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:
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.