WITNESS: The dissipation of wildness (a personal experience)


We’ve strangled all her trees and starved her creatures

There’s poison in the sea and in the air

But worst of all we’ve learned to live without her

We’ve lost the very meaning of our lives

And now she’s gonna die

A verse from Death of Mother Nature Suite by Kansas (1974)

It was shortly after the winter solstice, eight years ago, when I did something that I had done nothing quite like before. Triggered by the cresting of a claustrophobia that had been growing for a decade-and-a-half, from the time I left my childhood home below the dark woods of a place named Dancing Green, it began with me shifting a sofa and an armchair tight against my living room wall and sliding an oak dining table across the carpet and into a corner.

With a clearing thus created, I opened an old shoe box. Its contents were a set of Ordnance Survey maps for the area surrounding St Albans, which had become my place of residence. Unfolding a sheet more or less centred on this small city, and laying it down in my carpeted glade, I proceeded by adding maps to the west, the north, and the east. (I appended nothing to the south, as all which that space contained was the outskirts and centre of London.) The summed result was an irregular shape representing about 50 miles at its widest and 35 miles at its tallest, or three-and-a-quarter of my metre-long paces by two-and-a-quarter.

Surveying this patchwork representation of the region around my home, I saw lines, symbols, and words that described the cause of my claustrophobia—an extinguishing of wild nature. For here was affirmation, with ink and paper, of the choking of life’s creativity and dynamism: in labels like “Business Park” and “Oil Storage Depot”; in the pale-Band-Aid colour of urban and industrial sprawl; in the monotonously spaced conifer icons of commercial forestry; in the taut blue ribbons of once- graceful watercourses; in the hatched pattern of vast greenhouses; in the manifold blue pins of golf courses; in the treeless unshaded areas for other recreation; in the suffocatingly small remnants of ancient woodland; in the blue, red, green, orange, yellow, and white venation of the road network; and, most of all, in the gargantuan tessellations of modern fields. I found no salve that day in a cherished Aldo Leopold observation: that the “drab sogginess of a March cornfield, saluted by one honker from the sky, is drab no more.”


A poignant illustration of the syndrome came from a small settlement to the east of St Albans. Known oh-so promisingly as Wildhill, it was characterized by oversized houses and an abundance of agriculture. I was reminded of an area of map further to the east that I had once scanned and which included an attenuated strip of trees marking a parish boundary. This constriction of nature’s potential bore a most puzzling name: Wilderness Grove.

The purpose of laying out the maps in the living room had not, however, been to compound my unease. I was instead searching for an escape. I needed to know that there was a place I could reach on foot or by public transport where I would be able to feel immersed in a vibrant ecology—one in which wildness stretched out at every turn. This is not to say that I saw other land as being devoid of value. I knew, for instance, that the best nature reserves in the region, in terms of number of rare species supported, were those managed to protect anthropogenic, or co-created, habitats—including heathlands, meadows, coppiced woodlands, traditional orchards, and abandoned quarries. And I relished any sign of nature’s fightback in edgeland habitats, those thresholds between townscape and countryside that are so often given a wide berth for their unsightliness. In that moment, however, I was yearning for an abundance of nature where the will of humans was no more than a minor force. Only then, I felt, would I experience the thrill that comes from knowing one’s insignificance in a landscape and perhaps go some way to quelling this acute and painful craving.

A place with human will as a minor force would have to be enough, for I knew that it would have been fanciful to scour the maps for somewhere free of all anthropogenic influence. The reality is that incursions of humanity into the Earth’s wonders are evident in every conceivable domain.

Take light pollution. This already taints the blackness even in so-called pristine dark-sky locations, while the reflection and scattering of sunlight by artificial satellites and space debris is compounding this problem everywhere.

Or take sound pollution. As Mike Mikkelsen of Quiet Parks International has observed: “There are very, very few places left on Planet Earth where you can listen to just the sounds of nature for more than fifteen minutes at a time; and those places are vanishing very quickly.”

Or take chemical pollution. Phil Cafaro noted in 2014 that “every square meter of soil and every cubic meter of the atmosphere show trace amounts (or more) of artificial chemicals.” And a study by Alan Jamieson and colleagues, published in 2017, identified “extraordinary levels of persistent organic pollutants” in crustaceans living more than 10,000 metres below the ocean surface, “indicating bioaccumulation of anthropogenic contamination and inferring [sic] that these pollutants are pervasive across the world’s oceans and to full ocean depth.”

Yet the ubiquity of contamination need not undermine a quest for nature’s throbbing heart. For, as Paul Kingsnorth opined in 2014, “the Amazon is not important because it is untouched; it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. Humans live in and from it, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix.”

My maps were not going to reveal a vast tropical jungle between the M1 and the A505 in Central Bedfordshire, but I remained hopeful that there would be somewhere to satisfy my yearning—my call of the wild. I knew that woodland would offer the best prospect for this, and so I began to search the paper sheets for the green shading that indicated tree cover.

Starting at my home and pushing an index finger two-and-a-quarter miles (six inches) northwards, over the crease of the central fold, I stopped at Langley Wood. The fields surrounding this fragment of ancient forest had been purchased by the Woodland Trust a few years earlier and were being restored, through a variety of planting interventions as well as by natural regeneration, to create the largest continuous new native forest in England. (On today’s maps, this formerly white area has gained green ink.) I was familiar with the place. The vigour with which life had re-emerged when left alone, in the natural regeneration areas, provided an astounding example of nature’s ability to bounce back. But the site had the feel of a tree plantation, and, clearly, this would not sate my hunger. More generally, it struck me as odd then, as it does now, why non-interventional approaches are used so little in reforestation schemes. (Of course, they do not yield the same benefits for public relations or help keep plastic tree-guard manufacturers in business. Nor do they maintain our sense of control over the land.)

With thoughts of managerial relinquishment, I returned my finger to Langley Wood and slid it two-and-three-quarter miles (seven inches) west-by-northwest. I was now pointing at what was possibly the oldest ongoing rewilding experiment in the world. In the early 1880s, Rothamsted Research had set aside two plot of arable land to see what would happen to the soil and vegetation when unmolested in the long term. After 135 years, these experiments—known as the Broadbalk Wilderness and the Geescroft Wilderness—were still running.

As for calming my claustrophobia, however, I had not found my place. For one thing, both experimental sites were small—the Broadbalk one so much so that Ordnance Survey, at the 1:25,000 scale, applied no green shading to its narrow wedge-shape. For another, it was a private site where the risks associated with trespass were high, in light of the vigilance necessitated by Rothamsted’s experimentation with an entirely different level of intervention: genetically modified crops. (In the spirit of disclosure, I should note that I was later given a guided tour around both rewilded sites by a wonderfully helpful and friendly employee of the research organization. Stepping inside the larger of these two self-healed areas was a genuinely moving experience, and the complex cover of mature trees and dead wood that had emerged left little doubt in my mind as to the landscape’s natural inclinations in this part of the world.)


Back on the map, my digit refound a northward course and in a few inches eased over Luton Airport. There was a temptation. Wildness could surely be found by taking a flight to some distant corner of the planet. But no. After seeking such fixes in earlier years, my life had become earthbound.

Presently, the radius of my search began to increase, as I removed the finger and bent forward. My eyes settled on a mosaic of woodland and grassland to the north-east of Luton. It looked promising except for the square blue icon at its centre, one that depicted a white oak branchlet. The site that had caught my attention was the grounds of Wimpole Hall, and the logo indicated that it was owned by the National Trust. This meant this it was a no-go area for me. I was boycotting that organization because of the courses that they ran at this location to promote the blood sport of hunting rabbits with ferrets.

From here I swept west-south-west and spotted an even more promising site. Known as Maulden Wood, this tree-covered area, while marked as state-managed forest, was at least relatively large (three or four hundred acres by my estimate). Furthermore, the woodland lay away from major settlements, had been incised with few broad tracks, and was decorated with a mix of tree symbols that suggested, at least towards the north, a dominance of self-sown natives over planted non-natives among the elder beings. Some quick research showed the place to be three hours, and two bus changes, distant. I felt an easing of my anxiety.

As I refolded the maps and returned them to the shoe box, I reflected on my lot in life. Yes, there was this unease that clung to me, like a rain-wetted shirt, from living in a part of the world which had been so thoroughly stripped of primal nature that a managed forest was the closest thing that remained to wilderness. At the same time, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for being free in ways that many other people in the world were not. This liberty included having the capacity to travel for six hours in a day to fulfil desires of a purely non-material kind.


Eight years later—as I returned to the notes that I had made at the time, in order to finally write them up—I decided to look at a digital mapping of Maulden Wood. (I had since moved away from the area and given away my paper version.) Three miles to the west, there was a similarly sized patch of unbroken greenness that I could not recall having seen at the time. Zooming in eagerly, to increase the level of detail, I was horrified to discover that, while there were indeed some trees there, the macro-level greenness concealed dozens and dozens of buildings, a large car park, an electricity substation, and the words “Holiday Village”. This was a Center Parcs resort, which a decade earlier had been carved out of the commercially exploited, but intact, forest. Two labelled areas within the complex took their appellation from the wooded hillocks on which the accommodation had been built. I had to read the names of these prominences twice. They were Breakheart and Moneypot.


That a woodland-fringed resort can succeed is, of course, a good thing—in as much as it demonstrates the biophilia that beats close to the surface, or a little deeper down, in all of us. An affective attachment to the wider living world is universal as a human trait. Omnipresent too, however, is the threat that comes from nature deprivation—that inwardly damaging ramification of our ecologically destructive ways—and its gnawing away at the bond. And, thus, as we tear apart the living world’s complex tapestry, we rupture our own mental fabric.

In some people, the bond can be nourished by sitting on a bench in the local urban park and watching birds. In others, myself included, there lies a craving for something larger and wilder, a place where nature is unfettered. Neither way of finding intimacy with our non-human kin is better than the other. The range of needs simply exemplifies the diversity of our kind.

For the wildland seekers among us, that challenge of finding sanctuary grows ever harder. Humanity’s squandering of wilderness has been on a scale so large that it is barely credible. We have eaten into something of perfect beauty for gains that are so often ugly and trivial. (Having already once quoted lyrics from the 1970s by a North American artist, in the epigraph to this piece, I will refrain from including here a certain apt line from that oddly upbeat environmental anthem by Joni Mitchell, but you might just know the words to which I refer.)

The domestication and despoliation of Earth is not, of course, a purely recent phenomenon in the story of our species. It is something that has been unfolding for millennia, through our efforts to win control over the land. In parallel, we have been slowly taming the Earth by killing off large predators and keystone herbivores—those beings who used to influence the populations of other species and shape landscapes on their terms. But as our suite of available technologies has expanded and our body of scientific knowledge become broader—increasing the range of choices available to us in how we live our lives and run our economies—the eradication of wildness has only accelerated. Traditional woodmanship has been replaced by profit-maximizing forestry; subsistence farming, by industrial agriculture. And even the blossoming of a global conservation conscience has thus far failed to arrest the ongoing devastation.


Here is not the venue to open the floodgate on statistics, and so, by way of substantiation, I shall draw on just two scientific papers. First, a historical analysis by Erle Ellis and colleagues has suggested that “the terrestrial biosphere shifted from a primarily wild to a primarily anthropogenic state between 1700 and 2000 and that rapid intensification of land use in the 20th century finally pushed the biosphere into its present anthropogenic state.”

Secondly, to bring us closer to the present day, Brooke Williams and co-authors have reported on changes in anthropogenic influence on the land between 2000 and 2013. Based on a division of the Earth’s land surface into one-kilometre squares and a scoring of the human pressure in each square on a scale of 0–10, they found that nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface underwent a deterioration (an increase in human pressure) over the thirteen-year time period. In contrast, only six per cent of the land area was adjudged to have undergone a decrease in human pressure.

As part of auditing this change, the research team set 4 as the threshold on the 0–10 scale that divided ecologically intact land from ecologically degraded, or highly modified, land. (Beyond wilderness areas, the former included, for instance, land retaining most of its natural habitat but with low-density transitory human populations or low-intensity grazing.) They found that the period between 2000 and 2013 saw a shift from an ecologically intact to a highly modified status across nearly 2 million square kilometres—an area they noted to be equivalent to the extent of Mexico.

The authors set an additional threshold on their 0–10 scale at 1: only below this level was land considered wilderness. During the time period that they analysed, it was determined that in excess of 1 million square kilometres of this wilderness was lost. (A country was not provided for size comparison against this statistic in the paper, and so I will give the reader a choice between Colombia, South Africa, and Egypt—in other words, a massive area.) In the analysis, the researchers did not calculate an area for the converse situation based on a contention that wilderness, once lost, was gone forever. Despite the gloomy shadow cast by my words up to this point, I can say that I hold a more optimistic view.

Nature fights incessantly to re-animate damaged land. A striking example of this that I encountered last year, during a trip back to St Albans, was a cluster of wild flowers forcing their way up through a crack in the plastic of an artificial front lawn. Furthermore, while the healing of the Earth can be slow and, in some cases, will only ever be of a partial kind, there is cause for hope in the work of the rewilding movement.

Rewilding is not a magic wand that can quickly undo the deathly spells we have cast in our woefully misguided quest to exert an autocratic control over our fellow Earth-kin. Nevertheless, it can catalyse the process of recovery and it can make the otherwise-impossible a reality, not least through the reintroduction of extirpated species to places that are unreachable by natural recolonization. As such, it is—from a planetary perspective—one of the brightest lights that burn in the twenty-first century.


In closing, I will return to Maulden Wood. The funny thing is that after identifying this forest, three years passed before I made a visit. Just knowing that I could do this was a significant relief in itself. Shortly after, though, I found another kind of escape by travelling back to see my parents, who still lived underneath that place called Dancing Green on the edge of the Forest of Dean. I wrote up this escape in a 2015 article in Country-Side, where I was able to enter “the dominion of another species.” But that is another story.

Read ‘WITNESS: The dissipation of wildness’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog

References

Cafaro P (2014) In: Wuerthner G et al., eds. Keeping the Wild. Island Press, Washington, DC, USA: 137–45.

Ellis EC et al. (2010) Global Ecology and Biogeography 19: 589–606.

Gray J (2015) Fighting the fall of the wild (on a small island). Country-Side 34(2): 22–4. Available at: https://deepgreen.earth/publications/fighting-fall-wild-small-island.pdf (accessed January 2023).

Jamieson AK et al. (2017) Nature Ecology & Evolution 13: 51.

Kingsnorth P (2014) In: Wuerthner G et al., eds. Keeping the Wild. Island Press, Washington, DC, USA: 3–9.

Leopold A (1953) Round River. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, USA.

Williams BA et al. (2020) One Earth 3: 371–82.