Saturday, June 01, 2013

Ecological 'rewilding' a manly affair

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life
By George Monbiot
Allen Lane, 336 pages, $30

Rabble-rousing U.K. journalist George Monbiot doesn't much like sheep.

In his eighth book, Feral, he minces no words about the effect the ruminants have on the British landscape: "Sheep farming in this country is a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution."

Monbiot worked as an investigative journalist in Brazil, Indonesia and East Africa for six years. He's been a columnist for The Guardian for nearly two decades, writing on multinational corporations (2000's The Captive State), democratic reform (2003's The Age of Consent) and climate change (2006's Heat).

.But it was a move to the Welsh countryside with his young family in 2007 that forced Monbiot to focus on his immediate surroundings: the heaths and moors of the Cambrian Mountains.

Even though his Guardian column demanded that he range across disciplines - from science to economics to politics - Monbiot realized he felt disengaged from his body and his environment. He was, as he called it, "ecologically bored."

After a little digging, Monbiot realized that the Welsh landscape was not especially natural. As little as 1,300 years ago, according to the fossil record, most of the U.K. was covered in forest. Man cut down the trees and then filled the empty spaces with sheep, who browse anything green down to the ground.

"Heather, which many nature-lovers in Britain cherish, is typical of the hardy, shrubby plants which colonize deforested land," writes Monbiot. "I do not see heather moor as an indicator of the health of the upland environment, as many do, but as a product of ecological destruction."

What follows is an argument for the "rewilding" of the British uplands so as to reverse some of the environmental damage they've sustained and re-invigorate the people who live there.

Rewilding, according to Monbiot, "involves reintroducing absent plants and animals (and in a few cases culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife), pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back." Monbiot advocates rewilding only in areas "in which production is so low that farming continues only as a result of the taxpayer's generosity."

Readers may be wondering how Monbiot's ideas apply to the North American landscape. While we don't have sheep, we do have cattle ranches and a high density of deer in both rural and urban areas. And scientists and conservation officers across the country are currently asking some of the same questions Monbiot does on the value of maintaining (and in some cases reintroducing) keystone species such as beavers and wolves.

Unfortunately, Monbiot sandwiches his largely compelling arguments between chapters that detail his goal to live a life "richer in adventure and surprise." (In Monbiot's case that mostly seems to mean the times he nearly kills himself with his sea kayak.)

In addition, while Monbiot was likely motivated by beginning a family to write Feral, there is no denying that the risk-taking he describes is gendered. It is predicated on the fact that there is someone at home with the children who is not trying to kill herself with a sea kayak.

Combine those interludes with Monbiot's nostalgic recollections of his adventures in East Africa and Brazil and, well, you've got a very manly book.

Part of the posturing is probably due to the fact that Monbiot is a ‘radical thinker’ and not a lowly scientist or an academic. These stories are meant, at least in part, to establish Monbiot’s bona fides.

They’re also likely an attempt to inject some colour into a book where he mostly wanders through the woods, muttering bleakly about sheep.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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