Front cover image of Feral by George Monbiot
Front cover of Feral by George Monbiot

This post was originally published on Ecocritical Connections on October 13, 2013.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding is the latest book from regular Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot. As a semi-regular reader of his blog and a fan of his 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (one of the first books to expose the links between climate change scepticism and the fossil fuel industry for a general audience), I was looking forward to Monbiot’s newest offering. But I was sadly disappointed. While it makes some fascinating suggestions about ways to revitalise depleted ecosystems around the world, Feral also reads in many parts like a slightly greener (and tamer) version of Man vs. Wild.

The book makes a passionate case for ‘rewilding’, an approach to land management that has been gaining credence in some environmental circles in recent years. As Monbiot describes it, rewilding is about, ‘resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way’ (9). We soon learn, however, that allowing ‘nature’ to find ‘its own way’ involves a lot of human intervention. It involves the reintroduction of certain plants and animal species to areas where they no longer exist–including, in some of Monbiot’s more zany examples, species that have been extinct in England for centuries, such as the bear, wolf and even the elephant (apparently many of England’s shrubs and trees are ‘elephant-adapted’ (9)).

Rewilding also involves, in a few cases, ‘culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife’ (9). But does ‘nature’ distinguish between ‘exotic’ and ‘native’? How long does a species have to exist in a given region before it can be classed as native? Non-western perspectives may offer very different answers to these questions, such as the view shared by some indigenous Australians that introduced species have earned their place on ‘country’, even if they once came from elsewhere (Rolls 113).

The distinction between ‘exotic’ and ‘native’ also seems at odds with Monbiot’s own position in Feral: his insistence that rewilding is ‘not an attempt to restore [natural ecosystems] to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume’ (7). Concepts like ‘exotic’ and ‘native’ remain irrevocably tied to the seductive yet misleading notion that there is an ideal baseline or primordial ‘state of grace’ to which natural ecosystems should be returned. As much as Monbiot rails against this myth, the book is peppered with personal anecdotes about his personal exhilaration during one solo hunting or fishing trip or another, all seeming to perpetuate the parable that man’s (and I do mean man’s) true home is in the wilderness.

In one particularly illustrative passage, Monbiot comes across a dead Chinese barking deer in a forest and decides to cart it home for dinner: ‘I hesitated for a moment, surveying the sleek tube of its body, the small coralline antlers, the tiny hooves. Then I gathered up the ankles and heaved it onto my shoulders. The deer wrapped around my neck and back as if it had been tailored for me; the weight seemed to settle perfectly across my joints. The effect was remarkable. As soon as I felt its warmth on my back, I wanted to roar. My skin flushed, my lungs filled with air. This, my body told me, was why I was here. This was what I was for. Civilization slid off as easily as a bathrobe’ (32-3).

Perhaps it is the overt feminisation of the (male) deer with its ‘sleek’ body, ‘small’ antlers and ‘tiny’ hooves. Perhaps it is the bizarre sexual connotations of the deer ‘wrapped’ around his neck and back as its weight settles into his joints. Really, though, it is the roar that gets me. It’s 2013, can I please have my popular ecology without the macho chest-banging?

I don’t mean to deny that Feral has some interesting, even important points to make. Monbiot mounts a convincing though provocative case for why sheep grazing should be stopped in England’s treasured Lake District, arguing that agriculture has been as environmentally destructive as the industrial revolution and reluctantly conceding that Wordsworth’s shepherds may not have lived so harmoniously with the elements after all. There are also some fascinating examples of rewilding success stories, such as how biodiversity has flourished in Scottish streams and rivers since the beaver, a so-called ‘keystone’ species, was ‘accidentally’ reintroduced in the late 2000s.

I also don’t mean to cast dispersions on the genuineness of Monbiot’s project: none can deny that he is a long-standing environmentalist who has managed, throughout his career, to walk that all-too-tenuous tightrope between documenting and participating in the environmental movement. He acknowledges, too, the importance of toning down the rhetoric of human culpability and guilt in the quest for wide-scale public support: ‘Without offering new freedoms for which to exchange the old ones, we are often seen as ascetics, killjoys and prigs. We know what we are against; now we must explain what we are for’ (12).

Perhaps Feral, after all, speaks most to this conundrum: the need to offer a positive vision of the future to counter the bleakness of the present; the promise that ‘enchantment’ lies just around the corner, as the book’s subtitle suggests. I only wish it could have offered something more than the tired trope of man conquering the wilderness.