Ghost Psyche

We are haunted by psychological equipment which was invaluable in the hunter-gatherer past, but is now vestigial.

By George Monbiot, published in Prospect magazine, June 2013.

The foraging had not gone well. We had hoped to find nettles, hawthorn buds, perhaps some spring mushrooms. But it was a cold March and scarcely anything had yet stirred. I pushed through a screen of branches and saw, beside a small stream, a dead muntjac: one of the Chinese barking deer that have proliferated in Britain since they were released by the Duke of Bedford in the early 20th Century. Its eyes were bright; the body was warm. There was no wound or trace of blood.

I hesitated for a moment, surveying the sleek tube of its body, the small coralline antlers, the fangs protruding from its upper lip, the tiny hooves. Then I gathered up the ankles and heaved it onto my shoulders. The deer wrapped around my neck and back as if it had been tailored for me; the weight seemed to settle perfectly across my joints. As soon as I felt its warmth on my back, I was overwhelmed by a sensation – raw, feral, pungent – that I had never experienced before. My skin flushed, my lungs filled with air. I wanted to roar and thump my chest.

I experienced a similar rush of feeling some fifteen years later, while hunting flounders in an estuary in Wales, a couple of summers ago. I was wading with a trident through shallow water as the tide ebbed, hoping to catch the flatfish on their way back to the sea. As I stalked up a channel, my spear poised above the water, trying to detect the minute signs of fish buried in the sand, my concentration intensified until I felt as flexed and focused as a heron.

It is hard to explain what happened next, but I was suddenly transported by the thought – the knowledge – that I had done this before. I do not believe in reincarnation, or in the persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Yet I felt that I was walking through something I had done a thousand times, that I knew this work as surely as I knew my way home.

These experiences were both exhilarating and dismaying. The sensations were so powerful and so unfamiliar that I could neither dismiss nor assimilate them. The two events left me with a deep sense of dissatisfaction: I felt I had caught a glimpse of something rich and grand and thrilling, from which I had been excluded.

I believe that in both cases I stumbled upon an unexercised faculty: psychological equipment which was once invaluable, but which is now vestigial. Through the greater part of human existence, while we were still subject to powerful selective forces, we were shaped by imperatives – the need to feed ourselves, to defend and shelter ourselves, to reciprocate and work together, to breed and to care for our children – which ensured that certain suites of behaviour became instinctive. Like the innate response which makes a pensioner vault over a five-foot wall just before a truck ploughs into him, they evolved to guide us, alongside the slower processes of the conscious mind.

We evolved in challenging circumstances. In Africa we contended not only with the current megafauna, but also with sabretooth and false sabretooth cats, one species of which may have specialised in hunting hominids (an idea Bruce Chatwin explored in The Songlines). When modern humans first arrived in Europe, they entered an ecosystem dominated by lions, hyaenas and cave bears, by forest elephants and rhinos and the monstrous scimitar cats which preyed on these animals. Russia and eastern Europe were haunted by two great beasts, Elasmotherium sibiricum and Elasmotherium caucasicum: humpbacked rhinos the size of elephants, eight feet to the crest, weighing perhaps five tonnes.

In most parts of the world, we have been relieved of our nightmares. Ours are ghost ecosystems, whose species are adapted to challenges which no longer exist. The pronghorn antelope of North America, for example, can run at 60 miles per hour because it was once hunted by the American cheetah, which is now extinct. Most deciduous trees in Europe can resprout from any point at which the trunk is broken, and can withstand the kind of extreme punishment they suffer when a hedge is laid. Why? Because they evolved among elephants. Similarly, we possess a ghost psyche: a suite of behavioural and emotional adaptations to a dangerous world; which once helped us to hunt and to avoid being hunted.

Even when we are only dimly aware of these adaptations, our ghost psyche still haunts us. The heroic tales we have preserved – stories of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lạc Long Quân or Glooskap – are those which resonate with our evolutionary history. In computer games, fantasy novels and science fiction films, the ancient sagas of battles with lost monsters maintain their essential form. The absence of our ancestral challenges forces us to sublimate and transliterate, to invent quests and dangers, to seek an escape from what I have come to see as ecological boredom. Sometimes this sublimation seems insufficient.

I felt this strongly while working in East Africa. Over the course of six months I followed the fortunes of a Maasai community in southern Kenya, which was being torn apart by land theft and enclosure. I made friends with a young man called Toronkei and soon found myself entranced by his extraordinary daring, which – among that last generation of graduating warriors – was considered commonplace. They raided cattle from the Kikuyu, sometimes escaping under a hail of bullets. They wrestled bulls to the ground. They hunted lions with spears. One day when I visited him there was an unfamiliar woman in his house. “This,” he told me, “is my wife.”(1)

Three days before, he had run thirty miles to visit a friend. As he approached the friend’s village, he met the girl walking up the track, and immediately changed his plans. By nightfall he had persuaded her to elope with him. They waited until everyone in her village was asleep, then slipped out of the compound and ran. Now the two furious fathers were negotiating a bride price.

When he told me this, I felt, not for the first time in our friendship, a spasm of jealousy. As I sat in his hut greeting the procession of young men who came in to pay their respects to him, I was struck by a thought so clear and resonant that it was as if a bell had been rung beside my ear. Had I, as an embryo, been given a choice between my life and his – knowing that, whichever I accepted, I would adapt to it and make myself comfortable within it – I would have taken his. Beside his daring, his opportunism, his spontaneity, mine looked like a small and shuffling existence.

The first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans were characterised by dispossession, oppression and massacre, but in some places there were periods of friendly engagement. Native Americans were sometimes given the opportunity to join European households as equals; and in many cases Europeans were able to join Native American communities on the same basis. It could be seen as a social experiment, whose purpose was to determine which life people would prefer to lead. There was no mistaking the outcome.

In 1753 Benjamin Franklin made the following complaint. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return … [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”(2)

In 1785, Hector de Crèvecoeur remarked on what happened when the parents of European children came to collect the children who had been kidnapped by Native Americans. “Those whose more advanced ages permitted them to recollect their fathers and mothers, absolutely refused to follow them, and ran to their adopted parents for protection against the effusions of love their unhappy real parents lavished on them! … the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us … thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of these Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”(3)

People of both communities were given a choice between the relatively secure, but confined, settled and regulated life of the Europeans, and the mobile, free and uncertain life of the Native Americans. In every case, Crèvecoeur and Franklin tell us, the Europeans chose to stay with the Native Americans, and the Native Americans returned, at the first opportunity, to their own communities. This says more than is comfortable about our own lives.

Since the 18th Century our lives have become even tamer and more certain. The greatest physical challenge most of us face is opening a badly-designed packet of nuts. We have privileged safety over experience; gained much in doing so, and lost much. My two brief glimpses of the foreshadowed life, and the remarkable depth of feeling they invoked, suggest to me that the loss is greater than we know.

“The suburbs dream of violence,”JG Ballard asserted. “Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world”(4).

In Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem, Johnny Byron is the last of the Mohicans. Sensuous, feckless, promiscuous, wild and free, he is a charismatic but ignoble savage, living in a mobile home in the woods. “Grab your fill,” Byron tells us. “No man was ever lain in his barrow wishing he’d loved one less woman. Don’t listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bids. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death.”

He lives by this creed, the curse of officialdom, the bane of the tidy, sedentary people who hate and envy him, a drug-dealer, fighter, seducer, former daredevil, teller of tall tales, magnet for disaffected teenagers, scabby, piss-soaked, drunken prince of revelry, master of the last wild hunt. Johnny Byron answers a need – expressed by the young people who flock to him – but it is a need that society cannot accommodate. The tragedy at the heart of the play is that there is no longer any room for him. Much as we might yearn for the life he leads, much as the death of the raw spirit that moves him impoverishes us, he is too big for the constraints within which we have a moral duty to live. To exercise our neglected faculties, the play reminds us, is to invite social disaster. Aware of the needs and rights of others, and the prohibitive decencies we owe to them, we find ourselves hemmed in: wherever you might seek to swing your fist, someone’s nose is in the way.

There are powerful and growing movements of people who refuse to accept these constraints. They rebel against taxes, health and safety laws, the regulation of business, restrictions on smoking, speeding and guns, above all against environmental limits. They insist that they may swing their fists regardless of whose nose is in the way, almost as if it were a human right.

I have no desire to join these people. I accept the need for forbearance. But it seems ever harder to carry on living this way. I sometimes feel I am scratching at the walls of this life, looking for a way into a wider space beyond, and I’m sure I am not the only one. Is it possible to satisfy this atavistic longing for adventure, freedom and the hint of violence without abandoning the necessary courtesies of a crowded planet?

In one respect, perhaps. In both Europe and North America a mass abandonment of less fertile land is taking place. One estimate suggests that two-thirds of those parts of the United States whose forests were once cleared have become forested again, as farming and logging have retreated, especially from the eastern half of the country. Another proposes that by 2030, even without any change in the subsidy regime, farmers on the European Continent will have vacated around 30 million hectares of the land they were using in 2000(5): an area roughly the size of Poland. Young people don’t want to be tied to the land, and global markets make the farming of poor ground uncompetitive.

Accidentally, in a few places deliberately, a large-scale rewilding is taking place. Forests and wetlands are returning, big wild animals are now spreading back across both continents. The number of brown bears in Europe has more than doubled since 1970(6). In the past 20 years, wolves have moved into France and Germany, and their numbers are rising rapidly across the Continent. In 2011, for the first time in over a century, a wolf appeared in Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1927 there were 54 European bison left on earth, all of them in zoos. Now there are 3,000, living wild or semi-wild in at least seven nations.

Meeting a bison on a path in the Białowieża Forest in Poland, wandering, in several parts of Europe, in woods in which wolves and bears now roam, I have felt something that was not quite the same as those two explosions of unfamiliar emotion, but that was not far off. Though in reality they present scarcely any danger to people, the presence of wolves in particular feels like a shadow that fleets between systole and diastole.

I see a mass rewilding as something we should welcome and encourage, not just because it represents a reversal of the destruction of the natural world taking place almost everywhere else, but also because it has the potential to recharge our lives with adventure and surprise. I would like to see the reintroduction to the wild not only of wolves, lynx, wolverines, bison, boar and moose, but, if we choose, of human beings. In other words, rewilding might enable us, without abandoning our jobs, our comforts or the necessary restraints of civilisation, to invoke the unexorcised ghosts of the past, to release our vestigial emotions and enjoy their atavistic pleasures.

George Monbiot’s book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published by Allen Lane.


1. George Monbiot, 1994. No Man’s Land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania. Macmillan, London.

2. Benjamin Franklin, 9th May 1753. The Support of the Poor. Letter to Peter Collinson.

3. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, 1785. Letters from an American Farmer and Other Essays. Letter 12. Edited by Dennis D. Moore. Harvard University Press.

4. JG Ballard, 2006. Kingdom Come. Fourth Estate, London.

5. The Institute for European Environmental Policy, cited by Rewilding Europe, 2012. Making Europe a Wilder Place.

6. Rewilding Europe, 2012. Making Europe a Wilder Place.

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