions are re-learning the skills of their scary ancestors!

There’s a problem trying to tie vegetation change with the absence of carnivores in Africa and consequent release of herbivore action. Thus, even though predators like the leopard and lion have disappeared from many of their recent former ranges in the Congo Basin, uncontrolled bushmeat hunting has also reduced herbivore populations (25). Poaching levels in southern Africa, however, have been lower than the rest of Africa, and elephant populations in many areas have increased steadily over the twentieth century (26). In the case of the Ruaha National Park in south central Tanzania, there was already evidence in 1964, the year of its designation, of tree damage in all parts of the Park, that regenerating trees were being killed, and that the rate of tree damage was increasing (27). Elephant numbers rose 8-10% per annum between 1965 and 1977, an ariel survey in 1977 showing that the pattern of tree damage corresponded with the distribution of elephants - there were no untouched woodlands in the Park. This raised the concern that if elephants are worth conserving, then it would be vital to conserve the national parks and game reserves that have become their last sanctuaries. However, the ecology of their landscapes was spiralling away with the increasing elephant numbers, the loss of three-dimensional structure of vegetation leading to the loss of ecological functioning, such as the loss of tree biomass where a large proportion of the community's inorganic nutrients is locked up, the loss of nitrogen fixing since trees are the main legumes in Africa, drier landscapes from the loss of shade, as well as the loss of a range of smaller browsers like the bushbuck and lesser kudu that rely on the trees.

The implications of the loss of woody vegetation have been studied in reverse in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, where a range of inclosures to protect an endangered antelope also functioned to exclude elephants and other large herbivores (28). A short term exclosure (6 years) contained 38%–80% less bare ground, but with only a few measurable differences in the 3-D structure of woody plants. In the longer-term (between 22 and 41 years) the exclosures had up to 11-fold greater woody canopy cover and much greater 3-D structural diversity. The authors note these differences affect the diversity and richness of animal species, as well as the ecological functioning of these systems, the greater canopy structural diversity enhancing the habitat available for a wide range of organisms beyond the herbivore communities, and altering ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, and germination.

Extrapolation of the African situation has limited value for understanding the former interaction of elephants with the temperate forest of Europe. Jens-Christian Svenning, a Danish academic and part of the European megaherbivore mafia, has made a proposal to study the ecological impact by ranging elephants at the Bioplanet RewildingPark, an area of land next to Randers Tropical Zoo in Denmark (29). The RewildingPark stretches between Randers and Langå, and appears to be a predominantly wetland area where, in an echo of the open air zoo of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands (1,30) other herbivores like cattle, horses, water buffalo and bison have been introduced in fenced areas (31). It was because of MacKinnon’s book that I was contacted by Anik See, a Canadian writer and radio producer based in Amsterdam, who is putting together an hour-long radio documentary about "rewilding" for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's program Ideas. She wanted my views on the Dutch approach to Nature Development, the use of free-ranging but domesticated grazing animals, and asked me how long it would be before this approach failed at the Oostvaardersplassen. I said I thought it already had, based on the absence of predators, and it seems even Svenning may agree. There is no indication yet that elephants have arrived at the RewildingPark, but if Svenning wants to observe the effect of elephants on temperate deciduous woodland, then he had better plant some trees first in this RewildingPark, and wait for them to grow.

Rolling, bubbly continuum of interlocking tree-tops

It was after I wrote of my dread at the thought that the megaherbivores of the past might have prevented the establishment of high canopy forest (18) that Cóilín MacLochlainn got in touch. Cóilín is a science writer and editor, based in Dublin, with a special interest in native woodlands. He discounted any truth in Frans Vera's theory that open woodland pasture grazed by herbivores is more the norm than closed-canopy high forest (1,30,33) based on his observations of what temperate forest canopies in Britain or Ireland today look like, the “rolling, bubbly continuum of interlocking tree-tops” that Cóilín believes is so characteristic of tropical rainforests as well:
“I would argue that the trees would not interlock so neatly or allow every gap to fill up had woodland not evolved this canopy design over millions of years. I think also that the interlocking is more pronounced in the temperate forests than in the cloudforests, probably because there is less available sunlight in these latitudes”

He went on to wonder why trees such as elm have evolved a fine tracery of branching twigs, so that the trees leaves intercept almost all of the available incoming sunlight? To Cóilín, this was evidence that this physical adaptation arose in an environment where trees habitually grew in close proximity in a high forest canopy situation, competing for every photon of available light, rather than scattered and damaged by bulldozing megaherbivores. I immediately understood what he was saying, having always thought that the pattern of canopies of a deciduous woodland makes a delightful view, but I had never given much thought to it other than perhaps it was something like contact inhibition, but that perhaps, after what Cóilín proposed, it would be better to think of it as a sociability that allows an efficiency of intercepting sunlight.

That Cóilín was on the right track was shown to me later when I came across a book from 1971 by American academic Henry Horn entitled The adaptive geometry of trees (34). Horn studied the development of regenerating temperate woods in New Jersey, trying to understand how the various species of trees spatially ordered themselves in relation to the changes in light, heat, water, and nutrient distributions as regeneration proceeded. What Horn came up with was a theory that distinguishes two extreme geometrical distributions of leaves in trees, and which indicates that there are some tree species more suited to forming high canopy, providing an explanation for the continuum of interlocking tree-tops that Cóilín sees, whereas others are more suited to forest edges. Thus there is a monolayer distribution, with leaves densely packed in a single layer due to them being concentrated at the ends of branches, and making them more effective during late successional stages; and a multilayer, with leaves loosely scattered among several layers stacked one above the other, as the leaves are spread along the branches, which is more suited to early successional stages.

In deep shade the lower leaves of a multilayer do not receive enough light for photosynthesis to balance their respiration. Conversely, in the open, the multilayer can put out several layers of self-sustaining leaves to the monolayer's one, as it would be a waste of useful light with just one layer of leaves. It is not always easy to see the multilayers in trees like birches when they are stranded growing within woodland, but look at the distribution of leaves when they are in fairly open areas. Monolayer trees grow faster in shade than the multilayer, so that beeches and North American trees like hemlock and sugar maple, are well adapted to shaded environments, and are often found growing up beneath other trees in the comparative shade of a forest. The distribution of leaves of canopy oaks suggests to me that they are monolayer trees.

The challenge of Lost Island

There is an optimism about MacKinnon’s book, not least because he avers that there have “always been corners of the globe where the human influence fades and a more ancient order asserts itself. In these are simply places too high, too dry, too cold, or too barren for long-term human survival” and that "nature remains a more hopeful place than the news about it might suggest”. He considers that conservation alone is not and has never been enough, thus “ours will be an age of rewilding”. He could have let the many examples and cautionary tales of his narrative, act as a precursor for our minds in what has to be done, but instead he posits an extraordinary challenge for us to work through. His final chapter is devoted to imagining a large undiscovered island and how we would deal with such new land. It’s a fascinating challenge, not entirely unfounded in reality since it would have been the situation faced less than 500 years ago by the first people to have come across the Chagos Islands, Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, Falkland Islands, and Macquarie Island. Even New Zealand, Easter Island, Hawaii and Iceland avoided human settlement before 1,000 or less years ago.

Given what we know about our propensities as a species, shouldn’t we really just leave it alone? As MacKinnon says, "Does it strain your credulity that we would open Lost Island to exploitation? Do you imagine that today's enlightened society would see such an unspoiled place as sacred?". He paints an irresistible picture of Lost Island: the teeming fisheries of the ocean; reefs that are explosions of colour, seals and sea lions bobbing among them; the blow holes of whales; hungry sharks making the sea hiss and boil from the frenzy of shoals of fish. The land, shaped by its plants and animals, has wildlife trails that bore through the stands of ancient forest and traverse the grasslands; there are herds of wild bison, mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, giant camels, giant lizards, giant parrots, and giant tortoises. MacKinnon says the overall impression is not so much of wilderness as “otherworldly design”. It is not a place where the first humans should feel safe:
“We wouldn't feel the freedom that people often do in wild spaces today. You wouldn't swim among the reefs for fear of sharks, and neither would you happily walk alone across the land. You'd quickly learn to listen for a sound in the reeds like fingers gently pulled along a blackboard - a snake - or, worst of all, the sudden hush that falls in the forest when something with fangs and claws is on the move”

MacKinnon has also given the island the biting plague that are mosquitoes, expecting that human visitors would build fires and live in the smoke to escape the swarms. While they are our discomfort, he notes that the mosquitoes are food for many, such as dragonflies, bats, swifts and swallows. I wonder if the irritation from biting insects is the legacy of our domestication, having mostly eliminated them from our living, we have lost the tolerance that our more primitive ancestors had. Perhaps regaining that tolerance will come from Miles Olson’s message to “unlearn” (see above). If we can overcome the human instinct to eliminate the mosquito, “undomesticate” ourselves to become a future primitive, then maybe we will make a better go of the opportunity that Lost Island presents. MacKinnon is sure that it presents us with hard choices:
“From the moment we set foot on Lost Island, it will never be the same again. There 's no way to freeze the nature of a place in time, just as there is never a way to turn back the clock to some exact and perfect condition from the past. We can only ask ourselves new questions. How do we live in a wilder world? And what is the wildest world we can live in?”

His choices begin with wanting to protect some of that natural heritage, forever, "to provide sanctuaries where we can witness the natural world without us". He suggests a target of 12 percent of the land and sea (based on the Convention on Biological Diversity) which is "safeguarded for all time", but recognizes that the "largest, most contiguous protected areas possible" should be created, "linking them with corridors of wilderness to allow species to move freely across the land and sea". Then comes proscriptions on human excessive exploitation: large-scale clear-cut logging; damaging sea floors with trawl nets; use of dams unless limited and careful; using waterways as dumping grounds for toxic waste or raw sewage; draining swamps; building cities at river mouths, places he believes are some of the richest ecosystems on earth; mountaintop removal and other forms of mining only in exceptional circumstance; displacing seabird colonies, sea turtle nesting sites, fish spawning beaches and seal haul-outs simply to provide vacation homes; and leaving of fossil fuels in the ground in areas of especially high diversity. MacKinnon makes the point that most modern human beings eat next to nothing that is hunted or gathered from the terrestrial surface of the earth. He wonders whether we should make the same choice today, given what we know nature can be? Would we "strike a different balance between whole ecosystems that feed every living thing and simplified landscapes that feed nothing but ourselves?" He suggests that we eat more wild bison than beef, and harvest wild bulbs, thus sparing forests and grasslands from our bulldozers and ploughs. He wonders if we will reacquire our taste for porpoise, seal and whale?

MacKinnon believes that life on Lost Island would quickly convince us that we cannot live in the past, that we always and only exist in the present, proceeding more carefully and consciously “As we try to build ourselves into the nature of Lost Island …these are the kinds of questions we must grapple with. And the solutions will not be familiar ones…..Our Lost Island is not life as it was before the Industrial Revolution, or before Columbus, or before humans walked the earth, but a way of being that has yet to be invented: a world true to the past and unlike anything seen before”

I wonder, if I stumbled across a Lost Island, whether I would tell anyone else about it, but if I did, I would make sure they read MacKinnon’s book before they set foot on it.

Mark Fisher, 25 September 2014

Ideas radio program on "rewilding" is broadcast

My interview with Anik was recorded last June in the BBC studios in Leeds, while she sat in a studio in Amsterdam. Anik asked the right questions about the Dutch way of “rewilding”, the open air zoos full of grazing animals, which only comes from having a good grip on what is going on. There were a few drop-outs over the hour, but we covered pretty much what we had discussed during a skype conversation a month before. Wrapping it up, Anik said she was hoping to interview James MacKinnon as well, but that he was on sabbatical and would not be back in Vancouver until September. On the basis of that, Anik thought the radio program would not be broadcast until early next year. It seemed a long time to wait, but then I only seem to get noticed outside of my own country, and a radio broadcast in Canada would just continue with that.

A few weeks ago, Anik gave me advance notice that the radio program would be broadcast on 24 November. This was useful timing since it meant that it would be broadcast while the wilderness environments course at Leeds University was still going on. Thus I was able to post a link on the course blog so that the students could listen and comment during the week in which the course covered “rewilding” and the use of large herbivores.

Anik has put a great program together. I love the opening, with the experiences of her family canoeing down a river in the wilds of the Yukon in Northern Canada – “the middle of nowhere”. MacKinnon then sets up the issues about our continuing losses of wildness before it moves on to Anik, Frans Vera and myself talking about the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. I don’t think I’m going to be allowed into the Netherlands ever again! Then there are interviews with Jori Wolf and Thomas van Slobbe about the attitude to wildness in the Netherlands. Thomas recounts his search to find somewhere that he can plant some trees without drawing attention, to "steal an area" where no one could come or know of, and where he would never go back to see them - the "perfect crime". There is an interview with Karsten Heuer about development issues in the Three Sisters Wildlife Corridor and the Bow Valley near Canmore at the edge of Banff National Park in Alberta. This is a section of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an interconnected system of wild lands and waters stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon, and which may be the last remaining intact mountain ecosystem left in the world. The Bow River Valley in Alberta is a rare low elevation, east-west band of relatively flat land in the Rockies that connects two important protected habitats: Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park. Many animals continue to use and live in this travel route, including grizzly and black bears, cougars, wolves, lynx, elk, deer, and wolverines, that have all been recorded using this pathway in recent years (35).

It was good to be reminded of Canmore. In early May 2003, after a great week in Jasper National Park where we saw many deer, mountain sheep, and a black bear, we travelled down the Icefields Parkway to Banff, but found it was expensive, and the trails were poor, and so we moved out to Canmore and had a much better time. Barrier Lake Lookout Mountain south of Kananaskis was covered in snow and had a fabulous outlook over the lake, although our loop walk back down to the lake was up to our waists in snow through forest. I don’t know how we did it.

Anik set up the broadcast with a feature article the day before, and which attracted a blizzard of comments in very short time (36). The program can be listened to in many ways through links in the program page (37) as well as via a pop-up audio (38) or podcast (39). It is perhaps fruitless to suggest who came out in front over the argument about the use of herbivores, but it is the reality of the Oostvaardersplassen that since 2005 there has been a year on year death of around 1,000 animals due to starvation, as the fencing around the Oostvaardersplassen prevents them from migrating to find new food sources. What started with 100 animals introduced between 1983 -1992, has bred its way to nearly 4,000 herbivores now, eating the life out of the land. Mortality is greatest during the winter months, the extensive bark chewing and subsequent death of what trees there were, indicating that the capacity of the land has been over reached. Vera shrugs this off – but about 8,000 animals have died since 2005, twice the current population, and it hasn’t been due to old age. This was the evidence I presented to the students (40). They had no difficulty identifying the ecological illiteracy and the lack of natural control mechanisms in the absence of a top carnivore.

28 November 2014

(1) What is rewilding, Self-willed-land September 2013

(2) Rewilding Britain: bringing wolves, bears and beavers back to the land, Adam Vaughan, Observer Tech Monthly 19 September 2014

(3) Looking for wildland - developing a value system for wild nature. April 2006

(4) Olson, M. (2012) Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive. New Society Publishers, Canada

(5) Tooke, J.H. (1805) ἔπεα πτερόεντα (winged words), or The Diversions of Purley. Part II, Pg. 42

(6) Trench, R.C. (1853) On the Study of Words: Lectures addressed (originally) to the pupils at the diocesan training school, Winchester. Pg. 186

(7) Untamed nature, Self-willed land March 2014

(8) Written evidence submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee by The Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds. 2 July 2014

(9) Joint Nature Conservation Committee - Matters arising JNCC14 N07 September 2014

(10) MacKinnon, J.B. (2013) The Once and Future World:Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. Houghton Mifflin

(11) Contemplation of natural scenes, Self-willed land January 2012

(12) The Once and Future World, What is sustainable, Richard Adrian Reese, 17 November 2013

(13) Livingstone, J.A. (1994) Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication. Roberts Rinehart

(14) Banting, Pamela (2014) The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be by J.B. MacKinnon, The Goose 13: Iss. 1, Article 2

(15) Weigl, P.D and Knowles, T.W. (2014) Temperate mountain grasslands: a climate-herbivore hypothesis for origins and persistence. Biological Reviews 89: 466–476;jsessionid=5ACA547BE391FB1F25CD34C16FA6D768.f01t04

(16) Ecological restoration in modified landscapes, Self-willed land June 2013

(17) Rewilding - the moral obligation for ecological restoration, Self-willed land May 2008

(18) Reflections on Feral, Self-willed-land January 2014

(19) Keim, B. (2014) Earth is not a garden. Aeon magazine 18 September 2014

(20) 'Like a demon in a medieval book': is this how the marsupial lion killed prey? George Monbiot, Guardian 3 April 2014

(21) McComb, K. and others (2011) Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age. Proc. R. Soc. B 278: 3270–3276

(22) Hayward et al (2011) Do Lions Panthera leo Actively Select Prey or Do Prey Preferences Simply Reflect Chance Responses via Evolutionary Adaptations to Optimal Foraging? PLOS One 6: e23607

(23) Hayward, MW & Kerly, G.I. (2005) Prey preferences of the lion (Panthera leo). J. Zool. 267: 309-322

(24) Power, R.J & Compion, R.X.S. (2009) Lion Predation on Elephants in the Savuti, Chobe National Park, Botswana. African Zool. 44: 36-44

(25) Henschel, P. (2009) The Status and Conservation of Leopards and Other Large Carnivores in the Congo Basin, and the Potential Role of Reintroduction. In Reintroduction of Top-Order Predators Eds. Matt W. Hayward and Michael J. Somers, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

(26) UNEP, CITES, IUCN, TRAFFIC (2013). Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme/GRID-Arendal

(27) Barnes, R.F.W. (1983) The elephant problem in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania. Biological Conservation 26, 127–148.

(28) Asner, G.P. and others (2009) Large-scale impacts of herbivores on the structural diversity of African savannas, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 106:  4947–4952

(29) Vilde store dyr i Danmark – et spørgsmål om at ville (Wild large animals in Denmark) Anna Dalsgaard, Dansk Magisterforening 12 August 2013

(30) The revisionism of the conservation industry – expanding the noosphere in Britain, Self-willed land March 2012

(31) Bioplanet RewildingPark, Bioplanet: Fremtidens Randers Regnskov

(32) Where the Wild Things Were, Daniel Cossins, The Scientist 1 May 2014

(33) Open or closed – what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain? Delf-willed land June 2009

(34) Horn, H.S. (1971) The Adaptive Geometry of Trees. Princeton University Press

(35) Three Sisters Wildlife Corridor Needs You, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

(36) Rewilding projects aim to turn back clock on environment: Some question what 'natural' really means these days. Anik See, CBC News 23 Nov 2014

(37) Rewilding, Ideas CBC Radio 24 November 2014

(38) Ideas – Rewilding. Pop-up audio

(39) Ideas – Rewilding. Podcast

(40) Change processes at scale – are they natural? Mark Fisher, Wildland Research Institute 27 November 2014