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