The Wild Imagination of Uncertainty
Beauty in brambles? Most definitely. We need to train our wild imaginations to embrace uncertainty in order to help our natural landscapes grow into thriving ecosystems once more. Some thoughts on rewilding.
Three weeks ago we planted a tree. A hawthorn, right in the middle of our lawn, a couple of metres from our recently dug pond and the same from our neighbour's fence. Space to grow. My daughter named it Shawn. I measured him this morning and Shawn has grown eight centimetres.
Throughout his short life in the garden, our tree has received nothing but blazing hot sun. I have watered the roots a few times to help him settle and he now sits in a private oasis of fertility within the canyon land of our bone dry lawn. I worry about him every day, every time I walk past.
I have a lot invested in Shawn. He symbolises my recent surge of interest in the workings of the natural world. While I have always found nature to be a restorative, inspirational and essential part of my life it is only in the last couple of years that I have started to take an interest in the processes of nature, the names of birds, wildflowers, trees and the living dynamics of landscapes. I would call myself a naturalist, if it didn't feel like I was framing and hanging a qualification I'd printed off myself on the wall. This hawthorn is a part of a series of small moves our family have made during lockdown to reintroduce nature to our garden.
From the moment Shawn went into the ground, I began to panic. Lockdown has seen an almost unbroken succession of sun-drenched days. Shawn was going to need some help, I was sure, but how just how much? I Googled and read around but answers were vague, or relevant to different conditions. I contacted the Woodland Trust, where we bought Shawn, and they were good enough to get back with a few patient tips. But they were quick to note that every growing environment is different and whilst general rules applied, they were not certain to apply to our tree (I didn't give his name).
Let's talk about certainty, or rather uncertainty. Rewilding, uncertainty, and learning to live with the certainty of surprise. Shawn is a tiny part of this story, and in the safer hands of an even mildly qualified gardener Shawn wouldn't even enter the story. But Shawn has taught me to garden confidently with uncertainty – one of many lessons that can be learned from the concept of rewilding.
I read Isabella Tree's brilliant Wilding last year. It's fair to say it blew my mind, and has stuck to me like stickyweed ever since. Wilding is the beautifully written account of reimagining a failing 3500 acre estate in Sussex as a haven for wildlife. Almost 20 years after downing tools and opening the gates to uncertainty, Knepp Estate has become one of the jewels in rewilding's crown.
Knepp is an impeccable example of the successes nature can tally up when left to express itself. Wilding was my first introduction to the concept of rewilding, a concept that is now in relatively wide circulation. Rewilding is being written about, researched and observed by conservationists, governments and farmers alike. With books like Wilding it has now crept onto best seller lists and established itself firmly in the public imagination. I have just finished Benedict MacDonald's Rebirding, another excellent book on the subject also enjoying similar popular success.
Rewilding resonates strongly with me. I am an artist and graphic designer who is increasingly interested and committed to enjoying, protecting and advocating for the natural world. If I took what I know of the creative process and apply it as a conservation strategy, it would look an awful lot like rewilding. Because rewilding is about imagination. We didn't plant Shawn to enjoy a seedling for the next 25 years. We planted him because we imagined him as something else; an adult tree supporting hundreds of species of insects and birds; a constituent part of a living garden that in turn forms a constituent part of an urban patchwork of places that nature can find shelter, food, safety and open arms.
Working with nature, planning for nature, inviting it in, encouraging wilding, planting a tree – these are all acts that require imagination. Everything that follows these acts is anticipatory, hopeful, exciting but ultimately unpredictable, demanding our imagination above all else.
For most people the visual reality of a patch of unsightly bramble triggers the need to rapidly unholster the secateurs. But look imaginatively at that patch of bramble. From the outside, brambles are untidy, culturally unseemly. But the hidden interior of a bramble patch is full of bubbling potential and life. Your eyes see a thorny mess, your imagination sees nesting birds, protected saplings, a fruit and seed haven for bird and insect life. Rewilding opens our eyes to see not simply what is in front of us, but what lies beneath and how those hidden things, unleashed by our imaginations, create dynamic habitats and ecosystems of their own. Rewilding shows us that all is not as it seems, that beauty is in the eye of ones who lets go one concepts of beauty altogether. A patch of bramble is not so unsightly once you have imagined the treasures it contains.
Rewilding retrains our sensibilities. Beyond brambles, rewilding first and foremost requires us to imagine the idea of potential above culturally learned visual cohesion. It teaches us to value careful neglect. Humility and patience are its chief virtues, diversity and abundance its rewards. Rewilding reorders our priorities. It bends our expectations of landscapes; how they should look, the ways in which life takes hold and adapts within their emergent structures, and very much questions the necessity of our hand to shape them.
This is perhaps hard to swallow. Traditionally great gardens and landscapes, even of the wilder variety, are lauded for the compositional eye and guiding hand of the gardener: juggling acts between human hand and nature's beauty, with the human hand definitely having the final, controlling say. Ceding that control to nature and allowing it to take its rougher, meandering course means going against our tinkering tendencies. It means waiting longer, letting go of "preferred outcomes", believing nature can discover and maintain its own natural balance. Above all it means almost total removal of our hands and minds from the equation.
Rewilding reorders our priorities. It bends our expectations of landscapes; how they should look, the ways in which life takes hold and adapts within their emergent structures, and very much questions the necessity of our hand to shape and tinker with them.
That human intervention in landscapes is still sometimes necessary, even in a rewilding project, is another sad legacy of past landscape mismanagement. Some landscapes have also been so degraded by human activity that they require a little more human activity to help them regain their confidence and exert their own opinions once again. See, for example, Chris Packham's garden show The British Garden where the least-tended, "wildest" garden was actually less diverse with wildlife than some of the gardens where human intervention was more consistently applied. Or Berwyn Moor, Wales, where – when the burning stopped - heather was overtaken by rank grass because Berwyn had long lost its large herbivore stewards to keep growth in check. Humans intervened to remove the herbivores, now Berwyn needs human intervention to bring them back. Such was the story at Knepp: Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Durrell had to intervene in the early years to reduce the chemical load within the soil from decades of intense farming. In the long term rewilding is about the unfettered, unpredictable expression of nature but in the short term it sometimes requires human intervention.
I look forward to watching Shawn grow and enjoying what he brings to our garden, accepting all the uncertainties inherent in anticipating anything at all. During the last couple of months of lockdown we have dug a pond, planted flowers and plants, let areas of grass grow long, and generally enjoyed watching nature explore our small, suburban patch of ground. One day I hope to up the ante and participate in large rewilding projects, bearing witness to the imaginative removal of human labour, concepts and anxieties and inviting back the exhuberant, diverse and wild forces of nature.