How to Let Grow

How to Let Grow

“How do we “rewild” areas where the native species are now extinct? In England, they use “exotic” species as substitutes. This common sense would collide with so-called “invasive species biology” in most of the US.

NOTE: this article was originally published to WSJ.com on September 27, 2019. It was written by Forrest Pritchard.

Early in Isabella Tree’s “Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm,” the author stands before a colossal, centuries-old dead oak on her husband’s family estate, an hour’s drive south of London, and anxiously asks the question: What should she, as a responsible landowner and good neighbor, do about it?

The answer, to many of us, might seem obvious. It should be removed with all speed—and in Ms. Tree’s part of the world, aristocratic sensibilities dictated as much. After all, what would her neighbors think, with those lifeless, gray limbs cluttering their pristine sky? Worse yet, the tree could fall, injuring an innocent passerby. It was the owner’s responsibility—even her noblesse oblige—to make this dead oak disappear, posthaste.

For most of her life, this would have been precisely Ms. Tree’s course of action, but recent experiences shifted her perspective. Decades of industrial dairying and falling milk prices had pushed the family farm on Knepp Castle Estate to the brink of bankruptcy. Making matters worse, generations of plowing, harvesting and erosion had left the fields devoid of organic matter. In the wake of conventional farming, the land had become a mire of sticky, nearly lifeless clay.

The root of the problem? Their owners’ attitude. As farmers, they had long believed in waging calculated war against nature, using herbicides, genetically modified seeds and fuel-guzzling machinery to rein in nature, to rule it, to squeeze the soil for profit. This type of zero-sum thinking left their farm as lifeless as the oak.

Thus we arrive at the heart of what “Wilding” is about: When it comes to a healthy relationship with nature, it’s our own nature that reliably gets in the way.

Viewed through a living-room window, a dead tree easily becomes an eyesore, a symbol of landowner neglect—a public menace. We are hard-wired to view nature through a prism of human control. Care to test this theory? Try walking past a suburban lawn that’s 10 inches tall and see if you don’t feel some frisson of emotion. Go ahead. You’ve been dared.

As it turns out, nature can do just fine without a homeowners’ association. Insects, fungi and weather can help return the tree to the soil from which it sprang. Meanwhile, hibernating animals, woodpeckers and hawks can use it for shelter, food and rest. All that’s required is the wisdom to leave it be.

By bringing human emotionality to the forefront, “Wilding” shines a probing light on our relationship with the outdoors. “We’ve become trapped by our own observations,” one ecologist tells the author. “We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant the wildlife is having to cope with.” Guided by this epiphany, Ms. Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, wonder: What might happen if this revelation extended beyond one dead oak to encompass their entire 3,500-acre farm? They resolve to treat the wild as an ally, not an antagonist. For the first time in their lives, they prepared—purposefully—to do nothing.

But doing nothing, it turns out, requires tremendous effort. The couple enlists the help of scientists, scholars and specialists—a peaceful army of humans, intent on setting nature free. What follows is the story of “rewilding” their farm. With the financial assistance of grants and soil-bank subsidies, the couple gradually introduces roe and fallow deer, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth hogs and longhorn cattle to their sprawling estate.

Slowly, over the course of seasons and years, these grazing and rooting animals restore life to the depleted fields, eating, manuring and mating their way to sustained vitality. The presence of these large herbivores and omnivores, absent from southern England for half a millennium, fosters a resurgence of native plants, birds and butterflies. Today, the farm on Knepp Castle Estate is a global destination for those wishing to see rewilding in progress.

At its finest, “Wilding” probes our complex relationship with nature, challenging our desire to intervene on its behalf. Rewiring our feelings regarding the outdoors, the author suggests, is a chance to renew our connection to the land.

Ironically, where the book sometimes stumbles is in its too-earnest attempts to justify its emotionality. Hyperaware of our dysfunctional love affair with nature, “Wilding” frequently dives too deep into the couple’s decisions, supplying no shortage of historical esoterica, scientific backstory and personal exposition, leaving the reader feeling sidetracked from the main story arc. “Wilding” is a worthy read, especially for those already convinced that they are nature lovers at heart.

—Mr. Pritchard is a full-time farmer and best-selling author. His most recent book is “Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st-Century Farmer.”

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