Conservation, Red in Tooth and Claw by Rem Wigmore

Sometimes hope needs teeth.

As a kid I was part of the Junior Naturalists Club, Junats. I cherish my memories of mossy dark forest, of doodling giant snails or staring at the wētā a guest speaker brought in.

I’ve always had a wide-eyed wonder for the natural world. I was raised knowing the joys and struggles of trying to preserve what remains and restore what used to be. As a Pākehā, a NZ European, I’m a guest on Māori land. I tried, and try still, to be a good guest: tread quietly. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, however much my child-fingers longed to snatch at stalactites.

Junats sometimes went to Te Kauri Lodge, near Oparau in the Waikato. The lodge is nestled in dense native bush, resplendent with birdsong. To keep it that way there’s all the usual pest-trapping and management. I’d been taught that sometimes death was necessary. I was still badly startled when I saw the work of some older kids, along by the fence between the lodge and the looming green wall of the forest. They were plucking possums.

Possum fur is made into luxury goods to help fund the elimination effort. In Australia, brushtail possums are an important part of the ecosystem. In Aotearoa New Zealand they’re nothing but hungry mouths, chewing through tender greenery and eating the eggs and young of birds who have no method to fight, in a country where life evolved for millions of years with no terrestrial mammalian predators at all – the only land mammals are two small species of bat. The birds can’t take it, the trees can’t take it and the forests die.

So I knew it was needed. Probably I could’ve helped, but I shrank from the plucking. What really struck me, what I remember to this day two decades later, was that one of the possums had joeys. Two, maybe. Tiny little babies no bigger than my thumb, hairless and pink. As best as I remember they were already dead, but my memory might be painting over that.

I was a city kid and hadn’t seen death like that before. Of course it was good these had been caught now – in a way, it was good – I knew it was good, but it seemed so viciously, pointlessly cruel.

Maybe it was. It was good all the same.  

That image never left me. It might be part of why I didn’t go into conservation as a profession myself and instead write books about it; I didn’t think I’d have the guts to handle all those tiny deaths. But I knew we needed them.

These days I hold that double standard effortlessly in my mind: I cherish all lives, yet cheer on poison drops and pest-trap tallies. Because that’s a death that gives our native species a better change at hanging on. There’s a saying about this in my fantasy novel Foxhunt’s sequel, Wolfpack:

Growth comes easier than rot, but truthfully the two go hand in hand. As vital as pollinators are the decomposers, breaking down dead flesh and leaves so the nutrients return to the Green. Do not hide away from death but accept it, and leave fallen trees where they lie. A healthy death brings new life with it.

Foxhunt presents a version of the future about 800 years from now where life is balanced – very solarpunk, renewable energies, a society focused on sustainability. People are kept in check by the threat of a fearsome organisation, the Order of the Vengeful Wild. Those who don’t keep to the unwritten-but-known rules about environment and hospitality will be hunted down by the Order, or so people say. Foxhunt’s protagonist Orfeus thinks that the Order is a myth, until she’s the one being hunted.

It wasn’t until it came up in an interview with a local radio host that I realised how much my cultural background affected the future I made. Of course it did! I cherish hope. In writing Foxhunt my main goal was to paint a world where we all make it, where humanity and the rest of nature both thrive. But even in that vividly green vision of the world, there is bloodshed and violence and death. Even at my most gloriously imaginative, I can’t picture one without the other.

Aotearoa’s long isolation (we’re talking since Gondwana) means it has a high rate of endemic life, species found nowhere else. We have birds that evolved to fill every imaginable niche, an incredible range of creepy-crawlies, silent and fascinating frogs – flora, fauna, fungi, the whole package. None of it evolved with mammalian predators. The first humans here, Polynesian travellers who would become the Māori, brought some pests with them, rats and pigs, and my Pākehā settler ancestors brought countless more: mice and stoats, ferrets and deer. The life here didn’t grow into itself alongside anything like the quick, hungry mammals we introduced, so it needs protecting.

In Aotearoa, protecting native species means killing invasive ones. That’s what I was raised knowing: sometimes to love a thing and protect it, you must destroy something else.

Maybe that’s why the calculation seems simple to me. If we can sacrifice those small lives – pest species but living things all the same – to the altar of a thriving world, how much harder is it to sacrifice capitalism, beloved luxury goods, the poisonous convenience of gas and coal?

In fact, isn’t it easier? Only a metaphorical death, and no blood on your hands. So many lives to be saved.

In my duology the sacrifices are more literal. The narrative digs into the flaws inherent in the Order of the Vengeful Wild, bounty hunters, ecoterrorists, vigilantes – assassins. Foxhunt shows the consequences of when that punishing violence is brought to bear on an innocent, asking whether such violence is ever justified. But we see the results – in the world of Foxhunt, humanity is in balance with the rest of the world, reaping no more than we sow, cultivating saplings. Kept in check by the fangs and teeth of the Order, life flourishes.

At the heart of my bloody and beautiful world is a question I ask but never fully answer. Is it worth it? Despite the cruelty and corruption, is this way of things good?

Guilt’s a powerful thing. It can immobilise, but it can galvanise too. Because I know deep down that I’m an invasive species too. I explore the themes of environmentalism and climate disaster in my work partly from that guilt, the need to somehow justify my existence – in this country, on this planet. Part of it is passion, and they’re hard to tell apart.

Here, as elsewhere, conservation and climate change are deeply interwoven – resilient ecosystems stand the best chance of weathering by climate change, and they help alleviate it. Our forests and wetlands are powerful carbon sinks, and the more we can restore and preserve them, the better.

Conservation work in the real world is less about bloody muzzles and bared fangs. The deaths here are more metaphorical: death of hope, resignation to what Orfeus calls a ‘smaller world’. I’ve never travelled out of Aotearoa and I’m starting to think I never will: even aside from everything else, I’m not sure I could justify the fossil fuels.

But I have my world, here, and all the world is connected, whether through mycelial threads between the roots of trees or the cables deep below the sea that link us together. This is my beloved world, and it is worth protecting.

It’s grim work, sometimes bloody, sometimes boring. We trap pests, we plant trees – real trees and the metaphorical kind, seeds that grow in the mind and blossom into hope. So take up your traps and tools. Much has been lost, but much can still be saved. The work awaits.

Rem Wigmore is a speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand, author of the queer solarpunk novel Foxhunt, published by Queen of Swords Press, and forthcoming sequel Wolfpack. Their other works include Riverwitch and The Wind City, both shortlisted for Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Rem’s short fiction appears in several places including Capricious Magazine, Baffling Magazine and two of the Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies. Rem’s probably a changeling, but you’re stuck with them now. The coffee here is just too good. Rem can be found at remwigmore.com or on twitter as @faewriter.

Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Hannah Gold shares an extract from the Waterstones prize winning The Last Bear:

‘Bear Island was once full of bears,’ April explained. ‘That’s why it was called Bear Island in the first place! Now there aren’t any left. You know why? Because the ice caps have melted and the bears can’t get there anymore. That’s why we have to take him home.’

‘And this is my responsibility because?’

‘Because it’s all our responsibility!’ she cried. ‘Don’t you see? It’s not you or me who’s melted the ice caps. It’s all of us. And if we don’t do what we can to help, then very soon there won’t be any polar bears left.’

‘Dad.’ Tör turned to his father. ‘She’s right. And it’s not just about the polar bears. You said yourself many times that the sea ice is retracting further and further each year. We are seeing it with our own eyes.’

‘You want me to save every polar bear I see?’

‘No,’ April said. ‘Just this one.’

‘You think I don’t wish to save the Arctic too?’ the captain said in exasperation. ‘But it needs more than just a little girl saving one polar bear.’

‘I agree,’ said April. ‘But imagine if every single person on the planet just did one thing.’

‘Then it is still not enough.’

‘But it’s better than doing nothing.’

Polar Bears International address both short and long-term threats to polar bears

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Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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