Our experience and vision for Yarnauwi has always sat in a tension between the wild and the cultivated. On one hand, we’re seeking to restore habitat long altered, while on the other, we’re determined to cultivate food, through both livestock and horticulture. It’s hard to say if one holds priority over the other, and, at risk of lurching into cliche, we try to ‘listen to the land’. Connor Stedman’s Essay on Soil in the 2015 Greenhorns’ New Farmer’s Almanac offers ideas that resonated with us, writing that to know how to be a steward of a landscape, “…it’s not enough to know the land as it is now. We need to dig below the recent surface and go deeper – find the older ecological and cultural stories of a place. It’s the wildlands that hold these stories, and it’s these lands that will return them to us if we know where to look and how to listen. An agrarian economy needs to tend, restore, and engage in a deep relationship with the wild as well as with the planted field” (2015, p. 35).
Stedman’s assertions provide a concise summary of our motivations for obsessing over the past ecological history of our particular patch, and theorising about the patterns that might’ve governed the landscape before colonisation. Fixated as we are on what was here before, there’s much to delight in in George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (Penguin, 2013). In it, Monbiot confronts what he describes as ‘ecological boredom’ brought about by the absence of the wild, and asserts the need to ‘rewild’ our landscapes. His vision of rewilding is not one of meticulous restoration of past habitats, but rather letting landscapes return to their own ecological stability.
That said, Monbiot does advocate the considered release of now absent fauna, ‘keystone’ species that have a profound impact on the health and function of the ecosystem. He provides ample examples of how these species shape the ‘trophic cascades’ of their chosen ecosystem. One that has garnered much attention is how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park reshaped deer movement patterns, unexpectedly revitalising eroded, deforested rivers and valleys with subsequent expansions in populations of animals from small mammals to beavers to bison. Animals like the beaver were then able to reshape ecological niches through their dam building activities, cultivating further habitat for a diversity of species.
Of particular interest for us, was Monbiot’s discussion of how livestock – sheep, especially – have so drastically reshaped the British landscape. While the rolling hills and heathlands of endless period films have established themselves in the popular imagination as some kind of natural state, Monbiot asserts that these are effectively “green deserts”, the bones of lost forests and woodlands, devastated by centuries of agriculture. There are echoes here, of course, of the Australian experience. In his fascinating Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe refers to the observations of early colonists noting how the arrival of sheep in Australia substantially transformed local landscapes and water cycles in as little as 4 or 5 years. This is echoed again in histories of the Fleurieu. Geoffrey Wells writes, “within twenty years of the arrival of the Europeans, the landscape of the Fleurieu Peninsula had dramatically altered. Massive clearing – particularly the associations of the Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) by the creeks, and Peppermint Gum (E. odorata) on the lower slopes – had restricted the zones available to native flora and fauna. Townships had arisen, and commerce had followed. The area, no longer the frontier that the north had become, had already taken on the appearance of ordered European settlement” (1976, p. 77). What took centuries in Europe has perhaps only taken decades in some corners of Australia.
While conceptually wide-ranging, Feral necessarily focusses on Monbiot’s homeland, the UK. As our neighbour Rob gently reminded us, clearly, there are some significant differences between the UK and Australia, in terms of cultural and ecological history and patterns of indigenous management, but also in the kind of language used. The ideas of “feral” and “wilderness” can be somewhat problematic terms in Australia. Wilderness can imply an absence of humans, yet the Australian landscape, including the Fleurieu, has been managed – if invisibly to the colonial eye – for millennia, as Bill Gammage so comprehensively describes. This idea of ‘wild’ versus cultural landscapes is a conundrum the Monbiot wrestles with, particularly in his discussions with Welsh sheep farmer Dafydd Morris-Jones. As Morris-Jones states, “Conservation should be about how we can live in nature. When it deviates from that, you forget that you’re still looking at it from a human perspective… With blanket rewilding you lose your unwritten history, your sense of self and your sense of place. It’s like book-burning. Books aren’t written about people like us. If you eradicate the evidence of our presence on the land, if you undermine the core economies that support the Welsh-speaking population in the language’s heartland, you write us out of the story“. There are resonances here for Australia’s history of dispossession too, and while he’s clearly sensitive to it, it’s a quandary Monbiot perhaps never fully resolves.
It’s in Monbiot’s discussions with the likes of Ritchie Tassell, a forester rewilding the Cambrian Mountains, and Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Scotland’s Trees for Life, an organisation regenerating the Caledonian Forest, that I found the strongest inspiration for our own experiences. Despite the challenges, these men have spent years experimenting, planting, protecting, and relearning their landscape in an effort revive past ecosystems. Like the Fleurieu Peninsula, these landscapes have been significantly reshaped by land-clearing and agriculture, albeit for centuries longer than our own neighbourhood. In the re-emerging Caledonian Forest, the native red deer, unchecked by predators and cultivated by game-keepers, are a significant impediment to regeneration. There are echoes here of our experiences not only with red and fallow deer on the Fleurieu, but most significantly with kangaroos that have thrived in the enforced grasslands of grazing country and golf courses and enthusiastically devour recovering woodlands. It made me think too, if wolves, bears and lynx were the predators that once managed deer in these northern landscapes, is there a long-absent keystone predator from the Australian landscape that managed populations of herbivores while cultivating niches for others. What was our wolf in Yellowstone? Mainland thylacines? Or do we have to go 50 thousand years back to the megafauna and contemplate thylacoleos? Could a return of the dingo to our landscape serve this purpose?
Contemplating the deep history of a landscape is one of Monbiot’s central themes. He refers to the concept of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, where people “percieve the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal”, without being aware that this, “their own ecological baseline”, is already one of “extreme depletion”. This has resonance in areas like the Fleurieu, where change following colonisation was rapid, many relatively early historical accounts and images – an ecological baseline – document what may be an already diminished state. It’s a powerful reminder to keep digging deeper.
In reflecting on his own journey to rediscover the wild, Monbiot concludes by articulating the personal value of restoring landscapes, and perhaps helps to explain the exhilaration we feel every time we see one of our seedlings put on new growth, or hear the call of an unknown bird. “By equipping myself with the knowledge of the past while imagining a rawer and richer future, I had banished my ecological boredom. The world had become alive with meaning, alive with possibility … Like the salmon returning from the void, the land and sea were now gravid with promise. For the first time in years, I felt that I belonged to the world. I knew that wherever life now took me, however bleak the places in which I found myself might seem, that feeling – the sense of possibility and, through possibility, the sense of belonging – would remain with me. I had found hope where hope had seemed absent.” Thoughtful and rich in detail and observation, Feral is a book of both provocation and inspiration. Through Monbiot’s own journey, we are challenged to cultivate a “relationship with the wild as well as with the planted field”.
The Greenhorns, 2015, The New Farmer’s Almanac 2015, The Greenhorns, Albany, New York
Wells, Geoffrey, 1976, Educational Resources of the Fleurieu Peninsula, Curriculum Development Centre, Adelaide