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Rewilding Ourselves and the Planet

Rewilding Ourselves and the Planet
By Wendy Priesnitz

The threat of ecological collapse, economic uncertainty, a degenerating food system…. This magazine’s readers are among those who are deeply concerned about those things and other sicknesses connected with modern culture – and experimenting with solutions. If you grow food wherever it’s possible (sometimes called “guerilla gardening”), are learning survival skills, have experimented with gleaning, scavenging, sharing, or otherwise living outside the system, your pursuits could be described as “rewilding.”

Rewilding means restoring ancestral ways of living that create greater health and well-being for humans and the ecosystems that we belong to. It involves reversing the process of domestication and returning to a more wild state, or at least to systems – like hunting-gathering – that worked better than where we’re at now.

Large-Scale Conservation

Although it’s now used in many contexts, the origin of the concept of rewilding is in large-scale conservation projects aimed at returning areas of land to their natural, wild state, and includes the reintroduction of large predator animal species that are no longer naturally found in certain areas.

The word “rewilding” was coined in the 1990s by Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the activist group Earth First!, who later helped establish both the Wildlands Project and the Rewilding Institute. The term was refined by conservation biologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss who, in a paper published in 1998, described it as a conservation method based on “cores, corridors, and carnivores.” Rewilding projects may require ecological restoration or wilderness engineering, particularly to restore connectivity between fragmented protected areas (“cores” or refuges).

Most of these projects are large in scale. In the American state of Washington, the biggest dam-removal project in history reached completion last fall, when excavators dredged the final tons of pulverized concrete from the Elwha River channel. Within weeks of the removal of the hydroelectric dams, threatened bull trout and chinook salmon were spotted, despite being absent from their historic spawning habitat for a century. Hundreds of thousands of seedlings are being planted to restore native vegetation on the sites of the former dams and reservoirs.

Another major rewilding project is restoring the prairie grasslands of the American Great Plains. The American Prairie Foundation is reintroducing bison on private land in north-central Montana, with the goal of creating a prairie preserve larger than Yellowstone National Park.

Bison are also being reintroduced into parts of Europe after hundreds of years of absence, including the Danube delta, northern Spain and Germany. In 2011, Rewilding Europe was established with the aim of rewilding one million hectares of land by 2020. Besides the European bison, the project involves lynx, wolf, European jackal, brown bear, Spanish ibex, red deer, vultures, pelicans, and horned viper, among others.

One of the important problems these rewilding projects addresses is loss of biodiversity – the mass extinction of species, both animals and plants. The World Wildlife Fund says that Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past forty years. And author Caroline Fraser reports in her book Rewilding the World that if environmental destruction continues at its current rate, one third of all plants and animals could disappear by 2050. Species across land, rivers, and seas are being decimated as we kill for food and destroy habitats.

Dave Foreman of the Rewilding Institute explains that large predators are often instrumental in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems. In turn, the large predators require extensive space and connectivity. So their reintroduction and recovery can be the heart of the conservation strategy. In North America, wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, sea otters, and other top carnivores should be restored wherever suitable habitat remains or can be restored. (Obviously, large areas of both North America and Europe have been so modified by humans and support such large human populations or intensive agriculture that rewilding is not feasible.)

Rewilding Ourselves and Our Children

These problems require us to explore our relationship to the planet, ourselves, animals, and each other. In his book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, animal activist and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Marc Bekoff calls for a rewilding of our human attitudes. Beyond restoring habitats and creating wildlife corridors, he proposes that we need to dissolve the barriers we have erected between ourselves and Nature, allowing the wonder we were born with to reinstate itself.

Arguably, none of us display more wonder than children, until we take it from them by sending them inside to daycare, school, and lessons. Fortunately, there is a reaction taking place to the institutionalization and “helicopter parenting” that so many children today undergo. And it might be called “rewilding.” We are seeing an increased emphasis on unstructured play in Nature. We’re seeing the growth of a free-range parenting movement, forest schools, and Nature education, all of which allow children to spend time in natural environments. Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods (which we excerpted here in Natural Life Magazine when it was first published) has been a leading light in getting kids outside into Nature, and has spurred a plethora of research papers reporting improvements in children’s physical and mental health when they are exposed to wildlife and the outdoors.

As adults, we are developing the skills needed to find food; create fire, shelter, and clothing; to treat wounds and illnesses; and otherwise live from the land. But that is doing more than preparing for our survival if civilization collapses or adapting to climate change. As we choose the natural – rewilding ourselves and our environment – we are also making a choice that decides the kind of people we are and our children will become.

Learn More

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life by George Monbiot (University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence by Marc Bekoff (New World Library, 2014)

Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan Books, 2014)

The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be by J.B. MacKinnon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive by Miles Olson (New Society Publishers, 2012)

Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century by Dave Foreman (Island Press, 2004)

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2008)

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor, a writer and journalist with 40 years of experience and 13 books to her credit, with another few on the way. Learn more about her and her work at her website.


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