The unsettled places of rewilding

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On the face of it, the conservation strategy of rewilding is inimical to human places and the histories and identities that constitute them. 'We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again', laments George Monbiot (2013a), a staunch advocate of rewilding and an outspoken critic of the human projects of agriculture, husbandry, and even conservation to blame for Great Britain's impoverished ecology. But even without pointing fingers, the idea of rewilding (especially laden with the conceptual baggage attendant to questions of wilderness and wildness) is centrally non-human: it is about self-willed landscapes, the return of extirpated species, and the remaking of landscapes in their pre-agricultural forms. Thus, rewilding seems antithetical to themyriadways humans appropriate the world: our landscapes, timescales, practices, and ways of inhabitation all are thereby challenged. Rewilding unsettles traditional landscapes in that it can exist only in the absence of human settlements, but further, the concept of place-as humanized and humanizing-seems called into question. Others have, in effect, argued against this stance on a practical level by pointing to rewilding projects that do not exclude but foster and even enhance a sense and understanding of place (Drenthen, 2009; Feldman, 2011). I supplement these examples with a conceptual argument against the stance I have just articulated. I argue that rather than undermining or unsettling the concept of place, rewilding itself is place-making. Though premised precisely on human absence from the landscapes and environmentswe have previously inhabited, rewilding is not antithetical to human meanings of these landscapes. This is because conceptually, rewilding relies on the specific ways humans are and are not involved in a landscape, ways which have specific meaningful content which has been pre-defined by historical ideas about wilderness and appropriate human relations to it. Rewilding necessarily preserves specific ways of relating (or not) to landscape, for instance, uses like recreation, or as source of inspiration or natural beauty are promoted, agriculture and resource extraction are not. For this reason, I argue that rewilding allows for, and in fact depends on, the kind of meaningful appropriation that makes a place. Thus, despite its emphasis on non-human wildness at the exclusion of humans and our practices, rewilded places will indeed be places, humanized, even if un-peopled.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInterdisciplinary Unsettlings of Place and Space
Subtitle of host publicationConversations, Investigations and Research
EditorsSarah Pinto, Shally Hannigan, Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, Emma Charlton
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9789811367298
ISBN (Print)9789811367281
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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