The etymologically inclined may be aware that the word “forest” derives from forestis, itself sprouted from the Latin foris. In his excellent book Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, George Monbiot eloquently clarifies the connection and distinction between present and past: “‘Forest’ meant not a place where trees grew but a place foris – or outside – the usual rule of law.”
Foris conjures something dark and wild, as does feral. “The word ‘feral’ has a kind of magic potency which allied itself to two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free,’” noted the writer T.H. White about the inspiration for The Goshawk, a wonderful account of his oft-inept go at falconry.
A British journalist with a background in zoology, Monbiot is also energized by and sees hope in the untamed. When it comes to “managing” our natural world, humans are largely failures; yet healthy, balanced ecosystems are critical to extending the life of the planet we call home—they are also, the author asserts, vital to our very being.
Wildlife receive a lion’s share of the attention in the rewilding conversation, especially the ones perceived as dangerous to person or personal finances; fear of the latter is often disguised as concern over the former. The wolf leaps to mind. Wildlife is key in rewilding, and so-called keystone species—wolves in particular—have proven instrumental in restoring and maintaining ecosystems in which they were once present and which suffered greatly in their absence (see also: David Quammen’s epic Monster of God, a rollicking read about the relationships between apex predators, people and the environment).
Monbiot’s vision includes the pragmatic reintroduction of wildlife, but it is more comprehensive than that alone. Monbiot considers—and asks us to consider—the trees, the seas and ourselves. He knows the concept of rewilding remains controversial and that “the fairytales are more powerful than the facts,” but he is also a persuasive and powerful writer, equally adept at dropping puns (“sheepwrecked”) and Lord Byron throughout his thoroughly researched thesis.
“We can, I believe, enjoy the benefits of advanced technology while also enjoying, if we choose, a life richer in adventure and surprise,” Monbiot declares in Feral. “Rewilding is not about abandoning civilization but about enhancing it. It is to ‘love not man less, but Nature more.’”
Research in recent years demonstrates, in Monbiot’s words, “that you cannot safely disaggregate an ecosystem. The loss of one species often has severe consequences for species and systems to which it appears at first to be unconnected.”
Perception—too many people’s reality—is part of the problem. “In the United Kingdom we have all but forgotten what we once had,” Monbiot writes, “and see our bare hills and empty niches as natural.” We suffer from what marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the shifting baseline syndrome; in ecological terms, as Monbiot explains:
“The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. When fish or other animals or plants are depleted, campaigners and scientists might call for them to be restored to the numbers that existed in their youth … But they often appear to be unaware that what they considered normal when they were children was in fact a state of extreme depletion.”
Even conservation organizations sometimes desire “to freeze living systems in time,” Monbiot observes, by preventing some plants and animals from either straying or entering. They seek “to manage nature as if tending a garden.” Monbiot argues that in designated areas, natural ecological processes should be allowed to resume unimpeded; the feral state to which they transform may echo their previous incarnation or something new in sync with the modern climate and ecology. “You wonder, a friend of Monbiot’s ponders sarcastically in Feral, “how nature coped before we came along.”
Unlike the word forest, which has its roots in the Middle Ages, rewilding is a young term that first entered dictionaries in 2011. It has already taken on many meanings, yet the definitions for which Monbiot advocates are allowing nature to find its own way and rekindling something feral within ourselves. “Rewilding … should take place for the benefit of people,” he writes, “to enhance the world in which we live, and not for the sake of an abstraction we call Nature.”
Thoughts on a Mountain Lion
In Feral, Monbiot opens a chapter with verse from D.H. Lawrence’s The Mountain Lion:
And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a
And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a
million or two humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of
that slim yellow mountain lion!
Last week, a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officer shot and killed what may have been the first wild mountain lion in that state since the Civil War. A similar situation occurred last year in Illinois, where cougars are likewise no longer known to reside.
It is possible that these mountain lions were kept by morons as exotic pets, then escaped or were released. It is also possible they were attempting to establish territory in land in which they once freely roamed.
I don’t question that public safety was at stake in these cases, but it does concern me that we seem instinctively inclined to eradicate our native wildlife, then name streets and subdivisions in their honor, instead of learning how to live with them. There are long-term consequences to treating the presence of wildlife as an us-or-them scenario.
In Monster of God, Quammen worries that in the foreseeable future our great beasts will cease to exist except in zoos, test tubes and our imagination. “After that time, as memory recedes and the zoo populations become ever more genetically attenuated, ever more conveniently docile, ever more distantly derivative from the real thing, people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity,” he writes. “Adults, except a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted. Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.”