Wildness in the literary landscape


There’s a rash of publications from British authors this year describing their personal journeys in search of wildness, and the people they meet on the way. The two already published - Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (published posthumously) and Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths – are trans-global in their odysseys and in their encounters.

Griffiths in her seven-year on/off exploration sought out indigenous peoples in such places as the Amazon rain forest, the Arctic, Australia and New Guinea. For her, these often oppressed peoples have languages that describe and celebrate landscapes, a “tender connection between human society and the wild”. Deakin’s journey encompasses Britain before crossing into Europe, Central Asia and on to Australia, meeting woodland workers and sharing in their work and in their living in shacks and cabins. His journey was an education in the continuing connection that some cultures have with wood and trees.

Two more are set to be published later this year: Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places is due out in September, and confines itself to locations in Britain, but uses historical and contemporary literary references to explore the changing ideas of the wild, and how cultures, past and present, have shaped these places and ideas. Richard Mabey’s Beechcombing: The narratives of trees is set for publication in October. The wordplay of the book title is uncharacteristic of Mabey, but we must wait a few months before its contents are revealed to find out if it also is a journey in to the wild, whether physical, temporal or spiritual, as were his two most recent works.

This literary explosion certainly fills a void in contemporary wildland narrative in Britain, embarrassingly thin as it is in comparison to say North America. For Macfarlane, it was revealed in an interview last year that his book is likely to be a paean to the “undiscovered country of the nearby”, the wonders of the close at hand (1). It is less certain what message a British audience can take from Griffith’s book, but you get the feeling that she and Macfarlane are on a mission that was described in that interview as “an artistic movement examining and challenging the way that contemporary society relates to the world”. Thus in the same way that wildland enthusiasts and promoters self associate through conferences, wild walks and tree planting, so also do these like-minded authors gravitate together.

Macfarlane acknowledged in a newspaper tribute the inspiration that Deakin’s earlier book Waterlog gave him for the individual journeys he set out upon, and for the journeys they would take together, and which were presumably research for Macfarlane’s book (2).  Macfarlane visited with Deakin a week before his death last year. He celebrated Deakin’s life with a few friends by enjoying the feral nature of an evening and morning swim, and readings from Deakin’s book, while spending a night sleeping out amongst the pines that border the dunes at Holkham on the Norfolk coast, not far from Deakin’s home in Suffolk.

Valuing indigenous peoples

Jay Griffiths acknowledges Macfarlane in her book, and it’s not much of a surprise that Griffiths and Mabey were speakers alongside Macfarlane at a recent conference in Cambridge entitled Passionate Natures: Ecology and the Imagination (3). Macfarlane who organised it tells me that the conference was successful in bringing poets, sculptors, novelists, dancers, conservationists, polar scientists, philosophers, and wild-land stewards into temporary and not always harmonious dialogue with one another.

Would I have been comfortable in that company? I found Griffiths’ book hard going. It is perhaps difficult to escape the logic that an artistic outlook or temperament will always put an essential value on the human perception and involvement with landscapes. Plants don’t express self-awareness; animals have primary imperatives that don’t allow for much self-expression, but humans can emote, they can describe or illustrate their senses and memories. These unique abilities would make us a magnificent adjunct to wild nature if it weren’t also for our exceptional physical articulacy that allied with our superior cognitive capability allows us to move beyond a simple existence. Our ability to dominate thus makes us a dangerous species, more so than any niche-dependent predator.

Griffiths panacea in her book, of valuing an indigenous peoples approach to subsistence, has some merit if only that the level of ambition or achievement of that subsistence can be less damaging to wild nature than is the Western norm. But who gets to choose which culture? Give me the San people, the self-reliant hunter gatherer bush people of the Kalahari Desert over the Masai tribal herders any day (4). The former eschew the vain trappings of the latter, their ritual mutilation through female circumcision, the status gained from livestock ownership and the landscape degradation that ensues. And yet it is the scruffy bush people who are evicted from their landscapes (5,6), whereas the Masai are not facing Government eviction and are beloved by tourists.

Chronology is no arbiter either. Expansion of farming from its early origin in the Middle East was exceptionally more successful in having an overwhelming influence in a westerly direction into Europe, and especially so in the wetter, temperate locations where grass grew lush in areas of cleared forest. The presumption then that European expansion into the new world over the last millennia was an immense accelerating factor for landscape change is a fairly safe assumption. But other expansionary cultures could be just as dangerous.

The islands that split off from Gondwanaland to make up New Zealand were unpopulated for 80 million years. Polynesians, a relatively simple group of seafarers, alighted there 1000 years ago and began the wholesale clearance of the landscape that reduced original forest cover by a half and slaughtered the indigenous fauna to the point of extinctions, including 30 avian species. The arrival of European-descended colonisers in the 1780's thus only accelerated the destruction that had already taken hold. Nevertheless, the Maori are accorded the status of indigenous people, and it is their “god-given traditional practices, which have been handed down from the venerable ancestors and encapsulated in taha wairua or spiritual dimensions pertaining to mana and mauri which in turn provide the key elements for a generic conservation ethos (from now and into perpetuity)." (7)

We are perhaps on safer ground with the contemporary example of the Kayapo of central Brazil (8). They live near the southern limit of the tropical forests of Amazonia, a landscape of forests interspersed with cerrado, areas of open savannah. They hunt, fish, and gather many species of the plants and animals of the forests and practice shifting cultivation (for an explanation of the latter, see in Why we need Wild Land, July 2005). The Kayapo identify specific plants and animals occurring within the different ecological zones. They have good knowledge of animal behaviour and they also know which plants are associated with which animals. They connect plant types with the different soil types and have an understanding of companion planting.

The Kayapo concentrate native plants by growing them in resource islands, forest fields, forest openings, tuber gardens, agricultural plots and old fields, and beside their trails through the forest. They select and transplant a number of semi-domesticated native plants and manipulate some species of animals (birds, fish, bees, and mammals) that can be used for food. The most significant of their many resource management techniques is the creation of the apete forest patches. Apete are formed from open cerrado in areas prepared with crumbled termite and ant nests, and then mulched out, into which palms, climbing vines and other useful plants are transplanted. A full-grown apete has an architecture that creates zones that vary in shade, light and humidity, and they become sources of medicinal and edible plants, as well as places of rest. In effect, these apete are a way of reforesting the open spaces of the cerrado, and are similar to the forest edge guilds of Permaculture (see in Plant Communities and Natural Pest Control, June 2002).

The Kayapo are probably not unique, they are just the most studied of the native groups of Amazonia with respect to their resource management. As it is, the closeness to nature of their systems – and perhaps the lack of any true wild reference location nearby – meant that it was some years before it was realised how significant their manipulation of the landscape is.

I have only yet dipped into Deakin’s book, but I especially liked his account of returning to the New Forest in Hampshire. Deakin sets out with an old friend to find the patches of wild flora that he remembered from his schoolboy rambles. He finds the insectivorous bladderworts and sundews, the rarity wild gladioli and, later, out on the coast, the characteristic sea kale and horned poppy. Deakin is disturbed as he walks the woodland noticing "how open and empty of growth the forest was”. He sees, as I did, the conspicuous absence of natural regeneration and the clear browse line, both indicating the over-grazing of the forest. He contrasts that with the few examples of exclosure where regeneration is protected (see in Four strands of barbed wire - a Blacka Moor update, March 2007).

Deakin speculates on the regeneration of Denny Wood, a beech wood in the New Forest where the denser shade of the beech tree canopy pretty much self-selects for the seeding and growth of shade tolerant species like itself. As a longer-term thinker, he realises that in single species woodland of this sort, it will eventually need the beech to come down, either naturally or by felling, to let in light and thus let in a “new cycle of mixed woodland regeneration”.

When I read this, I thought of our recent walk through a conifer woodland in the southern alps of Slovenia. We came across large stacks of cut and split beech, but there were no clear openings in the forest canopy as would be expected from the felling. What we were witnessing was the practice of continuous cover forestry, where beech were selectively harvested from the mixed woodland and were able to regenerate naturally under the shade of the conifers (9). In the same way that the influence of the Kayapo on the landscape can be missed, this method of forest productivity has both visual and ecological advantages, and has similarities to the single tree, shelter belt and small group selection methods that we saw in New Hampshire forestry (see White Mountain National Forest - lessons in landscape, October 2005). It is a pity that continuous cover forestry has so little following in Britain (but see 10).

Mabey’s last book Fencing Paradise reflected on the success of human development and was a critique of how when given the riches of wild nature we have shaped and bent it to our own egocentric ends. He treads a path between pristine wilderness and intensive agriculture to locate our place in nature. Unsatisfied with any current system of agriculture, including organic, he points to experiments in forest farming and Permaculture as being on the right track. He maintains we are "hopelessly ignorant about how eco-systems function to sustain life". Mabey thinks we need to "turn our conventional relationship with nature upside down, begin to learn from it rather than just 'about' it". He could be describing the Kayapo, but in referencing Permaculture he would be acknowledging a convergence of views and outlook on wild nature and our cultivated ecology. I await his new book with anticipation.

A personal view of wild places

Macfarlane’s book is likely to be a personal view as he samples wild places in Britain. It will be interesting to discover the basis on which Macfarlane is drawn to these locations. In an earlier article, I referred to our preferences for the physical attributes that we seek out in our experience of landscapes (Four strands of barbed wire - a Blacka Moor update, March 2007). Naturalness is often distinguished as the most powerful factor, and while I gave some explanation of what I thought this meant, I did not do that for wildness.

In an ecologically perfect world, wildness would be essentially the same as naturalness, but in the same way that human influence can decrease naturalness, so can it also detract from wildness. Our manipulation of landscapes, extirpation of species (especially higher predators) and the introduction of non-native species, presents us with a situation that a landscape may be wild if it is allowed to be self-willed or self-shaping, but it does not necessarily have high naturalness because the species mix and its ultimate ecological processes and function could not be what they were before we intervened. It becomes increasingly inauthentic by any yardstick of native-ness.

This poses us the dilemma of whether we should in seeking to rewild our landscapes, intentionally manipulate them to compensate for the consequences of the unnatural effects of human activity or, to avoid exerting human control, should we allow conditions to become increasingly unnatural? Do we go on shooting grey squirrels and ruddy ducks, and clearing sycamore, larch, laurel and rhododendron? Should we continue with fire suppression when frequent, small, low-intensity fires may have been a (small) part of the shaping force of natural phenomena? Should we undo the constriction and channeling of water courses and allow landscapes again to flood and absorb seasonal or exceptional rains? Can we learn to love the feral goat?

You can add to this our predilection in contemporary BAP-driven nature conservation to play the numbers game when we “farm” wildlife through landscape management to yield a maximum for a target species. Is this natural? Perhaps it is, on the basis that the target species may be native, but it’s not wild. Wildlife numbers in conservation areas should not be symbolic of our management prowess.

I believe wild places must be a refuge for wild nature where our efforts are directed at restraining our management and control. Thus if we are to rewild locations, to improve the experience and the quality of wildness, then in its simplest sense we must set out to achieve that. It is a moral imperative to allow for wilding if we accept that humans have no more primacy or privilege than any other species, and that we should therefore not dominate every landscape in Britain.

The rewilding initiatives started so far in Britain constitute a continuum or spectrum rather than a specific characteristic, as does the available experience and quality of wild places. My personal view of that spectrum goes something like this in terms of increasing wildland experience:

  •  Farmland that is influenced by the move to funding schemes for greater environmental stewardship;

  •  Hybrids of farming or other land use with nature conservation that include Wicken Fen, the Great Fen, Marr Lodge etc., anything GAP and the RSPB does, most of what the Wildlife Trusts do, the National Forest (but this initiative could be promoted into the next category if there was some visionary planning on new woodland use), and Wild Ennerdale as it is now but, depending on what happens with its land use, it could move up

  • Genuinely new developments in productive land use that better integrate natural processes, such as savannah grazing (as in the regenerative Wildland Project at the Knepp Castle Estate), Forest Habitat Networks, agroforestry, forest farming, continuous cover forestry; protection of water catchment through regeneration of native forestry such as at Loch Katrine;

  •  Some National Nature Reserves, but not SACs, SPAs, SSSI because the designation often imposes too high a management intervention for wildness to be apparent; most of the coastal realignments such as Wallasea, Alkborough, Alnmouth, Freiston;

  • The greater provision of often publicly owned, local, close to urban, lightly managed woodland and green space (green infrastructure) and including some Local Nature Reserves and any nearby recreational Forestry Commission woodland (i.e. Southey Woods), all of which have little or no extractive use, but where public access is encouraged; many Woodland Trust local woodland projects; quarries reclaimed by native woodland that have access;

  • Rewilding projects with open access that set off uncompromisingly to regenerate naturally vegetated landscapes that will not then be commercially extracted, such as Carrifran, Hardknott Forest in the Duddon Valley, the Gairloch Estate in Wester Ross, the areas of Caledonian pine forest regenerated by Trees for Life;

  • Non or minimal intervention ancient woodland of reasonable size and predominantly of native broadleaf (Colt Park Wood, Ling Gill) or native conifer composition; coastal cliffs, sand dunes and bars, and undeveloped estuaries and salt marshes;

  • Future, large-scale, publicly owned Core Wild Areas or Large Natural Habitat Areas that will cement the concept and values of wildland into the British landscape, and which will allow sufficient area and habitat for the functional ecology of natural process to prevail, and where the successful reintroduction of extirpated mammalian species can take place. These CWA/LNHA would be nodes, buffered and networked by other wildland types of the continuum.

Up to the last entry, you could set out today and get a feel for the existing or potential wildland experience of these varied locations. Some may be undiscovered for you, others may not be close at hand, but they are the heritage of wild places that we give ourselves today. It is in that last category that we lose our egocentricity, and give ourselves and wild nature a future where the quality of the wildland experience will have some real meaning.

Mark Fisher 23 July 2007

(1) Writing in the Wilderness, a conversation with Robert MacFarlane, Roundtable Review, Edition 1: April/May 2006

(2) Force of nature, Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian, 16 September 2006


(3) Passionate Natures: Ecology and the Imagination, 22-24 June 2007, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Cambridge www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2006-7/passionatenatures.html

(4) The Masai people, Tribes of Tanzania, JMT African Heart Expeditions Ltd www.africanheart.com/information/masai.htm

(5) Losing battle for Kalahari, BBC News Africa, 19 July 2001 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1447295.stm

(6) Botswana: Bush people who were moved by force demand justice, Society for threatened peoples, 4 September 2006

(7) General Policy for National Parks, Dept. of Conservation, New Zealand, April 2005

(8) Kayapo Indians: experts in synergy, Darrel Posey 1991 www.metafro.be/leisa/1991/7-4-3.pdf

(9) What is Continuous Cover Forestry? Forestry Commission Information Note October 1999

(10) Continuous Cover Forestry Group www.ccfg.co.uk


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk