Why the Wildness Obsession?

BY BEN EAGLE

In 2007 Granta published Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, a beautifully evocative exploration of remote spots across the British Isles. Macfarlane is one of my favourite nature writers and he is a genius so far as storytelling goes. When I read his work I am transported away from present reality in all the ways that one should be when it comes to successful literary works. In The Wild Places this meant travelling to the remote Scottish Isle of Raasay, Bin Chuanna in Western Ireland, Ynys Enlli off the coast of Wales and the shingle spit of Orford Ness, the former military outpost which lies off the Suffolk coast. Macfarlane searches for wildness in all its forms and for him this means travelling to, and completely embracing, places that are remote from people, sleeping out in the open on each occasion and experiencing the resident and semi-resident wildlife first hand. These experiences are interwoven with the tales of past people who have visited these desolate spaces. As a reader I willingly journeyed on this niche tour of Britain, desperate in some ways myself to escape to these places and leave my normal life behind.

Last year I visited the Knepp Estate in Sussex, an experiment in rewilding (or at least one kind of rewilding) spearheaded by Charlie Burrell and his team. Although driven by economic necessity as much as ecological curiosity, Knepp is a prime example of the wave we are experiencing today in terms of (some) people wishing the British landscape to become wilder and less formulaic in its management. Rewilding our landscapes and our hearts is all part of the mission of the rewilding movement across Europe. Rewilding looks to restore natural processes, protect existing wildernesses and, in certain areas, introduce keystone species such as wolves, beavers and lynx.  Rewilding Europe was established in 2011, with the aim of rewilding a million hectares of land in ten areas across Europe, including Western Iberia, the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube Delta. Sister organisation Rewilding Britain joined the mission in 2015, establishing itself as a registered charity within Britain to further the cause of rewilding.

To all intents and purposes it seems that we have become obsessed with wildness.

As most of our lived experience becomes increasingly urban, this drive for wildness seems to grow stronger. However, it would be unfair to say that the call is simply from the urban space. There is strong demand (and concern from some!) for rewilding from people in rural areas too, who can see opportunities in terms of ecotourism. The Lynx UK Trust believes that lynx reintroduction could be worth up to £70 million to the UK economy. However, the concerns from communities such as sheep farmers are legitimate and should not be taken with a pinch of salt. It is vital that if the push for rewilding continues, cultural heritage (which includes farming) should be protected. This said, rewilding is a process and does not discriminate in terms of opportunity of place, so urban rewilding projects are just as possible, and active and alive, as rural rewilding opportunities.

We live on a crowded island and most of our experience is set aside from ‘wild landscapes’. They are something that many of us yearn for and love to visit yet see as overwhelmingly distant. Critically, wildness is something that we need to believe still exists. This is partly why Planet Earth and Planet Earth 2, along with all the big ‘bluechip’ BBC Natural History Unit films, have been so successful. We cannot live with the idea that wild spaces no longer exist. The rewilding movement and our obsession with wildness is part of the concern that we are negatively impacting the planet and therefore yearn for personal wild experiences to make us feel better, so we can believe that the state of the Planet’s health is fine and dandy.

Equally, our search for wildness is a search for remoteness and to get away from other people. We live on a crowded island, and we each yearn for space. Space is a buzzword of our times. Space, or lack of it, drives agendas and conversations when it comes to immigration, food production, conservation, housing, community assets, landownership, power, energy. In fact, most subjects have the question of space at their heart. The question of wildness is no different and by its very nature wildness, in our minds and in our landscapes, often has scale at its core.

We should remember that wildness can be negative as well as positive. It has just as much to do with isolation, desolation and fear as much as comfort, awe, wonder and ecological progress. Wildness has has become romanticised in our minds. We remain embedded within the cultural framework of Coleridge and Wordsworth. We tend to see wildness more through their eyes than through Bram Stoker’s vision of Dracula.We need to remain aware of this, although I argue that, in today’s context, rewilding our landscapes and our hearts will not only be necessary for our landscapes and ecology in the longer term, it will also be vital for our hearts and our heads.

Ben Eagle is an independent rural commentator and agricultural and environmental writer. He blogs regularly at thinkingcountry.com and produces the Meet the Farmers podcast.

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