Weekend Coffee: Rewilding

While I was doing research for this week’s post on de-extinction, I came across an article by George Monbiot on the phenomenon of “accidental rewilding” that I thought was worth sharing.

I loved the book The World Without Us, which describes how rapidly nature would move in and erase the artifacts of civilization if human beings weren’t there to act as caretakers and groundskeepers. The author, Alan Weisman, cites a few places where this has happened, like the village of Pripyat near Chernobyl, or Varosha, a resort town in Cyprus that fell in the no-man’s-land between the 1974 Greek-Turkish partition of the island.

Monbiot provides another example: the Kočevski Rog, a highland region in southeastern Slovenia that was depopulated by the violence of World War II and never resettled. In just a few decades, the woods have regenerated and the land has returned to wilderness:

So tall and impressive are the trees now and so thickly do they now cover the hills that when you see the old photos — taken, in ecological terms, such a short time ago — it is almost impossible to believe that you are looking at the same place. I have become so used to seeing the progress of destruction that scanning those images felt like watching a film played backwards.

…The mountains rambled across the former Yugoslavia, fading into ever fainter susurrations of blue. The entire range was furred with forest. Where the road sank into a pass, the darkness closed around us. Through the trunks I could see the air thicken, shade upon shade of green. A few yards from the road, a fox sat watching us. Its copper fur glowed like a cinder in the shadows, which cooled to charcoal in the tips of its ears. It raised its black stockings and loped away into the depths. Woodpeckers swung along the track ahead of us.

The leaves of the beeches glittered in the silver light above our heads. The great firs grazed the sun, straight as lances. They looked as if they had been there forever.

‘All this,’ Tomaž told us, ‘has grown since the 1930s.’

This vast, seemingly pristine forest has grown in less than a hundred years – an ecological eyeblink. It’s a cheering thought to think that, in spite of all the damage we’ve done, nature is resilient. Even pushed to the margins, it still stands ready to return, if only we’d stand down and get out of the way.

And other than the fact that the Kočevski Rog was depopulated violently, it may be giving us a glimpse of the future. Already, a majority of humans live in cities, and by 2050 that’s expected to be as high as 70%. As megacities exert their gravitational pull, it’s likely that vast stretches of the planet’s surface will be peacefully abandoned. I can imagine a future where most people live in urban areas and the rest of the world has been allowed to return to wilderness.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Richard Hollis

    First de-extinction and now rewilding? It’s like I’m possessing you this week.

    George Monbiot is a leading advocate for rewilding in Britain and Europe (indeed I think it may have been he who coined the term). It’s strange to think that many places we think of as ‘wild’, including fields, grassland, heathland and scrubland, are actually carefully maintained by humans. Britain would be pretty much forest coast to coast if humans disappeared, and anything that is not forest is probably not ‘wild’ in the true sense.

    It seems Monbiot’s most vocal detractors are farmers, whose livelihoods depend on the grazing livestock (particularly sheep, who Monbiot famously referred to as a ‘white plague’ and, perhaps more bizarrely, ‘woolly maggots’) for whose sake the grasslands are kept. The hill farms – the very people who oppose his plans – are the ones he needs to get on his side the most.

    There is also the issue of what rewilding truly means. Does it mean simply letting go of an area and allowing nature to re-establish itself there? Or does it mean actively trying to recreate the environment that existed before man arrived? If so, how far back? Should we actively eliminate invasive species in these areas which have arrived in Britain since? Again, if so, how far back? The grey squirrel is a common and familiar sight to most Brits, but it has only been in Britain 100 years (the red is the British native). Are they still invasive, or have they been here long enough to be considered native? What about rabbits and pheasants which were introduced by the Romans 2,000 years ago?

    Which brings in another issue – the reintroduction of potentially dangerous predators. We have lost virtually all our large (and medium) carnivores, and yet they are pretty essential for a functioning ecosystem. But despite plans to reintroduce wolves to Scotland, the idea of large carnivores returning to Britain has never been met with enthusiasm. And I can kinda see why – convincing people that they should introduce potentially dangerous animals to their safe and cosy countryside is quite a mission. And yet, as Monbiot points out, isn’t it hypocritical of us to take this attitude while at the same time encouraging east asians to bolster the tiger numbers?

  • J-D

    I have the memory, more than once, of seeing reports of villages and towns where the population is in decline, where all the young people are leaving or have left, where it seems as if soon there will be no inhabitants at all. And in my recollection all those reports talk about people who are struggling to save those settlements from their fates, or discuss strategies that might help to do that. And I feel as if I’ve always reacted to them by wondering why it should be assumed that saving settlements from depopulation is always the proper goal. Why not just let them go? I hadn’t ever thought of this in terms of rewilding, though. So I’m grateful for having been introduced to the concept.

  • Alex SL

    > I can imagine a future where most people live in urban areas and the rest of the world has been allowed to return to wilderness.

    And how would the billions in the cities be fed? We would still be using the same amount of land for agriculture.

    I can imagine a future in which a good deal of the world has returned to wilderness because feeding, clothing, housing, and ‘watering’ more than ca. three billion people (tops?) is simply not long term sustainable, especially once all fossil fuels are gone, and billions will have died of starvation, war and diseases. But then I’m a pessimist.

  • Pofarmer

    Just a think though. I farm in the U.S. Midwest. “here” there are more trees than there were at the turn of the century. Fence lines and power lines and farmsteads created places for trees to grow. The variety and amount of wildlife here now generally is more than at the turn of the century. That’s not saying everything is good. I would sure like to see more quail. But, just because an area is not “wild” don’t think that it’s a biological wasteland for any other than human habitation.

  • Pattrsn

    There’s a lot of rewilding in my area too, a lot of crap farmland returning to scrub and brush. We have an amazing wetland that started out as a dug cattle pond just before we bought the place. Beaver had just moved in, we fenced the cattle out and in about 6-7 years the beaver had easily doubled or tripled the area of open water with opening up the pond and digging canals all around it. They ended up connecting our pond to the neighbours and now the water stays high all summer when it used to drop to a big puddle, even through last summer which was basically a drought.
    There’s green herons, great blue herons, wood ducks and kingfishers now, and an otter that drops by every now and again. It’s amazing what they’ve done to that muddy hole in less than a decade.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I can imagine a future where most people live in urban areas and the rest of the world has been allowed to return to wilderness.

    Actual human habitation and structures take up relatively little land. I think something like less than 10% of land in the US is used for that purpose, which includes all the roads.

    Over half the land area in the US is used for agriculture. If you want more wilderness, you have to retire farmland and let it rewild. The only way to do that without having people starve is to boost agricultural productivity (i.e., more food per acre) or reduce the number of mouths to feed.

    Fortunately, agricultural productivity has been on a strong upward trend for the last few centuries, and while global population is getting out of hand, it should top off around 9 billion sometime in the 2050s. Some think we’ve already reached peak farmland. So wilderness levels should increase, but urbanization isn’t the main reason.


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