Feral, by George Monbiot Source: Supplied
WHEN George Monbiot lived among the Maasai in Kenya, he made a friend, something that hadn’t happened during similar stints with indigenous people in West Papua and Brazil.
Toronkei was on the eve of adulthood, when he would be expected to take on the responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood and leadership. For the moment, though, he and his cohort of young men were revelling in the derring-do of physical endurance and wild expeditions: taking a lion by the tail, running 50km straight to visit a friend in another village, rustling cattle and just getting away in a hail of bullets.
“Danger to them was a delicacy,” Monbiot writes in Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontier of Rewilding. “They were volatile, passionate, impetuous, open to everything.”
This isn’t the long sigh of rose-tinted nostalgia of many who write about vanishing ways of life. Monbiot appreciates sanitation, vaccinations, antibiotics, surgery, optometry and the permanent availability of good and nutritious food that settlement brings.
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He also appreciates that behind the glamour lies harshness: the brutality and brevity of life that has not been ameliorated by the invention of sovereign law. Strong bonds of love among the Maasai warriors didn’t stop knives flashing out when arguments grew heated. And the Kikuyu, he points out, did not appreciate having their cattle raided and their warriors speared. “The freedoms the Maasai enjoyed at the expense of others – thrilling as they were – are rightly being curtailed,” he admits.
And yet, and yet. Monbiot knows he struggles with something indefinable that the young Maasai men tapped into. “Had I, as an embryo, been given a choice between my life and his – knowing that, whichever I accepted, I would adapt to it and make myself comfortable within it – I would have taken his,” he writes.
Some may call it a midlife crisis; Monbiot calls it “ecological boredom”: knowing, somewhere deep down, that our survival skills, honed by evolution, are atrophying. A life in which loading the dishwasher presents an interesting challenge, and the focus of a hunting animal is brought to bear on opening a tricky ring-pull tin, cannot be all there is.
Monbiot, an English writer, environmentalist and political activist, makes two bravura arguments, closely intertwined, in Feral. One is this attempt to describe the psychological need for wildness that lies just below the civilised surface of all of us. He quotes JG Ballard: ” … the suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”
The other is an extension of it and the core purpose of the book: a call for the rewilding of parts of the world. Again, the most quixotic of his views are balanced by realism and he is no blind follower of orthodoxies. He supports nuclear power, for example, precisely as an environmental measure. He acknowledges the world’s needs for farmed food, and landowners’ rights to dispose of their property as they will. But his call for rewilding in places that can be sequestered from all those demands is urgent.
He is not a conservationist. He criticises those in Britain who would preserve the “romantic” moors, for example, with their scrubby groundcover of grasses and heather. He describes them as deserts, not wildernesses, the result of ravaging by introduced species that killed the primeval forests, richly stocked with many varieties of plant and animal life, which existed a few thousand years ago. Playing on Rachel Carson’s terrifying notion of a “silent spring”, he envisages the “raucous summer” their revival would bring.
Conservationists are often hostage to “shifting baseline syndrome”, he writes. They fight for the survival of the conditions they grew up with, even if those conditions – such as the moors – are the result of an earlier ecological catastrophe. In the case of the Cambrian “desert”, near his home in Wales, it was sheep that ravaged the land, altering the ecology as effectively as a clear-felling operation. In Scotland, deer hunting, promoted on the estates of wealthy landowners, tipped the ecological balance.
A chapter is devoted to a man named Ritchie Tassell. One of Tassell’s bugbears, apparently, is hearing soundtracks of American birds during films set in the British countryside: the fact it passes unnoticed by cinema-goers is a grim indication for him of the level of disengagement from the natural world.
Monbiot’s description of the scrap of land Tassell is allowing to return to the wild in sheep-ravaged Cambria is lyrical. Birch boletes, or orange toadstools, looked like “soggy breadrolls”; the “big soft leaves of foxgloves flopped on the ground”; an aspen, “its leaves the shape of the domes on a Russian Orthodox church, never quite still, shivered in the cool bright light”.
The point of rewilding, Monbiot writes, is something far more radical than conservation. It about is setting up the environment to approximate as closely as possible what it would have been thousands of years ago, then stepping back and letting it develop as it will. It is not about land management, but the very opposite. The operational concept is “wild”.
He describes successful rewilding efforts in Europe, where the return of native predators – including scary ones at the top of the food chain, such as wolves, boars and bears – is reversing the trophic cascade that shredded the original web of natural co-existence. Although the book is mainly about Britain, chapters devoted to developments in Poland and Romania that are more far-sighted – forwards and back – than anything being done in Monbiot’s homeland, are exciting and eye-opening. Bears and lynx and wisent are returning slowly to their original lands. Might elephants, Monbiot muses, eventually return?
Monbiot frames his detailed research in euphoric descriptions of the natural world. Some readers, and women in particular, may prefer to do without the more gung-ho description of his close shaves with the elements, but all is forgiven when the passage segues into another ravishing riff on nature.
His ideas are so idealistic they seem almost crazy at times, but are all the more inspiring for that.
Feral: Searching For Enchantment on The Frontier of Rewilding
By George Monbiot
Allen Lane, 317pp, $39.99 (HB)
Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based writer and critic.
Filed under: Media & Analysis, George Monbiot, Investigative Journalism