Stories - Issue #1
‘If we want to help nature to restore itself, we need to start looking at our borders through the eyes of our ecosystems.’
Let me tell you a story. A story without a beginning or an end. A story without borders.
In the north – that cold, distant place, which is perhaps not so very distant but still very cold when you get there – there is a tree. And when I say a tree, I don’t mean a specific oak or pine or beech with one set of genes and one identity. I mean what I say – a tree. That is, an assemblage. Let me explain, if an explanation is needed. A tree is any number of things.
This particular tree is not particular, in fact, but it is a pine (or maybe a fir), because we are talking about the north, where the snow lays thick on tapered, sloping branches. Have you ever noticed that a pine has a completely different silhouette from a deciduous tree – like a furled umbrella rather than an open one? In the winter, under the deep drifts, they make eerie shapes in the starlit darkness, and I imagine that they creak and squeak, like when you walk on a two-day-old snowfall that has slightly thawed and refrozen overnight.
It is a pine, like I say, and all its fellows are either pines or firs. They are all trees, meaning they are hosts to a whole variety of other species, even in this very cold place: rodents, insects, lichens, smaller plants. Then there is the fungal network that joins itself to the roots of every tree, creating a conjoined, symbiotic superorganism. Together, the trees can share information, feed each other, send warnings, fight off disease. We might call this superorganism a forest. I am not sure what it calls itself.
The forest stretches out around the north pole, in a ring unbroken expect by the oceans. It follows the glimmering trail of the aurora borealis, or possibly it is the other way around. At this point in the story, I might share some facts. The boreal forest spreads across Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan. The boreal forest represents 29% of the world’s forest cover. The trees know nothing of this.
Some more facts. Only 12% of the boreal forest has been given protected status. Canada has 91% of the forest cover that existed at the beginning of European settlement. Just 5% of the pre-settlement boreal forest cover in Scandanavia remains. The trees know something about this. They feel it when their neighbours are cut down. Are the trees in Scandinavia still grieving for their lost companions? Trees have long memories. Longer than humans.
Why am I telling you this story? To remind you that our national borders are a relatively recent phenomenon. To remind you that animals and plants don’t understand where one country ends and another begins. This is obvious, but it is also worth taking a moment to remember it.
The nation state as a mode of identity arguably only really emerged in the 19th century–along with many other phenomena that still determine our relationship with nature. In Britain, as in many other places in Europe, a period of intense urbanisation and mass education coincided with the introduction of technologies that quietly drew us away from essential everyday interactions with animals and plants: the replacement of horse drawn vehicles with trains, buses and cars; the industrialisation and consolidation of agriculture; the increased reliance on fossil fuels rather than wood or wax for warmth and light.
The 19th century also saw the advent of mass urban sanitation, sewer systems, and medical disinfectant, separating humans from their waste and eliminating microbes on the human body. It was the era of pets (as non-utilitarian animals) gaining legal recognition as human property. The era of the enclosure of common land, the creation of public parks and the notion of nature-as-recreation: botanical gardens, tropical hot-houses, zoos. The era of Darwin: a sea-change.
Another thing worth remembering: as little as 150 years ago (a blink of an eye in the life of a forest), the natural world seemed so rich and replete with life that it seemed impossible we could ever make a dent in its fullness.
As we established a sense of common identity based on nationhood rather than locality, we began to divide nature according to the boundary lines we had drawn for ourselves. This was usually accidental. As we established standarised national legal systems, there were different laws for plants and animals on either side of state lines. Trees and mammals and insects and fungi found they could stray into a place where they were unwelcome, even when they stayed within the habitats they had always known; a mountain range or a great plain or a forest. Sometimes we put up walls and fences, or diverted rivers into a single enormous watercourse, intending to separate humans from humans, but cutting off beings who were not humans in the process.
Since then, the advent of globalisation, cheap air travel and the internet have made the furthest reaches of the world feel accessible. Inhabitants of the northern hemisphere can eat strawberries in midwinter, taste tropical fruits shipped across the seas or the skies from Senegal, Chile, Peru, or Indonesia. Challenges of space and time have been overcome, and it is very convenient. It’s quite easy, really, to forget about the international cross-border mechanism of money and oil and food and fire behind your morning cup of coffee. It doesn’t take much effort to forget, it only requires your whole being.
You might think, as you sip your coffee and pour your orange juice and cut open your avocado, that the boundaries set up and fought over by our predecessors have started to melt away. Then an image on the news of a capsized boat or a shouting politician reminds you they are still there. Sometimes it feels like we are reinforcing those boundaries with more passion than ever.
Let me give you another example. Let me tell you another story.
One September, a bison was roaming through a woodland. At this time, bison were an unusual sight, and he was sometimes disturbed by the glint of a camera lens as humans rustled and gathered in the undergrowth to watch him. “Isn’t he magnificent?” They asked each other. Their whispering was like the sound of a buzzing fly to the bison. He had a thick hide.
On this particular day, there were no humans watching. Perhaps it was a national holiday, or it was raining, or there was a popular football game on television. The bison moved contentedly through the trees, grazing and following his nose, which was in front of him.He was alone.He usually travelled with a group of other males, but there were so few of them here that he had lost them some days ago among the trees. There had been some difficult social tussling among the group recently and he wasn’t sure it was to his benefit, so he didn’t mind. He was big and strong and, as I already mentioned, he had a thick hide.
He came to a wide river – the largest in the whole delta. He waded across, feeling the swift push of the water against his strong muscles and his steady stride. He found an area of clean, fresh grass, made plump by the many streams that ran nearby. He grazed there for the rest of the day, and wandered on the following morning.
I might share something with you here: the Oder River, which the bison had just crossed, is designated as the border between Poland and Germany. You can’t see it in the water or the rocks, but you can see it on a map, a red line running down the middle of the blue.
After a while, the bison found himself in a strange place. There were tarmac roads and signs and wires and traffic lights. And there were people with camera lenses that glinted in the sunshine, but they didn’t say: “Isn’t he magnificent?” They were scared, and one of them stopped taking pictures with their phone and called the police instead.
Two hunters were dispatched, and they snatched up their rifles with glee because they had the opportunity to kill something new – after all, this was the first wild bison to stand on German soil in 250 years. Or perhaps they didn’t feel happy. Perhaps they felt sad for the bison. Perhaps they felt nothing at all.
The newspapers made a fuss afterwards. People from Poland were angry that their gentle bison had been shot. People from Germany were angry that they had been living so close to a herd of dangerous animals without their knowledge. People who lived in New York and London and Berlin and Tokyo were angry about the locals’ responses to the bison, and they wrote about it on their computers and on their phones. The World Wildlife Fund filed a lawsuit against the official who called the hunters. Somehow, everybody lost sight of the bison.
This is what you might call a true story, even though some of it is imagined.
The bison was part of a herd that was released into the Oder Delta as part of a large-scale rewilding project coordinated by Rewilding Europe. The area contains an important ecological mix, featuring forest, bog, beach, grassland, heath, reed bed and open sea, and providing interconnected habitats for a huge variety of species. Rewilding Europe is one of a handful of organisations that re mindful of nature’s disregard for human political borders. Working across the edges of Poland and Germany, teams have worked to reintroduce and boost native species in the area, including wolves, white-tailed eagles (of which there is the highest-density population in the European Union), elk, beavers and bison. Their aim is to help the river delta restore its former richness and biodiversity through self-regulation and balance.
And yet they – and the wildlife they aim to support – often find themselves subject to the irregularities and discriminatory practices of national and international legal systems. The bison of my story was shot after he crossed state lines because he strayed too close to a town. If he had died within the social system of his herd on the rewilded grasslands, his body might have been left to decay, consumed by scavengers, insects, bacteria and even fungi (did you know that oyster mushrooms are carnivorous?) The remaining nutrients from his corpse would have fertilised the soil, been drawn up through the roots of trees.
Did you think my story was finished? Let me tell you more. Let us not lose sight of the bison.
The bison’s body was taken by the people who shot him and it was examined. I don’t know what they were looking for, or where they had a mortuary slab big enough for him, but I imagine it was undignified. Afterwards they prepared his body for display in a German museum. They bought a bison-model made of plastic and metal and decided how to pose him – would he be charging, or grazing, or gazing wistfully into the past? He and his kind were extinct in Germany, after all.They peeled back the skin, slicing it carefully from the fat and muscles, and treated it so that it wouldn’t smell. They hung it to cure while they manufactured plastic eyes and a nose, and decided whether or not to show the teeth. It is hanging there still. No one is angry about this.
I am going to return to the Oder Delta, as our bison might have done if he had made a luckier choice. I might share some more facts: the rewilded region stretches over more than 250,000 hectares. It straddles the borders of Poland and Germany, as we have seen. Germany is richer than Poland. The area is becoming a prominent nature tourism destination. The law is different in every country. In Britain, for instance, when a wild animal dies on your land, you own it under the law. In Britain, when a wild animal is born on your land, you own it until it is strong enough to fly or run away.
None of these things matter to the bison, and all of these things matter to the bison. Just as none of these things matter to you or to me, and all of these things matter to you and to me. To put it more succinctly, all of these things matter to us. I am including the bison in that “us”. I am also including the white-tailed eagles and the trout and the beavers of the Oder Delta. And the fungi-sustained-and-sustaining trees of the boreal forest. And the coffee plants that supply your coffee pot, and the people who grow them, and even the people who mine the oil to power the ships to bring you your morning drink. It all matters, because you and me and we and they are really an “us”.
In other words, if we want to help nature to restore itself, we need to start looking at our borders through the eyes of our ecosystems. In other words, we need to incorporate the trees and the bison into our idea of “us”. In other words, we need to rewild ourselves.
For more information about the Rewilding Europe project check: www.rewildingeurope.com
The Wild Inside Us