Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding

By George Monbiot. Published October 2013 by Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

The suburbs dream of violence. 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’ J. G. BALLARDFeral

How many of us sometimes feel that we are scratching at the walls of this life, seeking to find our way into a wider space beyond? That our mild, polite existence seems to crush the breath out of us?

Feral is the lyrical and gripping story of George Monbiot’s efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living. He shows how, by restoring and rewilding our damaged ecosystems on land and at sea, we can bring wonder back into our lives.

Making use of some remarkable scientific discoveries, Feral lays out a new, positive environmentalism, in which nature is allowed to find its own way. From the seas of north Wales, where he kayaks among feeding frenzies of dolphins and seabirds, to the forests of Eastern Europe, where lynx stalk and packs of wolves roam, George Monbiot shows how rewilding could repair the living planet, creating ecosystems in post-industrial nations as profuse and captivating as any around the world. Already, large wild animals are beginning to spread back across Europe, and fin whales, humpback whales and bluefin tuna are returning to the seas around Britain.

Feral is a work of hope and of revelation; a wild and bewitching adventure that argues for a mass restoration of the natural world – and a powerful call for us to reclaim our own place in it.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core

WB Yeats
The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Published by Allen Lane, and now in paperback (as Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life) by Penguin.


Press Reviews

Lesley McDowell in the Independent on Sunday:

“Whether you agree with Monbiot’s position on the environment or not, you can hardly fail to be impressed – and moved – by the wonderfully specific way he writes of his own personal experiences of it. His is a world of orange nematocysts, jellyfish “like burst figs”, gannets, river mouths, creeks, mudflats, ochre and viridian lands. One of the things you really notice about the “new wave” of nature writing, evinced also by writers like Robert Macfarlane, is how the words sound. This is prose style as auditory experience; what majesty the eye notes in the landscape is echoed in the vocabulary.

Is there a “wildness” in this kind of writing, too? Monbiot’s personal experience is impressive – this is a man who likes action, who works with tribesmen, goes down rapids, chases over moors. He uses it to explain his views: he knows not everyone likes the idea of wolves released into the wild, and sets up his stall, explaining that they’re more afraid of us than we are of them, how they will re-inscribe the landscape. If we expect other countries to preserve dangerous animals in the wild, shouldn’t we at least be prepared to do the same?

All that rational argument is good and well, but it’s the “wildness” that really appeals to him, and this is where logic departs, or at least the Enlightenment part of it. Because this is an appeal to the savage in all of us: Monbiot wants wolves reintroduced because “wolves are fascinating … because they feel to me like the shadow that flits between systole and diastole, because they are the necessary monsters of the mind”. This is nature writing prepared to go off at a tangent when it needs to, prepared to explore the byways of our passions. Yes, there is a wildness here and it’s a welcome one.”

Philip Hoare in The Sunday Telegraph:

“The book justifies its subtitle with rhapsodic descriptions of forays into the natural world. Whether kayaking off the British coast or walking the Kenyan bush, Monbiot – who studied zoology at Oxford – focuses our minds on what we have lost, and what we stand to gain. … as a passionate polemic, it could not be more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely. We need such big thinking for our own sakes and those of our children. Bring on the wolves and whales, I say, and, in the words of Maurice Sendak, let the wild rumpus start.”

Sam Leith in the Spectator:

“He’s a proper reporting journalist, he can write, and he stands for something — which puts him, these days, well ahead of most of our tribe. Plus, this peculiar and involving book — three-quarters exhilarating environmental manifesto, one quarter midlife crisis — has an enormous amount to recommend it … extraordinarily good and crunchy material … There’s a lot here to digest and think about, much to be excited by”.

Jane Shilling in the New Statesman:

“Monbiot has the visionary polemicist’s gift of pursuing an argument by gentle stages to a dazzlingly aspirational conclusion. His accounts of the ecological horrors perpetrated by sheep and the perverse defence of their depredations by assorted conservation bodies are not just persuasive but powerfully affecting. He is brilliant, too, at presenting statistics in readable form, and on the adroitly irrefutable deployment of ancient historical evidence. … something about the charm and persistence of Monbiot’s argument has the hypnotic effect of a stoat beguiling a hapless rabbit. Soon you find yourself dazedly agreeing that it’s all a tremendous idea: yes to the elephants, the beavers and the lynx.”

Simon Barnes in The Times:

“His passion is for a wilder world, a world less circumscribed by fear and greed and the rapacity of minority interests. Such a world would benefit us all: make us all less like tourists on our own planet. And he’s right … The most important part of the book refreshes your view of the world and fills you with fury that people should have got away with such nonsense and for so long, against the wishes and the best interests of the wider population. The book is full of good things and good ideas … He can turn a paragraph as well as he can paddle a canoe, and he can savour a phrase as he savoured that beetle grub … as a shaker-up of accepted ideas – those of conservationists and those of people resistant to conservation – he has an important role to play and he plays it with élan.”

Michael Viney in the Irish Times:

“To read this seminal, subversive, sometimes intoxicating book could mean never to look at our landscape in quite the same way again. … This trenchant and radical environmental commentator, writing highly regarded columns in the Guardian, looks back on a young life of uncommon adventure … His accounts of fishing mackerel from a kayak in rough seas in Cardigan Bay or spearing flounders in a sandy river mouth are intensely involving, sensual and exciting. As powerfully as he could have wished, they express the “escalating pitch of attention” that takes him “stepping through the back of the wardrobe” … They are also nature writing with Britain’s contemporary best. Feral belongs on the shelf with Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie and other fine writers who have engaged in the human reunion with nature.”

Ian Critchley in the Sunday Times:

“In this remarkable book, the journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot explores projects where this “incendiary idea” has been put into practice. The results are extraordinary: in the space of a few decades, one area of Slovenia, for instance, has transformed from scrubland to dense forest, supporting species that had not been seen there for centuries. … Most impressive about Feral is its focus on finding constructive solutions to ecological problems. Monbiot understands that rewilding is not something that can be forced on areas or their populations, and he recognises there are political and cultural viewpoints that have to be respected. But he outlines practical steps that could rejuvenate the ecosystem. The rewards would be immense. “We live in a shadowland,” he writes, “a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.’”

Christine Griffiths in Science:

“Throughout the book, Monbiot’s lyrical and provocative tales of his efforts to reengage with the wild stimulate the senses and arouse an innate urge to affiliate with nature. … In Feral, Monbiot takes you on an emotional roller coaster, at times plunging you into troughs of despair as he discusses the bleak plight of much of our wildlife and, at others, raising you up on peaks of hope as he discusses how much of the degradation can be reversed. Though daunting, his goals of renewing the public’s engagement with nature and raising perceived ecological baselines may ultimately be more easily tackled than other challenges in the field of restoration ecology. … Part personal journal, part restoration ecology primer, Feral popularizes the concept of rewilding and will likely prompt wildlife managers, landowners, policymakers, and the general public to question their perception of the natural world and its role in our lives. In addition to stressing the inherent need to restore ecological interactions, Monbiot’s thesis—that rewilding is in our own best interest—could become the catalyst for a rewilding movement.”

Connie St Louis in The Biologist:

“With a powerful and riveting narrative, he blends tales of science, deepening our understanding of how natural systems work. Feral is a brave, hopeful and revelatory journey.”

Sam Packer in Biodiversity:

“A giant leap away from the usual doom-and-gloom, drum-beating environmental movement, this is a work of positivity and transformative wonder that can contribute to a wholesale change in environmentalism. … Boldly pointing the finger at the major channels of power, Monbiot as always takes his mission to the top, and with such lucid and evocative prose Feral can both charm and mobilise in the same breath.”

Helen Baxendale, Helen Cross and Harriet Gilbert, A Good Read, BBC Radio 4:

“I found it quite thrilling … A really unusual and magical book … it is so exhilarating … It made me imagine the world differently, which is an amazing thing for a book to manage to do.”

Miriam Cosic in The Australian:

“The most quixotic of his views are balanced by realism and he is no blind follower of orthodoxies. … Monbiot frames his detailed research in euphoric descriptions of the natural world. Some readers, and women in particular, may prefer to do without the more gung-ho description of his close shaves with the elements, but all is forgiven when the passage segues into another ravishing riff on nature. His ideas are so idealistic they seem almost crazy at times, but are all the more inspiring for that.”

Michael Mobbs in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“He’s fearless in his passionate yet intelligent support of Earth’s ecology. … He exposes the financial absurdities of our present use of farmland and, for me, at least, argues convincingly for returning some of it to wildness … Read Feral and find the many ways to rewild yourself. Before the sun sets on you, too.”

Dorothy Woodend in The Tyee:

“Monbiot’s book is wadded full with stories and facts aplenty, but the quality that most endures are his descriptions of the bigger world, whether that’s out on the ocean in a kayak, or stalking through a marsh looking to spear fish. The tangible, almost perfume-heavy descriptions of the landscape and the creatures that inhabit them are wondrous and dream-like. Cinematic.”

James Attlee in the Independent:

“George Monbiot’s latest book stands in a long tradition of back-to-nature narratives, the most famous of which is Thoreau’s Walden. It is also, at one level at least, a mid-life crisis memoir. However, Feral is both more original and more important than such a description would suggest. Rather than providing another paean to the rural landscape, Monbiot confronts the awkward questions: who owns and therefore controls that landscape? What, exactly, is natural about it? And how might we return it to genuine wildness for the benefit of everyone? … Wolves, he tells us, are “necessary monsters of the mind”; perhaps the same could be said of Monbiot himself.”

Bella Bathurst in the Observer:

“Both Monbiot and Hoare are great writers with a devotion to their respective causes and the enthusiasm to pull the reader along with them. Monbiot’s demolition of the agricultural subsidy system – admittedly a soft target – is worth the price of his book alone. “Sheep farming in this country is a slow-burning ecological disaster which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution,” he writes. But he also searches for, and finds, hope – a bewildered corncrake, a verge of wildflowers.”

Philip Cafaro in Biological Conservation:

“These are in many cases inspiring stories, well told, with a nice mix of objective reporting and personal expression … the solid reporting and clear writing in Feral present these and other important issues to readers in ways that should facilitate grappling with them productively. In this way, it would make a good supplementary reading in a class on conservation biology—particularly for teachers looking to leaven the gloom and doom with some can-do optimism.”

Frances Stonor Saunders in The Guardian:

“There’s nothing ignoble about Monbiot’s vision of reinstating ecosystems in which man’s power to dominate is consciously withheld. It is a vision fed by his growing disenchantment with the landscape that surrounds him in Wales, by the ‘hessian emptiness’ of the Cambrian Desert that lies at his doorstep, an area of 460 square miles that he learns to loathe as a vast tract of manmade ecological declension. … rewilding along the lines Monbiot advocates becomes an attractive proposal, a hopeful metaphor for something over nothing. He also makes a compelling case for other sizable protected areas in the UK, all ‘sheep-wrecked’, that might similarly be released from the ‘conservation prison’.”

Rob St John in The List:

“Monbiot’s writing is convincing and flecked with lyrical clarity. He deftly untangles and explains scientific concepts, tacking them to core emotional responses of ‘why’ the environment matters. … the depth and breadth of research that underpins this book is impressive. Coupled with the experiential and highly personal prose that weaves this constellation of concepts together, the result is highly persuasive.”

Maggie Fergusson in Intelligent Life:

“Allow forests to flourish, and welcome home species that were, a few ecological seconds ago, indigenous: wolves, lynx, beaver, boar, moose, bison, elephant. Yeah, right, you may think; but Monbiot demonstrates that Trafalgar Square was once roamed by hippos. He’s the Guardian’s resident lateral thinker, a punchy polemicist whose arsenal includes science and statistics, poetry and history. But he’s at his lyrical best sharing his own very private encounters with the natural world. Then his craving for a “richer, rawer life” becomes not just compelling but irresistible.”


Other remarks

Thom Yorke:

“Feral has really opened my mind to the history and possibilities of our landscape.
It reflects a very real need in us all right now to be released from our claustrophobic monoculture and sense of powerlessness.
To break the straight lines into endless branches.
To free our land from its absent administrators.
To rewild both the landscape and ourselves.
It is the most positive and daring environmental book I have read.
In order to change our world you have to be able to see a better one. I think George has done that.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:

“Given that man has already reshaped the surface of the planet several times over, Monbiot has the intellectual temerity to suggest how we might do it better from here on in. And he throws down the gauntlet with great panache. As a species, he argues, we’ve made enough calamitous mistakes to learn from, and gathered enough experience and evidence down the ages to draw a new and challenging conclusion: huge swathes of wild places, on land and sea, teeming with life that is largely outside our influence, are necessary not just for the diversity of life on earth, but for the spiritual nourishment, perhaps even the social stability, of mankind. And we can create such magical, life-affirming places with a radical new environmental management plan: leaving them alone.

Part personal journal, part rigorous (and riveting) natural history, but above all unbridled vision for a less cowed, more self-willed planet, this is a book that will change the way you think about the natural world, and your place in it. Big, bold and beautifully written, his vision of a rewilded world is, well, truly captivating.”

David Suzuki:

“Human beings are altering the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale and thereby undermining our life support systems of air, water, soil, photosynthesis and biodiversity. Drawing on a life of rich observation and experience, George Monbiot regales us with stories of life’s astonishing capacity for renewal and offers an uplifting and inspiring goal beyond the cessation of our destructive rampage, the restoration of the wild in nature and our own lives. Immersed in the gloom and doom of ecological destruction, environmentalists can find strength in nature’s capacity to be resilient and abundant if we give her a chance.”

Bill McKibben:

“The world knows George Monbiot mostly from his powerful and perceptive journalism. But this is a whole different order of writing and thinking, a primal account of an unstifled world.”

Brian Eno:

“George Monbiot is always original – both in the intelligence of his opinions and the depth and rigour of his research. In this unusual book  he presents a persuasive argument for a new future for the planet, one in which we consciously progress from just conserving nature to actively rebuilding it.”

Farley Mowat:

“George Monbiot’s new book, Feral, is a Book of Revelations for our times.”



The Orion Book Award, Non-Fiction

Best General Book, the Society of Biology Book Awards

The Zoological Society of London’s Thomson Reuters Zoological Record Award