A few miles from where I live, the Findhorn River passes through a steep, rocky gorge at a place called Sluie. For a distance of 500 metres or so, the dark, peat-stained water flows between 50 metre-high cliffs in a course it has carved out of the surrounding landscape over eons of time. Over the years I’ve made many visits to Sluie, especially to a place where it’s possible to scramble down the steep slope to the water itself. There, on a bend in the river, is the closest to an experience of wilderness I know of in Scotland. Looking around, all that’s visible is the tumult of the water as it flows between the jumbled mass of boulders; the seemingly-random pattern of trees, growing wherever they’ve been able to find some soil; and beyond them the towering cliffs and the sky above. The spirit, beauty and power of wild nature is palpably present for me there. Amidst the landscape of Scotland which has been so altered by people, that one place at least still seems to be as it has been for millennia.
It was Henry David Thoreau who wrote: “ … in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” He recognised that wilderness is essential for the continued existence and evolution of the biosphere, and as a home for the millions of species of plants, animals, insects and micro-organisms which share this planet with us. However, there is another important function which wilderness serves — as a place where humans can connect with the primordial power of nature, the raw pulse of the life-force of the universe.
I go to Sluie for my own personal, local experience of this — to refresh and nourish myself, and to re-experience my connection with all life. In recent years I’ve also spent several weeks annually in the tropical rainforests, and there, too, it’s the experience of wildness which is meaningful for me. I’ve walked in awe amongst the bromeliad-covered buttresses of giant trees, I’ve waded chest deep in water through the tangled, stilt roots of mangrove forests and I’ve discovered the beauty of a rainforest canopy garden growing on the 40 metre-high branches of an emergent tree. The profuse and diverse beauty of exuberant life in wild forests such as these makes my heart sing, and provides the inspiration for much of my work. It is there that I feel myself most fully alive.
I consider myself privileged to visit those wild places, because in our world today few people are able to do so. This is especially true in a country like Scotland, where the landscape has been shaped by humans for centuries, and all the wildness, except for tiny places such as Sluie, has long since been tamed and domesticated. The majority of people, in Scotland and throughout the western world, now live in cities, and although urban parks offer a welcome sanctuary of green amongst the concrete and tarmac, they are no substitute for a wild forest.
However, it is from amidst the sterility and uniformity of our human-created urban environment that people are rediscovering the need for a wilderness experience as a source of richness and nourishment in their lives. In recent years there has been a veritable proliferation of companies offering trips to wild places such as East Africa and the Amazon Basin, as a casual glance through the advertisement pages of any conservation magazine will show. Increasing numbers of visitors are being drawn to those wild places, where Nature has free expression, outside of human control. However, this is happening simultaneously with the rapid loss of wilderness on every continent. The expansionist drive in human culture is leading us to claim more and more of the Earth’s surface for our own ends, with little thought for the other species and ecosystems whose places we are usurping in the process.
What hope is there, then, for the future of wilderness on our planet? With acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer now worldwide phenomena, and where even the most isolated island beaches have plastic rubbish washed up on them, it is debatable whether there are any truly untouched wild places left on Earth. However, if we step back from an absolute, purist position, and adopt a definition of wilderness such as that in the US Wilderness Act, which characterises land as wilderness if it “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”, then there is still much we can save. Indeed, most current conservation campaigns are focussed on protecting the best of the wild areas which remain in the world, and the next decade or so represents the last chance to save them. Those of us alive today will decide their fate.
Beyond that, however, we need to take steps to actively restore wilderness to areas which have already been degraded and impoverished. This is what I and my colleagues are seeking to do with the Trees for Life project to regenerate the Caledonian Forest in the Highlands of Scotland. Utilising the techniques of ecological restoration, we aim to return an area of over 1,500 sq. km. to a wild forest condition, where the forces of nature have free rein once more. Our primary motivation in doing this is to provide a habitat for the whole range of species which formerly lived in Scotland, and which make up the living, biological community of the forest.
Thus, we are concerned not only with the Scots pines which are characteristic of the Caledonian Forest, but also with the fungi which live in mutualistic symbiosis with the trees, with the wood ants which protect the trees from defoliating caterpillars, and with the top predators such as the wolf and brown bear, which are essential to maintain the overall balance of the complex food web that comprises the forest ecosystem. Only with the full spectrum of species present will the forest be able to function properly in a wild sense, and will the course of natural evolution continue unhampered.
Our commitment to restoring a wild forest, from which nothing will be harvested, comes as a surprise to some people as it runs directly counter to the materialistic, ‘maximum resource exploitation’ perspective of our industrial culture. However, the forest is more than just a collection of trees which can be ‘sustainably managed’ to ‘look natural’. We need the wolf and bear, and the other intrinsic components of the ecosystem, if we want a Caledonian Forest, rather than just a few Caledonian pine groves. If we can’t bring the wolf back to the remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, what hope is there for the wolf in the rest of its former range throughout the Europe, or, for that matter, for the tiger in India?
In fact, if we can put all the pieces back in place, by getting the forest trees regenerating and expanding again, and by reintroducing the extirpated species such as the wolf and bear, the Caledonian Forest ecosystem will take care of itself perfectly well, as it did for millennia in the past. The only need for management then, to ensure the future of the wild forest, will be in managing humans, to ensure that our lives and technology do not impinge adversely on the forest.
Additionally, if we want the wild forest to survive and be restored, we have to be willing as individuals and as a species to step back from all that we can do with our power and technology – to say no to new roads through places such as Oxleas Wood in London; to say no to patterns of agriculture which result in ever greater areas of land being cultivated; to say no on an individual, personal basis to a lifestyle which demands that we enslave more and more of the planet for our own materialistic ends. By taming our greed, and our need to dominate all other life, we can ensure that the wildness of nature still has a place on this planet; we can ensure that there will be many places like Sluie for our great-grandchildren and all their contemporaries to enjoy and draw inspiration from.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1995 edition of the Trees for Life Calendar)
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