“Of course, the real barrier is not ecological or economic - it is cultural. Re-wilding is seen as a step backwards.” The reminder by Peter Taylor (Beyond conservation, Earthscan, 2005) is one Nick Baker is quite aware of, but does not substantially tackle.
In the first few pages of ReWild he tells us that there are apparently a number of different sorts of rewilding, and that behind the word “is a kind of muddled-up, querulous, polarised and politicised soup of ideas: beavers, lynx, bears, wolves and George Monbiot […].”
Rewilding is “an admission that the existing model of nature conservation hasn’t worked particularly well as a complete solution” - that model being the result of a “Noah’s Ark philosophy”. Baker sees rewilding as “a scale”: it could be the planting of a native tree in your garden or leaving a corner of your lawn uncut, or it could be Y2Y – the suggested linking of North American wild land from Yellowstone to the Yukon.
Appreciate and enthuse
Rewilding is “joining up what is left of the shattered habitats”, and the reintroduction of missing species – notably the big hairy ones. This, of course, can be seen as going backwards.
Advocates of a rewilded world are usually acutely aware that we ourselves, individually and as a culture, need to be more ‘wild’ – more ‘natural’, less constrained by culture - before there is a chance of the world becoming significantly wilder. This, of course, is seen as advocating a mega step backwards….
Some of these big and more philosophic aspects come back into focus in the final pages of the book, but in the bulk of it Nick Baker’s attention is directed at enthusing about and getting his readers to appreciate and enthuse about the liberation and retuning of their senses.
For him, this is a vital early step towards personal wilding. In the introductory chapter, Baker tells us of his bear “epiphany”: When trekking in Alaska, his guide pushed him off the trail, and a bear “bowled along, passing us by just a couple of metres”.
He could, he writes, “see, hear, smell, feel, almost taste bear – every primeval link, every neuron I possessed, woke up in an instant. […] I had, for that brief moment, completely and utterly connected with the natural world”. And he was impressed by his guide’s sensory ability….
'The inner beast'
Most of the book demonstrates his way of helping the rest of us find this super-sensed state for ourselves. He does this by examining the conventional five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
For each, he provides examples of instances when an enhancement of the particular sense was significant for him, and how it can be important to the wilding – the release of “the inner beast” - of each of us. Here, Nick Baker is in territory with which he is familiar, and which he makes use of as a naturalist and communicator.
At several junctures, he emphasises the life-changing nature of an experience that showed him that a particular sense could be enhanced, and could be a sort of entree to ‘knowing’ an animal or plant, and allowing him – literally and metaphorically – to get closer to it.
This facet of his writing I find encouraging and can empathise with; he several times echoed my own experience - but rather more strikingly!
“The practice of listening deeply to a landscape […], the whole interconnected ecology of sound, is such a vital part of our natural connection”, he writes about sound; and about smell: “The very air we breathe is a communication channel for so many living processes that it [is] remiss of someone […] to ignore it”.
'Wonderfully stimulating forms'
This direct communication channel to his readers is refreshing. You can probably tell from the several extracts I’ve quoted that the book is written in a homely, relaxed style. This is an easy read, and the style is quite suitable.
It is, however, occasionally not clear if Baker - or his editor – has unwittingly built in a confusion or a misunderstanding. For instance, (page 39) for the success of reintroductions and the restoration of whole landscapes “we need to train ourselves to become much more tolerant of the wild”.
Yet, he seems, in his own case, to describe not self-training but revelations, and what he refers to as his epiphany. If there is self-training it is in better use of our senses.
In the introductory pages we get a clear message that the nature reserve model of conservation hasn’t succeeded. However, a more positive message about them seems to emerge from the final pages, Here, nature reserves can offer experience of nature “in all of its wonderfully stimulating forms”, and can help overcome the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder.
I’m sure Baker still sees the problem of the Noah’s Ark approach, but doesn’t, I think, strongly enough emphasise the reserves’ own N.D.D..
A wilder world
Writing about our relatively limited hearing range (page 110), he urges us to keep this limitation in mind “at all times when you are being in nature”. Now: to me that implies that one might as it were slip in and out of this thing called nature.
But – for me – nature is not something one is only sometimes ‘in’. If your belief (or philosophic position, let’s say) is that Homo sapiens is natural, we can’t be ‘out of’ nature; or if, for instance, your belief is that we are a Special Creation, we can’t be ‘in’ it. And if it is your belief that nature is Life, The Universe and Everything, the term is redundant, as nothing is left to be not-nature.
It is such wider issues that I wish had been addressed more than in passing. They are surely in need of clarification, at least to the point of an individual being able to say “This is what I mean by rewilding…”. I’m afraid, though, that the word has already slid some way down the road taken by the glorious S-word of the 1990s: sustainability became “anything you want it to be – so long as you can justify it with clever arguments”. Not that Nick Baker plays with clever arguments.
Although I feel that he does not explain enough about the context in which he writes about the spectrum and abilities of human senses, what he has to tell us about them – in vivid but straightforward, though often somewhat poetic, English, without the benefit of bibliography or index, or illustrations – is just the sort of thing we need to be told about and encouraged to explore for ourselves.
It might not give you a deep awareness of a wilder world (I recommend Peter Taylor’s book to help there), but it could much increase your appreciation of, your personal connection to, the world and the life around you.
Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation.
ReWild: The art of returning to nature, by Nick Baker, Aurum Press, London, 2017. Hardback, 271 pages, £16.99.