Have just finished reading the beautifully written Wilding by Isabella Tree. For the past 20 years she and her husband Charlie Burrell have discarded traditional farming and sought to re-establish their Sussex clay as it may have been before agricultural revolutions.
Contrary to the default understanding, she suggests, that old state was not just a giant hardwood forest but a landscape grazed by ancient oxen, ponies and deer.
We only get one side of the story, of course, but, thanks to longhorn cattle, Dartmoor ponies and other big four-legged munchers, reintroduced at their family pile of Knepp Castle, a landscape has emerged that buzzes, hoots, squawks, splashes and hums with resurgent life. Trees, mammals, birds, insects, fungi and soil are alike enjoying the freedom to be not squished into a human farmed environment. It’s a lovely book and story, all taking place between Gatwick Airport and the sea.
It also hints at lessons about science, systems and complexity; and hence Slow. Here’s how. Science is in my experience a process of radical simplification. It’s a quest for universal laws and simple causes and effects. It’s much less good at dealing with complex (emergent) phenomena that involve many simple systems working together. It can analyse a neuron but not consciousness; it can measure a link between nitrogen and growth and so boost crops. But that can also lead to vast, productive, silent fields, carbohydrate monocultures; and with them, the problem of wearing out the earth and the soil. Conservationists like their scientific methods too, planting forests with each tree surrounded by a non-recyclable plastic shield, for example, which are not found in nature, or dropping wheat grains across a field to boost turtle dove numbers. Oddly, to those of us sold on scientific solutions, a simple science-led approach may attempt to save a single species or solve a single problem but not lead to the riotous complexity that characterizes a healthy ecosystem.
There is a way of promoting emergence and complexity: letting nature do its stuff, looking to the old ways. Isabella Tree has read old books as well as science papers (and is eloquent in both). Species have had a zillion years to figure out ways of cooperating fruitfully. They seem to manage at Knepp. Isabella Tree laments that they couldn’t go further, like re-introducing beavers or lynx.
None of this is my world and well above my pay grade, but is fascinating: a further stage, perhaps, in humanity’s learning curve in stewarding the earth, and a humbler one, and a slow, non-intensive turn in the road. Great read.