Icon Books Ltd, 2020
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Like many people, when I first heard the term ‘rewilding’ I thought it simply referred to the idea of ceasing to cultivate a particular piece of land and letting Nature decide what would grow there and how. There was probably a time in history when this would have been an easy and very worthwhile thing to do. Sometimes, of course, it still is. But sadly, ever since Homo sapiens came on the scene and starting using tools, big disruptions began to take place – probably starting with our far-off ancestors hunting the prehistoric megafauna to extinction. More latterly, in these last two centuries of industrial enterprise – and even more in recent decades – our species has wreaked havoc on the Earth’s ecosystems – depleting and contaminating the soil, polluting the atmosphere, removing keystone species and thereby causing trophic cascades that drove many others out of existence — until we have now reached the point where to do any kind of repairing we have no choice but to try and give Earth’s natural processes a helping hand.
But how to do that? How do we even begin? Do we even have enough knowledge and understanding of the ways of Nature even to dare to try? The further I got into Jepson and Blythe’s book the more awestruck I became at the sheer amount of information they have packed between two covers. To read, learn and fully integrate all of it would be the equivalent of taking an entire university course. Yet it is far from being an academic tome. It is written in an interesting and easy to understand way.
One of the key things I learned from reading this book was the notion of ‘shifting baseline systems.’ The landscapes and species that make up my vision of wild Nature is determined by whatever landscapes and species have been around during my lifetime. I cannot imagine an English hedgerow without wrens or a summer sky devoid of larks. Even though there are far fewer thrushes now than there were during my childhood, thrushes to me are still part of that vision. For my grandchildren they may not be. To my great-great-grandchildren a wren-free hedge and a lark-free sky may be the norm. They won’t miss those other beings and their songs because they never knew them, never heard them.
All our past ideas on ‘restoration’ have involved restoring an area to how it was at some defined point in the not-so-distant past. But in an ever-changing – and rapidly changing – world, all such points are arbitrary. The modern science of rewilding brings a different approach. It involves the study of parts and wholes and relationships. Not just ‘what are the keystone species in this ecosystem?’ but ‘what function do the keystone species in this ecosystem perform in order to keep the system intact and in balance?’ (And ‘if I can’t bring back whoever used to do it, who can I bring in who might do the same job?’
This latter is called ‘taxon substitution’ e.g. when it is not possible to bring back extinct species, try to find a similar species from somewhere else that you can bring in to perform the same function. The authors mention the island of Mauritius, where for example, the native tortoises had gone extinct, causing a serious disruption of the island ecosystem and a different, non-native species of tortoise was successfully brought in to fill the all-important niche and restore the balance. For as they point out: …if megafauna are once again part of ecosystems, the ‘small stuff’ will mostly look after itself.
Rewilding, they tell us, is not about turning back the clock…it is about restoring networks of interactions between communities of organisms and their physical environment, along with the ecological processes that emerge from these interactions. It is more open-ended and relaxed about ecological novelty. It embraces the view that there is no way back for ecosystems and that, as ecological interactions and processes recover, ecosystems will take on new forms. These may evoke the past, but they will be different..
I, for one, have been very resistant to the whole concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ ever since I first heard that term. This book has helped me to understand that there is no alternative now, but to try and find ways to repair the damage we have done. And try to do it as carefully, as humbly, as skilfully and as lovingly as we possibly can.