Rewilding is getting quite a bit of traction these days and for good reason. But what is rewilding anyway? Well, it depends on who you ask. In general it’s about ecosystems and allowing nature to do what nature does in order to repair degraded land and promote biodiversity. Some people think humans have no place in a rewilded landscape. Others have a notion that true rewilding is about bringing mammoths back to roam the plains of North America. Still others believe humans are part of the landscape and have a role to play in its management.

Personally, I am in the latter camp. Humans are part of nature and always have been before and after we became homo sapiens. We have a place in the landscape, and we have a role to play in its management. Our role is not to manage for extractive purposes—let’s grow a big forest so we can cut the trees down—or for niche needs—let’s increase habitat for pheasants so more hunters can kill more of them. Our role is to work within an ecosystem in order to increase biodiversity from soil microbes to birds to plants to herbivores to predators and everything in between. I believe in an indigenous approach that recognizes relationship and reciprocity between all beings.

The people who think wildness means no humans are misguided. Some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the United States that are now national parks—Yosemite and Yellowstone for instance—were long time homes to a good many indigenous people who were then forcibly removed from the area when the government decided to preserve the “wild” for the use of white people only. Wildness without humans also perpetuates the belief that humans are not part of nature, that we are unnatural, and that the only place for us there is as visitors. It deprives of us of relationship and reciprocity and keeps us from seeing that wherever we are, we are in nature.

And the people who want to bring mammoths back from extinction? They are plain deluded. Even if they could be brought back Jurassic Park style, they will only ever be able to live in zoos as animals of exotic interest and examples of how stupid science can be (just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should). Mammoth habitat is gone. The ecosystem that supported mammoths no longer exists. Forget about the mammoths, we have plenty of animals that are currently alive and in danger of extinction we need to worry about.

I read a fantastic book not long ago called Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree The farm is the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, UK. It is a 3,500 acre estate that until 2001 was intensively farmed. The farm had been losing money for years; production kept going down while expenses kept going up. Tree and her husband realized this was not sustainable. 

Taking inspiration from the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, they set out to rewild Knepp. They did not, and do not, do the work alone. They have a board of consultants, they are constantly doing research, working with British government agencies, applying for grants from conservation organizations, and working with and reaching out to experts in various fields of knowledge. What they have done is amazing and has contributed extensively to new knowledge of British ecosystems and species habitat. I learned quite a lot too from the book and can’t recommend it enough.

But you don’t need 3,500 acres to take part in rewilding. You can do it in your backyard or on your balcony. The science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer has been getting lots of air time lately with his new book Hummingbird Salamander (I am patiently waiting my turn in the holds queue at the library). But more than talking about his book, he has been talking about his rewilding project in his Tallahassee, Florida yard. He offers advice and shares things he has learned to get along with the animals and the neighbors. You can see photos and learn more specifics about his yard on his website. And here he is in conversation with actor Lili Taylor, who is also an avid birder and rewilding a farm in upstate New York.

One of the fun things about rewilding is learning about where you live, what grew there before it was paved over. Minneapolis was forest that thinned to oak savanna on the edges. But when the white colonists came and killed and forcibly removed the indigenous Dakota, they cut down all the trees to feed the flour mills on the Mississippi just north of downtown and to build housing for the booming town’s workers. My nextdoor neighbor, living in the house her parents built, and whose parents also used to own the lot my house sits on, told me once there used to be a creek that ran down what is now the alley. I have looked for evidence of this creek in aerial photos of my neighborhood from the 1930s, but if it did exist, it was gone by then. 

How does one go about rewilding in a city that used to be a forest? I cannot recreate the forest on my small lot, but I do have many trees and shrubs native to my area—Juneberries (serviceberry), chokecherry, elderberry, hazelnut, witch hazel, wild plum, and silver maple. I also have plenty of prairie plants. Here is a bit of my front yard:

Some front yard rewilding

But I am also not a purist. You can see a big patch of creeping thyme in there. It is the best, hardiest ground cover I have landed on for my yard. I have tried a good many native ground covers and dreamed of an extensive patch of pussytoes, but the natives do well for a season or two and then die out. I don’t rake up leaves and the prairie ground covers do not like being buried in them come spring. They wake up earlier than I am able to get out and uncover them and by the time I am able to get to them, they are already getting mushy and struggling. The creeping thyme doesn’t like being buried in leaves come spring either, but ki wakes up a little later, giving me time (thyme?) to remove the leaves so ki can breath. 

One of the things that Isabella Tree points out over and over in Wilding, is that the original ecosystem that was there is gone, and to insist on recreating the pristine landscape we imagine was there is a mistake, not to mention impossible because every single element cannot be accounted for. Certainly encourage plants native to your place, but know that the forest, or oak savanna or prairie that used to be there can never be there again like ki was before humans destroyed ki. 

I choose my plants for hardiness, for who will live best under the conditions in my yard in both winter and summer, for bees and birds and butterflies. I know my front yard especially looks unruly in the spring when everything is sprouting and there are no flowers yet. The city inspector regularly stops by to inquire about the tall “weeds” and grass. But a friendly conversation and explanation resolves the questions and no one yet has forced me to cut anything down. 

VanderMeer mentions his strategies for keeping the neighbors with their manicured lawns happy, or at least not too disgruntled over his front yard. Unfortunately, until the idea that a monoculture wasteland of turf grass is the ideal of landscaped beauty dies, there will be friction. But the more people who dig up their lawn, even just a small part, the faster this will change. 

Go wild!

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12 thoughts on “Rewilding

  1. I love that little view of your front yard! It’s amazing that people are so set on lawn as the only possible solution. And you actually have a city inspector coming over and giving you a hard time??!! Wow! I’m glad we don’t have that here in Serbia – I’d be in a lot of trouble!

    I’m really intrigued by this concept of rewilding. I hate manicured gardens, but I also hated how our garden here looked when we moved in after a few months of neglect (the previous owner had moved out, but Covid lockdown had prevented us from moving in). It was just a tangled mess of chest-high nettles and lambsquarter. But I guess that’s not necessarily how a truly “wild” space would look – maybe it’s just how a field that used to be intensively farmed comes to look when it’s left alone. I don’t know.

    We’ve been looking at ways of having a wild meadow-type look, while also being something pleasing to look at. We like the designs of Piet Oudolf – do you know him? Does his work count as “rewilding” or is still too controlled? Anyway, I’ll have a look at that book you mentioned!

    1. Thanks Andrew! Yeah, in spring when the grasses are coming up they are hard to tell from regular lawn grass. I’m hoping the more it fills in, the less like weed grass it will look, but hard to say. There is a “lawn to legumes” program in the city to replace turf grass with pollinator plants but the legume bit is clover so everything stays short and tidy and thus more acceptable looking. It’s better than turf, but it still plays into what a proper front yard is “supposed” to look like.

      Piet Oudolf, he’s the guy behind New York’s High Line garden! He did a wonderful job of that. Some of his private garden work might be rewilding of a sort, but it would then depend on what the owners of the garden do with it after that. One of the things with rewilding is setting the system in motion and then letting the plants and animals do their thing. I’m not sure urban places can fully embrace the rewilding concept, but we can certainly play a small part in helping increase biodiversity of plants, insects, and small critters on a smaller, more controlled scale.

      If you had left your neglected garden on its own, the lambs quarters and nettles would eventually have given way to scrub and then, perhaps, trees. But that might have taken a long time and, depending on what the land was like before it was built on, may or may not have be the kind of wilding that was once endemic to your place.

      1. Hey Stefanie, this is really helpful! We’re still trying to get our heads around what to do with the garden. It’s the first house we’ve ever owned, and it’s quite a big piece of land. We know we want to grow some vegetables and fruit trees and also have a wild meadow type look, but we’re still trying to determine what it will look like and how to do it. I like your explanation of how the land would have evolved if left on its own – that helped me to understand.

        This whole area has been an important agricultural region for a long time, so I think whatever was truly endemic was probably cleared long ago. But there are quite a lot of wetland areas nearby, which may give us an idea. Our neighbours say the river used to flow through our back yard until it was diverted some time in the last century, so the natural state of this specific land is a riverbed, I guess. It’s incredibly fertile soil – things grow really easily, and really fast! So our job is just to decide what to grow and how to arrange it. Your thoughts in the post and in your reply helped a lot, so thanks!

        1. I am glad it was helpful! Oh, you are lucky to have a big piece of land to work with! You could combine your meadow with fruit and nut trees in a sort of food forest/ agroecological sort of way. Will you have animals? Some ducks maybe? And a small pond in honor of the river that used to be? Have fun figuring out what to do. And remember, you don’t have to do it all at once. I’d love to see photos as you make progress on it 🙂

          1. Great ideas! I love the idea of a food forest with a pond. We’d love animals too, but we’re also planning to go back to travelling for large chunks of the year when Covid allows, so we don’t want to leave them untended for months at a time. But one day, maybe 🙂

  2. What a great post, I agree with it all! I was shocked that you have a city inspector who can query what you have growing in your garden though – so much for the land of the free!

    1. Thanks Katrina! Yes, the city has inspectors that drive around making sure people keep their houses and yards “presentable.” If you have too many weeds or you don’t m ow your lawn they will issue a warning. If you don’t fix the “problem” they will then fine you up to $500 and send someone out to mow your lawn or do whatever and charge you for that too. It’s pretty ridiculous. But at least I don’t live in a suburban development that has an association with rules requiring you have a lawn and are not allowed to have vegetables growing where anyone can see them. We are pretty stupid here in the U.S.

  3. We have a wild part in the back and what looks like lawn in the front because we mow it, but it’s full of dandelions and clover and in the early spring lots of violets. I like seeing fireflies and get sad when I see lawns without any because it’s too much monoculture with weed killer.

    1. Lawns and weed killer have killed the fireflies, that’s for sure. When I lived farther out from the city across from a vacant field I would regularly see fireflies during the summer. But then the developers came and the fireflies disappeared. I see them in my front yard beneath my apple trees sometimes but haven’t seen them anywhere else. They are truly magical!

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