Slow, science, tradition and systems

Old ways may embody clever stuff

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.


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