Long Reads Pick of the Week: Recall of the Wild

Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

This week’s story explores the fascinating rewilding experiment by separate groups of people and their quest to engineer a world before humans. The Dutch government used land reclaimed from the sea to create a fifteen-thousand-acre park that mimics a Paleolithic ecosystem. You can read the full story here.

recall of the wild

Known as the Oostvaardersplassen, a name that is pretty much unpronounceable for English-speakers, the reserve occupies fifteen thousand almost perfectly flat acres on the shore of the inlet-turned-lake. This area was originally designated for industry; however, while it was still in the process of drying out, a handful of biologists convinced the Dutch government that they had a better idea. The newest land in Europe could be used to create a Paleolithic landscape. The biologists set about stocking the Oostvaardersplassen with the sorts of animals that would have inhabited the region in prehistoric times—had it not at that point been underwater. In many cases, the animals had been exterminated, so they had to settle for the next best thing. For example, in place of the aurochs, a large and now extinct bovine, they brought in Heck cattle, a variety specially bred by Nazi scientists. (More on the Nazis later.) The cattle grazed and multiplied. So did the red deer, which were trucked in from Scotland, and the horses, which were imported from Poland, and the foxes and the geese and the egrets. In fact, the large mammals reproduced so prolifically that they formed what could, with a certain amount of squinting, be said to resemble the great migratory herds of Africa; the German magazine Der Spiegel has called the Oostvaardersplassen “the Serengeti behind the dikes.”

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Such is the success of the Dutch experiment—whatever, exactly, it is—that it has inspired a new movement. Dubbed Rewilding Europe, the movement takes the old notion of wilderness and turns it inside out. Perhaps it’s true that genuine wildernesses can only be destroyed, but new “wilderness,” what the Dutch call “new nature,” can be created. Every year, tens of thousands of acres of economically marginal farmland in Europe are taken out of production. Why not use this land to produce “new nature” to replace what’s been lost? The same basic idea could, of course, be applied outside of Europe—it’s been proposed, for example, that depopulated expanses of the American Midwest are also candidates for rewilding.

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Helmer stressed to me that Rewilding Europe was not particularly concerned about whether the new landscape that would be created would resemble the ancient one that had been altered or destroyed. “We’re not looking backward but forward,” he said at one point.

“We try to avoid too much discussion of wilderness,” he observed at another. “For us, that is not the most important thing—at the end will this be a wilderness or not? It will be wilder than it was, and that’s what matters.”

Recall of the Wild by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

Rilla Alexander: Without the doing, dreaming is useless

Sticking with ideas from beginning to end is always difficult; more so in any sort of creative field where it almost always requires self-motivation. When it comes to writing, I have terrible discipline. I’m easily distracted by anything that doesn’t require sitting down and actually working on the ideas my brain throws out. But the thing is, the ideas don’t leave me alone. So it isn’t an entirely comfortable existence, this grapple between imaginary goals and spectacular laziness.

Which is why I was thrilled to see I wasn’t alone in this! In this excellent video, designer and illustrator Rilla Alexander addresses the pervading issue of the creative struggle. She provides examples from her own life and at the end of the video, she reads from her picture book. Her character Sozi daydreams, procrastinates, sets deadlines, gets tempted by new ideas, buckles down and works hard – and finally – she realizes Her Idea.

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

I found myself agreeing to everything she said. Inspired by her similar list of problems, I’m going to try and stick to a steady diet of work, starting with a minimum commitment of an hour a day. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? (“Ha!” snorts the derisive voice from my future)

Among other things she discusses the life-cycle of an idea right from the initial “I love it! I’m so excited to create!” stage to the middle stage of procrastination and the happy/unhappy ending (depending on whether you choose to finish the work or not).

She also has great advice for struggling artists:

  • Deadlines give you realistic expectations. Instead of being preoccupied by how wonderful your idea is, concentrate on getting it done and actually make it happen
  • Break down the idea into small tasks rather than focusing on the whole goal
  • Avoid getting distracted by new ideas by writing them all down in an idea book so you can focus on the task at hand
  • There’s always going to be another idea that looks better but that’s only because you’re not working on it. If you were, you would also discover its flaws and failures
  • Don’t abandon this idea, don’t cripple it with self doubt – just keep working

Rhyme and Reason: Gulp by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

Mary Roach approaches the subject of food and what happens to it once it’s eaten with a mix of unbridled delight, ceaseless curiousity, infectious enthusiasm and a whole lot of hilarity. Which makes reading her book an incredibly enchanting experience. I’ve become a huge fan of her zealous writing and her ability to make science so much fun. I can’t wait to read everything else she’s written, which include books about dead bodies, sex, space and the afterlife.

Gulp deals with a myriad of topics you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about digestion including, as this particular excerpt shows, the existence of dragons in mythology. As the author says in the introduction, “I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.

gulp

Snakes don’t belch, but they can, under certain circumstances, create an inflammable eructation of literally mythical proportions. First, a little background: Many plant-eating animals lack rumens, so some fermenting takes place in the cecum, an anatomical pouch at the junction of the small intestine and the colon. These same plant-eaters – horses, rabbits, koalas, to name three – tend to have a larger-than-life cecum. Pythons and boas do too, which struck Stephen Secor as odd, because they’re carnivores. Why, he wondered, would a meat-eater need a vegetation disgestion unit? Secor theorised that perhaps these snakes had evolved ceca as a way to digest and take advantage of plant matter inside the stomachs of their prey.

To test his theory, Secor fed rats to some of the pythons in his lab at the University of Alabama and hooked them up to a gas chromatograph. He tracked the hydrogen level in their exhalations as they digested whole rats over the course of four days. He did see a spike, but it appeared long before the rat arrived at the python’s cecum. Instead, Secor suspected, the hydrogen spikes were the result of the decomposing, gas-bloated rat bursting inside the python. ‘One thing led to another.’ (Secor’s way of saying he popped a bloated rat corpse and measured the hydrogen that came off it.) Suspicion confirmed. The hydrogen level was ‘through the roof’. Secor had stumbled onto a biological explanation for the myth of the fire-breathing dragon. Stay with me. This is very cool.

Roll the calendar back a few millennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted. Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight or flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neanderthal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat. And those decomp gases are key to our story. Which I now turn over to Secor.

‘So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it, and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.’ Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent. And hydrogen, as Stephen Secor showed, comes out of a decomposing animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flame-throwery whooosh sound. ‘There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend. He did some digging. The oldest stories of fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach