Book review: Wilding by Isabella Tree

These last few weeks, being miserably pregnant and watching social media turn into a dumpster fire, I needed to take my brain someplace else. No fiction appealed to me–too stressful. So I picked up a non-fiction book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time: Wilding, by Isabella Tree.

I first read about the Knepp Estate Wilding project a few years ago in this article. It was so strange to me, so backward and refreshing, that I just had to know more.

The farm is on the famously heavy clays of the Sussex Weald. It’s no coincidence that Sussex folk have more than 30 dialect words for mud, from clodgy to gubber: this poorly draining “marginal” soil sets like concrete in summer and porridge in winter, and will never provide high yields of crops.

For 17 years, Burrell did what the conventional farming world told him to do: intensify, and diversify. Tree quotes Burrell’s aunt: “We were all brought up to believe we would go to heaven if we made two blades of grass grow where one had grown before.” They invested in better machinery, unleashed the latest pesticides and launched their own brand ice-cream. They almost doubled their wheat yields. It didn’t work. After 15 years of farming, they made a cash surplus in only two. Both Burrell and Tree enjoyed wildlife. “We’d go all over the world looking for nature, never thinking about what we were doing to it here, or how it could be here,” says Tree. In 1999, the ancient oaks on their land were inspected by an expert, Ted Green. He told the couple that their trees were in poor health because of their farming system’s ploughing of roots and the destruction of mycorrhizae, a vast subterranean fungal network that is crucial to plant health. His visit, writes Tree, coming just when they realised their farm business was unequivocally failing, was an epiphany.

Raising cows among the weeds, the Guardian

This is where the book starts–a failing farm on heavy clay that is no longer good for anything. So the couple take inspiration from a rewilding project in Scotland, where you let the land go wild and introduce hardy, grazing animals like deer, cattle, and pigs. It’s important to use old breeds that still have survival instincts and can feed themselves through the winters. That’s where things got interesting.

When they first let the land go fallow, they immediately had three years of weeds coming up, among them the hated Devil’s Thistle. It sends out a huge root system from one plant and covers acres this way. The surrounding farmers gave them crap for it, but the couple held on, hoping that the whole rewilding thing would work itself out. Then came an absolute plague of painted lady butterflies up from Africa.

Painted ladies love Devil’s Thistle. They blanketed the farm and covered the thistles in caterpillars. By winter, the thistles were so decimated that the wild ponies ate them to the ground, and by the next year, there wasn’t a thistle to be found.

The book is filled with story after story like this–where they assumed one thing and found out it was wrong. For instance, (highly endangered) nightingales were assumed to be a woodland bird–until they began nesting in the scrub brush at Knepp in amazing numbers. Same for the (even more endangered) turtle dove. Each chapter is fascinating examination of things that conservationists believe, and how they were wrong.

Ultimately, the book ends on a hopeful note. The world’s farms are producing food enough to feet ten billion people, and that surplus goes to waste every year. Improving the microscopic life in the world’s soils would absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere within a few short years. By letting rivers return to their floodplains and letting marshes return, the pollution runoff from farms is reduced to nearly nothing. These observations go on and on–what a positive effect it is to let our over-farmed land lie fallow and let the wilderness return.

It’s a deep, refreshing read, quite different from the hysteria on the news right now. It’s encouraging and hopeful, and backed by pages and pages of studies. I kept joking that I was reading a fascinating book about conservation. But it really is fascinating, and also refreshing, like taking your mind on a vacation.

I highly recommend it for anybody who would like to take a stroll around an English farm and watch it slowly turn to wilderness.

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