"[...] rewilding offers a positive environmentalism. Environmentalists have long known what they are against; now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer." -George Monbiot emphasis added1
At first glance, rewilding and anything with the prefix "agro" would seem to be diametrically opposed to this goal. However, the concepts of rewilding and agroecology share the same fate: for either to become the "new normal," the other must be embraced. They are mutually reinforcing, revolutionary concepts which are absolutely essential if humanity is going to accept responsibility for its collective actions and begin to clean up this planet and fix the natural cycles we have broken before it is too late.
In this diary, I want to share how George Monbiot's Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding regarding his quest to alleviate his "ecological boredom" is not just an isolated case, how rewilding relates to agroecology, and how- taken together- the two concepts will be the foundation upon which a regenerative future must be built.2
Now that I have successfully talked up a high order, I want to encourage you to engage with my previous work here, as well as checking out the "Additional Resources" I have provided, for things I may have missed or for more detailed information.
1. A Manifesto for Rewilding the World, George Monbiot. Permaculture News. 28.05.2013.
2. George Monbiot also delivered a spirited talk on his book for 5x15, here. Time stamps refer to this talk. 5x15 Stories is presented in association with The Week.
Update: matching mole has brought to my attention that references 8 & 9 do not fully support the claims being made. I want the readers to know that in exchange for brevity (at the time of writing), I did not include the other references made in Feral for the interrelated actions of cetaceans acting as nutrient pumps and their effects on nutrient cycling. I also want to mention that much of what I write about requires piecing together recent findings to develop a holistic perspective of how these systems function. I recognize in doing so that many of those trained in the sciences will have their issues with drawing conclusions and connections. I encourage readers to stay skeptical, but to also engage with many of the topics I have raised here and elsewhere to get a bigger picture. Particularly when it comes to the sea and the concept of shifting baselines.
Last Time Here
My plan to write one diary/article per month did not pan out as expected. For two weeks in May, I was in Sweden for a two week Permaculture Design course taught by Richard Perkins of Integral Permanence. For those of you who have experienced a PDC before, you probably know full well that for some it takes a good period of time to readjust to normal life. Two weeks living in a tent and yurt, with night time temperatures dropping to 1° C. Two weeks of amazing organic fare. Two weeks outside of the city with only one thing on our agenda: permaculture. Returning to a studio apartment, public transport, urban life, and a rigid educational schedule is not so simple after your brain settles into an entirely different- and beautiful- routine. And being an immigrant, my life is not exactly normal.
While in Sweden, my Finnish course had proceeded to the third module with a new teacher. I had some difficultly bringing myself back to my studies while my head was still wrapping around many of the possibilities we had been discussing for two weeks. During my month-long (July) paid vacation from school (that is right, an unemployed immigrant in Finland has a right to a month-long paid vacation), my wife and I adopted a dog from Russia and he remains very much at the center of my attention.
Summer is short here. Not just in the sense that time flies by, but we only have so long to enjoy temperatures consistently above freezing that to stay indoors is a hard thing to do indeed. Sitting down to write- and to try to push my writing in different directions- takes an enormous amount of time. This particular diary has been in the offing for over a month and a half at this point.
I hope it has been worth the wait.
"I was almost sort of scratching at the walls of life, looking for a way into a wider space beyond; and I think I was ecologically bored." -George Monbiot [00:52]
I must admit, for most of my life, I shared a common affliction with Mr. Monbiot. Ecological boredom. I am since recovering, in fits and starts, with the help of permaculture and the sheer adoration for the world it has rekindled in the past four years.
You see, I was raised in Ft. Myers.3 What I can remember of my life began in Florida right outside the Big Cypress National Preserve:
The freshwaters of the Big Cypress Swamp, essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades, support the rich marine estuaries along Florida's southwest coast. Protecting over 729,000 acres of this vast swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.From my earliest days, a love of nature was nurtured by my parents and experience. My father would share with us "Uncle Remus'" tales of Brer Rabbit. My mother encouraged us to read such works as The Wind in the Willows. I started collecting Wildlife Fact Files.
For those unfamiliar with them, a complete set of Wildlife Fact Files fills seven large (~2" IIRC) binders to the brim. Every few weeks, another packet of "files" would arrive in the mail. Each species had wonderful color photos or drawings along with all of the basic information a child could want about them- including their present and historical ranges. They even had files on North American biomes and environmental issues facing these creatures.
Wildlife Fact Files were my Wikipedia.
They were my inspiration.
Unsurprisingly, along with my brother and neighborhood friends, I would spend my days fishing and exploring our little corner of the swamp. We enjoyed a subtropical monsoonal climate complete with the most days of thunderstorms within earshot (standing at 89/year) of any city in the nation, plenty of wildlife, and seemingly endless mangrove forests.4 It was impossible not to be mesmerized by the almost daily displays of awesome natural forces. Everyday we were avoiding the local gators while taking our dog for a walk around the pond or treading carefully as to avoid water moccasins: this was a place a child would be hard pressed to become ecologically bored.
I grew up with an intimate relationship with water. The first seeds I ever sowed were those of cattails to provide more habitat for fish fry in the neighborhood's rainwater retention pond.5 Days were spent at the beach watching the tide roll in and out while building "drip" sand castles with whoever would lend a hand. The Gulf of Mexico may, to many, seem little more than a bathtub, but to us it was the end of our world. Almost universally, people have gazed to the seemingly endless horizon and dreamed of the journey to the other side.
On Thanksgiving '97, at the age of ten, my life changed forever when my family and I moved to Kernersville, North Carolina. For the first time in my life I would experience freezing temperatures, the resulting snow and ice, as well as a two plus hour chasm between myself and the ocean. For a child who has always known the embrace of the sea, such a change- when coupled with a change in schools from a well funded magnet school to one where mold was actively growing on walls (I suffered heavily from allergies for most of my life), unchained a depression that, I realize now, only my ecological immersion had held at bay.
3. Ft. Myers demographics reveal that the world I experienced as a child changed dramatically after 2000. per Wikipedia.
4. Weatherpages.com (bit old data, but would be surprised to see Ft. Myers drop from the top 3 slots), via Wikipedia.
5. Cattails, bulrush... all members of the Typha genus.
And then there were Whales
When you leave behind the sea, you lose perhaps the most mystifying and enrapturing life experiences humans have the chance to be exposed to: marine megafauna. There exist few places besides the veil between our terrestrial world and the marine realm where we can still experience megafauna the way humans have for millennia. The unmistakable head rush that washes over your body as a shark drifts aloofly underneath as, balanced atop your kayak, you pole over beds of sea grass; the sense of incompetence when watching a pod of dolphins play with the fish that have been eluding your best attempts all evening; or the almost humorous experience of finding yourself floating in the middle of an "informal gathering" of manatees... all doubtlessly strike a chord deep inside many of us who have had the honor to be there.6
Philip Hoare, an accomplished author and broadcaster, relates his experience of a whale watching expedition out of Cape Cod:7
These moments are not just milestones on our journey through this life. They dye the fabric of your very being with awe, wonder, and a sense of respect for life itself. Deprivation from the natural world- either from chosen separation or enforced through either cultural or economic forces- leads to ecological boredom. While not fully supported by science, it has been widely reported that something as simple as a kitchen garden at a school changes the behavior of even the most challenging students. Attention disorders, behavioral problems, student engagement- all can be partially alleviated by allowing children to be children: young human beings with a thirst for knowledge that only the forever changing patterns of nature can fully quench.
And it was on the last day, and I was about to go back [...] and I was early, so I had time to kill.
And I saw a sign advertising "whale watching, twelve dollars." And I kind of felt ambivalent about this. I kind of thought, "am I going to get another kind of mediated aquarium show ... another revisited experience like that?" Nevertheless I conquered my, doubts, paid my $12, got on the boat, stood on the prow of the boat. Probably slightly defiantly saying, "Ok, show me."
Half an hour later, a fifty ton, fifty foot humpback breached right in front of me.
This huge animal had left its environment into ours. This animal that shares the air with us, was suddenly suspended in this halo of diamond sea drops - and I do poeticize, but it was a poetical moment- and I responded in a very poetical and lyrical and literary manner:
I said, "FUCK"
This huge animal, Megaptera novaeangliae, big winged New Englander, a barnacled angel, presenting itself for my edification.
Whales and their fellow cetaceans offer an experience entirely different than those stemming from our terrestrial homes. Those living in maritime communities know very well the campaigns to save these, and other charismatic creatures: save the whales, dolphins, manatees, sea otters, sea turtles... the list goes on. And for good reason- the emotional connection forged during edifying experience leaves us wishing to do all we can for them.
Emotional arguments can be persuasive, but they are not always the most compelling. Our appreciation of them and the world in which we live can go much deeper, as both Philip Hoare and George Monbiot are keen to point out. Let us go beyond emotion and into the world as we can objectively observe it; and then return with knowledge that only further vitalizes our passion.
6. Quicky: Is a group of manatees called a pod or a herd? :) Save the Manatee Club's FAQ to the rescue.
7. Philip Hoare is an author whose latest book, The Sea Inside, is "a collage of personal memoir, cultural history and travelogue about the ocean's strangeness and beauty." Please check out, directly, the 5x15 talk he gave about his experiences, from which this quote was taken. [4:00-5:22].
"I filled my chest with air and duck-dived to the bottom. I had no flippers, and the seabed, perhaps two and a half fathoms down, was at the limit of my dive. I touched the beast." -George Monbiot, Feral, 228.
"The global ocean is the largest, most complex, and unexplored habitat for life on Earth." Oceans and Life. Interactive Oceans, University of Washington.
The last remnants of the great cetacean populations of the world's oceans (and rivers) are still powerful enough for researchers to lend us laymen yet another host of reasons to fight for their survival and resurgence. Cetaceans act as global nutrient pumps.8 Not just by their natural defecation, but by their sheer mechanical power, too: "the mixing power caused by movements of animals in the oceans is comparable to that of the wind, waves[,] and tides."9
You did catch that, right?
These creatures have as much power as natural phenomenon generated by astral bodies like the sun and moon. And what does all of this mechanical and biological action mean? Well, it sets off a trophic cascade whose enormity is almost impossible to comprehend. And this is just one of many oceanic trophic cascades that "are, if anything, even more remarkable than those of the terrestrial ecosystem."10
Trophic cascades are the effects on the food web (and therefore ecosystem) that the addition or removal of organisms result in. The massive fertilization and oxygenation of the world's oceans by large marine mammals- that we no longer receive- is surely well under the radar of the vast majority of the earth's human beings. And it isn't just whales, the near extinction of sharks across the globe is accelerating the decline of the ocean's ecosystems as well.
Feral's chapter on "Rewilding the Sea" brilliantly describes the breathtaking beauty and profound sorrow of the state of our seas. But unlike many environmental books today, Monbiot aptly draws the reader's attention to what happens when we apply a bit of rewilding:11
When fishing stops, the results are remarkable. On average, in 124 marine reserves studied around the world, some of which have been in existence for only a few years, the total weight of animals and plants has quadrupled since they were established. The size of the animals inhabiting them has also increased, and so has their diversity. In most cases the shift is visible within two to five years. As the slower-growing species also begin to recover, as sedentary lifeforms grow back and as reefs of coral and shellfish re-establish themselves- restoring the structural diversity of the seabed- the mass and wealth of the ecosystem is likely to keep rising for a long time. [emphasis added]As I have noted in earlier diaries and comments- and as Monbiot states the case for as well, is that in addition to "spillover" from these reserves, improved oceanic health is directly related to terrestrial health due to the migration patterns of oceanic species into rivers and streams.12 Trophic cascades indeed.
Setting aside marine reserves of all types should be a no-brainer. Oceans cover 2/3 of the earth's surface. There is more than enough space and more than enough evidence for preserves to be created and strictly enforced. Rewilding the ocean also happens to be relatively easy.
8. Joe Roman & James J. McCarthy. "The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin." PLOS ONE.org. 2010.
9. George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (London: Allen Lane, 2013), 234-235. Note, previous citation and the following were included by Monbiot in his book, I simply want to add a working link. Also: Kakani Katija & John O. Dabiri. "A Viscosity-enhanced mechanism for biogenic ocean mixing." Nature. 2009.
10. Monbiot, 234.
11. Monbiot, 248-249. It is hard to resist excerpting from Feral as the research is so deep and the prose so engaging, so I hope that this falls within fair use. For structural diversity on a garden scale, see my diary on "Layers."
12. See my last full diary about the documentary "Green Gold."
"I will not try to disguise my reasons for wanting to see missing animals reintroduced. [...] It is the sense that without these animals the ecosystem is lopsided, abridged, dysfunctional." -George Monbiot, Feral, 106
As might be expected, rewilding terrestrial landscapes is a much more controversial and difficult topic due to the presence of human beings. The presence of humanity erects cultural and built obstacles to animal migration and repopulation in addition to the already formidable natural ones such as rivers, different climate zones, and... gravity.
Yes, gravity. One of the reasons aquatic ecosystems are so immensely productive is that organisms do not require nearly the same amount of energy (and in many cases, any energy) to stay afloat. Locomotion, then, becomes much easier. Add in global ocean currents, tides, and high winds and you have an effective means of getting around. Terrestrial systems are not so "easy." It takes thousands of years for many species of trees to recolonize areas they were extirpated from during the last glacial period. Birds, winged insects, and fungi (many have the ability to send spores into the upper atmosphere) have the best chances of expanding their range.
This is one reason why the creation of marine reserves makes for rapid regeneration: the organisms we wish to see return can do so on their own with relative ease. Species, by and large, do not need to be "reintroduced."
And when they return, they do not face nearly the same level of caution and fear mongering as their terrestrial counterparts. Like wolves.
Wolves, and other top predators, are just as important to ecosystem function as any other. Even their return to places such as Yellowstone National Park are not without detractors. One would hope that research documenting things such as "in some places, trees on the riverbanks, until then constantly suppressed by browsing, quintupled in height in just six years" would change some minds.14 What happens when riverbanks are stabilized by vegetation? Well, the river course changes, the amount of water in a river is increased, and new habitats are created.15 Among other things, this also means more species diversity, less flooding, more carbon sequestered, and more air purified. Among other things.
I have avoided diving into too many numbers to bolster the case for rewilding in the hopes that the figures such as "a quintupling" would do enough to kick some brains into gear while reading this. And I am going to continue to avoid dropping numbers simply because you, the reader, need to do some homework on this topic. When I say "among other things," I sincerely mean this. The rippling- cascading even- effect of the reintroduction of organisms of all types, but especially the larger fauna and flora, reach so far that to attempt a proper elucidation of these benefits here would be preposterous.
You have also probably noticed a glaring omission of any definition of rewilding. Again: intentional. Rewilding, even among its proponents, has many different interpretations. Early on, Monbiot grapples with its many formulations. One thing that particularly strikes a chord with me is that:16
Rewilding recognizes that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.This, to me, is what is at the heart of rewilding. One could argue about whether or not reintroducing species, suppressing others, removing humans completely from a system, etc. is or is not rewilding. But when you boil it all down, what remains is a reaffirmation of Heraclitus' truism: "Nothing endures but change."
Now, it should be readily apparent that I throughly enjoyed reading Feral. But as long time readers might suspect, I do have my issues with some of Monbiot's conclusions.
13. I could not find the original image from the link provided, so you now have two links ;)
14. [Emphasis added] Monbiot, 84. See Ripple & Beschta, 'Trophic cascades in Yellowstone.' Oregon State's link to one of their papers.
15. Please see Let the Water Do the Work under additional resources for more information on what natural frequency streams and rivers actually look like and how vegetation is essential to the riverine health.
16. Monbiot, 8-9.
"The sheep has caused more extensive environmental damage in this country than all the building that has ever taken place here." -George Monbiot, Feral, 70.
Earlier this year, I wrote a number of diaries about Holistic Management- a decision making framework typically associated with the management of livestock. In those diaries I attempted to persuade readers that livestock are not always a source of degradation, but could, when managed appropriately, serve to regenerate ecosystems.18 Therefore, it should come to no surprise that I thoroughly disagree with quote which begins this passage.
It is not sheep which has caused the environmental damage. It is the management practices of the humans who own the sheep which cause the damage.
You may be wondering about the above diagram and those tiny sheep in the bottom corner. Vermont just happens to have a very similar history with deforestation and sheep farming. It also happens to be home to some very intelligent farmers and agroecological designers- of whom Ben Falk is one of the most well known. Take a visit over at his design firm, Whole Systems Design, and see for yourself how sheep, integrated into a well designed system, have regenerated a rocky Vermont hilltop deemed unfit for farming.
Witness his documentation of water flows on his property during Hurricane Irene, which, need I remind you, absolutely devastated Vermont. YouTube embed (old and new code) appears to be failing me, so here is the link. [EDIT: H/T to hannah for showing me how to fix the embed code]
Seriously, watch it. Then come back to me and tell me that sheep cause environmental damage. If you respond by saying feral sheep (no pun intended) cause environmental damage, I would have to reply that only in the absence of natural predators.
The key case for Holistic Management is that the livestock are moved in accordance with how they do in nature: bunched herds that only visit a particular place for a very short duration of time and then move on. When sheep are left to graze wherever, however, it does lead to environmental damage.
But the cause of the damage are not the sheep: it is the environmental conditions set up by humans. The removal of predators allows us to "give them freedom," in other words, creating a system that "bears no resemblance to a natural system." And that is precisely what I found to be so incredibly ironic about Feral.
There exist agroecosystems which use the abundant data being returned by scientists the world over that integrate livestock seamlessly into working, thriving, regenerative farms. Why they were left completely out of the book is mind boggling. The mentions of livestock farming were almost entirely negative and when other farming was touched on, it was on the subject of setting aside hilltops for rewilding (after being judged uneconomic and environmentally disastrous) and leaving the "more fertile areas" for human agriculture. Even then there was no discussion of agroecology.
Which is a real shame because agroecology, and particularly permaculture, go hand in hand with the concept of rewilding.
17. Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013), 92-93. Digitized version from Homegrown.org's review of said book. I have my own copy of his book and am thinking about writing a review of it after this diary.
18. Links can be found below under additional resources.
"Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments" -Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food19
Not only do they outperform chemical fertilizers and conventional wisdom regarding farming, but it is reported that in many cases we could double local food production.20 And that is just the beginning as we include rewilding efforts, which will only strengthen the surrounding ecosystem, and as we begin to gain further experience with agroecological methods.
Permaculture, an ethical design framework which draws heavily from agroecological techniques, includes a "zone system" for managing land use. Permaculturalists particularly stress the importance of a Zone 5: a zone where human management is foregone in favor of, you guessed it, rewilding. Zone 5 is meant to serve as a source of inspiration for the rest of the zones which we do apply design and management to. Oftentimes, Zone 5 is a very large portion of a property.
As a system that employs agroecology- the efficacy of which I have only briefly alluded to here but have supported elsewhere- permaculture and rewilding are mutually reinforcing concepts. They produce a feedback loop where our human managed systems- ones that boost biodiversity, resiliency, and regenerate natural systems in their own right- draw inspiration and further strength from a rewilding section of the property.
This does not mean that we should not consider setting aside even larger tracts of land for rewilding. It does mean, however, that agriculture and nature are not mutually incompatible. Only in the minds of humans are the actions of humans and those of nature somehow separable.
We need the emotional roller coaster that unbridled wild spaces offer. We need the ecosystem services these areas will provide us (will, because humans are still increasingly urbanizing). And we also need to apply these lessons to our (not livestock's) most destructive action: food production.
I know this has gotten very long and probably covered more territory than absolutely necessary. I hope that the final section did not deter you from the book. It was an awesome summer read and I highly recommend it. I will probably even read it again two or three more times. I have not always been a fan of Monbiot's columns, but this book... well, I respect the man even more than before.
My detractions not withstanding.
I also want to say one more thing: I should probably look this over with a fine toothed comb one more time before publishing, but... like my wife and her thesis papers: I am going to turn this into the jury now and we can converse later :)
19. United Nation's News Centre. "UN expert makes case for ecological farming practices to boost food production." 8 March 2011.
20. IBID. (same as previous)
Large Scale Damaged Ecosystem Regeneration [Diary]:
Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit.
Another good article by John D. Liu. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.
Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.
The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology [diary]), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.
There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from Spring 2013.If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence.
Here is a list of diaries I wrote that covered some of the very basics.
Plants for a Future. Absolutely massive database for useful plants.
The first diary of this series revolves around three documentaries.
The first is a TED talk by Willie Smits about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods. Not only was the project highly successful, but climate moderation was demonstrated via satellite imagery.
The second, The Rebel Farmer, is about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian who practices his own version of permaculture. He has also written numerous books in addition to being in demand across the globe.
The third presents "Greening the Desert"- which covers both sites in Jordan where Geoff Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute have been applying permaculture with great success.
In no particular order:
John D. Liu: pioneering large scale damaged ecosystem restoration.
What If We Change: John D. Liu's project to inspire others to share their efforts to combat climate change and other problems.
Whole Systems Design: operating from Vermont, Ben Falk's permaculture design firm. Excellent site overview and talks on agroecology. Also a must see video from Hurricane Irene.
Permaculture News: PRI's YouTube branch
Permasolutions: Offering permaculture inspired solutions to problems
Toby Hemenway: Author of Gaia's Garden and permaculture designer. Great talk on horticultural society.
Al Baydha: Pilot project in Saudi Arabia to regenerate "bare bones" landscape for Bedouins.
Eric Toensmeier: Author of Perennial Vegetables, coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, and plant guru. Has an upcoming book on perennial agricultural solutions to climate change.
Paul Stamets: World famous visionary mycologist who will change the way you see the world. You'll never forget fungi after his speeches regarding their potential use and place in the ecosystems.
My favorite books:
Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!
Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. George Monbiot. Allen Lane, 2013.
The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. Ben Falk. Chelsea Green, 2013.
For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List.
The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.