The forests blotted out memories of what had gone before.
October 25, 2013 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Accidental Rewilding - In places once thick with farms and cities, human dispossession and war has cleared the ground for nature to return
The forest had entered a cycle Tomaž had not seen before, in which many of the giants had perished. Some had died where they stood, and remained upright, reamed with beetle and woodpecker holes, sprouting hoof fungus and razor strop. They looked as if a whisper of wind could blow them down. Others now stretched across the rocks and craters, sometimes blocking our path, sometimes suspended above our heads. Among the trunks lying on the ground, some were so thick that I could scarcely see over them. Where they had fallen, thickets of saplings crowded into the light. Seeing the profusion of fungus and insect life the dead wood harboured, I was reminded of the old ecologists’ aphorism: there is more life in dead trees than there is in living trees. The tidy-minded forestry so many nations practise deprives many species of their habitats.
by George Monbiot

Monbiot: A Manifesto For Rewilding The World

Unlearning and Rewilding

TED: A Walk On The Wild Side: 7 Fascinating Experiments In Rewilding and For More Wonder, Rewild The World

The Rewilding Institute
To develop and promote the ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America, particularly the need for large carnivores and a permeable landscape for their movement, and to offer a bold, scientifically-credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization in North America.
Rewilding Europe: Making Europe A Wilder Place

Monbiot, previously
Rewiliding, mentioned previously
posted by the man of twists and turns (30 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

Read an interesting comment over at rockpapershotgun today(?) where someone floated the idea of a game where, rather than wander into unspoiled wilderness and turn it into houses, you do the reverse and, as nature, retake an abandoned environment. I've been thinking about that off and on all day, and now this! Lots of interesting links to read, thanks.

The World Without Us is also an interesting read in this vein.
posted by curious nu at 4:23 PM on October 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

That's happened in the US, too, though not because of war. At one time the entire state of Massachusetts was logged off and turned to farm land, but the soil there is so lousy (full of rocks) that when better land further west opened up, most of the farmers left. As a result, large parts of Massachusetts have returned to the wild.

Walking through forests there is a strange experience, because every so often you run into an old stone fence, left over from when the area was in cultivation.

(On preview: Curious Nu, there have been serious proposals to do exactly that with large parts of Detroit.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:24 PM on October 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I've read about the Detroit proposals. I'm not (completely) a DOWN WITH CIVILIZATION type so I'm not going to say I'm looking forward to it, exactly, but it'll be interesting to see if anything comes of them.
posted by curious nu at 4:29 PM on October 25, 2013

Speaking of Detroit, did the OP have this article in mind, or was it simply good timing? If it was the latter, I propose we create a name for this phenomenon. Serendiposterous?
posted by Apocryphon at 4:40 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's interesting to see ideas like "feral" and "rewilding" spreading from radical circles into the mainstream with the edges sanded off. I guess it's a normal process in environmentalism, and Monbiot is just a bellwether, but it feels a bit weird.
posted by twirlip at 4:49 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Beech trees are my absolute favourite trees. In Japan they grow either higher up (above 500 meters), or further to the northeast. Very lovely trees.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:56 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nothing but flowers...
posted by mosk at 5:28 PM on October 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

There was an article about this in Der Spiegel the other day. Hopefully there will be a growing scope for rewilding in Europe, a place which has sadly lost much of its wilderness. The comeback of wisent would be amazing.
posted by Thing at 5:35 PM on October 25, 2013

One of the upsides of living in older, semi-neglected rental properties is that you can let whatever natural grasses and plants you want take over the former yards, and no one cares so long as you keep it mowed. We do encourage the clover with seeding because it needs less mowing, but otherwise we almost never water or uproot anything, except some of the bigger, nastier types of thistles. But we don't get many of those, or those horrible grassburrs that always infested lawns when I was growing up either, which surprises me. We do get a lot of birds, and this year, a giant crop of grasshoppers, but since we weren't growing any veggies, it was fine. Many of them were the gigantic, colorful ones. We've seen some very large butterflies, too.

Our subdivision is not aging well, and honestly, I wouldn't be sad if it went back to wilderness, eventually, because it wasn't well-built and has a lot of issues. There's still a lot of pastureland around us that is gorgeous in its own bleak, Texas way.

Of course, one reason this place is cheap and the prairie is encroaching is the huge, often noisy, natural-gas pump station not a quarter mile from our back fence. I wouldn't mind that going away either. Ironically, this place would probably see more development if it did.
posted by emjaybee at 5:54 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The word-poetry in "Accidental Rewilding" is mesmerizing and shiver-inducing. I might pick up a copy of Feral for that very reason. I like the "rewilding" concept, but it's hard for me to come up with a general political or philosophical statement. Some specific sites can be re-wilded, certainly. The closer you zoom in, the more detailed and political the process becomes.

Lots and lots of good points are to be found in those articles. One paragraph mentions the amount of biotic life found in dead trees, hence the necessity of decaying material in a forest ecosystem. That's something that even my local so-called conservation groups don't seem to get right. They want to recruit volunteers to walk our woods and remove dead or dying material, but that doesn't make for a healthy or rich forest.

I would absolutely die of joy if North America's "conservation" groups and stakeholders all had to pass a mandated course on the importance of trophic cascades. That will never happen, or certainly not anytime soon, but it's a nice fantasy. The knowledge that some people recognize that wilderness has its own value, not just economic or cultural value for certain species or tourism groups, makes me happy.
posted by quiet earth at 6:19 PM on October 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

To some extent, this is happening on St. Martin, too. It's a little counterintuitive, because in the last sixty years the population has increased more than tenfold, but even though coastal areas are incredibly developed, many of the hillsides have been turning to scrub and dry forest because tourism has replaced most agriculture and animal husbandry.
posted by snofoam at 6:25 PM on October 25, 2013

It should be pointed out that the Detroit proposal that Apocryphon and Chocolate Pickle brought up is very much a for-profit endeavour, and there is a quote from the instigator of the project that perfectly illustrates the inevitability of capitalism destroying itself:
[T]here’s no reason to buy real estate in Detroit—every year, it just gets cheaper. We’ve gone from 2 million people to 800,000. There are over 200,000 abandoned parcels of land and—by debatable estimates—30,000 acres of abandoned property. We need to create scarcity, because until we get a stabilized market, there’s no reason for entrepreneurs or other people to start buying.
posted by junco at 6:28 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also of note is Cahoika in what is now southern Illinois. It was one of the most populated cities in the world in the 1200s, with an estimated population of up to about 40,000 at it's peak.
posted by chambers at 6:34 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

A few weeks ago I saw Jim Sterba talk about another side of all this at our local library, promoting his current book called Nature Wars: “Today, it is quite likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds and trees in America than anywhere on the planet at any time in history. This should be wonderful news – unless, perhaps, you are one of 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today, your child’s soccer field is carpeted with goose droppings, coyotes are killing your pets, the neighbor’s cat has turned your bird feeder into a fast-food outlet, wild turkeys have eaten your newly-planted seed corn, beavers have flooded your driveway, or bears are looting your garbage cans.”
posted by LeLiLo at 6:57 PM on October 25, 2013

Guys, guys! William Gibson @GreatDismal tweeted "Accidental Rewilding" on Twitter nine minutes ago.

I'll go ahead and die of joy now, if that's OK.
posted by quiet earth at 7:19 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

We have had some... dramatic re-wilding in some nooks in Singapore. Now you must understand: while most of Singapore has been relentlessly urbanized, and even protected virgin equitorial forests are now under threat, the old railway corridor where the tracks used to run to Malaysia has now become wilderness, especially along the corridor where the old railway line to the Jurong port used to run. The pictures in the linked blog don't do full justice to how overwhelming the forest growth is, in some parts; some sections are actually impenetrable with a dense canopy of trees, lichen, snakes and so on. I like to think of it as a dystopian wasteland, but with equitorial characteristics, because amidst this dense green canopy, you find the odd signal light, track or some remnant from the old railway infrastructure.

Been told that there's been some re-wilding of fauna as well, so to speak. So, collecting "talking birds" (birds that chirp), and bringing them to a coffee-shop while sipping kopi and playing mahjongg was an urban Thing in ye olde Singapore; indeed, unlike what the linked blog-post says, I know for a fact that the culture still exists, but in some hidden housing estates away from the main arteries and the gentrifying Tiong Bahru town. So quite a few bird-owners apparently had let off their exotic birds (we're talking robins, mynahs and macaws, mostly, birds endemic to the region) off from their cages when they moved houses and estates. As a result, Singapore's bird population has been growing stealthily in plain sight. Because the government had planted palms and other trees not native to Singapore on the main boulevards, the birds flock to trees that they "recognize", those in these remaining parts of the wilderness.

You'd have to jump over some thorny bushes and be on the lookout for snakes, but going down to the re-wilded rail corridor at evening is a marvelous experience; with the setting sun as a brilliant golden backdrop, you can see birds returning to their nests. At the right spot, the wilderness is complete; you don't see any cranes, apartment-buildings, office-towers in the skyline, you can't hear the traffic or the MRT... with a bit of an imagination, you can even pretend there's the odd tiger in the bushes like there used to be 120 years ago.
posted by the cydonian at 9:42 PM on October 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Monbiot's book is very worth reading for the chapters on what we mean by "preservation". He talks repeatedly about the phenomenon whereby environmentalists and conservationists strive to retain the status quo that existed when they grew up (or became conscious of the environment), each generation of conservationists recalibrating against their own yardstick of degradation. So if we abandon that yardstick, what is the measure of wildness (or ecological freedom) that we aspire to? One hundred years ago? One thousand? The countries of Europe were greatly shaped by us in these eras, the wildernesses tamed. But he repeatedly returns to the catalogue of megafauna that disappeared from the planet around 10-15 thousand years ago. Everywhere that humans spread, except parts of Asia and Africa, there is decent evidence that we wiped out the great megafauna that lived there. Elephants and rhinos and grizzly bears are the clinging remnants of diverse tier of giant fauna that existed on most every continent. Looking around a country like Ireland, where I live, stripped of its wolves and Irish elk, not to mention our great forests, Europe seems like a sad, impoverished place. Why is it much more logical to grieve for what we've done in the last two-hundred years than what we've done in the last 15,000, when on an ecological timescale both are a blip? These are probably very familiar ideas to a lot of people, but have completely coloured the way I've looked at the world around me in the months since I've read it.

This makes the book sound very depressing, but actually it is the first environmental book I've read in my life that gave me any optimism. A concept of rewilding, of valuing untrammelled ecological chaos, that does not demand abandonment of progress or the end of society. It makes it all feel so very possible.
posted by distorte at 2:29 AM on October 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seems like Paris has its own abandoned wild railway tracks. No fauna here though. Vid comes with a single, light-hearted cross-Channel barb.
posted by the cydonian at 4:44 AM on October 26, 2013

Wow, I had no idea that rewilding on that scale has taken place anywhere in Europe recently! I also had no idea that feracious doesn't mean "ferociously voracious".
posted by hat_eater at 5:14 AM on October 26, 2013

Except maybe Chernobyl, but there the forest is still relatively young.
posted by hat_eater at 6:06 AM on October 26, 2013

At one point Georgia wanted to build an Interstate-style limited access divided highway connecting Atlanta with nearby Decatur. The right of way land was purchased and the more easily removeable parts of the existing buildings were removed, but not the foundations or the paved streets. No grading had been done, few of the existing trees had been cut. (Since the area had been mostly old residential there was quite a respectable tree cover.)

At that point the project ran out of money and nothing further was done for many years. Walking the cracked streets of the semi-cleared right of way was an increasingly spooky experience as weeds and small trees filled in among the canopy trees. Some of the below-ground basements, that were now open to the sky, turned out to be watertight and filled up with rainwater.

In that situation and in this climate you would expect a massive mosquito problem, but there was not. There were OMG fish in these rectangular ponds--schools of topwater minnows chowing down on mosquito larvae. I netted some of the fishies out and examined them. A few were well known introduced species (I had an aquarium and some aquarium books.) Descendents of what had once been veil tail guppies and so on, easy to spot and what you might expect people to dump there. But most were absolutely native to this area. Since I also had a dissecting microscope I went to the length of checking a taxonomic key out of the library and keying them out.

Where on earth did they come from? Did they fall from the sky? Spontaneous generation? Was there some kind of Johnny Appleseed of native minnows cruising around releasing them? Of all the unanswered questions and unscratched mental itches I carry around with me it's nice to be reminded of that one. Thanks for the post.
posted by jfuller at 6:06 AM on October 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

Fish eggs on bird legs
posted by bq at 7:52 AM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to say the same, but found this (fourth answer), and now I'm somewhat baffled.
posted by hat_eater at 12:08 PM on October 26, 2013

The first flowering plants (angiosperms) emerged (in the fossil record) only about 132 million years ago. They've done quite well for themselves; there remain over 260,000 living species. Darwin called it "an abominable mystery".

Maybe humanity will flower as well. It could happen.
posted by Twang at 3:11 PM on October 26, 2013

My family has some property in the mountainous areas of northern California. The house (cabin) is a landmark (i.e. we couldn't make very many upgrades) and in on a Pony Express National Historical Trail. Just a few miles down the mountain, is the heavily forested remains of what was the nearest town on that trail. Sometimes, when the foliage is lush, the hand of man cannot be seen. When Autumn comes, it seems like a ghost of the town just flashing it's image over the area.
posted by _paegan_ at 3:17 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods.
posted by verstegan at 3:04 AM on October 27, 2013

They want to recruit volunteers to walk our woods and remove dead or dying material

Very strange.
posted by pracowity at 6:00 AM on October 27, 2013

An Explosion Of Green - The reforestation of the eastern United States
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:04 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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