‘We patronise the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.’
Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928.
How I love quotes – and people who love quotes! I, especially, love books whose chapters each begin with a quote. Like a home which is lived in, each piece of furniture, painting or treasured keepsake (the empty bottle of wine scribbled with a date, invoking precious memories of a Birthday, long gone, spent in Rome) adding colour to lifeless walls, these quotes are inviting; adding depth and character, they draw one into the chapter with an imagination suitably stirred.
Henry Beston’s words, above, are humbling in their truth. I came across the quote in a book entitled, Wilding, by Isabella Tree. A Sunday Times Bestseller, my heart sank when I saw those words on the front cover! To be explained … It was an unexpected and thoughtful gift from Dylan, Manny’s friend, who had driven from Edinburgh, spontaneously, to visit us for the night – and, might I say, there can be no easier nor more welcome guest. Arriving with a well-remembered bottle of an old favourite wine, he brought snacks, a sleeping bag and joy! Like a fourth member of our family, he is the perfect fit and, remembering it all – yes, it all – he is our ready-made therapist, equipped to deal with us all!
Ah, Dylan … He who is responsible for my recent plethora of hyperlinks. He volunteered, the following morning, to add to my sadly wanting repertoire of computer skills with patience in abundance as I, of course, made notes. Discussing options for my burgeoning career, he stopped short of agreeing to act as my agent – something he may come to regret? One can but dream.
Suffice to say, it was a visit beneficial to all and, knowing me as he does, Dylan popped into Topping & Company content in the knowledge that Wilding was the book for me. I was touched by his thoughtfulness and generosity but, as I mentioned earlier, it had those four dreaded words on the front cover: The Sunday Times Best Seller! I have been given one of those before and in a similar gesture of great kindness for which I was very grateful. However, book choices are deceptively personal and, regardless, the recipient is under a certain amount of unspoken pressure to read – and enjoy! Report back? Well, one would if one loved it …
I have never been one for hype. In fact, surprise, surprise, I have always been one to question a majority vote. Back in the day, 1982 to be precise (I really did mean ‘back in the day’), I refused to go and see the blockbuster film, E.T., at the cinema for weeks! There were queues around the block and everyone was raving about it but that only made me more stubborn in my resolve. It was hype. A film about an Extra-Terrestrial? How ridiculous. It was a children’s film … Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Before it left the cinema, I was persuaded to go – and was won over completely. My pockets filled with tear-ridden tissues were testament to its sensitivity and a message which paid no heed to age. It remains a classic thirty-eight years on and deservedly so. (I had the same reaction to Toy Story in 1995, by the way, and it, too, is in the box labelled with love!)
The Sunday Times Bestseller. Two immediately come to mind, both critically acclaimed; both, for me, proving a reason to delay bedtime! It may be that, tired, I found the chapters too long or too descriptive, for there was no doubting my interest in the subject matter but I struggled – and struggled on. Seems I was the only one … An author’s voice is very personal, however, and the connection is all-important. Take my favourite, Alexandra Fuller, whose praises I have sung many times before. She of the memoirs of an African childhood, growing up in war-torn Rhodesia with an eccentric, alcoholic mother and a free-spirited father; a childhood requiring of machine guns rather than toys. I cannot put her down! She talks to me, her writing, effortless, its poignancy and humour, at once, innate. I have savoured every one of her books but, to my detriment, I am now ahead of her … no greater accolade!
So, Wilding. In summary, Dylan was spot on with the genre. It is Isabella Tree’s story of how she and her husband, Charlie Burrell, took a leap of faith in 2000 when forced to accept that the intensive farming of their land at Knepp, West Sussex had driven them close to bankruptcy. They handed their 3,500 acres back to nature, quite literally, and, in doing so, discovered both its power and the urgent need for man to acknowledge its value.
It is very much deserving of the accolade on the cover, its content worthy of a degree in ecology. Informative in style, it was a slow read as I strived to assimilate the facts but they were nothing short of fascinating! Never one of a scientific bent, as I ploughed on, I gleaned knowledge which put the importance of interdependence in nature into context. It is truly a must read!
The final three chapters – Pasture-fed, Rewilding the Soil and The Value of Nature – made total sense of all that went before. The heavy-weights, as it were, dispelling all doubt as to the over-riding benefits of minimal human intervention when it comes to nature and the land. I feel ill-equipped to summarise findings which have the potential to save this planet and, thus, mankind, were he not a slave to money and greed. Suffice to say, though, in my effort to do so, I resorted to a green highlighter pen, breaking a forever-rule in our house – never deface a book with pen or pencil! For that, I apologise – as I have already had to do to Becca who caught me red-handed!
Pasture-fed. A few revelations: pasture-fed meat (as opposed to ‘grass-fed’ where the animals may have had access to grazing but may, also, be fed or finished on cereals) is a source of omega-3, presented in a balanced ratio with omega-6 fatty acids; the levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in pasture-fed animals – ‘a fatty acid with proven benefits for the immune and inflammatory system, as well as bone mass’ – is considerably higher than those fed on grain; ‘modern intensive methods of rearing cattle on grain hamper the development of healthy fats, vitamins and other important compounds in the animal.’ So many highlights! Of vital significance: ‘It is now clear that eating grain-fed animal fat can be positively detrimental to human health, with increasing evidence of links to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, autoimmune diseases and cancers, as well as depression, ADHD and Alzheimer’s.’ Help! There is so much to take in but, in short, the shift towards the intensification of farming, following WWII, has resulted in the demise of the small meat and dairy producers whose cattle and sheep were reared on herb-rich pasture and hay, if necessary, in winter. Replaced by large-scale arable farms, ‘much of our land is now cultivated, irrigated and chemically fertilized to produce cereals, half of which are now fed to livestock.’ Ironic in the extreme! Get rid of the pasture to grow grain to feed the animals which, by nature, should be pasture-fed? Whatever happened to the wisdom of the past?
I have never been able to summarise. Given a précis for English homework was my idea of hell! I have written too much – who knows, I may have lost my reader – but I am so desperate to impart my newfound wisdom … Just quickly, then, Rewilding the Soil:
‘The great concerns of our time – climate change, natural resources, food production, water control and conservation, and human health – all boil down to the condition of the soil.’
The above, Isabella Tree’s conclusion in a chapter whose protagonist is the humble earthworm, acclaimed by Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, as ‘the intestines of the earth’. Not only is its role in the plant-nutrient cycle unsurpassed but, together with its army of bacteria, it can also be credited with cleansing the soil of toxic pollutants. The proverbial pocket dynamo!
‘It is perhaps unsurprising that the Latin word for soil – ‘humus’ – gives us ‘human’ and ‘humility’. The soil is, quite literally, what grounds us.’
Reaching the final chapter, ‘The Value of Nature’, I needed no further convincing of the merits of this amazing book, Wilding. Below the title was my quote, in the words of John Donne, ‘No man is an Iland …’ (given, the original old English spelling). There, in print, were the figures which go some way to explaining our obvious mistakes: since the 1950s, 80% of the UK population have lived in an urban environment but, only a generation ago, 40% of children still, regularly, played outdoors, enjoying nature and all its benefits. Today, that figure has dropped to 10% with 40% of children never playing outside at all!
‘This ‘extinction of experience’ in childhood has a direct bearing on attitudes to the environment in later life.’
One in six of the UK population suffers from depression, anxiety, stress, phobias, suicidal impulses, obsessive compulsive disorders or panic attacks. The panacea is all around. Nature is proven to alleviate the symptoms of each and every one of these disorders … free of charge and, more importantly, not a chemical in sight! Hallelujah!
Within the pages of this book, Wilding, is the key to it all: a respect for nature and the urgency to pay heed to its wisdom. There must be a redress. We must look to the past and understand. Lessons learned in the rewilding of Knepp cannot be in vain …
‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’
This is Trish, signing off. Suitably enlightened and grateful to Dylan for ensuring it be so.
(All quotes are credited to Isabella Tree, Wilding, unless stated otherwise.)