A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 23 January 2015

That Rare And Precious Substance, Hope

I have just read an extraordinary book, a visionary book: George Monbiot's Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. For a start it is beautifully written — full of hard facts yet also lyrical (but never sentimental):

We stopped above a waterfall whose cool breath I could feel while standing on the rocks over the gorge, and whose spray I could taste on the air: mossy, halogenic. The peaty brown water stretched dark olive over the sill before plunging and pluming down the long series of rapids. The gorge was a Japanese painting, knotty pines bristling on crooked rocks above the water . . .

It is easy to despair about the ecological state of the world, about the catastrophic disruption mankind has wrought on the rhythms of nature: the land depleted by hunting, deforestation, monoculture and agri-business; the seas savaged by trawling and overfishing. Like many of us, Monbiot was very depressed about this, until hope emerged through a vision — part idealistic, part realistic — of rewilding the planet. I am seduced, staggered, empowered by this idea. Indeed, it is already being realised in some parts of the world: across vast areas of Eastern Europe, for instance, nature has been allowed simply to take its course; trees have multiplied, and flora and fauna have increased exponentially. 

Monbiot's argument is that human beings interfere and try to control too much — not least the conservationists, whose schemes can inhibit biodiversity rather than promote it. The key to abundance and diversity, he argues, are the keystone species, the larger animals at the top of the food chain, or 'trophic cascade' as Monbiot terms it ('cascade' because the bigger mammals are essential cornerstones of the food web: without them, animals and plants below in the hierarchy either die out or become too numerous; it is a natural system which works 'top down'). Monbiot's vision is of a Europe repopulated with lynx, elephant, bear, buffalo, wild boar, wolf, beaver and elk — with sturgeon patrolling the rivers and whales crowding the seas as they did hundreds of years ago. This rewilding means leaving tracts of land to their own natural devices (plus some careful reintroductions of once-native species) and creating marine nature reserves (the ones that already exist have been astonishingly successful at reestablishing healthy and diverse ecosystems in a very short period of time).

The book is packed with some incredible facts and statistics. For example, did you know that the more whales there are, the more fish there are? (Japanese whalers please take note.) You might think that fish stocks would increase without these hungry predators around. Wrong! The reverse is true. Whales and other large sea creatures agitate the water of our oceans to such an extent that plankton — the staple diet of fish — is kept moving and available rather than sinking to the bottom of the sea bed. So the whales are happy and the fish are happy (so to speak). This is a perfect example, out of the many examples Monbiot gives, of how the larger predators are so essential to the food chain — and the reasons are not always obvious. The removal of megafauna can have subtle, unpredictable and often disastrous consequences all through the biosystem.

Feral is also a very personal book, full of Monbiot's own experiences and encounters with the natural world. In the first chapter, Raucous Summer, he urges us to wake up, to rediscover the wildness in nature and in ourselves, to become more passionate. He quotes JG Ballard:

The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them up into a more passionate world.

He understands how we humans tend to desire security and predictability rather than raw experience and spontaneity, and this is to our impoverishment: 

To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. We have privileged safety over experience; gained much in doing so, and lost much.

At the close of the book, when Monbiot leaves his coastal home in Wales for the last time, he writes this, exquisitely:

I thought of the places I would be leaving, of what they were and what they could become. I pictured trees returning to the bare slopes, fish and whales returning to the bay. I thought of what my children and grandchildren might find here, and of how those who worked the land and sea might prosper if this wild vision were to be realised. I thought of how, across these five years, my exploration of nature's capacity to regenerate itself, of the potential for wildlife to return to the places from which it had been purged, had enriched my own life. Wherever I went, I would take the wild life with me. I would devote much of my life to seeking out or helping to create places where I could hear again that high exhilarating note to which I had for so long been deaf, where I could find that rare and precious substance, hope. The black silhouettes of redshank and oystercatchers piped home along the shore. To the south, moonlight glittered on the water, now grooved like a linocut.

From behind me came a noise like a boot being pulled out of the mud. I turned, but all I saw was a large round ripple, as if a monstrous trout had sucked down a fly. Then a fin rose from the lavender sea, five or ten yards away. It sank again then rose beside me. It was a baby: one of last year's dolphin calves. It circled the boat, so close that it almost nudged my paddle, then disappeared into the darkness.

Feral was an important and inspiring read for me, and I hope others will be encouraged to read this timely and visionary book. 


Ruth said...

I have it and now after reading your moving review, I'll read it next.

George said...

A very interesting post, Robert. I'm going to see if I can get the book through Amazon. The writing in terrific. Here's my favorite of your quoted lines: "We have privileged safety over experience; gained much in doing so, and lost much." So true!

The Solitary Walker said...

It's an arresting book, Ruth and George, and I'm sure you will gain much from it.

roselle said...

Great blogpost, Robert. Thank you for it.

I really LOVED Feral - iconoclastic, with excellent and challenging insights. I also like the way he continues with what he knows needs to be said, despite pissing a large number of people (not least sheep farmers - 'woolly maggot farmers') off.

He is an extraordinarily inspiring speaker, too - don't know if you've heard him? – He came to Dartington last year.

For anyone who doesn't know, you can sign up from his website to receive his writings weekly.

The Solitary Walker said...

I've only heard him speak internet-wise, Roselle — and, yes, he is inspiring. We need more people like him in the world, not afraid to say what needs to be said, despite making so many enemies of self-interest along the way.

I liked the sympathy he extended to the Welsh farming family, though, and the way he appreciated and respected their intelligence, their history and traditions. Despite his radical (to me just sensible) viewpoint, he does listen to opposing arguments, and tries to be fair.