OUR BETTER NATURE Essay Excerpt: A Rewilding Story
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” ~Richard Powers
“A Rewilding Story” by Tom Bulter is an essay included in Our Better Nature: Hopeful Excursions in Saving Biodiversity. (Curt Lindberg and Eric Hagen, eds. Published by Vermont Alliance for Half-Earth, Northeast Wilderness Trust, Vermont Natural Resources Council, and the Lintilhac Foundation, 2022.) Read a review of Our Better Nature here.
Several years ago, my friend Jason was riding his bike. He’s an avid cyclist, and on this day he was nearing home after a long ride, going down-hill on a paved road outside his small town. Hearing a vehicle coming up from behind, he scooted over as far as he could to the highway’s right line. As the van came up alongside, someone leaning out the passenger window screamed “boo” and hit him in the head.
Jason braked hard and swerved onto the shoulder, which was riddled with broken pavement, trying to keep from crashing. Which he did. By luck and skill, he did not wipe out. He did not break bones. He was not killed. But he was righteously furious at the idiots who could have caused him grave injury.
Within a few minutes he arrived home and jumped into his car to scout around town for the van, which he soon found parked outside the local grocery store. Two guys came out. “Remember me?” Jason asked. The first fellow looked blank. “Boo,” Jason says. The other guy starts laughing. “He remembers me,” Jason said. “I’m the biker you could have gotten killed back there.”
A spirited conversation ensued. As the exchange of views escalated, van thug #1 approached with menace, at which point Jason whipped out a wooden axe handle that he’d concealed behind his arm. Swinging the club toward the fellow’s head, Jason stopped it just shy of his temple. With a final encouragement to, in all things, but most especially in vehicle/cyclist relations—“BE NICE”—Jason gave the man a light tap on the noggin.
For years thereafter Jason’s friends would encourage him to recount the “be nice” tale. No camping trip was complete without it. It became, as friends and family lore often does, part of our collective memory of knowing and loving Jason.
Years went by, and at one point the “be nice” story came up with another friend, John, when Jason wasn’t present. Also an avid cyclist, John started telling me about that day when he and Jason had been on a long bike ride together and the van almost ran them off the road. He told how he and Jason had found the van and waited in the parking lot to confront the brutes. And how he watched Jason, with a light tap of his axe handle, encourage those fellows to be nice.
John remembered it vividly; he’d been there after all. And this was curious—because in fact, he had not. Jason was biking solo that day. At the time, Jason and John lived hundreds of miles apart. After years of listening to the tale and admiring Jason’s response to the assault, John had simply internalized it. He had put himself in the story.
Memory is, of course, highly fallible. Our brains’ ability to construct and reconstruct memories is amazing, and not well understood, but recent research suggests that our brains certainly are not flesh-and-blood filing cabinets, Xerox copiers, or computers.
Setting aside the possibility that John had some kind of cognitive impairment (he doesn’t), let’s switch our gaze from the imperfectness of John’s memory to the attractiveness of his delusion.
With each breath, with every heartbeat, we live by grace. But while we live, we organize our lives by stories. We understand our place in the world by the tales we tell ourselves. For as long as our species has employed figurative language, some seventy thousand years, we have been talking and listening, listening and talking, to transmit the wisdom, the humor, the codes of right and wrong conduct that collectively form human culture. Only very recently has this cultural transmission happened through mediated forms of communication. The phones in our pockets, the books on our shelves—that’s something new under the sun. For humans, what’s tried and true is the oral tradition.
Thus Jason’s “be nice” story became a kind of cognitive superglue among his group of friends, sticking together the memories of multiple individuals who were not present at the story’s genesis. It was not so surprising, then, that one of us put himself in the tale. Some stories are so attractive that we naturally want to weave our lives into them. They give us meaning. This is most obvious with the world’s great faith traditions, which are built on compelling narratives and shape the lives of billions of people. Secular myths also profoundly influence individual and societal behaviors.
If the world humanity is making is based largely on the tales we tell ourselves, do we have the right ones? Or rather, given that cultures around the globe contain many stories that help anchor people to the land and to their wild relatives in the family of life, why is it that the secular myths offered by globalized, techno-industrial culture so dominate our current political and economic affairs?
Even a cursory stab at answering that question is beyond the scope of this essay, but at the very least, we can agree that corporate capitalism offers a very shiny vision of material affluence (and one quite tangible to a small slice of the human population globally), and has a seemingly limitless advertising budget. Alas, that shiny vision is based on a misunderstanding of physical limits and other dangerously false notions that are precipitating climate chaos and unraveling biodiversity. Let’s consider just a couple of those problematic notions:
#1: There is something called “nature” and something else called “people” and these are separate, with the former’s primary job to serve the latter by providing an endless stream of stuff—“natural resources”—for our use, enjoyment, and profit. This worldview, which is based on a foundational idea of human supremacy so pervasive and unexamined that it’s generally invisible, sees the Earth essentially as a large, magical supermarket. That supermarket exists to produce an endless supply of energy, experiences, and material goods for humanity. In contrast, understanding the Earth as a community to which we belong, as one species among multitudes, all sharing a common home and common destiny because all are connected—is more characteristic of grounded, place-based cultures throughout human history.[5,6]
#2: Growth—in human numbers and consumption—can go on, and on. Of this idea, the economist Kenneth Boulding once quipped, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” It’s a good line, but in a sense Boulding was wrong. It’s not just crazy individuals or economists who believe, or at least pretend to believe, that this physical impossibility is true. We have based our entire civilization on the secular religion of perpetual growth. Which is, truly, madness.
The result of how many we are and how we occupy the Earth has precipitated the sixth great extinction spasm in the planet’s history. A flood of alarming data about crashing wildlife populations and unraveling ecosystems, increasing greenhouse gases, accelerating climate chaos, and growing inequity between the haves and the have-nots in the human tribe are readily available for anyone who cares to look. For those of us who are paying attention to the global eco-social crisis, the fire hose of bad news can be deeply depressing or numbing. But I don’t think it’s particularly motivating. So, if the delusional tales we tell are sending us over a cliff, what should we replace them with? What new story is big enough to help turn the trajectory of humanity—and the diversity of life—away from ecological Armageddon? What story is inclusive and attractive enough to inspire millions or even billions of people to put themselves into it?
I vote for this one: the story of rewilding, of resurgent wildness enveloping the Earth. Of expanding beauty and diversity. Of wilderness recovery writ large. Of people from all backgrounds and every corner of the globe lending their energies toward helping nature heal, at all scales, to the benefit of all life. Consider this passage from the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth, drafted for and adopted by the most recent World Wilderness Congress and endorsed by conservation groups from almost every continent. (There’s no “rewilding Antarctica” yet.) The charter’s vision statement reads:
We believe that the world can be more beautiful, more diverse, more equitable, more wild. We believe that nature’s innate resilience, bolstered by human care, can initiate an era of planetary healing. In that future time when the world is whole and healthy, undammed rivers will run to the sea, their estuaries teeming with life. Following ancient patterns, whales and warblers will migrate unmolested through sea and sky. From tiny phytoplankton to tallest redwoods, all Earth’s creatures will be free to pursue lives of quality, and humanity will thrive amidst nature’s abundance.
Could this be the dream that’s big enough to capture the hearts and minds of millions? That is both timeless and urgent enough to prompt bold action? Could it be the story generous enough to carry our love for specific places into the future, in the form of interconnected ribbons of protected habitat wrapping the planet in wild beauty? Maybe, just maybe it is.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has caused immense suffering, with millions of people dying from a novel virus and billions of others experiencing economic hardship or isolation. If there was the smallest silver lining in a dark pandemic cloud, it was that many people learned, or rediscovered, the joy of being outside . . . walking, biking, canoeing. In our region, trails were mobbed with hikers. It was tough to find a kayak or snowshoes to buy. People wanted to be outside, in the company of trees and wind and birdsong.
Our bodies and minds are attuned to wild nature. Our stress hormone levels show it. The direct, measurable, physiological effects in the human body of time spent in natural settings as well as psychological benefits are the focus of a fascinating and growing body of research.
While the scientific tools to study these effects are new, the experiential value of time in wild nature is the oldest and most consistent theme in conservation literature. Think of Wordsworth and his cohort rambling about the English lakes district in the late 1700s writing verse extolling the birds and flowers there. Or Thoreau’s escaping the already-tamed fields and wood-lots of Concord to explore the Maine woods and climb Mount Katahdin in the 1840s. This narrative thread stretches to our day in poetry and prose that helps us relearn kinship with all our relations via reconnection to the beauty produced by “life-seeking creatures in relationship,” as Sandra Lubarsky has so beautifully articulated.[10,11]
The desire to reconnect our hearts and minds to the greater community of life, outside and away from obvious artifacts of modernity, drove the first wave of wilderness recreation to the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York after publication of the book Adventures in the Wilderness (1869) by Boston clergyman William H. H. Murray. Thus began a period of great popular interest in the Adirondacks, a region relatively little known except by lumber-men who were rapaciously cutting its forests. In nineteenth-century America, forests were fuel. Dead trees meant charcoal to stoke the iron kilns, chemicals to tan leather, and saw logs for lumber. The wave of forest-clearing for these purposes as well as agriculture caused the hills and mountains of the Northeast to erode and the rivers to run brown with silt.
So grave was the threat to waterways, which were crucial for transportation and hydro-powered industry downstream, that New York’s state legislature created the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves in 1885. Many conservationists had worked for that outcome, but it was no silver bullet to stop the logging. Timber merchants would buy private land, cut it over, and then abandon it to the state for unpaid property taxes. That was the genesis of most property which came into public ownership in the new Forest Preserve, lands of which were to be kept as forever wild.
More substantial protections for the region came in 1892 with the establishment of the Adirondack Park, and the passage of an amendment to the state constitution three years later which gives the public lands within the park, the Forest Preserve lands, the highest level of conservation protection for public lands in the United States. They cannot be sold or logged or mined, etc., without a difficult process of constitutional amendment.
The conservationists who were responsible for creating the park and its central legal safeguard, what came be known as the “forever-wild” clause of the state constitution, included the pioneering civil rights attorney Louis Marshall. Marshall was a leading activist against anti-Semitism, an early board member of the NAACP, and a brilliant lawyer who used the courts to challenge structural racism. He was also a dedicated conservationist and father of Robert Marshall, cofounder of the Wilderness Society.
The Marshall family and so many other wilderness advocates through the decades blazed a path that still leads toward expanding justice, beauty, and health for the land and all the creatures who inhabit, or visit, the park. The Adirondack Park is arguably the greatest example of rewilding on Earth, the fullest expression of the incremental reforestation of the northeastern United States following logging associated with European settlement. Today the Adirondacks are more ecologically intact, more secure wildlife habitat, and a better canvas for natural processes to create, shape, and sustain biodiversity than other parts of the region. The Adirondack Park also provides tremendous social and economic values, and stores vast amounts of carbon naturally, a key to mitigating climate chaos.
The public lands comprising the Adirondack Forest Preserve are free, consistent with the etymological roots of the word “wilderness,” to follow their own course. They are self-willed lands, home to self-willed creatures.
Last summer, while camped by a lake in the Adirondack wilderness, I watched a loon chick and her momma. Loons are amazing swimmers but not such easy fliers, at least when they take off. They must run along the water surface to gain speed, flapping hard to become airborne. These loons were training. The little one would scamper across the water just as fast as she could go, with mother chasing behind. And then get tired out and stop. Mother loon would rush toward her baby as if to play tag and the little one would start up again. Over and over they repeated this game, getting the little one stronger for a long migration flight in the fall. It was the cutest thing, that loon chick and her momma, at home, free to be loons, in a place that needs never fear the chain saws or jet skis of the future.
“Conservation” as a set of tools including laws and regulations and practices is a broad term, of course. For the ecocentric wing of the conservation movement, which is focused on saving life’s diversity for its own sake and not solely for utilitarian ends (although acknowledging the fact that humanity will not thrive on a dead planet), the idea of freedom is central to conservation. This is not a new idea.
Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, the 1964 law that created America’s national wilderness preservation system on federal public lands, was a part-time resident of the Adirondacks. He had been introduced to the region by conservationist Paul Schaefer, and the Schaefer and Zahniser families ended up having nearby cabins on the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness in the heart of the park. When he was able to escape from Washington, DC, where he served as executive secretary of The Wilderness Society, Howard Zahniser spent time at that Adirondack cabin where he worked on draft after draft of the Wilderness Act.
As a Pennsylvania native and lover of the Adirondacks’ recovering wildness, Zahniser understood that wilderness could grow as well as shrink—the evidence was all around him—and thus he deliberately used the word “untrammeled” in the law’s definition of wilderness. Something that is trammeled is bound or caught; untrammeled is free or unimpeded. The Wilderness Act doesn’t contain the words “pristine” or “untouched” because the defining characteristic of wilderness is not virginity but freedom—freedom to follow its own evolutionary path.
In the decades following bipartisan passage of the Wilderness Act, citizens successfully lobbied Congress to add millions of acres to the national wilderness preservation system. Today there are more than eight hundred wilderness areas in the system, encompassing more than 111 million acres. The growth of the system is heartening, and arguably one of the most positive results of civic engagement over the past half-century. Notwithstanding this progress, however, wild habitats across North America are typically under threat of conversion or degradation if not formally conserved, and often are isolated islands of intact habitat in a sea of development when they are formally protected. Habitat degradation, fragmentation, and isolation is a recipe for extinction.
As the drivers of biodiversity loss were studied and described by the scientific disciplines of landscape ecology and conservation biology in the latter decades of the twentieth century, it became clear to some conservationists that bolder, science-informed advocacy for wilderness recovery was necessary. It would not be enough to simply protect remaining intact natural areas. Rather, it is vital to restore and reconnect habitats, and at a scale adequate to allow ecologically crucial actors—“keystone species”—to repopulate territory from which they had been eliminated by human persecution or land-use changes that had diminished their habitat.
One of the greatest wilderness activists of those decades was Dave Foreman, founder of The Rewilding Institute and various other groups during his storied career in conservation. He is a walking encyclopedia of wilderness history, policy, and activism. In 1991 Dave Foreman and John Davis and a few others founded the journal Wild Earth, which first popularized a term, “rewilding,” that Dave had coined.
Foreman recognized the need for a new word that meant wilderness recovery on a grand scale, a scale that would allow keystone species such as wolves, cougars, and jaguars, which roam widely, to reestablish healthy populations throughout their native ranges and thus help to reestablish intact food webs. In the 1990s there was a nascent body of research showing how crucial apex predators are to healthy ecosystems, both on land and in the oceans. That understanding has grown through subsequent decades.At the same time, the relatively new field of ecological restoration didn’t reflect this emerging science; the papers published in its technical journals typically focused on restoring specific degraded areas, not restoring landscape-scale ecological systems. Thus there was a need for a term that captured the latter, and Foreman’s genius for language produced “rewilding.” The concept landed like an arrow in the hearts of wild lovers everywhere. A web search on the word now gets millions of results. New words inevitably evolve when they become broadly adopted, and rewilding is still used to convey its original meaning—large-scale wilderness recovery—but also to encompass many other types of conservation projects. Some conservationists find this evolution in meaning problematic, arguing a need to “put the wild back in rewilding.”
Rewilding—as an idea, a meme—is culturally powerful because in a time of loss and diminishment for the diversity of life, it represents the potential and possibility for more: More beauty. More abundance. More equity among all the creatures who inhabit the Earth—including humans, of course, even ones who forget their own creatureliness. Moreover, rewilding captivates because almost any of us can put ourselves into that story, either through individual or collective action.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world are doing just that, many of which have joined together in the recently launched Global Rewilding Alliance. Rewilding projects include efforts to expand tiger reserves in India; plant millions of Scots pines to restore Scotland’s Caledonian forest; reintroduce beavers and lynx to parts of Europe where they’ve been eliminated; create prairie preserves for bison in Colorado; and protect some of the most biologically rich parts of the Appalachian Mountains.
Close to my heart is the work that Northeast Wilderness Trust is doing to protect the ancient forests of the future, help set the stage for missing native species to return home, and let diminished natural processes reassert themselves across the landscape. This kind of collective action to foster rewilding through active and passive means, putting nature’s needs first while recognizing how wildly beneficial that is to people, is crucial to ending the cascading crises of climate chaos and biodiversity loss.
In practice, a rewilding approach to conservation includes three elements. I talk about them as Places, Processes, and People.
Places: Permanently protected natural areas such as wilderness areas, national parks, no-extraction marine protected areas, privately owned nature sanctuaries, etc., are the foundation of biodiversity conservation.
Processes: Rewilding can happen through active efforts like removing dams and reintroducing missing species, most especially highly interactive species such as beavers, sharks, and cougars. Rewilding can also happen through passive means, that is, allowing for vegetative succession and other natural processes to produce diversity and complexity over time. The historical exemplar for this, again, is the Adirondack Park.
People: Ultimately, to rewild the Earth, we need to rewild ourselves. By which I mean winning hearts and minds to the great cause of conservation, motivated not only by self-interest but also by love for our wild neighbors and kin in the community of life.
Some groups focus on one or two of these streams of rewilding work, some do all three. An example of the latter is Rewilding Argentina, which has implemented the most comprehensive large-scale rewilding program in South America. Beginning in the mid-1990s, that NGO, birthed by American philanthropists Douglas and Kristine Tompkins and led by visionary Argentine conservationist Sofia Heinonen, has helped transform the great Iberá marshlands region of Corrientes Province from a little-known and highly threatened natural area into a world-class destination for wildlife-watching. During more than two decades of effort, conservationists gained designation of new provincial and national parks, which are contiguous and managed jointly. Community engagement fostered widespread support for the Iberá Park, which is an economic boon to the region. The team of biologists and veterinarians there have reintroduced missing native species including giant anteaters, pampas deer, collared peccaries, and even jaguars to the marshlands.
Rewilding aligns perfectly with emerging frameworks for global conservation including “30 x 30,” the target for governments around the globe to protect at least 30 percent of their national territory by the year 2030, or the half-earth goal articulated by biologist E. O. Wilson, which mirrors the similarly ambitious Nature Needs Half campaign. These aspirational targets for expanded protected areas address the conjoined climate and extinction crises with the appropriate scale of ambition.
Are they impossible? I don’t think so.
With the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park—a park the size of Vermont— we have a model for what a landscape can be, where roughly half is strictly protected as wilderness and the other half is private land managed for farming and forestry, with hamlets, towns, and small cities interspersed in a patchwork of wild and domesticated land. It’s not perfect, but it works remarkably well for bears, bobcats, and people. Moreover, courageous conservationists are dreaming about and working to advance progress that will continue and expand the park’s role as a global model for integrating human communities and wildlife in a landscape of abundance and opportunity for all.
The idea of blue and green ribbons of wildness knitting up to wrap the globe in beauty is deeply attractive. The many historical and contemporary examples of citizen action that have been successful creating individual building blocks in this future global network should give us inspiration that a future ecological civilization is possible, if we work with urgency and creativity to create it.
Conserving at least half of Earth in interconnected systems of protected natural areas will come to life only through grassroots, bottom-up actions of people, groups, communities, and governments. Acre by acre, parcel by parcel, project by project, rewilding happens when people who love the land work to create the conditions in which nature may rebound. The question before each of us is: How will we put ourselves into the story of Rewilding the Earth? How will we use our time, influence, energy, and wealth to write that new narrative, centered on beauty, integrity, and reciprocity? How will we help shape a forever-wild future?
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