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.
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
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.
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)
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.