How can you reach your 50's and still not know what to do with your life?
I remember standing in a sand pit as a young boy, identifying paw marks left by wild animals. This was a test for Wolf Cubs in the 1950’s. Later, as a Boy Scout, I took Backwoodsman and Cook badges: I made a shelter out of lashed poles, leafy branches and turfs, and put in a thick mattress of cut bracken. It was a cosy few nights out. I caught fish, gutted and cooked them on a wood fire; and gutted, skinned and cooked rabbits (we salted and cured the rabbit pelts, but not very successfully). Most of each summer was spent living and sleeping outdoors; hiking, sailing and swimming. It was a normal boyhood of that time, perhaps fortunate in having a dynamic Scout group with its own woodland campsite, and a local sailing club of sensibly artisan approach. I had fun without troubling whether these skills of self-reliance were needed for equipping me for later life.
I started adulthood with immense enthusiasm for science. I got two degrees, worked in the pharmaceutical industry and then in a teaching hospital in America. I did not do anything in science that would remotely change the world. Instead, the isolation of living in small town America gave me time to ponder my condition. I made a discovery - I had absolutely no career ambition at all. The things that I excelled at were the things that I did for my own interest. Anything else would end in anxiety that would make me ill.
Coming back to Britain, I ditched science without a backward glance. Changing jobs turned out to be less easy. A self-employment course encouraged me to think up a business idea. However, rather than launch into business, I did what every other able bodied man with time but lacking ambition has done before – I stuck some seeds in the ground and watched them grow. Over the next decade, growing food became a metaphor for me to understand the place our species has in the kingdoms of life. Such are the turning points.
Writing as a connection
I started writing articles in about 1993 as a means to connect with my thoughts and acts, and with the people around me. I reported the progress of two public demonstration gardens, built with friends in the corner of an old walled garden in Halifax. I designed the gardens to have contrasting styles: an ornamental kitchen garden inspired by the late Geoff Hamilton; and a forest garden on the lines of the late Robert Hart’s experiment in Shropshire. The first would be a touchstone for natural/organic gardeners and the latter was considered the archetype of the Permaculture movement at that time. I had set up a contest of ideals that I thought I knew who the victor would be. It is going into extra time.
Over the years, I designed and built more demonstration and working gardens, mostly with mixed function, and broadened my experience of the properties and use of plants. I learned much while helping to develop Springfield Community Garden, a 3-hectare horticultural project to the SE of Bradford. This was the first publicly funded project in Britain that was designed and developed using Permaculture Principles.
I taught people how to grow their own food and how to design and build their gardens in a style that complements nature. Teaching is another way to connect with thoughts and actions, and so is the shared working in designing and developing new sites, and in supporting community involvement. It seems therefore natural that I grew into Permaculture as a fitting expression of what I do, and found support in its community that gave me recognition for my learning and achievement.
It is to this evidence of accomplishment, and the experience that it had brought, that I owed my broadening canvas of work. This ranged from community facilitation; landscape design; and low impact area design through to training programs; rural small business advice; management of a farm business advice service; a regional business support program for farmers' markets; research on rural aspirations in a semi-upland District; rural proofing local governance; supporting Parish and Town Councils; and producing a clear view of the rural landscape of a semi-upland District through mapping its ecological goods and services in water catchment and purification, maintenance of air quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife refuge, and the aesthetic pleasure of those landscapes and the enjoyment of them.
I waited a number of years before I started teaching Permaculture. I wanted to feel that I had sufficiently absorbed its meaning and could look past an unease at its origination from the experience and ideas of only two people. Its teaching has in many ways become my way of understanding natural systems and human organisation. Its tenets of frugal self-reliance and resourceful and deliberate living are poorly accommodated in a society of mostly landless people. But through its land ethic, principles and design-led approach that mirrors natural processes, and in its recognition that there has to be wilderness, I came to develop a view of how I wanted to relate to the world around me. Some of the notes of my Permaculture Design course can be read by following the link Learn About Permaculture.
The wildland experience
I can probably point to at least a decade of thinking about wilderness, and its relevance to Britain. My understanding of Permaculture gave me the eyes to see that our use of British landscapes is so comprehensive that we have no example of what is truly natural, or what has been lost, and thus have no basis for a value system for wild land. Overlaying this was a dissatisfaction with the patterns of land ownership and access that exclude all but the wealthy. However, it was only as we entered the new millennium that I felt sure enough that my instincts and unease about the British landscape were valid.
I first experienced the magic of wild land in 2001. The botanical richness of a chance week spent walking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, took me back two years later for a prolonged exposure to the North American attitude to wildness and land ownership, experienced over a 10-week period of walking its National Parks and open spaces. This was another turning point. When I got home, I discovered that I had been walking in designated wilderness in the core areas of the National Parks. I researched the American situation (legislation, public land ownership, institutions and voluntary organisations) and sought comparisons within Britain. I used the findings in a manifesto for rewilding the UK that I emailed to statutory or voluntary nature conservation organisations, DEFRA departments and wildlife groups. I had few responses, but there were invitations to write for magazines, and support from those who have had similar revelations.
In 2005, I went to watch the spectacular autumn leaf fall in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, and this time I made sure I knew where the wilderness was, passing a sign as I entered Sandwich Range Wilderness. A day later, a moment of profound emotion hit me when I came out high up onto a rock ledge, and looked out over the 800,000 acres of the National Forest. I went to America again in 2008 and walked 10 more wilderness areas, 11 if you count the designated wilderness in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. I camped for two weeks in Yellowstone National Park, which has no designated wilderness, but the backcountry there is just as wild. Seeing wolves for the first time in Yellowstone was another profound moment that I will never forget.
America is a long way to go for a walk, and so I started to explore continental Europe for its wildflowers and wildland. The Triglav National Park in Slovenia was a brilliant first choice. Walking there in 2004 took me into the core (non-intervention) area of what was one of the earlier European parks, designated in the 1920’s for the protection of its wildflowers. My first European wilderness though must be the Lagodehki State Nature Reserve, the PAN Parks wilderness partner in Georgia that I visited during a European Wilderness Days meeting in 2010. It is a truly wild place of forest, rock and water. One hundred years on from being designated a preserve where “wood-cutting, hunting and pasturing” were forbidden, it still maintains that strict protection today.
The start of the website
Setting up a personal website in 2003 was emblematic of a serious purpose, providing a platform for the manifesto and for my past writings. The key role of the website is to enunciate my views on landscape. The periodic articles (I aimed, but did not always achieve, an article each month) are a continuum of my developing thesis on the prospects for wildland in Britain. I soon though picked up on the dissatisfaction with the orthodoxy of nature conservation in Britain, alighting in 2005 on some uncompromising criticism from Stephen Rowe, a young man who had seen through the industrialisation of conservation and its destructive action. I also was contacted by Neil Fitzmaurice, who told me how Sheffield Wildlife Trust was destroying the wild character of his local moor. This led to a first article written in cooperation with local people, highlighting their plight. I have been documenting discontent with that orthodoxy ever since, and not just about heathland restoration. Irrespective of habitat, the prescription for open landscapes in this orthodoxy inevitably ends in the persecution of naturally regenerated trees and shrubs, and it discomforts those who have developed a close relationship with their local landscape. While I see it as a killing of wildness, it is probably more a reaction on the part of local people against the destruction of their aesthetic experience of that landscape.
I was invited in 2006 by the Modern British Collections section of the British Library to have my website archived as part of the national effort to archive representative websites from the UK web space in advance of the introduction of legal deposit for digital materials. The website was archived roughly twice a year since 2006, with the archive sets available on the UK Web Archive. I am indexed in the British Countryside collection of related internet sites.
Just sometimes you wish journalists would join the dots and recognise for themselves the extent of the disagreement with the heavy handedness of the conservation industry, and begin to ask the hard questions as to why it is happening. To give them a helping hand, I began in 2008 to put together a compilation of newspaper articles and letters to newspapers, plus other information in the public domain on heathland restoration that gives a measure of the anger across England, and shows the repeated pattern that reveals the drivers behind this Heathland MADNESS. Unfortunately, the compilation grew by the year.
Wildland Research Institute
Steve Carver and I began talking about setting up a research institute for wildland in the Autumn of 2008. We both agreed that it was the European situation for wildland that would prove more productive and persuasive if we were to build an evidence and policy base for a transition to a greater presence of wild land in Britain. I first met Steve, a senior lecturer in Geography at Leeds University, when a group of us came together to set up the Wildland Network in Britain in 2005. It soon became apparent that Steve and I had walked many of the same places in N. America, and we shared a passion that soon had us labelled wildernistas. Steve runs the only undergraduate course in the UK on wilderness environments, and I get to teach a few sessions, as well as accompany the group on its residential field trip.
I left the Wildland Network when it seemed incapable of responding and contributing to the evolving situation both in Britain and the rest of Europe. This occurred about the time that I added a section on Wild Europe after picking up on a draft resolution on wilderness in Europe that had been passed in December 2008 by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament. From this committee stage, it was scheduled to go to the European Parliament on 3 February 2009, and so I took it upon myself to email information out when the resolution was passed, as there seemed to be no recognition in Britain of these events. I also sought government responses on the resolution, and reported on the conference in Prague that took place a few months later in May 2009. In October 2009, Steve, Alison Parfitt and I launched the Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University. Since then, I have been an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography that hosts the Institute, and edited the first and only issue of Wilder Horizons, the Institute's journal.
I reached a milestone of 60 articles with the November 2009 exploration of the North York Moors and its woodland cover. I divide my time between work for the Institute and writing for this website, and so it is probably unlikely that I would reach 100 articles by the time of the 10th anniversary of the website in 2013. The first major work for the Institute was a commission from the Scottish Government, which wanted a review of the status and conservation of wild land in Europe, and its lessons for Scotland. As the principal author, I gave an interim report in 2010 as a presentation at a UNESCO-sponsored conference on Scotland's Wild Landscapes, and submitted the main report later that year. Subsequent work has included an options briefing for the John Muir Trust on the protection of wildland in Scotland; attending the second Wild Europe meeting in Brussels; commenting on guidance for wilderness management in the EU; compiling a register of European wilderness areas for the EU; a review commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage of the social, economic and environmental benefits and constraints linked to wild land in Scotland; a chapter on Ecological values of wilderness in Europe for a book on Wilderness Protection in Europe; and presentations at various meetings. I contributed to a journal article of my long-time collaborator and tree-planting partner, Rob Pheasant, on the importance of auditory-visual interaction in the construction of tranquil space. The article was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which probably makes me the only person to have ever published in that journal and in the Journal of Biological Chemistry
IUCN and Rewilding
In 2016 Alison Parfitt and I combined in an article for ECOS that was critical of the way rewilding was being re-interpreted in Europe in a way that left us stranded. It was a difficult decision, but we choose to discard rewilding in that article and use wilding instead, because the former had become freighted for us with so many different meanings, often seemingly to suit the purposes of particular agendas, when we wanted to look forward to nature-led lands, not back. It was Alison who encouraged Steve Carver and myself to return to a correspondence about the drift in meaning of rewilding that we had with Ian Convery of the University of Cumbria and Erwin van Maanen of the Rewilding Foundation in the Netherlands, to see if there was anything we could all do together to redress the drift. Erwin knew Michael Soulé from having worked with him in Romania, and so we were able enlist Michael’s support in being part of a European Discussion. Michael thought it silly that some Europeans had pushed a re-definition of the concept of rewilding to the absurd extreme of livestock grazing.
Out of those discussions came the Rewilding Task Force in June 2017 under the umbrella of the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the IUCN. What followed was a program of questionnaires and workshops to develop a set of guiding principles for rewilding, and which culminated in an article in the journal Conservation Biology, and subsequently a Handbook for Rewilding for which I wrote a chapter on The emergence of rewilding in North America. That chapter came out of an etymological analysis I undertook for rewilding that tracked the first 14 years usage of the word by its originators. Despite this seeming progress, the space given to the perpetrators of the drift to have their say during that process became increasingly frustrating, of constantly having to push a rock up a hill. Others, who would not engage with the Task Force, sought control over it by having a proposal passed at the IUCN Congress in 2021 to set up an IUCN Rewilding Working Group that effectively made the Task Force pointless. I needed to have a break from the Task Force, now a Thematic Group, and then I had to have a break generally from writing about rewilding as I had become a rewilding bore, saying the same things over and over again, having to keep making a point when nobody was listening. When I write now it is for ecology, for the evolutionary processes of a wild nature that is unbound by the self-importance of the human species and its contrivances.
This commitment to promotion of wilderness and self-willed land is thus a personal motivation, but which has resonance for those who give themselves the space and freedom to think across history, and for whom the future has to hold promise. I have no intention of a return to a Stone Age, although I am more equipped for it than others. Using reason and rationality, I take views on the land of my birth and cast a new future for its wild nature. The articles, reports and research on this website grapple with that future. My name is Mark Fisher and I live at the edge of a floodplain in a river valley in West Yorkshire.
January 2004, September 2005, November 2012, February 2023