Earlier this fall at the farmer’s market, sorting apples, I overheard one lady kvetching to another. “It’s too late,” she said, with a sigh. “I’m not even sure why I’m trying. We’re so far beyond doomed.”
I knew this woman was trying – she’d turned out for organic apples, after all – but I could see how easy it is to have apocalyptic thoughts now, to want to give up, to feel like even our best efforts won’t be enough. Losing species, losing environmental battles, losing our climate: It’s enraging, depressing, exhausting. In the Bay Area, newly intense firestorms come to our door, weekly. In our warming seas, the kelp forests of California are dying off, threatening ocean fishery collapse. The arctic is burning, the rainforests are burning. The world’s refugees are fleeing zones where instability is climate crisis by another name. Just as I agonize about what to tell my two young children, our current administration seems intent on bludgeoning and reneging on environmental treaties, stamping out what mild clean air and water protections we have earned.
We’re gathering to celebrate the harvest season, and for that I am grateful: for this year, for the apples, for the pumpkins, for the water, for the birds. But this year has been hard one, and I felt like I wanted to turn to the woman and somehow comfort her, to say I know how she feels. And actually, I wanted to offer her a copy of Isabella Tree’s “Wilding,” a book which sustained me this year, and seeded some much-needed acreage for hope – a hope I cling to as we move into the holiday season.
Tree is, by the way, married to English gentry, and she and her husband have inherited a farm that’s been in cultivation for 700 years, which they themselves attempted to farm intensively in the 1990s, before the forces of globalization made the local market for milk collapse. Despite doing everything they could to modernize, Tree and her husband Charles Burrell realized that they could no longer make a living as farmers. As they looked out at their exhausted farm, laboriously fortified from sticky Sussex clay, they discerned that they needed to pause. What happened next occurred in stages, as if they themselves were not even sure whether it would work or be of use.
Tree’s book unfolds as a 20-year ecological mystery. As an experiment, she and Burrell decided not only to let their land lie fallow, but to strategically steward it toward a deeper, more layered wildness, introducing species and practices that might nourish its soil. Some of this was simply allowing the old oaks on the land to die, or drop limbs, allowing dead things to rot where they fell. Some of it was reintroducing deer and Exmoor ponies (they resemble cave paintings at Lascaux) to aerate and nourish the grasses. Some of it was simply not planting at all, and watching waves of bracken succeed each other, each copse making a niche for some new animal. Instead of measuring crop output, Tree and Burrell began measuring their success in biomass – how much life in the soil, air and water they could support. Instead of seeing what they could harvest, they began to wonder how much they could bring back.
The results were, quite frankly, astonishing. The motion was less linear and more exponential as an interactive dynamism took over the space that Tree and Burrell had carefully tended. Within two decades their formerly exhausted dairy farm has become a haven for species otherwise in decline across Europe and the world. The cuckoo, the skylark, the raven – creatures of deep lore and literary imagination – have begun to live in their woods and fields again. The famed but now deeply endangered “voice of the turtledove” is heard on their land. At every turn, in ways humble and unexpected, life has added to life.
Even so, the sheer force of the wilding, which seemed to take on its own momentum, amazed Tree and Burrell and even the experts that helped guide them. The process called back more dense and diverse species than even experts had imagined was possible. Even what seemed invasive at first made sense in time: One year a meadow filled up with thistles, which seemed like a nuisance, but also provided cover for a bumper crop of beneficial insects and butterflies. Tree’s love of species names buoys her discoveries along, and her careful observations about the interconnectedness of even overlooked creatures seemed to give us all reason to hope. She delights in the rare Purple Emperor butterfly, but also notes the return of the “necrophagous insect species such as clown beetles and blowfly maggots”. No form of life, webbed into others, seems too small: The density and reuse and recirculation of vital nutrients weaves the tapestry Tree takes obvious pleasure in naming in her prose.
This is a book about ecosystem building, about imagining a more beautiful abundance, more life in our lives. It’s a book about the fact that it’s still possible to heal what’s barren or polluted, and that maybe it would be richer, more joyful, and more possible than we imagine, if we could only just begin. That said, it was not always easy. They had to work against British ideas of tidiness, what Tree calls the “regime” of intensive farming, and their own ingrained sense of utility. Tree is also careful to point out that she and Burrell were able to get various forms of government and nonprofit funding to do this work, and to find niches of conservation funding that have sustained them. Sometimes, Tree points out that bureaucratic attempts to bring back one species (or perhaps to serve one end) have narrow parameters that failed to serve their efforts at wider ecosystem repair. She wants us to cultivate the beautiful messy multifunctional, spaces that cross-pollinate and nourish us in surprising ways.
For those who wonder, Burrell and Tree do (in a traditional sense) produce a few things on their land: They market free range cows and pigs and run an ecotourism business, where city dwellers can take some respite. They are actually making a decent living off their land now. I encourage American readers to imagine a farm bill and land uses that would prize biomass as one of its indices of success. Our food and our rural economies and our hearts and our birds would probably all be the better for it. Just like Isabella Tree’s farm, these are ecosystems we can build, can remember to continue to hope and fight for. We might think the same way about our urban spaces, as well.
In fact, what most struck me about this book – why I loved it – was that in a difficult year for me individually and Americans collectively it laid open the possibility of repair, of repair that could succeed once more beyond our wildest intentions, even in this doomsday moment, when everything feels “too late”. It was a reminder that we might yet surprise ourselves. This wasn’t to lull anyone into a new complaisance, or to turn away from the grim tallies we see every day, but just to remind us that the work is available to us, and that, once again, we can each begin, somewhere today. It reminded me that we don’t know what such repair might look like, because we haven’t really tried very hard yet. And it reminded me that working towards such repair felt far more radical than succumbing to the daily despair.
Obviously, we need leaders at every level who care about and can articulate the vital role of living ecosystems, who are eager to build diverse ecosystems. But I think – even in the face of the top-down creep of horrible headlines – we can all start somewhere, now. You might guess I’m not just talking about farming here. I don’t have a 700-year-old farm, but I do feel aware of wanting to rewild myself a little. I’m making changes I know I can make and see how they might lead to more. Maybe some of this is feeling the cold air on my face when I bike my kids to school. Maybe some of this is asking my town to close small streets on Sundays so the kids can get out and play without being afraid of being mowed down by cars. Maybe it’s learning a few more local pollinators, reading up on the farm bill, working locally to build habitat and ban pesticides in our towns and parks. We’re installing an owl box and a bee garden in our backyard, because it turns out that native bees and crop bees can support each other, and besides, flowers are a source of joy.
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If you really can’t do any of these things, maybe just read the book, and remember again the pleasure in saying plant names, in saluting the world, in savoring it. Maybe it will plant some new little seed for you, too. There really is a richer, more abundant sort of life that we could share with each other and the earth. It might be worth it to inspire yourself. We all need a bit of amazement. We all deserve a bit of hope.