The news caught my eye. The European Bison, or ‘wisent,’ will be reintroduced to Southern England. The Wilder Blean Project plans to use a small herd of bison to regenerate a former pine plantation. They will be the first bison to browse an English forest in six thousand years. Together with some wild ponies and pigs, they will help return a natural grazing regime to a small corner of England.
I left Southern England thirty years ago in search of wildness. I arrived in Colorado for an education, not knowing how long it would last. The Front Range of the Rockies reeled me in with its colorful aspen and early snows. With a grad degree in hand, I kept moving north and west, to Oregon and Alaska, satisfying a thirst for big landscapes with salmon-filled creeks and tall columns of spruce. I worked on fishing boats and with the Park Service before settling down in Montana. Here I teach environmental ethics to college students. Together we think about different relationships to the natural world. Black bears, a bobcat or two, and the occasional bighorn sheep amble past my workplace on the edge of town.
When I first arrived, the western U.S. seemed to offer something Europe didn’t. My European eyes saw landscapes that looked wild and untamed. The rivers, wildlife, and glaciers oozed a rugged authenticity, something I thought missing from my home country’s mediated lands. The big animals created a constant, nervy excitement.
Three decades on and a strange transformation is taking place. In the U.S. West, a long-overdue awakening to the truth of indigenous presence has occurred. This never was wilderness, at least not in the sense white environmentalists thought. The myth of the pristine has duly shattered. At the same time, the land has started to groan under the weight of people and box stores. The human role in shaping the landscape is clarified with every warming year.
Meanwhile in Europe the wild is experiencing a rebirth. It is not just bison. Europe has double America’s wolves, living alongside twice the people in half the space. Chamois, golden jackals, and lynx are also on the rise. Brown bear populations are increasing only ninety minutes from Rome. Rewilding is becoming a serious business. As this happens, Europe is constructing a twenty-first century concept of the wild.
There are lessons to learn from what is happening there. Volunteers from German cities help farmers build fences to protect livestock from wolves. French citizens camp with sheep in alpine meadows to keep predators away. Bison are put on trucks and moved around the continent to maintain genetic diversity in the recovering herds.
The European wild is flourishing through innovation and compromise. The Tauros has been back-bred from hardy cattle to graze like the extinct auroch. One hundred and forty of them were trucked to Croatia so a wild bovine can live amongst wolves in the Velebit Mountains. Advocates for the Marsican bear have pruned abandoned apple trees to make them fruit again. These re-awakened Apennine orchards give the recovering bears a food source in the hills, helping them stay out of trouble in the villages. Environmental ambassadors go door to door encouraging locals to be good neighbors to the bear. They surround the villagers’ beehives and chicken coops with donated electric wires.
The efforts at cohabitation have parallels in the Western U.S.. Here range-riders help cattle live with wolves. Innovative fence designs allow pronghorn antelope to cross cattle country. Electrified ‘unwelcome’ mats keep grizzly bears away from ranch property. What is more obvious in Europe is the role of ordinary citizens in helping with the cohabitation. Urban residents put skin in the game through their money and time. With the big animals gone for longer, there seems to be more effort to break down the rural-urban divide. More energy is invested in the development of wildlife-centered economies.
What is also more obvious is the role of ecological compromise. Tauros are not genetically identical to aurochs. Marsican bears didn’t historically eat domesticated apples. Wolves did not evolve to hunt small mammals in French and Italian vineyards. But so what? The purism sustained by a crisp divide between the wild and domestic is no longer helpful. The blending of nature and culture over time requires different categories.
Living through this reversal has been disorienting for me but incredibly hopeful. A good deal of what I believed when I arrived thirty years ago was probably never real in the first place. It is common to see only what you want to see. It is also clear that the meshing of human and animal cultures is something the indigenous people of these landscapes have always lived. I’m embarrassed that this lesson took me so long to learn.
What’s apparent to me is that, against the odds, there is a clear way forward for wildness. It’s a new wild, but also an old one. It’s a wild that indigenous people already know. And it’s a wild which everyone else should take the time to learn.
Colorado image by Albane et Guillaume courtesy of Flickr Tauros image by Kit courtesy of Flickr