Rewilding and our connections with the natural world

by Nicola Penfold, plus Anthea Simmons talks about BURNING SUNLIGHT

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.

Nicola’s first book Where the World Turns Wild is out now with Little Tiger Press, and a second book Between Sea and Sky is due to be published on July 8th.

New Release

Anthea Simmons talks about her new release Burning Sunlight, a climate change YA novel out this month with Anderson Press about teenage activists.

How do themes of the environment play into your plot and the lives of your protagonists?

The environment is absolutely front and centre in Burning Sunlight. It is the issue which brings Zaynab and Lucas together, causes tensions and conflict between Zaynab and her father and Zaynab and her head teacher. It drives the entire plot and the excitement and danger that goes with it.

When did you get involved in climate-activism, and when did you decide to incorporate it into fiction? 

I’ve been involved in campaigning for access to opportunity for minority groups and, over the last four years, helping to lead a large grassroots group attempting to stop Brexit through democratic means.

I could see that Brexit was a licence to follow the Trump model and start trashing environmental protections and food standards and reneging on emission reduction promises, so in that respect I’ve been involved in climate-activism indirectly.

I attended one of the big Climate Strike demos in Exeter and saw the army of passionate, committed kids with their heartfelt, hard-hitting banners and placards. I could identify with their single-mindedness. I am a pretty driven, outspoken and impatient person and don’t believe in sitting on the sidelines. Apathy and passivity are the enemies of truth and democracy. I don’t ever want to feel that I didn’t try everything, do everything I reasonably could. That’s how it is for Greta and the other climate champions and I, in my smaller way, am like them when it comes to campaigning.

I decided to write a story about young activists after that march and I chose to have my heroine, Zaynab, come from a country that is already being hit hard by climate change and the impact of what we do in the West.

Why did you choose to write about climate change? What other themes intersect with climate-change within your book?

When you hear young people say that they find it hard to plan their futures when they do not think the planet can survive or that they would not dream of having kids of their own because Earth is trashed, you have to speak out and to find a way to celebrate and champion the young people who are trying to make a difference.

By having Zaynab come from Somaliland, I was able to tackle some other issues that matter to me, too. Racism, for example. Do you remember that photo of a group of young climate change activists taken at Davos and cropped by the newspapers to exclude Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, leaving only the Europeans? That horrified me, so Zaynab is a young person of colour and a Muslim and from a part of the world people know very little about. She also represents women and children who suffer disproportionately from the impact of the climate crisis.

The novel also deals with grief, bereavement and the challenges of leadership, of motivating others.

What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your book, especially in regards to climate change?

I hope it makes them want to do something or to do more. I hope it helps them to put the need for action, however small, on the agenda in their homes and schools and with their friends. Activism can be very lonely, because not everyone has the guts or the energy or is prepared to commit to the same degree. Your own commitment can make other people feel as though they are failing, or just put them off. It’s a lesson Zaynab has to learn. Not everyone can go at her pace or be as brave or speak in public or inspire others as she does, but everyone who wants to can make a difference. Lucas, for example, is quiet and shy, but he grows in confidence and also acts as a check on Zaynab when her zeal could backfire. 

It’s not all deadly serious, though! They do have a laugh, too! And, without spoiling the plot, they have a pretty hairy time of it once they decide to thwart a greenwashing scandal. I found it exciting to write, so I hope people find it exciting to read!

What are your hopes from other climate-fiction books that appear in literature?

That more kids and young people are engaged and mobilised in the campaign and that their pressure is felt by parents and older generations and that pressure builds so that politicians and corporations deliver on their promises. There is no planet B. This is it. Our house is on fire and we are running out of time.

Anthea Simmons lives in Devon with her polydactyl cat, Caramac. After a successful career in the City and a spell of teaching, she finally knuckled down to write at the insistence of her son, Henry. She is the author of Share, The Best Best Baby, I’m Big Now, Lightning Mary and Burning Sunlight. She is editor in chief for online citizen journalism paper, West Country Bylines, and campaigns on a range of issues including electoral reform and rejoining the EU.

Teaching Resource

The Stone Wētā by Octavia Wade is a dark, near future thriller that follows a group of female scientists. These scientists are part of a secret network which aims to gather and share scientific information regarding climate change. The scientists must avoid detection by their respective governments or face dire consequences.

The members of the secret network know little about each other but they all share a common goal, to research and share information about climate change in societies that ignore, deny, or prosecute climate change activism. Each character faces their own dangers throughout the book. Political forces attempt to uncover their identities, stop their research, and even assassinate them. 

The Stone Wētā explores the importance of science and politics co-operating to tackle issues brought on by climate change. It highlights the essentialness of policy-making in accordance with accurate data and the political obstacles faced in enacting the strategies needed to combat climate change. Octavia Wade makes it clear that as long as climate change science is muted, economic and social policies will continue to ignore the growing issue.

The following worksheet is meant to guide classroom discussion surrounding the impact that governments and policy have on science (and vice versa). I suggest that it be used in a high school social studies, science class, and/or a university setting. The questions are age inappropriate for younger audiences but could be tweaked for discussions in a mature junior high class. Happy teaching!

Marina Ekkel

You can download a PDF of the worksheet here.