Every day we wake up to news of environmental catastrophe. Wildfires raging, ice caps melting, oceans warming, species on the brink of extinction, people displaced by natural disasters. During the course of this issue’s production, some of our writers found themselves besieged by droughts or storms, some were even forced to flee their homes due to wildfires and floods. Nature is no longer a place of refuge.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But, like all fears, the solution is to face the anxiety head-on. Only by understanding what is happening can we embrace the thought of change; and only by learning from those who are providing solutions can we develop a sense that salvation is possible. Hope is something my husband and I found after embarking on our rewilding project in West Sussex, in southern England. In less than twenty years we’ve watched wildlife pour back onto our land, drawn like a magnet to rebounding natural resources. Our depleted soil has restored itself, and now acts like a filter, purifying run-off from the polluted land around us. Vegetation cleans the air. The land holds on to heavy rains, preventing flooding downstream, and our wetlands, vegetation and the soil itself suck carbon from the atmosphere.
The great American biologist E.O. Wilson says that if we are to safeguard the systems on which all species – including our own – depend, we must devote half of all available land mass to nature. The evidence is encouraging. Nature is forgiving. It will bounce back – if we let it. And nature, more than anything else, as Judith D. Schwartz describes, holds the answers to the environmental crises we have created.
We still need to eat, of course. And a revolution is afoot – one that has the capacity to reverse soil degradation, pollution, water loss and carbon emissions, and improve food security. Across the planet, farmers are leading the charge into regenerative agriculture, learning how to heal their land by working with nature, rather than fighting against it. Nowhere is this more critical than in the brittle zones at the front line of climate change, as Australian farmer Charles Massy shows us.
We forget, often within a few generations, that our landscapes and seas were recently much richer; the depletions have begun to seem normal – a syndrome known as ‘shifting baselines’. Callum Roberts, revisiting a coral reef he knows well, finds that writing about nature today is, fundamentally, about seeing what isn’t there. There’s a need to peer into the deep past, too. Tim Flannery unveils a world of wondrous Australian megafauna at a time when our planet was at its most biodiverse, before the mass extinctions caused by humans. And this can open up the mind to new ideas, like species reintroductions. Embracing ‘novel ecosystems’, welcoming plants and animals into places where we might never have considered them before, is the subject of an entertainingly provocative piece by Ken Thompson.
Often the hardest thing is to admit our mistakes. So much of new nature writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is about challenging preconceptions, traditions and cultural biases, changing a mindset. Only when we dare hope for the return of millions of salmon to our rivers and of grey whales to the Atlantic, dare envisage a landscape where vultures might soar and wolves roam once more, will we learn how to become a keystone species ourselves.
Of course, many societies in the world have lived in harmony with nature for millennia. Indigenous voices can teach us about sustainability and the fundamental importance of forging a closer, more respectful relationship with nature; voices like those of Sheila Watt-Cloutier in the Arctic, Manari Ushigua in the Amazon and Rod Mason in Australia. The knowledge is already out there. We just have to listen.
The contributors to this issue all have a deep understanding of how nature works. Some are scientists, experts in their field; others, environmental journalists exploring the latest thinking about ecosystems and how to repair them; or poets, novelists and activists examining our responses – or lack of them – to the current crisis. Never has there been a greater need for writers who can communicate about the environment in such clear, immediate and powerful ways, who can envisage the past as well as the future. The stories in this issue will, I hope, be both enlightening and empowering, transforming the way we look at the planet, and galvanising us to bring about change.