- Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life by George Monbiot
George Monbiot studied zoology at Oxford University, but he is not an academic ecologist, rather a high-profile environmental activist. He has written a regular column or blog for the Guardian newspaper, as well as best-selling books in Britain, including The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain. His political brief is not necessarily left-wing, however. His father was head of the Conservative Party's trade-and-industry forum, and his mother was daughter of a Conservative member of Parliament. This new book was first published in Britain with a different subtitle: Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013).
Like many popular nature writers since Thoreau, Monbiot strives to provide his readers with science, policy, and personal adventure. He previously has worked in and written about far-flung locales in Brazil and Africa and was living in Wales during the period he wrote this book. He is fond of sea kayaking; and in chapters 3, 4, and 14 of Feral, he recounts some of his daring paddles into the Irish Sea in search of osprey, mackerel, and flounder, only to happen upon dolphin and weever (a species of fish with dangerous, poisonous fins). His kayaking and snorkeling adventures lead to great risks but are as essential to this book as a quest to slay a dragon is to a medieval romance. The prophet of rewilding must face the great beast (even if the beast is only a spider crab) in order to bring back the inspirational prize of nature's great power.
Environmentalists may have a number of critiques of the rewilding movement. For one, it fetishizes charismatic megafauna and particularly [End Page 169] fearsome predators like wolves, big cats, and bears, as well as the mammoth, or mastodont, and other Pleistocene megafauna. Monbiot describes the proposals of Pleistocene rewilders such as Sergey Zimov in Siberia and Paul S. Martin and Josh Donlan in North America to repair damaged ecosystems by restoring the types of animals that have been extinct for thousands of years. Whereas reviving a mammoth from traces of dna is an unlikely prospect, "These rewilders call for the introduction of proxy species to the Americas" (140). For example, the pronghorn antelope evolved to be able to run away from the American cheetah, so the health of the pronghorns would be enhanced by (re)introducing African cheetahs to the intermountain West.
The distant past is the ultimate wilderness, a place of enormous creatures now extinct and of familiar megafauna ranging widely, even in the British Isles. The rewilder indulges his imagination with a certain atavistic nostalgia that can easily turn hyperbolic. Tales of abundance from colonial promotional tracts that were intended to lure investors and migrants to America become in Feral hard evidence in support of Monbiot's plans to restore ecosystems; in the colonial Chesapeake, for example, "salmon were packed so densely that, an English army captain remarked, a gun could not be fired into the water without hitting some of them. Oysters formed reefs across the bays and river mouths that presented a hazard to shipping" (233–34). Fantastic reports that once encouraged emigration to and exploitation of the colonies, which I, as a scholar of colonial American literature, treat with great skepticism, are here taken at face value and mustered to inspire conservation schemes.
Just as speculative is the contention that pre-Columbian America was filled with sophisticated and populous societies supported by bountiful plant and animal food sources. These theories were popularized in Michael Mann's 1491, particularly with reference to the Amazon basin. Monbiot cites Anna Roosevelt and Michael Heckenberger (whose research was published in Science in 2003 and 2008) as leaders of this trend and draws on it to claim that the "incredible biological abundance of North America was also a...