Wilding by Isabella Tree
Julia and Sasha talk about the concept of letting land be wild without the deleterious effects of modern agriculture.
In this episode, we discuss:
Hunting with bows and arrows as a much more human activity than buying meat at the grocery store
Learning how to hunt FOR FREE by attending events sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources
The wilding project of Knepp Wildland in West Sussex, UK
Why animals are required for a healthy environment
The evils of industrial agriculture
The wonder and magic that are mycorrhizal networks
For more wilding fun, read Feral by George Monbiot
Isabella Tree's Guardian article that originally inspired us to read Wilding
"Inversnaid", poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins
What is rewilding?
Rewinding means letting the land be wild again. Following the introduction of industrial agriculture, lands are bereft of natural resources, critters like worms and diverse bacteria, and important mycorrhizal networks.
Industrial agriculture battles with the land constantly. It tries to control the land and manipulate outcomes to increase yield, eliminate “pests” and “weeds”, and change the natural chemical composition of soil. However, nature and basic chemistry are hard to tame, so big ag farmers have to work hard to increase pesticide usage, manage unwanted plants, and increase chemical fertilizers. Isabella Tree writes about the peace and happiness she felt when she finally stopped trying to fight the land and control it and just let it be natural.
Isabella and her husband farmed the land of their inherited castle called Knepp with industrial agriculture for 17 years before they gave up. They had one exceptional year of yield, but most of the time, they were unable to sustain themselves. Small family farms practicing industrial agriculture cannot compete against big companies, and more and more have to abandon their farms and search for jobs in near-by cities.
Isabella and her husband started applying for and receiving grants in 2000 to rewild their land after they brought in a consultant and tree expert to explain that they were destroying the health of their trees because tilling the soil around their ancient oaks results in a loss of the mycorrhizal network on which trees depend for knowledge and nutrients. The network is made of innumerable species of fungi, many of which are invisible to the human eye. These networks can extend many miles from a tree and provide nutrients the tree cannot reach on its own. The network also communicates the presence of diseases or predators among trees so they can increase their defenses. Tilling the land around a tree and disrupting this network essentially leaves plants alone, blind, and ill-equipped to deal with dangers and the environment.
Rewilding isn't all fun and games
During Isabella’s rewilding project, she and her husband met with many obstacles. For example, they were not allowed to let dead animals rot on their land. The local government told them they had to dispose of carcasses rather than let them contribute to the life cycle of the ecosystem. S & J talk about whether humans have a fear of death that transcends their interactions with the natural world. Because death is something difficult for us to contemplate, do we deny a crucial part of an animals’ life cycle? The animal is dead, yes, but when something decomposes, it becomes a host for new colonies of fungus, bacteria, and critters. For example, cheese, as chronicled in Michael Pollan’s Cooked, is milk that becomes a home for different colonies of bacteria and fungus. Throughout the ageing process, different species move in and take advantage of the site until a new species arrives. Isabella talks about how the ecosystem of a 300-year-old oak is entirely unrecognizable from that of a 400-year-old oak, for example. Both are living oaks, but they house different animals and plants based on their life stages. And in the final 300 years of its life, an oak is hollow and supports an entirely different set of species.
The couple were also not allowed to rewild their land with wild boar because it is illegal to domesticate them in England. Instead, they introduced Tamworth pigs. The pigs ended up being a delight because they were so energetic and social, and they coexisted alongside the deer and longhair
cattle. They also became a crucial part of the reemergence of the Purple
Similarly, food in a landfill does not break down and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. One of J & S’s main tenets of responsible food consumption is to compost all food that we don’t eat. No food gets thrown away, and none of it sits in a landfill. Up to 40% of food is thrown away in the United States. (Currently, we could feed 3 billion more people than exist on earth with all the food we produce.) And while the attention is fixated on reducing meat consumption, very little is given to composting. (The previously linked article mentions food waste, but it receives only one sentence, whereas meat consumption receives the bulk of the article’s attention.) What is rarely mentioned is that industrial meat is the problem, not meat in general.
Why are animals important for the health of the environment?
As Isabella and her husband show, meat from animals living on wild land does not contribute to carbon emissions and climate change. Ruminant animals trample and root in the ground, creating air pockets for mycorrhizae to develop glomalin, which can sequester carbon. Instead of having a system without wild animals (which some argue produce methane and contribute to CO2 emissions as much as they might sequester them, resulting in a zero-sums game) and leaving the soil to hold onto carbon on its own, wild animals work synergistically with their environments to increase the health of the soil. One way is via excrement, which acts as a natural fertilizer.
Growing plants in monoculture systems without all the plants, animals, and critters involved in a real ecosystem involves adding artificial fertilizers back into the system (and you lose out on all the creatures higher up in the food chain who depend on the critters at the bottom), which means the ground has too much nitrogen and phosphates. In a system with too many artificial fertilizers, critters such as dung beetles cannot survive and do not break down animal excrement, returning those nutrients to the soil. Isabella and her husband successfully increase Knepp’s dung beetle population by reducing their usage of artificial fertilizers and chemicals, like Roundup. Other sources of soil-destroying chemicals are in the parasiticides fed to animals in industrial agriculture and even some grass-based regenerative agriculture farms. Parasiticides drastically affect the health of soil by reducing the number of soil critters.
But isn't veganism the best for the environment?
J & S argue that veganism is not best for the environment because it involves large, monoculture fields and chemical inputs without the crucial involvement of animals. Robb Wolf is a strong proponent of this idea. Diana Rodgers, RD, LDN of Sustainabledish.com, is producing the film Sacred Cow to make this very argument more mainstream. Some vegan proponents argue that the problem with industrially produced meat is that the grains grown for animal consumption require lots of inputs and produce greenhouse gases. They argue that it would be much more efficient to eat the grains directly and cut out the middle man—er, cow. This is misguided, however, because grains are not healthy for humans to eat, and the original problem of the environmental impacts of the production of those grains is not solved. Also, humans do not have to eat meat from animals raised in industrial conditions at all.
J & S argue that not only does veganism not contribute to a healthier environment (due to monocultures relying on an excess of chemical inputs), but it also inadvertently hurts more animals than it helps. Farmers growing “vegan” foods like vegetables and grains shoot and poison animals and insects to protect their crops. While many vegan proponents argue that animals are not killed in plant harvesting, their claims are often misguided. While they argue that observing some field mice in a large grain field didn’t result in deaths from the heavy machinery, they neglect to consider the original displacement of those animals when the wild land was converted to arable land for farming.
Wild land is home to countless creatures. As Isabella and her husband learned through their rewilding project, when the land is untouched by humans, ecosystems, plants, and animals inhabit it in unforeseen ways. Every season, the couple witnessed new species move in to their land. They saw rare butterflies, bats, dung beetles, a peacock, songbirds, and more travel to their land on their own. Once reset, the land provides all the necessary ingredients for a more diverse set of species. While it is easy to look at their industrial land and say no animals were killed during the cultivation and harvesting of their monoculture crops, it is incorrect. The animals were not harmed because the animals were displaced and were not physically on their land in the first place. Eating a vegan diet based on crops grown in large fields (or even small farms) requires supporting the displacement and maltreatment of animals in the pursuit of growing food.
Julia has worked for multiple small, organic vegetable farms, and more than once she witnessed farmers setting up traps or using “organic pesticides” designed to harm or kill other creatures in the name of humans’ food consumption. The bottom line is that when humans alter the landscape, animals cannot inhabit it as they once did. Is it really better to consume an all-plants diet if it means supporting companies that displace and kill untold numbers of animals (since they are no longer there, we cannot measure them!) than it is to consume meat from animals living a wild, natural life in an ecosystem much more appropriate for their happiness and health?
We argue that it is not. Of course, many people disagree and argue that there is nothing wrong with our actions inadvertently killing animals as long as we do not do so deliberately. Apparently it is better to allow hundreds of animals to be killed because they no longer have an ecosystem to call home due to our destruction of natural land in favor of large fields of vegetable cultivation than it is to kill one cow, which can supply hundreds of pounds of food for humans. Also, animals in industrial agriculture die from poisoning, which is arguably a worse way to die than one quick shot. All of this doesn’t take into account the indirect costs to animal life that results from preparing, packaging, and transporting plant-based foods across the world, as well. In a wild system, one can see firsthand the results of one’s consumption and buy it close to the source. When food consumption is hidden behind boxes and grocery stores and involves food grown hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, there is no way to know how many animals are harmed.
What is "shifting baselines theory"?
One problem that Isabella identifies is shifting baselines theory. Humans are used to a world that looks as it currently does so it is nearly impossible for us to imagine a more wild or natural world. We imagine the world always had big fields of corn or wheat (“amber waves of grain”, anyone?), and roads are perfectly normal. Diverting rivers makes sense, and green, radioactive waterways are to be expected. There are a few problems with this reality, however.
First, humans incorrectly assess the impact of human activities on animals’ livelihoods. We think that the pigeons’ natural habitat is Coney Island because there are so many of them there, but this is a fallacy. Pigeons are in Coney Island because they have nowhere else to go, not because they evolved to walk on concrete and eat fried foods. Rather than coexisting with humans, wild animals are making do with what they have left. This means that we can expect to see more and more species become endangered and extinct every year; they simply cannot survive forever in species to which they are not adapted.
Next, we still try to expect a particular outcome from rewilding land that may not come to pass. We expect that rewilded land will look like a botanical garden, bounding with green and colorful flowers. However, as Isabella discovers, much of rewilding is ugly and brown. Scrubs and shrubs do not represent the ideal landscape for many people, and yet they are crucial for a healthy ecosystem. Shrubs provide cover for small animals to protect them from predators, protection for acorns as they grow into oak trees, and a home for birds and insects. Isabella and her husband received death threats from neighbors and other residents of the UK due to the “ugliness” of the project and “abuse and neglect” of the land. They also received backlash when “invasive species” like ragwort appeared on their land. They have to spend some $10,000 a year on removing plants that others consider weeds so they do not jeopardize the entire project. (J & S argue that weeds are “just flowers in the wrong place”.) The arrival of such “invasive species” also angered Isabella’s neighbors because they argued that certain plants were poisonous for livestock and would kill them. However, Isabella and her husband witnessed the ruminant animals actively avoid fields that contained poisonous plants because once they had one bad reaction to the plant, they had no wish to repeat the experience.
Third, we have collective amnesia about what the land used to be and what it should be. “Closed canopy theory” is a popular belief that without humans, all land in Europe (and perhaps the United States) would be covered by trees with very little light permeating through a thick, leaf-filled canopy. This theory has been debunked, however, by using both historical evidence and linguistics. “Forest” and “wood” did not always signify a large collection of trees. They once referred to any area that was uncultivated by humans and left wild. It could have some trees, but it also had tall grasses, shrubs, and other plants. The importance of this distinction is that animals live in concert with actual forests because they prevent trees from overtaking the entire land and allow other plants and animals to exist in the same space.
S & J couldn’t possibly get into every amazing detail of Wilding in one short podcast episode. But here are some other fascinating things we learned from the book:
Root systems tend to be in the first foot of soil; they do not extend that far down into the soil. This is another reason that tilling land can be so destructive.
Coppicing is the process of cutting the tops of trees for their wood while leaving the trunk in the ground. The tree will regrow, and the roots will be undisturbed. Humans could preserve ecosystems by practicing more coppicing and less deforestation.
Geese help to preserve wetlands because they eat plants that grow at the edge of the water, preventing the plants from moving in and forcing the water out.
During the mating season of wild animals, they mark all over the place and spread their stinky pheromones.
Trees shed their leaves before winter when they are starting to run out of nutrients because the leaves will break down and feed the soil beneath. The microbes in the soil will help the mycorrhizal network get the nutrients into the trees’ roots, which extend out from the base as far as the leaves above.
Planting trees from a bag doesn’t help it build its mycorrhizal network. It is better to plant trees from seeds.
California initiated a multi-million dollar campaign to eradicate an entire species, the Nutria, from the state.
We effing love Wilding. It opened our eyes to so many things we didn’t know we didn’t know (s/o Pocahontas). Animals and plants exist in harmony and create the perfect environments for one another. Not surprisingly, humans have a tough time with this concept, however. Remember when Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? Well this book says, “For the love of God, stop asking what the earth can do for you, and just leave it the f*** alone.”
When given a choice, humans will pretty much always choose the worst option (s/o Dumbledore). Cut down the whole tree or just part? The whole, thank you. Synthesize nitrates and phosphates in the lab or use cow poop? Definitely the lab, obviously. Separate mother cows from their newborn calves so both parties cry miserably and are brokenhearted or keep them together? Separate. Duh. You can bet that almost all modern innovations use more inputs, produce worse outputs, and make us sicker and unhappier than anything out in nature.
Read this book if you think humans need to be taken down a peg. If you are squarely on Team Environment and actually care about animals, then you should want the earth to be as wild as possible. Not only should you oppose zoos and factory farming operations, but you should oppose monocultures, pesticides, plastics, food waste, and governments deciding which plants are weeds and which animals are pests.
Things have gone too far. But the cold reality is that the earth is not in any danger. The earth will outlive the arrogant, close-minded humans who are too proud and too stubborn to admit that things have gone too far. Humans will destroy themselves through their terrible land management and disregard for nature. But since there are thousands of industrially farmed acres being abandoned across Europe every year, wouldn’t it be nice to quit your job, buy some of that land, and sit back while wild nature reigns once more?