Book Review: "Wilding" by Isabella Tree

A British couple take their land out of conventional agriculture and, partly through necessity, change course towards the little-known and little-understood practice of "rewilding" their land. Over almost two decades, they look backwards to historical practices of farming, hunting, fishing, and animal husbandry to help them resurrect and adapt restorative land practices for the future. Wild horse breeds, traditional cattle breeds, and pigs are set upon the land in a way that recreate habitat for native plants, animals, fish, and birds. Wetlands are restored; soil improves; carbon is captured. Turtledoves and nightingales, both endangered in Britain, make more than a cameo appearance. There are tangible, tantalizing successes.

The story is autobiographical, written by Isabella Tree about the endeavor she undertook with husband Charles Burrell at his family's West Sussex estate, Knepp. The couple appear to be driven not by sentimentality for some supposed past, nor by the promise of financial windfall, but by curiosity and a desire to leave behind a living example of the possibilities. The book meticulously describes their experiences: Wins, losses, works in progress, and more. It is not a how-to guide, but rather the story of an evolving project that has run a gauntlet of challenges and survived.

"Wilding" covers the issues in almost heroic detail. Tree's grasp of the scientific, social, and historic details is impressive. Ancient history, natural history, anthropology, local public relations, national and international politics, British conservation policies, and, above all, applied ecological science all make the discussion. She spares few details, and if the book has a drawback, it is sometimes overly detailed.

At times, too, Tree dwells too long on the predictable setbacks encountered with various government agencies. What else could anyone expect? Agricultural habits, practices, and institutional systems lean in a very different direction from those pioneered at the Knepp project. Nonetheless, planet-wide issues motivate a lot of people and institutions to search for new answers these days. The Knepp project, as reported in "Wilding," offers a record of experience that can (should) inform and inspire the search.