Breaking the pattern


Sometimes you have to break the pattern of getting up each day feeling you have to fight against the forces of evil that are destroying the prospect of wild land in Britain. If that sounds aberrant behaviour, then it is. When a threat becomes all consuming, that there seems little else of such importance, it becomes difficult to disconnect mentally from it, and especially electronically when well-wishers seem driven to pass on the latest horror story. I don’t have infinite resilience for this. So breaking the pattern for myself is as much needed, as it is also needed to transform the hearts and minds of people who may not yet have considered how wild a world they can live with. As my friend Alison Parfitt stresses (1) it is also needed for those who have fears about the possible loss of cultural landscape association and comfort as a result of what hopefully will be a substantial process of wilding that is focussed in locations where it is given permanency and protection (2). Alison goes further, believing that there is a more profound point to be made about wilding, a term we now choose to use in the generation of a future with nature-led lands (3). It will be a catalyst in encouraging changing attitudes and feelings so that we, the human species, are more resilient, that we can live alongside ever changing nature with delight and enthusiasm rather than fear, and be with, rather than resist, the challenges that it will bring. This change in attitudes and feelings will probably take generations, but Alison believes wilding can help it along.

A mostly ecological approach in envisioning those nature-led lands can be inspiration in itself. At its simplest, Alison and I know from experience with those on the student field trip, that if we can take people to places where they can see for themselves, it is no longer an act of faith to commit to a wilder future. I would always hope that people - on the right terms - would be able to experience that wilder nature, and so I have never been about excluding them from the future of nature-led lands, just those who cannot respect it, or want to manage it. Thus of late I have been trying with my writing to make a cross-over between observations of nature and how humans react with it and, while it has mostly been about my reaction, I am trying to gauge the reaction of others (4). Alison and I wonder now whether this is the territory of environmental humanities. We wonder how environmental humanities would approach building that respect? Would it be different from the respect expected for a standard, managed nature reserve? What would environmental humanities use to justify wildland: existence value, experiential value, self-interest, or all of these? In the absence of that visual evidence in front of you, how should wildland be portrayed to you? How do we engage with environmental humanities to seek a positive outcome for wilder land?

A snapshot assessment of what environmental humanities had to offer

The trouble is that I have a problem with academic environmental humanities because I'm not sure if its disciples know which end of a tree goes into the ground. It’s an instinctive reaction to the nonsense that these latecomers have applied to issues of wilding, such as a “conceptualisation” of tensions in the reinstatement of wolves - “… a reintroduced species like the wolf may obfuscate the clear-cut, purified nature category to which rewilding often aspires” (5) and the "modes of bovine biopolitics" in the use of surrogates/analogues/proxies/taxon substitution/functional replacements for extinct aurochs by the herbivore obsessives (6). However, I accept that there may be a need in some form for that cross-over. It is the need to understand why there is always someone - the bane of my life - who will try to break branches off trees alongside the edge of a woodland path, or who takes along an implement to prune back much further than is ever needed. These people haven't made the cross-over from control to lack of control. They don't adjust as nature adjusts. That example leads on to the accusation thrown at wilding that it results in impenetrable landscapes, such as in moorland vegetation when heather and other dwarf shrubs become leggy or as scrub develops. However, as is so easily observed, it’s not impenetrable to wild animals such as deer. It is, anyway, a temporal phase as the heather will become senescent and die back before it seeds in again, and the scrub opens as trees grow up causing a reordering of structure. The problem is that wilding timespans are so much longer than those of mainstream conservation, and thus it is easy for commentators to raise unease in the public mind when the initial outcomes of wilding may not seem beneficial.

As it was, Alison and I had an opportunity for a snapshot assessment of what environmental humanities had to offer during a conference at Leeds for early career researchers on the future of the wild in Europe (7). It was part of the work program output of a transboundary graduate student training network that is heavily orientated towards the humanities, focusing on the cultural, historical, and ethical dimensions of environmental issues (8). I led a group on a pre-conference field trip to Scar Close, and where we take our students (see above) so that I hoped I could at least start them off in the right direction (9). While I think they got it, there was a reversion once the conference began so that it again seemed so far outside of their usual terms of reference, their groupthink of acculturation that perceives no difference between wild and domestic animals, and which places the human species at the centre of all experience, and deserving of all its needs. It is a recurrent theme that refuses the discipline of a restriction on human influence, and which seeks to redefine to its own ends, and avoid or overturn constraints where ever it can.

That redefinition is a deceitful trick often used in critical deconstruction, where it is not the meaning defined by advocates that is criticised, but instead the critic’s revisionist perception of that meaning. An example came in the discussion after the presentation by my friend Zoltan Kun, one of the few speakers at the conference to have genuinely first-hand experience of wild land in Europe (10). A questioner from the floor was asserting that wilderness does not exist, that there was nowhere that had not been modified by the presence of humans, including also the more recently settled islands of the last couple of 1,000 years (11) as if evidence of a lack of human settlement was a pre-requisite for wilderness. This is defining wilderness incorrectly when set against the provisions in what was the first and perhaps most defining wilderness legislation, the American Wilderness Act from 1964. It is the pristine thing that Dave Foreman tackled years ago, pointing out that some kinds of wilderness detractors falsely assert that its advocates see wilderness as pristine, that places must be pristine in order to qualify as wilderness areas (12). Foreman states the blindingly obvious, that pristine does not appear in the Wilderness Act, and that its purpose is not “airyfairy flights of romantic fantasy to recapture a mythical past of purity and goodness, but real-world efforts to protect self-willed land from damage by increasing population, expanding settlement and growing mechanization”. I took a different route to rebut this person’s assertion, noting that the Wilderness Act only talks about designating areas of wilderness where the evidence of human action was “substantially unnoticeable” (13). Moreover, the use by Howard Zahniser in drafting the Act of the phrase “untrammeled by man” in preference to undisturbed expressed a forward-looking perspective where, in the absence of human intervention, land designated as wilderness could under the free forces of nature restore its wilderness characteristic (14,15).

The misrepresentations of new nature writing

I have lived with the disappointment of this anthropocentric conceptualisation of wildness for many years, not least in its interpretation and portrayal in British nature writing (16). Barring the odd exception, like Richard Mabey (17) other writers are uniformly underwhelming, as was the case with a book I was given recently, of four country walks in the rain by Melissa Harrison (18). Essentially a novelist who combined fiction and countryside in her writing, Harrison hit on the wheeze of describing four contrasting landscapes, one each per season, but with the commonality that unlike most of us, she set out on the walks with the prospect of bad weather, expecting to be able to discern a landscape transformed by precipitation. The locations themselves were enough to raise suspicion, their deeply cultural antecedence obviously a draw for the author, giving great scope for historical reference of human modification and use (including such as customary rights) before she even got to describing, and with some hyperbole (as is the wont also of many poets) the nature that she observed along the way – “a single, heavy bulrush nods to us as though in investiture”. That is a trait that Harrison shares with Robert Macfarlane in The Wild Places (19) that the mundane doesn’t exist, but she also shares his propensity to invent new verbs – “some [fields] are baized with young crops”

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire is the location of her first walk, and whereas Harrison observes this “fragment of wild fen is an excellent place to see how man and nature together can work with, rather than against, nature”, I see it as one among many of the lost opportunities of the 20th century for establishing a system of truly wild areas in Britain. Harrison, though, is free with the use of wild in describing Wicken Fen, it being described as “true wild fen”, implying by comparison with the surrounding land that Wicken Fen is not farmed. Harrison easily buys in uncritically to the management aims of the National Trust for Wicken Fen, where the rhetoric of “self-regenerating habitats” and a “dynamic habitat mosaic” boils down to “grassland will form the largest landscape” and “will be managed using grazing animals such as Konik ponies and Highland cattle which thrive in the wet and exposed conditions, creating a range of different grassland habitats” (20). Thus Harrison observes that “young silver birches have been recently cleared and the trunks piled up to decay naturally [?!]: longhorn cattle and rare konik ponies brought in by the National Trust help keep down the rest of the scrub that is threatening to make woodland of the precious grazing marsh”

The tree persecution and herbivorist fantasy at Wicken are crushingly banal, symptomatic of the contemporary blurring of the distinction between grazing domestic livestock and notions of wildness (2). That Wicken Fen was a lost opportunity comes from its inclusion a century ago on the list of reserves drawn up (the Rothschild Reserves) by the Society for Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) for “absolute preservation of their natural conditions” (17, 21). In a parallel to nearby Woodwalton Fen, also on the list, Charles Rothschild was instrumental in purchasing these fens, and handing Wicken over to the National Trust in 1899 and Woodwalton to the SPNR  in 1919 (now the Wildlife Trusts)(22,23). It would not have occurred to either of these organisations to stop farming the fens, as both would have been reliant on income from grazing, as they are today with Woodwalton being grazed throughout the year (24) and the National Trust filling its boots with a whacking £898,816 in agri-environment funding for grazing at Wicken Fen (AG00500909). Given a removal of farming pressure, both these fens would develop a woodland cover of willow-alder-birch (25) this fen woodland being a natural habitat with little representation in Britain, if it is actually assessed individually at all, rather than being lumped in with other wet woodland (26,27)

This lack of engagement by Harrison with the not-wild reality of what Wicken Fen represents reminds me of the furore created by Mark Cocker last year, when he took a poke at the publishing phenomenon of “new nature writing", and in which he saw Robert Macfarlane as pre-eminent - “His is the name on almost every dust jacket, through an improbable flow of puffs, forewords, introductions and publishers’ endorsements” (28). Cocker is one himself, having been the author of a book about crows that is part autobiography, as well as a bird book (29). However, he thought nature writers are no longer naturalists but “excursionists” in the sense of being domestic travel writers, that nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature, as in a “Macfarlish” - the process of praising other authors to make your own book better by association (30). For Cocker, the new literature has become about a process of “re-enchantment”, which has as much meaning to me as “rewilding” does nowadays. It’s as if Cocker is questioning how much the new nature writers truly care about our wild places, when they almost entirely ignore the wider implications of their writings for the natural world. Cocker says “The problem with this formula is that landscapes readily persist when all that makes a place enchanting – the filigree of its natural diversity – has long since vanished

This is about the value system for wild nature being debased in literature, a pervasive message amongst these new nature writers of embellishment in what are essentially pastoral narratives, and which is a misrepresentation that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of wild nature. Thus a critical response from Astrid Blacke, a writer on ecocriticism and a lecturer in English literature at Amsterdam University, was one of many in the fall out of ire directed at Cocker (31-35) but in an earlier article about “finding the wild” in this new nature writing, Blacke suggests that many of these contemporary nature writers are “acutely aware of the impossibility of wilderness” (36). Bracke destroys any credibility for this assertion about wilderness by relying on William Cronon, a polemicist and arch deconstructionist (37) and then destroys her own credibility by completely mis-defining wilderness – “The concept of wilderness, Cronon aptly describes, depends on us humans not being there. As soon as we’re there, it’s no longer wild. At the same time, many of us go to great lengths to find the wild – only to spoil it by our presence”

Bracke should have a read the primary aim of the US Wilderness Act 1964 to understand that designation of an area was not about the exclusion of people - "these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness" (13). In what is perhaps the clearest signal of how that enjoyment should be taken, the Act says: "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain". So, don’t expect to take up permanent residence, because that would have resource implications that would detract from a wilderness character, but it does mean that you can stay for a few nights, having taken in the resources you need, and then pack out your waste!

Living with the wild

Cocker is not above a lack of engagement himself. Alison alerted me to a country diary of his where he recounts sitting in a forest hut for three hours, waiting to see bears in Serbia, and being rewarded with sightings that unexpectedly had no drama, but a soundless stillness (38). Alison was interested in what Cocker was saying about folk just getting on with the bears being about, and all this “so close to home” and not in “big heroic expedition country”. In such a short article, details were thin, but it could be surmised that Cocker was in the Tara National Park in Serbia. I wondered where Cocker physically was in the Tara National Park, because if he had dug deeper he would have found that there is a good story to be told about the effectiveness of the zoning within the park, with its variable restriction on activity in the zones, all of which is specified for National Parks in the Serbian legislation on protected areas (see Article 35 in (39)). This may help to explain the tolerance shown to the 50 bears that he notes live in the park, the Tara National Park having the largest population of them in Serbia (40). The park is in the Dinaric Alps in western Serbia, and has an area of about 250 sq km, 80% of which is forested (41). The National Park website tells us that a strict protection zone covers 13%, a second level protection zone covers 34% in which there is some active management and limited use of natural resources, but the forest there acts as a buffer around the strict zone; the remaining 53% in the third protection zone has community forests, and small agricultural areas, plus two small villages entirely in the park with tourist facilities, and a few very small settlements straddling the park boundary in forest clearances in the mountain areas. The key thing is that the bears have 13% of the park area that is their own, and probably a total of around 40% of the park where they will not be in direct conflict with human activity. Perhaps half of third zone may also not be a problem, since the level of physical development and human activity is quite low, but the villagers will need bear proof bins! It is that zonation that probably makes it work for both people and bears, as it probably also does for wolves that are also in the park (40).

Would Cocker have known this? Was the tolerance he saw resulting from the fact that people were visiting their summer retreats, and thus were not commercial users of the land around them, and where conflicts could arise? Did this tolerance he saw extend outside of the National Park and where there would be greater possibility for conflict? Would the bears actually want to stray off there too often anyway, when the evidence is that bears don't like areas of livestock farming, and may not find the berry fruits they look for. People get on with inconveniences as long as the inconvenience is not too great, and that a tolerance of some inconvenience is accepted. Tolerance can come from experience and be voluntary, or it can be within a system like Tara National Park where there are some limits to development and exploitation that reduce the scope for confrontation across the zoning, but which also has a presumption for tolerance for bear as a protected area. The evidence in Europe does stack up in particular for bears that protected areas make the difference in getting people to rub along with them. Abruzzo National Park in the Central Apennines in Italy is the focus area for Marsican brown bears. However, spill-over outside the park causes conflict, but it is the focus of the National Park that brings in funding for areas outside the park that has reduced that confrontation by diversion to planted up areas of fruiting shrubs, bear proof bins, electric fencing to protect livestock, beehives and quality crops, as well as closing a number of unpaved roads (42). You could say the tolerance of local people has been bought with the funding, but really it’s the inconvenience that has been lowered and that brings tolerance.

Another example is Somiedo Natural Park in Spain, an area of 291 sq km in central area of the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain (43). Steve Robinson tells me that it’s a beautiful place, full of mountains, trees (40% coverage) and wildlife with very few people and restricted areas to benefit wildlife. He watched bears on two different occasions, the Natural Park being an important refuge for bears. Other highlights were seeing lots of wildflowers, trees dripping with lichen and finding wolf and wildcat, and fresh pine marten scat on one walk. Natural Parks in Spain are supposedly the equivalent of our national parks (IUCN Cat. V) but the nearer-natural element is often so much greater, as I have seen in the Natural Parks in Andalusia. Someido is also a Biosphere Reserve, and has substantial woodland and high montane habitats in the core area (one third) and in the buffer zone where the smallish number of people and their cattle live (44). Steve says that in Somiedo, you can see how people who still farm have adapted with the use of guard dogs to protect livestock, although, since the diet of bears is more than 80% vegetarian, he imagines their risk is relatively low compared to wolves. Steve believes that most conflict arising from bears seems to be from raiding fruit trees and bee hives, but there is a compensation scheme and funding for electric fencing to help reduce it. Steve says that bear are certainly the star of the park, and tourism based on their attraction has helped with tolerance. However, Steve says it wasn't always like this, and the park is a good example of how attitudes can change.

It is this idea of tolerance that we either never had here in Britain, or lost, or maybe it’s getting is the product of a more enlightened age now, rather than the simple binary of centuries ago where land ownership was more concentrated, as was the policy of control of that land. I came across this thing about tolerance in relation to beaver, as a few landowners in Devon last year were talking about planning for "no tolerance zones" for beaver, as though it was some well-known system for management of beaver (45). The idea being that land users would have a right to manage beaver if they impacted these no-tolerance zones. I suspect it came from a misunderstanding of the Bavarian state legislation that does allow a range of management options, starting with non-lethal, for reducing impact at such as sewage works or key flood protection systems. It is not a free-for-all exception to strict protection because it does not cover inconveniences to farmers - like bank erosion, dams, tree damage - and has to be carried out by state licenced people, and not farmers just blasting away. It anyway, as a concept, should not solely be viewed in the negative i.e. tolerance rather than no tolerance.

The spread of beaver will be a test of intolerance that has some hope. Lynx is a different situation, as the stakeholder forum event in Ambleside last year showed (46). Being realistic, it is too great a test of current intolerance, irrespective of whether the scale of conflict is real or imagined. In Germany, the new wilderness areas under the national target are expected to be federally protected on the basis of non-intervention, and all these areas will be evaluated for resettlement of lynx and wolf (46). That's a real leg up for more lynx and wolves on top of what are already there, and in a way that doesn't just rely on the hope that natural distribution from those existing settled areas will be tolerated. Thus wilderness will make a difference in Germany. I don't think we necessarily need to set up large, non-intervention protected areas in Britain for beaver, but it would really help lynx reinstatement if we had some. As it is, the pragmatic approach of the Lynx UK Trust in terms of finding suitable habitat for lynx release resulted in identifying areas that also have the lowest conflict potential. They also know all the lessons about how to reduce conflict, and how these are bought in places like France not just for lynx but also wolf. This is not just about compensation for loss of stock, but changes in the way livestock are managed to reduce conflict.

Here is the conundrum. If we had strictly protected, non-intervention areas in Britain in which to release lynx, then it may, over the longer term, be a smoother pathway to gaining wider tolerance and mitigation than having a hard release into conflict space. Either way, having to consider the exigencies of lynx reinstatement shows up our land use and protected area system as being entirely inadequate. Would that there is some nature writing that I could point to, which explores these issues. As it is, I have the surprising last two chapters of a book by Mark Boyle, an Irish author and activist more known for his books on eschewing the mainstream and exploring money-less systems (47). His latest book rails against the political and economic system in a dialectical style, but with a mantra in the introduction that signposts his ultimate goal – “Resist, revolt, rewild” (48). I will skip over what comes in between to the penultimate chapter, where Boyle declares that the time has come for the "Wild Revolutionary" to be introduced in to the political landscape. His analogy is with Yellowstone and the impact of the reinstatement of wolves, that the Wild Revolutionary could “kickstart the political equivalent of a trophic cascade, leading to a dramatic upsurge in the diversity of our cultural, social and economic terrains”. Rhetoric aside, this is a call for a change in our culture so that it values “The Wild” and protects it from the excesses of human exploitation. In his final chapter, entitled Return of the Wolf, he makes a pitch for "Wild Nature’s" value that is more than just satisfying the narrow-minded selfishness of humanity, instead asserting the right of existence of every species on Earth in accordance with its own nature - "Protecting and allowing wilderness to simply be is valuable on its own terms". He sees the return of the wolf in rectifying a trophic imbalance in Yellowstone as a metaphor for the action needed in rectifying our unbalanced relationship with wild nature. Thus we need a “ferocious predator” as he says to block the endless browsing to death of the young growth ("saplings") of new ideas, new alignments, and new relationships with wild nature. It’s a complex if discursive read, but I absolutely concur with Boyle in putting wild nature into a political context, in breaking the pattern, because nature conservation as represented by the lost opportunities and the misrepresentation in nature writing described above, has failed it so far.

Mark Fisher 14 October 2016

(1) Alison Parfitt, Wildland Research Institute

(2) Written evidence submitted by Dr Mark Fisher, BRX0049, September 2016. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum inquiry. Environmental Audit Committee

(3) Carver, S. (2016) Rewilding… conservation and conflict. ECOS S 37(2): 2-10

(4) Patterns and disconnections in nature, Self-willed land August 2016

(5) Arts, K., Fischer, A., & van der Wal, R. (2016). Boundaries of the wolf and the wild: a conceptual examination of the relationship between rewilding and animal reintroduction. Restoration Ecology, 24(1), 27-34

(6) Lorimer, J., & Driessen, C. (2013). Bovine biopolitics and the promise of monsters in the rewilding of Heck cattle. Geoforum, 48, 249-259.

(7) THE FUTURE OF WILD EUROPE. Postgraduate and Early-Career Researcher Conference, University of Leeds, 12–14 September, 2016

(8) What is/are the Environmental Humanities? enhanceITN

(9) Rewilding in the Yorkshire Dales, enhanceITN

(10) The future of Wilderness in Europe, Zoltan Kun, 5 October 2016

(11) A wildland temporal, in Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Wildland Research Institute. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government

(12) Foreman, D. (2000). The real wilderness idea. In D. N. Cole, S. F. McCool, W. A. Freimund, A. Wayne, and J. O’Loughlin (Eds.), Wilderness science in a time of change conference–Vol. 1: Changing perspectives and future directions (pp. 32–38). Ogden, Utah: USDA, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

(13) Wilderness Act of 1964, Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S.C. 1131-1136)

(14) Scott, D. (2001) “Untrammeled” “Wilderness Character” and the Challenges of Wilderness. Wild Earth 11(3/4): 72-79 (Fall/Winter 2001/2002)

(15) Proescholdt, K. (2008) Untrammeled WILDERNESS. Minnesota History 61:114-123

(16) Wildernesses of the Mind, Self-willed land January 2005

(17) Wild trees and natural wood, Self-willed land April 2013

(18) Harrison, M (2016) Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Faber & Faber ISBN-13: 978-0571328932

(19) The Wild Places, Wildland Bibliography, Self-willed land

(20) Wicken Fen Vision, Natural Trust 2009

(21) The Rothschild List: 1915-2015. A review 100 years on. The Wildlife Trusts's%20List%20100%20Years%20On.pdf

(22) Walking in Rothschild’s footsteps, 29th May 2014

(23) History of Woodwalton Fen, The Great Fen

(24) Visit Woodwalton Fen, The Great Fen

(25) The natural vegetation of England, Self-willed land August 2014

(26) Fens and marshes - lowland, JNCC

(27) 91E0 Alluvial forests with Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior (Alno-Padion, Alnion incanae, Salicion albae) Habitat account - Forests, JNCC

(28) Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? Mark Cocker, New Statesman 17 June 2015

(29) Cocker, M. (2007) Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature. Jonathan Cape ISBN-13: 978-0224076012

(30) Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – digested read. John Crace, Guardian 15 March 2015

(31) Finding a Shape to Write About Nature, Astrid Bracke 18 September 2015

(32) Conduct unbecoming Mark Cocker, Jac’s sisters 25 June 2015

(33) Ground or Private Park: Whose Nature (writing) is it anyway? Richly Evocative 6 July 2015

(34) Robert Macfarlane: why we need nature writing. Robert Macfarlane, New Statesman 2 September 2015

(35) On Nature Writing: The Cocker/Macfarlane exchange. Peter Reason. Writing the World: Nature writing for the ecological crisis 18 September 2015

(36) Finding the Wild Nearby in New British Nature Writing

(37) Forest, Rocks, Torrents, Self-willed land October 2011

(38) Close encounters on a bear mountain, Mark Cocker, Guardian 31 May 2016

(39) Закон о заштити природе ("Службеном гласнику РС", бр. 36/2009 и 88/2010) (The Nature Protection Act (Official Gazette of RS no. 36/2009 and 88/2010)

(40) Fauna of Tara National Park

(41) Парк инфо, TAPA НАЦИОНАЛНИ ПАРК (Park info, Tara National Park)

(42) Life Arctos project (LIFE 09/NAT/IT/000160)

(43) Parque Natural Somiedo: Reserva de la Biosfera

(44) SOMIEDO, Spain, Biosphere Reserve Information, UNESCO - MAB Biosphere Reserves Directory

(45) Big areas for ecological restoration, December 2015

(46) One more step towards the trial release of lynx, June 2016

(47) About the author, The Moneyless Manifesto

(48) Boyle, M, (2015) Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi. Permanent Publications ISBN-13: 978-1-085623-243-2