My first book Where The World Turns Wild came out in February last year, just as the COVID-19 crisis was building. Readers contacted me to say how struck they were by eerie parallels with the dystopian nightmare we were all living through: the virus there wasn’t (then) a vaccine for; the locked down cities; the (brief, it turned out) breathing space the natural world had been given from our carbon-spewing cars and planes.
In the UK, it was a record-breaking sunny and dry spring, and one of the few things we could still do was take daily walks for essential exercise. We sought out places that brought us comfort: parks, rivers, woodlands, beaches (for those lucky enough to live within walking distance of the sea). There’s a whole host of reasons why and how the natural world is good for us (anyone interested in the data should read the influential, and beautiful, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild by Lucy Jones). Most of us didn’t need the evidence, we knew it instinctively. COVID had made us worried and sad and lonely, and we knew the wild spaces would make us feel better.
Did the birds really sing louder last spring, or did we just notice it more, without the roar of traffic and the daily grind? Lots of people said (often guiltily, acknowledging the horrible death toll and the horrendous stories coming out of the COVID wards) that it was nice to slow down. It was nice to have the chance to discover local green spots and learn our environments better. We felt reconnected to the natural world.
At least that’s the story we’ve told ourselves. There were also many for whom it was the opposite – people stuck at home all day, with vastly increased screen time. Playgrounds were shut. Children were told off for playing outside. It wasn’t nature rambles all round, and there was an uneasy tension between those who lived close to local beauty spots and wished, understandably, to keep outsiders out, and those from grey, urban places who just wanted a couple of hours respite in the wild.
When writing Where the World Turns Wild a few years ago, in my innocent, ignorant pre-pandemic state, I was just hungry for a new and exciting landscape to explore. The disease in my book (carried by ticks, too mutable for a vaccine) was just a plot device. It was like the princess pricking her finger in Sleeping Beauty and everyone sleeping for a hundred years. The disease allowed me to imagine a world with the humans taken out for a while. Because what I really wanted to write about was rewilding.
We hear the word all the time now – rewilding our gardens, our parks, our balconies, our road verges. There is of course an actual defined meaning too. A bigger, more scientific meaning that defines a progressive approach to conservation. Rewilding Britain says rewilding is “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.”
Most rewilding advocates take care to emphasise the role of people. Rewilding isn’t just what’s good for our landscapes, to help mitigate the huge climate and biodiversity crisis we are facing, it’s what’s good for us too.
Rewilding Britain talks about sustainable futures, jobs, communities, tourism. It’s also about a state of mind and a way of living – living wilder, our senses more fully engaged, more connected to our hunter-gatherer past. This desire for a wilder existence is compellingly described in George Monbiot’s Feral, first published in 2013, and a seminal text on rewilding. Rewilding, Monbiot writes, is not just about reducing floods and erosion and stopping the spread of disease (COVID-19 wasn’t the first virus caused by the pressure humans put on the natural world, and won’t be the last). Monbiot writes about “the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water… It is the sense that without these animals the ecosystem is lopsided, abridged, dysfunctional.”
This is the kind of landscape I wanted to write about. Something vast and unexplored, with secrets corners and unexpected encounters. Something so wild it could be dangerous. And I didn’t want to have to make the setting the Amazon rainforest or the Serengeti or some other place I’d never been. I wanted to write about landscapes close and familiar to me, but make them wilder. Like going back in time, except I didn’t go back, I went forward instead. Fifty years after humans have been locked up in cities, shut away from the natural world.
Nature has taken care of itself.
My characters meet lynx and wolves (released from old wildlife parks). But even more common creatures like wood pigeons, rabbits, squirrels, are more thrilling in the un-sanitised wild world of my book. Juniper and Bear, a sister and a brother, see everything with fresh eyes, because they’ve been locked up for too long without any of it.
“Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long,” Robert Macfarlane writes in his 2007 book, The Wild Places. “The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac….”
As COVID restrictions ease, people are flocking back to the green and blue spaces they love, excited to leave urban homes behind, but inevitably we’re already hearing stories about litter in parks and on beaches, and crowds, congestion, damaged footpaths, wildfires. Now so many of us have a hunger to explore the wild, will it stay wild?
Rewilding must continue as a real integral part of the “green recovery” so many people are clamouring for, and which our planet is so desperate for. The truth is we need a heck of a lot more wild places, protected, restored, funded, connected, and some close to all our towns and cities, so everyone gets access to somewhere wild. Indeed our urban spaces themselves need to incorporate the wild. Like Singapore, the “garden city”, with its vertical gardens, green roofs and interspersed parks, rivers and ponds. The possibilities are exciting and heartening, if we are bold. I love hearing plans like those from Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, to reimagine the site of the old Broadmarsh Shopping Centre as a green space – to make a natural oasis right in the beating heart of the city, with woodland, wetland and wildflower meadows. All our towns and cities need such plans, to bring nature in, so we can all live alongside it again, for our own sakes and the sake of the wild.
And then can we start talking about bringing lynx back?
10 Wild Reads
Here are some of my children’s and young adult recommendations, for books which connect you with the wild.
- Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
- The Last Wild by Piers Torday
- October, October by Katya Balen
- Snow Foal by Susanna Bailey
- Swan Song by Gill Lewis
- The Truth of Things (quartet of novellas) by Anthony McGowan
- Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari
- Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley
- Wolf Road by Richard Lambert
- The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most.
Nicola writes in the coffee shops and green spaces of North London, where she lives, and escapes when she can to wilder corners of the UK for adventures. She is married, with four children and two cats.