What is wild?

Dissolute, savage and hostile to civilization? Or free, natural and untamed? Historically ‘wild’ was not a label you wanted. Now it has become an accolade. But wild is more a reaction than a state – it is what we are not; or at least where we are not. And in the growing realization of human destruction of the planet over the last century, wild sounds like a blissful place – the natural world in balance without humans. Guilt and shame are mixed with homesickness for better times and an anxiety to put things right. But given that humans are here, how much does longing for our absence help?

Up until the late eighteenth century and the Romantic movement, wild was pretty much seen as hostile. It took urbanization and industrialization to change the perspective. By 1850 more people in Britain were living in cities than in the countryside. The wilderness of nature began to seem less of a threat than the wild world of the metropolis. Wordsworth’s Lake District and Caspar David Friedrich’s coasts and mountains conjured escape and glorious solitude rather than frightening isolation. Claustrophobic, urban comfort made natural hardship seem wistfully appealing to the prosperous. In her book Spirit of Place, Susan Owens quotes the surveyor for General Wade in 1715 recording the Highlands of Scotland as ‘monstrous excrescencies’ with ‘frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom…huge naked rocks’ and the ‘disagreeable appearance of a scabbed head’. The surveyor, Captain Burke, was assessing land in terms of productivity and friendliness to human habitation. But by the end of the century different criteria were emerging. William Gilpin’s notions of a picturesque landscape were coming into vogue. Awe and terror were prized attributes in a landscape that was beginning to be valued more for tourist trips than for food and shelter. By 1852 Prince Albert was to buy the Balmoral estate and make that same Highland landscape the height of fashion.

The popularity of wilderness fluctuated during the turbulence of the following century. The English sometimes saw it as suspiciously Continental, associated with sinister Wagnerian tendencies as opposed to the wholesome countryside of Samuel Palmer’s paintings, John Clare’s poetry and George Eliot’s novels. Over in North America, where great stretches of uncultivated and uninhabited land still survived, writers such as Thoreau, Muir and Leopold explored a more thoughtful and scientific approach to the wild. Then in 1968 there was a bold resurrection in Europe. Frans Vera initiated an experiment at the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. The project re-wilded 22 square miles of Dutch polder, stocking the land with an equivalent of pre-historic herbivores and allowing the area to evolve without human management or intervention. The idea had many followers and the re-wilding movement began to be championed as a solution to the climate crisis. The Dutch project has since had problems, but it helped to inspire the Burrells to re-wild their estate at Knepp in East Sussex.

Re-wilding has taken on a kind of prelapsarian sanctity – Eden before Adam’s apple and the Fall – a yearning for a pure, innocent time uncontaminated by human beings. But it assumes that humans are somehow detached from nature rather than a part of it. Fundamentally this is about our relationship with the natural world which crosses all cultures and religions. Loss of innocence is not about becoming bad. It is more to do with losing a sense of unbounded continuity with family and land. There is a childlike state of being at one with everything – true innocence – which is eroded by gradual self-awareness as a separate entity; a knowledge that requires fig leaves. To some extent the individual urban soul, competing for an afterlife, is incompatible with the idea of nature being a fluid continuum where everything is part of everything else.

Wilderness is redundant when humans see themselves as one with the land and its spirits. There has been a steady British undertow of fluid connection to land. In 1018 King Cnut had to enact laws against the worship of the sun, moon, springs, stones and forest trees – land animated by supernatural powers. That visceral connection to nature never quite disappeared. It is captured in the fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Susan Owens points out that ‘a medieval landscape without a human figure is a rare thing’ – not because their world was focused on humans but because the landscape and the inhabitants were one and the same. The twentieth-century British Moderns in art and poetry tapped into the ancient vein.

It is interesting to chart a different and more classical reaction to urban life; one where a distinction was made between wilderness and nature and one where human beings were understood to be intrinsically involved in natural processes. Looking back to an idyllic Greek past, Virgil and Ovid described an escape from the corruptions of urban life into pastoral and poetic accord. It was a vision expressed in music and poetry more than pictures. The Roman concept of otium was based on the clarity of mind that comes from working the soil with your hands, shepherding flocks and growing your own food. This active participation with tending the land allowed a quality of thought that made poetry and philosophy possible. The opposite – negotium – was the business of the city where the mind became muddied and corrupted. In his book The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate succinctly pointed out that ‘You only need Arcadia when your reality is Rome.’ The idea of Arcadian farming in harmony with nature was the symbol of a calmer, saner life. Humans were understood to be stewards rather than destroyers of nature. Wilderness was deemed hostile and unnatural.

Arcadia is a vision that resurfaces in times of prosperity and reflection. The Augustan poets of the first century BC were rediscovered by the Italian Renaissance 1,400 years later. By the sixteenth century the revival of classical literature and ideals were epitomized by Palladio’s villas, built by financial and religious leaders who cultivated model farms beyond the fringes of the cities. On the Vicenzan and Florentine hilltops and along the Veneto river valleys, the elite were able to recreate the pastoral life of Virgil and Ovid. The Renaissance spread more gradually to northern Europe but by the early eighteenth century, Alexander Pope helped to revive ideas of Arcadian bliss from his Thameside villa at Twickenham. As a friend of Isaac Newton and a leading poet in the English Enlightenment, Pope placed mankind in the centre of tended nature rather than divinely disconnected. Less than 200 years later William Morris created an idealized pastoral world in his book News from Nowhere and helped to inspire the naturalistic aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Most recently, in the flush of prosperity after the Second World War, 1960s Flower Power revived the idyll as a movement of peace and love directly connected to nature and growing food. The concept of Arcadia usually disappears in times of pandemic and pandemonium and right now Wilderness seems to chime more than Pastoral. Arcadian ideas rely on a confident sense of responsibility for managing land and the climate crisis has understandably made us doubt human capability to live in harmony with nature.

So what next? Re-wilding has captured the imagination as a reaction to environmental catastrophe, but in many minds it is no more than just the antithesis of what we have now. What it actually involves in terms of growing food and accommodating humans is less clear. At one extreme it means abandoning land altogether and retreating into cities; at the other it is a return to farming with nature. The two approaches have been contrasted as land sparing (farming the minimum of land as intensively as possible and letting the rest go wild) and land sharing (farming as gently and extensively as possible in harmony with natural systems).

Over the last 75 years farming has become reliant on diesel and petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides. While volumes of food production have risen exponentially, the health and quality of that food have correspondingly dropped and the impact on the environment and National Health System has been grim. The pollution and carbon footprint of contemporary agriculture makes change essential. Cheap, industrially-produced food relies on government support and complicity. If the processes of production and distribution were properly taxed for their polluting and degrading impact on the environment, the real cost of food would be revealed. Re-calibrating the economic and environmental basis of agriculture goes to the heart of politics. Hikes in the price of food have toppled more than one regime. While a return to holistic and organic processes might make very good biological sense, bright new technology often seems easier to sell to the electorate. And there are some impressive technologies out there. The agri-tech industries are developing robotic methods of vertical hydroponic farming in urban skyscrapers. Salads and synthetic meat are minutely dosed for the right balance of minerals and vitamins and human beings are sealed out of the process to ensure nothing is contaminated. Industrial insect farms are also being developed to provide protein and a brave new future of humans safely contained within an metropolitan envelope might allow the rest of the planet to recover in peace.

There are definitely some brilliant technological solutions to follow, but the brave new future could sound rather sterile and chilling. Limiting contact with the natural world to wildlife tourism would be a kind of amputation. The rupture from millennia of cultivation and culture would mean a fundamental reassessment of our relationship to land and nature. The adjustment would be easier for densely populated and industrialized countries where more than 90 per cent of people already live in cities; for rural and subsistence populations it would be very hard.

Of course there is a middle way. The Knepp Estate is evolving to include regenerative farming alongside the wilding heartland, Ben Goldsmith talks of wild farming and Natural Cambridgeshire is promoting nature-friendly farming under the banner of ‘doubling nature’. The mediator may ultimately be the soil. Scientific breakthroughs are revealing the extent and complexity of the microbial and fungal world in soil. In his new book Entangled Life Merlin Sheldrake explores the rich interconnectedness of plants, mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria. There is a beautiful mutual dependence where plants exude carbon down into the ground and fungi give minerals, nutrients and intelligent stimulants back through their roots in return. Soil becomes something very different when it is understood as biology rather than inert substrate for chemical inputs. Good soil absorbs and cleans water, sequesters carbon, hosts bacteria that keep plants (and the animals that eat them) healthy and soil ultimately harmonizes the natural systems and climate that we rely on.

Initial ideas on re-wilding often began with the reintroduction of climax predators such as wolves and eagles at the top of the food chain. It was an immediately appealing and romantic concept but required large areas of untrammelled land such as Yellowstone National Park. A different approach could start at the microbial level – the bottom rather than the top of the food chain. Of course one doesn’t rule out the other, but if soil and water are healthy then everything else can follow. Farming that focuses on improving both of those could grow nutritious food in perpetuity – and healthy wildlife to accompany it. The ecologist Colin Tubbs undertook a study of biodiversity in Hampshire since the last Ice Age, expecting to find a moment of maximum diversity several thousand years ago, when humans were hunting and gathering more than farming. In the event he found the labour-intensive agriculture of the mid-eighteenth century to be the most diverse time of all. The farming infrastructure of flood and hay meadows, coppice woodland, hedgerows and wood pasture supported an amazing mosaic of habitats and species. Modern agriculture has bankrupted that natural capital and become unviable in the process. Regenerative farming, based on soil, water and natural biological systems could ride an Arcadian horse with a wild mane.

In Britain, where over 70 per cent of our countryside is farmed, the cultural and emotional relationship to the human landscape is profound. A future where we huddle in an urban panic room peeping out at a wild world through binoculars conjures images of Metropolis and Blade Runner. The climate crisis has understandably focused attention on the mining and squandering of millions of years of embedded fossil carbon, but in the longer term it is our management of land and sea that will determine survival. Carbon is life rather than poison and photosynthesis is the key to the atmosphere and climate. How we farm rather than whether we farm is the conundrum. Re-wilding has done a fantastic job of highlighting the issues but there are now even more searching questions to be answered.

Although we are desperate to rescue and restore biodiversity, it is no longer enough to count the number of species that struggle through. We have to get to the heart of the natural systems and the microbiology of soil and water that support them – while still growing food. Our protests and policies need to become more sophisticated. Twentieth-century farming is a result of government direction. Farmers were paid and regulated to treat the land as they did. So in order to change direction, we need trusted and equitable ways for measuring the health and carbon in our soils. We need incentives to get young farmers back on the land. We need scientific proof of the correlation between the bacterial health of soil, food and the human gut. We need to know whether topsoil can continue to grow and sequester carbon with the right farming techniques, or whether it plateaus at a certain level. And we need to guide and encourage farmers to tend the land for perpetual fertility rather than short-term volumes. Instead of asking how we can stop people eating meat, we should ask how we can make sure that animals are restored to a full and ecologically intrinsic part of farming and natural systems? The Sustainable Food Trust and the Pasture for Life Associations are beacons of practical good sense. And for example, by law the Swedish cannot keep their animals indoors year round; they have to be released into pasture each spring. Above all we need to allow farmers to respond to their very particular patches of soil and climate to grow the healthiest food in the most balanced systems that will survive for millennia. There will be no single solution but a wonderful mixture of local refinements and technological innovations.

The concepts of wild and natural are human constructs that reflect how we relate to the wider world. They have fluctuated with our sense of ourselves – as disrupters to be excluded or as cooperative participants. What happens next will be determined by whether we are to be a rooted part of nature or a diffident and apologetic onlooker.

Kim Wilkie 17.iii.21