Self-willed Land and the Conservation Prison

This morning, I enjoyed once again reading George Monbiot on what’s wrong with UK nature conservation – this time on Martin Harper’s blog.

George as you would expect barred no holds, and laid into RSPB for culling buzzards, and promoting deforestation of the uplands. He also repeated the argument that we place nature in a prison by favouring open early successional habitats, rather than the Atlantic Rainforest.

And he returned to a central theme in his book “Feral”, which is the concept of Self-willed land. The idea has been put to me thus by Ginny Batson, in an earlier comment on this blog. This is blog is partly my response to you Ginny (sorry its late.)

The will of the land (or life), is the green fuse of all life. With or without humans, right now, life would continue to adapt and evolve, so I would argue in that sense that the land (in all its complexity) does indeed have a will. Yes, we are integral to nature, not separate, and with our will & understanding of environmental science, the state of environmental decline and our union with the land, it’s exactly why we should not dominate. That doesn’t mean to say we have to spare and NOT share (purported by GM’ers). It means we can spare (make space) AND share (agroecology). We have a duty (because of the intrinsic value of all life of which we are a part) to make conscious decisions that will have positive consequences on, say, climate and biodiversity as well as social justice, welfare (inc non-human life)…etc.


Modern conservation in the West has been influenced by the work of Pinchot (neat summary although both Muir and Pinchot were essentially anthropocentric in argument. Muir for human soul, Pinchot, essentially, for humans as consumers. Problems on both sides! And so, here we are, the Planet is now seriously Under Pressure despite their influence. There is good reason to look at a more ecocentric or biocentric outlook whereby non-human life is viewed as having a value all unto itself. Nature for nature’s sake, as well as ours.


On re-introductions, to be honest, I’m still grappling with the ethics of it all…. ‘by human hand.’ But it certainly seeds the imagination of what ‘could be’ as opposed to ‘what is’.

I  looked up Self-Willed land and also found this website.

Here I discovered that self-willed land is a modern translation of the old English word Wilderness. Like so many other things, we have exported an idea to the States, and it has returned in an evolved form. It was also interesting to note that the idea of Self-Willed Land is closely linked to the Earth First movement in the states.

I wonder whether these ideas would have developed here in Europe, in the absence of our American colleagues? The reason being as Ginny said, conservation in the States was born in the crucible where Muir and Pinchot clashed. Their conservation history is different from ours, because their landscapes were seen as  and celebrated as wilderness. Ours were recognised as having a long history of modification by millennia of agriculture. Theirs were shaped primarily by the actions of hunter gatherer societies, ours by farmers.I sometimes wonder whether subconsciously conservationists are actually in two camps, the wannabe hunter gatherers, and the wannabe farmers.

We mustnt forget that there is also a darker history to wilderness  – the expunging of native American cultures and societies and the removal of their history from colonial American history. Wilderness has dark political undertones when it’s the result of genocide. Native Americans were removed from National Parks in the US to ensure that the land became wilderness. We need to tread with care.

What does self-willed land mean? If as Ginny suggests, there is some form of consciousness in the land, then the debate becomes akin to the animal rights debate – animals with some form of consciousness have rights because they feel pain. Can the land feel pain?

My late father was a zealous atheist, a follower of the Apostate Dawkins. I don’t have his certainty. I’m a governor at a C of E school. I’m not Christian myself, and I don’t have a belief in a greater power. But I do respect my fellow Christian governors and teachers. I love sitting in ancient churches and get a wonderful feeling of tranquility even meditative calm. I  guess that’s the idea!

It strikes me that the notion of the land having a will is a religious one, a new Animism. Animism was the original religion – a belief that all natural objects (and indeed human artefacts) have a life, a will, a power. This is where the word Fetish comes from – an object being imbued with supernatural powers.

The only problem with this is that Religious beliefs require faith and faith is something beyond debate. I can’t make a rational argument against the idea of self-willed land because it is not a rational position, it’s a position of faith.

In that respect I don’t find it a useful notion when grappling with scientific concepts such as  functional ecosystems, trophic cascades, or reintroducing large extinct megafauna. And I doubt very much that it would have any traction with policy makers or politicians.




About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animism, biodiversity, churches, environmental policy, George Monbiot, rewilding, self-willed land and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Self-willed Land and the Conservation Prison

  1. seasonalight says:

    Thanks so much for the reply, Miles. I too am an atheist, so would present my arguments based on values as opposed to religion. There is room for science and ethics in conservation, no? I would always hope to bring them closer together. 🙂

    • milesking10 says:

      thanks Ginny. Yes Ethics are absolutely central to conservation, or should be. But shouldnt’ ethical stances be falsifiable? Otherwise, we are in the realms of theology.

  2. seasonalight says:

    There are bad philosophies and dubious science but good philosophy I think is interwoven with threads of good science. Theology, as the study of God, is quite separate in my view.

  3. milesking10 says:

    Do you think the concept of self-willed land is a philosophical concept and if so can you develop the argument for it from philosophical principles. Naturally there is a grey area between philosophy and theology – and I was using theology in the broadest sense, covering all religious beliefs, not just the christian god.

  4. seasonalight says:

    I think there are philosophical cases to support the notion of self-willed land and ethically based on both extrinsic and intrinsic value systems. Very interesting area of study and, of course, I lean towards the intrinsic, biocentric side of things.

    Rewilding could be seen both as a philosophical and cultural rejection of the post modern era, beyond preservationist, towards the anarchic. There’s much written on it, not least by Dave Foreman at the Rewilding Instutute, but as to wider academic research I’ll have to return to you. As I have said, I’m still grappling with the ethics of reintroductions. We have to be consequential, methinks, looking at the  benefits to all life in each case. Beavers, yes. Elephants, I am less sure! 

    Any spiritual case perhaps may be founded on the notion of sacred sites, just an atheist’s suggestion however! 

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Ginny.

      I’m not sure but I would say re-wilding rejected modernist notions and see post-modernist concepts within re-wilding. For example re-wilding rejects the Enlightenment and modernist views of humanity’s superiority over nature; and rejects the notion that science provides an objective perspective, as opposed to just another normative, culturally derived position. Re-wilding certainly has a spiritual or religious aspect to it.

      I’ve written some more thoughts about it today.

  5. David Dunlop says:

    “Mine was a trained Presbyterian conscience and knew but the one duty–to hunt and harry its slave upon all pretexts and on all occasions, particularly when there was no sense nor reason in it.”
    – Autobiography of Mark Twain

    I’ll join the musing from a similar “spiritual atheist” position, but one tempered in youth by the fires of Presbyterian self-reproach. There is much talking at cross-purposes in “rewilding”, or at last I think so, as a lot of it is predicated on the assumption that Homo sapiens is not as much a product of ‘nature’ as any other species and its (our) effects on ecosystems are then surely as ‘natural’ as those of any other species (beaver dams, the rootling of wild boar etc). Whether they are as sustainable is a different issue. If they aren’t then, as with other species that damage their own habitat and life support systems, our population will fall, possibly to extinction. There does seem to be a quasi-religious feel to the concept though, with humanity guilty of some sort of ecological Original Sin and therefore banished from a prelapsarian “wild” Garden of Eden by a vengeful deity – the product of some projection of self-loathing on the part of its protagonists?

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Dave. I have developed some of these themes in todays post. I have also been thinking or this Fall from Grace aspect to the re-wilding debate. Is George Monbiot the new John Knox?

  6. David Dunlop says:

    I feel a poetry quoatation coming on, especially given the weather…

    ‘Scotland’ by Alistair Reid

    It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
    when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
    and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
    Greenness entered the body. The grasses
    shivered with presences, and sunlight
    stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
    Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
    the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
    cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
    And what did she have to say for it?
    Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
    as she spoke with their ancient misery:
    ‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    While George was writing his book last year, he checked with me whether it was correct to say that I had coined the term self-willed land – since my website for advocacy of wild land and nature has that name. (I suspect it was just an oversight on your part not to have acknowledged existence of the website in your blog above). I explained to George that I had seen the term being used by Dave Foreman in Wild Earth, the magazine of the Wildlands Project (now called the Wildlands Network) and then when Foreman subsequently set up the Rewilding Institute. Foreman wrote that he first heard it described during a talk by philosopher Jay Hansford Vest at the Third World Wilderness Conference in Scotland in 1983 (see The Real Wilderness Idea

    Vest shows in his talk that “wilderness means ‘self-willed land’ with an emphasis on its own intrinsic volition” He interpreted “der” as “of the”. Hence, in wilderness, there is a “will-of-the-land”. He says that “will” is about a willful, uncontrollable state, which is in opposition to the controlled and ordered environment that is characteristic of the notion of civilization:
    “While control, order, domination and management are true of civilization and domestication, they are not essentials of primal culture”

    I can send you a copy of Vest’s talk- Will of the land: Wilderness among Primal Indo-Europeans – published in 1985 in Environmental Review 9: 323-329

    When I was setting up my website in 2003, I had decided that wilderness was too fraught a word to be used in the British context, as elsewhere it connotes a land that is full of its natural vegetation and key species, much of which we have lost through extirpation and the simplifying of our ecology through farming. However, I had read Unmanaged Landscapes: Voices for Untamed Nature (Edited by Bill Willers (1999) Island Press) in which many of the contributions talk about unmanaged, self-regulating, self-regenerating land. This seemed to me to be a better fit with the potential situation in Britain, and was in fact the key issue underpinning an understanding of wild land, rather than getting into some etymological quagmire on the meaning of words through their Celtic origins. The term self-willed land did not necessarily rely on every species being reinstated because it was a statement of outcome from the lack of human intervention and, as importantly, it overcame/sidestepped the dead hand of objection that there is to the “W” word in Britain!

    I think you have been too much influenced by Cronon’s polemic on wilderness, and not seen the widespread refutation it received at the time of publication. There is some evidence that the discovery of future national park areas in North America and the setting up of the early national parks was at the expense of the removal of their native American populations, such as the Awahneechee from Yosemite, Blackfeet from Glacier, and the use by Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow of Yellowstone. But the story is not clear cut as the Awahneechee returned to the Yosemite Valley and had a long if troubled relationship with park officials (in his preliminary plan for the valley in 1865, Frank Law Olmstead noted the ecological damage perpetrated not just by Euro-American settlers (which included John Muir and his lumber mill that fed the growing hotel development in the valley!), but also Native Americans); the Blackfeet were a paid tourist attraction in Glacier but also fought through the courts to continue to use its natural resources; and the Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow were considered to have become more dependent on the natural resources of Yellowstone because the increased Euro-American settlement on land outside the park had brought with it an unsustainable predation of bison and other natural resources. On the latter, there is plenty of evidence of the presence of Native Americans in the area of the Park dating back over 10,000 years. However, few appear to have made it their permanent residence in later, historical times. Instead it seems that parties of Northern Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfoot, Northern Cheyenne, Couer d’Alene, Crow, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Salish, Shoshone, and Sioux that lived around the Greater Yellowstone area regularly travelled into Yellowstone to harvest seasonal riches by hunting animals and gathering nutritious plant roots.

    What is so significant about Yellowstone (and eventually Yosemite) is that by designating a national park it kept out the far more damaging activities of the farming that the Euro-American settlers would have imposed on those areas. Yellowstone was never farmed by Euro-American settlers. That is why “national Parks are America’s best idea”! You should also recognise that later parks, like Rock Creek Park next to Washington, Shenandoah National park in Virginia. and Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina, were all created by relocation of European settlers outside of the park area. There should not be some mystique about mountain folk that from 1750 settled in the Appalachians, that they sought refuge to live in sympathy with the land. Many settlers were tenants of a few large landowners, but they and homesteaders all embarked on a common pursuit of exploiting the land, by ringing trees with their axes – a process called “deadening” – to clear fields for pastures and orchards; killing all the large carnivores so they weren’t a threat to their cows; and hunting out the white-tail deer, so that they had to be restored when parks were set up.

    That these mountain folk were more of a danger to wild nature than the Native Americans that they displaced is self-evident, the latter anyway only visited the mountains in seasonal movements to hunt, to gather nuts and berries, and to find sources for and to make their stone tools, rather than settle there. Thus mostly they valued the natural resources in a wilderness for what they could provide in food, clothing and shelter, not as abstract products, as commodities that can be sold for money with values dictated by distant markets. If you have to buy a horse or a gun, or even the toy raygun, dinner service, and 78 rpm record fragments, artefacts excavated from homesteads on the mountain in Shenandoah (and which were probably bought out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue) then you need money. That turns the land and its wildlife into a commodity, an economic opportunity, and puts pressures on the wildness of the land.

    Anything there that sounds familiar in the UK?? Any chance of removing the commodification of wild nature here, by farming and by the conservation industry, addicted as it is to intervention subsidised by agri-environment schemes?

    There is no faith required of humans to withdraw their influence over wild nature.

  8. seasonalight says:

    Absolutely Mark, no faith required. I would go further, as Christopher Hitchens said, ‘religion poisons everything.’ There is no higher being to whom we can entrust Earth.

    And Miles, I just can’t agree with you on post modernism and rewilding. (I didn’t refer to modernism). Nothing fake, superficial or ironic about reviewing just how much of an imbalance we humans have created and consequently lightening our touch. Neither is it totalitarian as EU market driven agri-schemes may be perceived, at least by some!

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks to you both for your excellent comments. I see you take slightly different paths to each the same end point, which is the removal of human influence over natural ecosystems.

      I still see a leap of faith from the position of “uncontrolled, self-regulating, self-regenerating land”, which is empirical; to a notion of the land having a will, or being wilful. Wilful implies intention and intention implies a specific aim or purpose. Where is your evidence that land has an aim or purpose?

      On Post-Modernism I was more interested in the aspects of cultural relativism I see in the rewilding debate, than post modern irony.

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