A Rewilding Journey: Workable Land
Having grown up on a council estate and spending most of my adult life moving within and between cities, land has been a thing I have not had access to. Not that I’ve seen a place for land in my life until fairly recently.
While being shown around the house we ended up renting, we were offered the opportunity to rent the acre-sized paddock next to our (huge) garden. The estate agent suggested it would be a good move for privacy but also talked casually about the idea of keeping animals on it. We were both a little taken aback. Until now, I’d never considered the potential of having a patch of land to experiment with let alone become responsible for any other lifeforms beyond our pooch, Betty. My mind raced… I already have a wool gilet and wellies, was I going to transition into a farmer? I wondered how I’d look in a flat cap.
As people that have a dog, like to make things, enjoy cooking over fire, and observing the lives of critters, Lydia and I always enjoyed having a garden where possible, even in the city. For me personally, it’s a space where I can get messy and weird without annoying anyone else. Even while living in Brooklyn we committed to parting ways with a sickening amount of rent every month for the privilege of having a back yard. But that allowed me to do everything from make a table big enough to sit 14, fire up the BBQ rain or shine and make cam-models out of the local cardinals.
The need for a private outdoor space continued when we moved to Portland — there’s a lot more space there so the vast majority of properties outside of downtown have gardens and thankfully ours was on the larger side. We felt extremely lucky as it became a space for our group of friends to celebrate birthdays with the occasional socially distant gathering during Spring/Summer of 2020.
There was a clause in our rental agreement for the Portland house that got me thinking about the natural world and our control over it: the garden grass was not allowed to grow longer than 6 inches. I was bound to a contract, enforceable by law to make sure I kept up this aesthetic, and furthermore the expectation of the garden being returned at the end of our tenancy in a similar condition to how we got it prevented any real messy projects from happening there.
To that end, land never had the opportunity to become anything more than a private outdoor space to me. I did grow a few tomatoes in Portland which went on to become breakfast for a local squirrel family. I watched through the window as one-by-one, they grabbed each perfectly ripened tomato and plucked it. That was an unexpected, but ideal result in my eyes… I enjoyed the process of watching those tomatoes grow. I even pollinated them with my own finger. And despite looking forward to having them burst in my mouth and tasting their sweet juice they went on to provide sustenance for some of the animals that struggle to live alongside us. There’s always fresh, watery tomatoes on the supermarket shelves for me. They’re grown on vast fields without a pest in sight and mechanically picked by monstrous machines.
Even if intensive farming is destroying soil, contributing to floods, poisoning the environment and resulting in produce with a fraction of the nutritional value produced by other methods, there’s a thought within the farming world that rewilding land is letting it go to ruin. Knepp Estate, as documented by Isabella Tree in her book, Wilding faced a backlash from the neighbouring farming community as she and her husband embarked on one of the first British rewilding projects. After years struggling to make a decent living from industrialised farming, they decided the best use of their land was just to let it do its thing. And now, after a few years of stewardship and some business model innovation the land used as their previously failing farm is making more money and providing more jobs for the local economy than ever.
Despite this glowing example of eco-centric and sustainable land use, there are still conservative minds within the farming, land-owning and planning community that are triggered by the idea of rewilding. I clearly feel that rewilding land is the right thing to do, but not wanting to be seen as some ex-urban yuppie coming to the countryside with wild ideas, I am currently in the process of researching, forming opinions and building credibility in this space so I can speak authentically about it. In the near future I plan to seek out and talk to those involved with land to find out exactly what the pros and cons are as they see it and explore opportunities for larger rewilding projects. It is for many land owners, their main source of income. Their fathers, and father’s fathers farmed, and so suggesting alternative approaches will require a sensitive approach. Maybe I’ll buy that flat cap.
The mission of rewilding isn’t just changing how land is used, it requires agents of change that can empathetically listen, educate and edge current practice towards progress.
It seems that rewilding is complicated enough when you own the land, so when I talk about rewilding land that is rented there are obvious issues. We still haven’t been given the lease for our paddock as we’re waiting on the previous tenant to dismantle their stable (which is imminent, I am told…) but when we do get it, will the lease detail that the land must be returned in a grazable condition at the end of our tenancy? Will the landlord have opinions if I do start to convert it into a mini nature reserve, potentially curtailing its immediate use for traditional grazing when handed back? We plan to settle for some time, but how long before we move on? I need to be realistic about what is achievable.
I know for sure that with my relatively tiny acre I will not be rebalancing the food chain or diverting rivers by reintroducing the wolf. The best way to get value out of this land is to make life easier for some of the smaller beasties that live nearby and to try and document as best I can the story of their resulting progress. As rewilding’s other side is about ‘untaming’ humans, I also plan to use it to reduce my own reliance on supermarket supply chains and connect more with the seasons by organically growing food — vegetables that I will eat raw, ferment and process to make them even tastier as I move to a diet more considerate of the planet and its inhabitants. The acre is not just land, but a studio in which to make content and tell stories.
By doing this I hope to educate myself so that I can take on bigger projects in the future, inspire others and spread awareness of the idea of rewilding amongst my local and wider community.