Rewilding human nature

Lucy Purdy explores how the concept of ‘rewilding’ could be applied not just to the natural world, but to ourselves

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver, poet

We don’t often think of ourselves as being domesticated. The word falls easily from our human lips when we talk of animals and plants, but are we ourselves also tame? As the natural world has been eternally altered by mankind’s intervention, have we curtailed human nature in the same way?

The concept of rewilding has surged in popularity since George Monbiot published his book Feral in 2013. In it, the writer and disillusioned environmentalist searched for “enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding”. His vision calls for less human intervention in landscapes and ecosystems and the restoration of natural processes, including the return of big animals such as wolves and lynx. With notable successes in the US, along the former Iron Curtain in Europe and the ‘imposed’ transformation of Chernobyl, the environmental rewilding movement captured imaginations and continues to develop.

“We live in a shadow land. A dim, flattened relic of what there once was,” Monbiot has said. “Rewilding offers us this fantastic opportunity to start allowing systems to restore themselves: stepping back, and letting nature get on with it.”

Just as ecological rewilding succeeds by letting nature do what it is designed to do, could we take the same approach towards ourselves? What would happen if we were more aware of and driven by our own dynamic processes? Is this even possible in today’s world?

Rewilding is not going backwards, to live in the woods – superficial stuff like that. It’s reconnecting to that wildness dormant inside you; the amazing, rich thing that’s there waiting to be engaged with

‘Wildness’ plays a fascinating role in our cultural psyche. On one hand, we’re spellbound with the idea and our cultural storytellers repeatedly play with the theme. Films such as Into the Wild and the 2014 box office hit Wild serve it up to us on the big screen. Images of forests, wolves and other wild animals proliferate in advertising, while adventure travel is surging in popularity. Yet our society, from its obsession with health and safety to the highly controlling approach of modern agriculture, also teaches us to be afraid of wildness.

Simultaneously, against most definitions of true satisfaction and happiness, consumer society has failed us. Technology has connected people like never before but also deprives us of truly deep connection. Ideologies proliferate that paint our instinctive nature as being in need of constraint. Our education systems and industrial economy mould us for productivity but the world also has record mental health problems. Our current socioeconomic model, although it has brought progress by many measures, is being exposed as deeply flawed. On achieving materialism, our reward is a new collection of unmet needs.

So rather than looking outwardly to fix things, answers may lie within our own innate wisdom. Psychologists, writers and healers are among those calling for reclamation of our ‘inner nature’.

A stonechat on flowers at Village Farm in Devon. Photo by Village Farm

A stonechat on flowers at Village Farm in Devon. Photo by Village Farm

Jonathan Horwitz and his partner Zara Waldeback run the spiritual retreat centre Åsbacka in the south of Sweden, where they organise courses and offer shamanic healing, guidance and spiritual mentoring.

“When I feel that I am not alone, things begin to change,” says Horwitz. “Our work is based on the deep sense that we are all connected – to other humans, to nature, to all other beings and to the spirit side of life. When we realise that we are always at home, an enormous amount of pressure is lifted from our shoulders. I do not have to spend my life desperately trying to find out who I am. I only have to be alive and play my part in a great unfolding.

“For many people, a connection to nature is a good place to start remembering this sense of belonging. Nature also reminds us of how we need to both grow and be still. We need to move through all the rhythms of life – seeding, growing, harvesting, composting, resting – and not only strive to constantly produce. As we slow down, we become more present, and feel ourselves here, instead of struggling to get somewhere else.

“It becomes easier to remember who we are and what is important. Then we can make choices that are true to our essential nature, being ourselves, in tune with the world.”

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Learning from the wild

When Rebecca Hosking and her team took on Village Farm on a windswept hill-top in south Devon, they saw it as an opportunity to transform the thin and neglected soils into something truly special. They resolved to turn the farm into an abundant, rich landscape, producing nourishing, high-welfare food while simultaneously creating a haven for wildlife.

“Agriculture, in its oldest form, is about fostering the regrowth of the foods that you favour in the natural world,” says Hosking.

“But in the past few decades we’ve collectively exchanged that understanding for the notion that farmland should be no more than a production floor with the sole purpose of growing monoculture food purely for human consumption.

“At Village Farm we’ve returned to agriculture’s old understanding and view our farm as a living, breathing ecosystem. We view our soil microbes, fungi, earthworms, herbs, flowers, trees, insects, wild birds, mammals (including such usual farmer ‘foes’ as foxes and badgers) to be as important as our 750 sheep, eight breeding sows, a boar and four hives of rare native British black honeybees. All sustain the wealth and health of our land and business.”

As the farm’s species increase in diversity and number, they create a more balanced ecosystem with more abundant minerals and nutrients. As well as healthy animals, the team has noticed a welcome loosening of soils and that pasture plants recover more quickly from grazing and flowered for longer.

The sun sets over mud flats near Auchencairn in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Photo by Lucy Purdy

The sun sets over mud flats near Auchencairn in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Photo by Lucy Purdy

But the rewilding journey that Hosking has taken Village Farm on has been reflected on a personal level too. It meant “unbridling our minds”, she says.

“To observe the land and learn from wildlife means you spend a lot of time outside. This has actually made some of our senses more acute, or at least better trained. I can now detect the smell of people’s deodorants or washing detergents from several metres away.

“I can easily detect a pressure change in the weather and I can feel rain in the air before the storm arrives. When we do have to fall back into domesticity and stay behind a computer desk we often notice how unwell we’re feeling by the end of the day. Our skin will feel prickly and heads foggy as a malaise sweeps over our minds. We feel pent up, trapped, and a need for fresh air and the outside. While we are all aware of how we have domesticated animals, we tend to forget that we have also caged ourselves.”

The Rev Peter Owen Jones, a priest, author and TV presenter, believes we need to deploy “essential wisdom” to recalibrate our sense of who we are as human beings.

“This invites a far bigger vision of being in society that is not held to ransom by the dictatorial nature of economic reality,” he says.

This is the greatest crisis our  generation faces: to bring about a new template for human identity

“The cultural idea that our wellbeing is based on economics has been gaining ground for about 30 years with the collapse of cultural Christianity and the space that has created. The nature of economic necessity has taken hold, producing a society that is poor in spirit and deeply unjust, both in terms of our relationship with each other and with the natural world. We are now in a situation of both planetary peril and existential angst about our human identity: what kind of species are we?

“This is the greatest crisis our generation faces: to bring about a new template for human identity. One that does not denude nor denigrate.”

We may have to challenge our own deeply held notions about human nature’s dominant characteristics first. New research by the Common Cause Foundation suggests that more people identify strongly with unselfish values than selfish ones. Of 1,000 people surveyed, 74 per cent were more interested in values such as helpfulness, honesty, justice and forgiveness than in money, fame, status and power. The second finding was arguably as telling: 78 per cent believed other people to be more selfish than they really are.

Perhaps we can place more trust in our true nature than we may have thought.

How we can come alive

Crucially, ‘wildness’ is difficult to fully define, and so too ‘rewilding’ is not a fixed concept; more simply it could be an openness to truly being alive.

“Wildness isn’t a thing. It’s an energetic state,” says Miles Olson, author of Unlearn, Rewild.

“It’s not a destination or something that can be distilled easily. It’s spontaneity. It’s untameable. It’s a product of the life force in everything, and it defies the logical imprisonment of explanation.”

As an acorn carries the code for a majestic oak tree and a wispy dandelion seed the imperative of a golden flower, Olson prompts us to connect with what wants to grow and unfold in each of us.

“If you look at the hunter gatherer’s relationship with land and life: they’re not dissecting and twisting it, regurgitating it into what they think it should be,” he says, “they’re living in the hands of the gods. So rewilding is much more fundamental than going backwards: to live in the woods – superficial stuff like that – it’s reconnecting to that wildness inside you. It’s what is dormant and ready to explode open. The amazing, rich thing that’s there waiting to be engaged with. The thing that speaks to us in our dreams.”

Domestication goes under many guises, and is tied up with our own closely-clutched wounds and conditioning. Perhaps a process of unlearning must come first, a conscious retreat from consumer mentality and a step-by-step reconnection with the deep pool of unhindered energy that is our wild nature.

We are clinging to a ‘consensus reality’ that is crumbling. We need to feel the shaking ground of what it means to be alive today, the beating hearts of those around us, the possibility of a beautiful future as well as the seeming inevitability of a terrible one. And to know that our own intuition and instinct can guide us forward – the most beautiful path.

Towering cliffs on the Icelandic coast. Photo by Lucy Purdy

Towering cliffs on the Icelandic coast. Photo by Lucy Purdy

Main image: Rebecca Hosking, who has helped transform Village Farm into a wildlife haven. Photo by Village Farm

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