August 19, 2018


Wildwood (Kara Moses, Emergence)

The sweet sound of birdsong seeps into my awareness, tugging at the sleeves of my slumber. The sunlight is already warm--unusually warm for springtime in Wales. Last night I slept on a bed of moss, gazing at the glimmering sky through the branches of a magnificent oak. Again I experienced that strange sense of peering back through time, as if the bison had opened up a channel through the ages that I could still glimpse through.

I am back at home, spending some time out on rewilding land, still dreaming of Białowieża. When I first arrived home, I was desperate to return to the forest. I longed for the bison, the wolves, the ancient oaks. But I decided to trust that the puszcza had imparted its small gifts, seeds to cultivate and carry forward.

The winds from the Irish Sea howl and whip across this Welsh moor, with no trees left to impede them. This land has long been stripped of her forest garments, every secret curve exposed, her rocky bones showing through. A monoculture of purple moor grass stretches endlessly over the rolling hills and jutting valleys, interrupted only by regimented blocks of alien sitka spruce plantation. The moor grass is so unappealing to wildlife that hardly any birds or animals will live in it, and not even the sheep, which eat everything else, will eat it. A bird survey conducted last year found one single species: the meadow pipit, the only bird to be found for miles around. Each year, the thick moor grass tussocks die and flop down, smothering everything else, draining the landscape of all color but a sickly jaundice yellow. Walking on the moor grass is almost impossible, an infuriating and exhausting experience; you never know whether your foot will wobble atop the tussocks or disappear between them.

Like so much of our island, the wildwood here was cleared until nothing of it remained. Intensive animal agriculture now dominates the landscape: a sheep-wrecked green desert. Many of the natural processes that pulse through Białowieża no longer function here. There are barely any predators left--no bear, no wolf, no lynx. There are no grazing bison or deer, no wild boar rummaging through the soil, no beaver engineering the waterways. It is a curious thing that many of the species we have exterminated here are those that would play key roles in regeneration. And so the task now falls to us.

Over the past few weeks, a group of us have begun rewilding this area in the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains in West Wales. This hundred-acre site--a "big soggy hill," as one person described it--covered in purple moor grass and not much else, was recently bought by a small charity with a vision to restore the great Cambrian wildwood that once covered these mountains.

Rewilding is about regenerating and restoring landscapes and their processes, creating healthy, functional ecosystems that can become self-regulating and free-willed again. There has been no human intervention here for seven years--even the sheep farmers gave up trying to make a living from these barren hills. After millennia of being suppressed by human will, the will of the land has begun to return in just a few years, oozing through the cracks and crevices in all its glorious forms. Mountain ash, birch, hawthorn, and oak are quietly emerging through the moor grass and the bracken. This land has not forgotten what it is meant to be. Like steam rising from hot water, new life rises from the land, from the memory of what it once was, what it still longs to be. The wildwood is returning.

One of our first jobs was ripping out the internal fences to create a core area that will allow free movement of wildlife--when it returns. In driving rain and scorching sun--sometimes both in one day--we pulled out fencing staples, cut through barbed wire, and laid fence posts down to return to the earth. Beneath the necessary work of restoring destroyed landscapes is perhaps another work that rewilding asks of us: to step back into the family of things--to participate. In doing so, we engage in a practice of reciprocity, going beyond the limitations of "sustainability"--which maintains a level of taking--and enter a regenerative relationship with the wild again. We give as much as we take--if not more. Ripping out the fences was exhilarating: it felt like a sacred act, an apology, a reconciliation. By liberating the land from these boundaries, its containment into sizes and shapes for human control, on some level we also liberated ourselves.

NH was once mostly clear cut, but is now back to 85% forested--2nd only to ME.  And everything the author says about the wild is accurate, but nothing gives a human being a better sense of perspective than coming upon a stone wall in the middle of a dense wood.  One is forced to imagine first the effort that it took for our ancestors to clear the woods, then to plow up so many stones, and you can't help but be humbled by their dedication. Them one has to recognize what short order nature made of our efforts once we let it alone briefly and you can't help but be humbled by Creation.   

Posted by at August 19, 2018 8:29 AM