This blog’s recent writing competition was to write a review of George Monbiot’s book Feral.
The entries were judged by John Riutta, The Well-read Naturalist, Ian Carter and myself. Three entries were in the running for the winner (who receives a signed copy of my book Remarkable Birds) and I will publish the two highly-commended entries in future, but the deserved winner was Kerrie Gardner.
Kerrie writes: I work as an ecologist but behind the scenes I paint, sculpt, take photographs and write about the natural world. I find no greater pleasure than that which comes from immersing myself in nature, for there is joy to be found there which cannot be replaced. Diving into the dark sea, waiting silently for an otter or standing beneath a colossal thunderstorm; these are the moments I was made for.
Kerrie’s review of Feral:
Strangely, I didn’t buy Feral. My boyfriend did, in a small bookshop in Totnes. We had a long train journey ahead of us, so I reached into his bag and pulled out the book. And to my surprise, I couldn’t put it down.
It begins in the rainforests of Brazil. It is not an area I would normally choose to read about, being more interested in the boreal regions of the world. Yet as I sat there, eyes swooping from line to line, I felt deeply connected. There was something brewing in the words that called to me. It was then that Monbiot began to speak of Wales.
I have lived in Wales. I spent nearly four years of my life there, journeying deep into Snowdonia to walk up and down its many hills. Sometimes, on a rare day when I was feeling more sociable, I would walk with a Welsh friend. He was determined to climb every mountain in Wales. As such, he and I often travelled well off the beaten track. We even, on occasion, strayed into the Cambrian Mountains. I wrote once, after spending a day on their borders:
There was a smell
about that valley,
Yet at the time I did not realise the significance of my words.
Monbiot refers to these mountains as a desert, 460 square miles of virtually uninhabited land. When he moved there from the city he felt he was fleeing a stagnated existence, but his initial joy soon gave way to despair. The area he had chosen to live, which sat between the Cambrians and Snowdonia, was almost completely devoid of wildlife. To his dismay, he found there had been more plant and animal life in London.
And it is true; it was this absence of wildlife that I had referred to in my poem. The only thing I could smell in that barren valley was water and sheep. There was nothing else, just the ‘tinkle of water and trudge of stone’.
As Monbiot points out, this is because the landscape has been ‘sheepwrecked’. All plant life, save a handful of species, is decimated by their grazing. A similar situation is also happening in Scotland, but there it is largely red deer that are to blame.
Highlighting how heavily subsidized hill farming is painfully unsustainable, both for the UK taxpayer’s pockets and the environment, Feral also shines a light back to a time before sheep existed in Britain. And it was a magical time indeed. For there were monsters; great beasts such as bison, moose, bears, lynx, lions, wolves, rhinoceroses’ and elephants, all roaming around in vast numbers. Huge forest grew where now there is only heather, and in the rivers and seas enormous creatures swam. The world before human interference was magnificent. It was beyond our wildest dreams.
Or not, and this is where Feral pulsed through my veins like electricity. I believe many people in the UK are suffering from what Monbiot calls ‘ecological boredom’. Our lives, for the most part, are not the adventures they once were. Too many of us go through the motions with a secreted unrest. Listen in to any conversation and you can hear it. People aren’t happy. I admit there may be any number of reasons for this, but the underlining reason, as stressed in Feral, is that we have become so removed from what we once were; hunter-gatherers who lived in a raw and ferocious world. But the memory of that existence still remains, locked up in our DNA. A fading dream of a time when our lives were full of gripping simplicity, not the busy tedium we find ourselves in now. And I understand this feeling. I understand it so well that I wanted to find Monbiot and shake his hand.
We no longer have any large predators in the UK. Consequently, our trophic cascade has failed. If there is nothing to eat the herbivores, trees cannot grow. Our landscape, once praised for its manicured emptiness, is in fact very sick. Increased flooding and an ever diminishing species list are just two of many warning signs that we are continually choosing to ignore. The necessity of predators, as shown by the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park, is paramount. Their behaviour, from bears to plankton eating whales, transforms the environment for the better. Critics argue that reintroducing predators, alongside other charismatic species such as beavers to the UK is idealistic, but with extensive research, Feral shows that the benefits outweigh the risks. In almost every other European country many of these creatures are returning, with their presence often facilitating an economic boost. Closer to home, the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Mull brings in £5 million a year. In fact, wildlife tourism in Scotland is already worth £276 million a year. Deer stalking brings in less than half that amount.
But the key message in Feral, the one that resonated with my soul so intensely, is that while rewilding our land and seas is vital – so is rewilding ourselves. If we are to escape from our mediocre lives, we need to re-engage with the natural world. As Monbiot shows with refreshing zeal, his life feels infinitely more alive when he is surrounded by nature. His kayaking trips ignite him in ways that manmade amusements never could. When he is fully engaged with nature, the incredible creatures we shared this land with only a few thousand years ago become hauntingly close. Living among wolves and bison no longer seems implausible. Within Feral, we discover the very essence of wilderness. And it is not hiding in some remote place, but deep within us, buried beneath years of conditioning and bizarre agricultural policies. For we are feral creatures at heart; hemmed in only by our peculiar fear of ecological progression. But if we can just find the courage to let nature decide, our countryside and our society could pulse with life once more.
Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding by George Monbiot is published by by Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
My own review of the book is here.
Buy your copy of Feral from Blackwell’s and I will earn a little bit of money too!