by Isabella Tree
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.
Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.
This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing. The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality. Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back. I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.
In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money. By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts. The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet. Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.
Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it. The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit. If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.