Essaying Self, Wilderness, and Place: a response to issues raised by George Monbiot’s Feral. (Part Two)

Self, Place and Testimonial Imagination

‘The Hushings’ chapter in Feral, which includes reference to an exchange between farmer and translator Dafydd Morris-Jones and Monbiot, is indicative of the lack of  testimonial imagination necessary to underpin the empathetic dimension of an effective ecosophical politics regarding place. Like the upland regions in the North Pennines, Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains was mined for lead, particularly in the 19th century. This resulted in the inevitable vicissitudes associated with the expansion, and then retreat, of human activity and settlement in an area that still exhibits evidence of hushing, a form of surface mining. However, Feral’s singular historical concern with the Cambrian Mountains is with sheep and the environmental damage done by them. This despite the fact that Plynlimon today is in part the consequence of industrial activity by businesses such as the Plynlimon Mining Co., which yielded some 3,270 tons of lead concentrates between 1867 and 1897, and the Bryn-yr-Afr Mine. (I do not know whether this has resulted in the development of rare micro-ecologies of flora in areas with high lead residue, as is the case in Weardale. This is, however, a real ecological possibility). The last elements of a tramway, constructed to assist in the exploitation of minerals and grit stone, that ran through the Bwlchglas Farm property, remained intact until as late as 1926. All this matters here because, as the international community inches towards recognising ecocide[1] as a crime, it will be all too easy for demagogues looking for simplistic, monolithic causes such as the “sheep-shagging” of landscapes, to implant in the popular imagination “historic’ acts of ecocide by minority groups. Monbiot’s ignorance of, or disinterest in, the complexity and full range of lived experience in the various aspects of Plynlimon’s history is clear throughout Feral and needs to be vigorously contested. 

Oddly perhaps, given the passionate sense of self-belief that pervades Feral, Monbiot writes of Morris-Jones that: ‘he had something … few people possessed: He knew who he was. I envied him that’. (2014:172) I suggest that Morris-Jones knows who he is because, unlike Monbiot, he knows his place. Knows it, that is, in terms of the lived connections between the past and present dynamics of place as taskscape understood as ‘the totality of tasks making up the pattern of activity of a community’. (Ingold 2000:325) A place that is the totality within which his living, both economically and psychosocially, inseparable from the ‘tight connection between geographical place and assumptions about normative behaviour’ which enable us to judge people and practices as ‘in-place’ or ‘out-of-place’. (Cresswell 2004:103-103) 

Monbiot’s particular view of rewilding and disinterest in the witnessing central to the testimonial imagination indicates the cause of his sense of the smallness of his life in Wales; perhaps inevitable given his wilful out-of-place-ness in both senses. The numerous social and place-oriented generalities, lacuna, and evasions in Feral reflect its author’s contempt for the actually-existing world in which he found himself. His attention is on lone kayak adventures and projections of a mythic “wild” world onto a wished-for future landscape, not to the Cambrian uplands as a complex taskscape. 

Today there are many views on what constitutes “wildness”, “wilderness” and “rewilding” offered by people with an informed and genuine interest in the ecosophical complexities of the relationship between self, society and place. Kathleen Jamie indicates one such when reflecting on Robert Macfarlane’s encounter, among the Burren’s limestone pavements, with a miniature wilderness hidden within a gryke. She suggests another in Frissure (2013), a bookwork with the artist Brigid Collins, and another again in ‘Voice of the Wood’, the final chapter in Surfacings (2019). An earlier example would be William Henry Hudson’s classic A Hind in Richmond Park (1922). Kerri ní Dochartaigh addresses these issues in Thin Places (2021), where the risk and uncertainty Monbiot seeks in the wild occur in the context of human violence, addiction, depression and suicidal ideation. Roger Deakin indicates another understanding again in the chapter ‘Staying Put’ in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (2008). Gary Snyder, however, makes the most emphatic claim, writing that: 

A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness.[2] The planet is a wild place and always will be’. (Quoted in Cronon 1995: 19) 

Regardless of whether or not the reader agrees with one or more of these understandings, their sheer range emphatically contradicts Monbiot’s demagogic assumption that he speaks for “us”, that “we” share his desire for a particular way of enacting rewilding. 

Towards an ecosophical understanding of self-in-place. 

The first principle of The Earth Charter, under the heading ‘Respect and Care for the Community of Life’, asks that we respect life on Earth in all its diversity by recognizing that: ‘all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings’; a principle that in turn requires affirming: ‘faith in the inherent dignity of all human beings and in the intellectual, artistic, ethical, and spiritual potential of humanity’.[3] Any self that accepts the principles of the Earth Charter will find itself at odds with the ego-driven assumptions of the dominant culture of possessive individualism. There are various articulations of such an alternative view of self, many derived from long-standing spiritual or Indigenous traditions. I have chosen to offer a different articulation.  

James Hillman has argued for a sense of self understood ‘as the interiorization of community’, so that: ‘the draw towards interiority must at the same time be a draw toward exteriority’; towards ‘the contingencies of the actual ecological field’ in which a person finds themselves placed. What places us with regard to that actual ecological field is, he suggests, the sense of who we are with, of what is happening with our neighbours, including neighbouring animals, of how we are with our food, our furniture, with what our various accoutrements ‘do in the field I am in’. (1994:35-36) I take this to be a call to attend to our ‘actual ecological field’ in ways that allow us to live in the world as both “wild” and as it actually is, given that the ‘contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it’. (Finn 1996:171). An attention that knows, with Gary Snyder and the Canadian poet, editor and educator Don McKay, that wilderness is ‘not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations’. (McKay 2001:21)

Drawing on Edward Simpson, Hillman also points out that: ‘there are no subjects who can be defined apart from the world’ so understood, and that ‘persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections and relationships’. (1994:32) Consequently, and in respect of our being ‘always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us’, (Finn 1996:171) we too are always part of that wildness. Monbiot’s declaration of ecological boredom can, then, be seen as a consequence of his failing to pay sufficient attention to his actual ecological field; to his ‘sitting and writing, looking after my daughter and my house, running …. watching the seasons cycling past’; (2014:7)[4] to a lack of attention that would place him in that field. However, the attention that places us in that field and that, in Snyder’s view, allows us to experience wilderness anywhere on earth, is precisely predicated on moving ‘away from the self, away from personalism, away from me and mine’. (Hillman 2006:126) That means away, too, from “my” desire for an exaltation, as a lone individual conceived as apart from community and culture, found in a wilderness that, far from eluding the mind’s appropriations, is very much predicated on concepts derived from a particular historical culture. 

Hillman’s view of self stands over against the ‘elaborate fantasy of individualism’ that echoes ‘the splendid isolation of the colonial administrator’; over against representative figures in a culture still living with presuppositions based on ‘the theological God of monotheism’, the ‘God-apart-from-the-world’. (1994:33) That is the God in whose image Adam, the original lone male, was created. If we wish to move on from that archaic position I would suggest, following Hillman, we need a sense of self as the ‘interiorization of community’, (ibid.:36) where community is understood in the expanded sense that permeates The Earth Charter. To understand the ramifications of such a sense of self-as-community requires an investment in testimonial imagination so as to revisit our understanding of our actual relationship to place in all its dimensions.

Revisiting senses of place

The historian of American landscape William Cronon asks what the problems associated with the wilderness mentality ‘can tell us about home, the place where we actually live’. (1995:17) He suggests that we need to broaden ‘our sense of the otherness that wilderness seeks to define and protect’; that in reminding us that we find ourselves in a world we did not make, our sense of what is wild evokes a necessary ‘humility and respect’ with regard to ‘our fellow beings and the earth itself’, placing a limit on ‘human hubris’. (Ibid.) The amplification of Cronon’s response offered here starts with the dual sense of place offered by Edward S Casey: ‘if a position is a fixed posit of an established culture, a place, despite its frequently settled appearance is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture’. (199331) The significance of this can be illustrated as follows.

Since 1988 upper Weardale has increasingly been framed by the bureaucratically generated designation of an AONB and UNESCO Global Geopark, which are oriented in large part towards the tourist industry. An early and indicative example of this is the Introduction to England’s Last Wilderness, where the dales are described as ‘green wilderness corridors’ that: 

‘provide a retreat for some, rich pickings for the historian and the natural scientist, and sport and recreation for many, not just for the seasoned walker or backpacker, but for the casual motorist looking for beauty, peace and solitude’. (1989:8-10).  

The “wilderness” of the upper dale is thus positioned as a retreat from a crowded urban life and even as facilitating a negation of time itself, in that: ‘the vista is as magnificent as it was … over fifteen centuries ago’; indeed providing a God-like viewpoint that renders ‘the affairs of men … shallow, short-lived, tenuous things’. (ibid.:2) 

Weardale as place and taskscape require articulation through a continual essaying[5] of multiple shifting activities and narratives; of the totality of the activity of a community, where community includes both human and more-than-human actors. An inclusive mesh of relationalities that, in terms of the part played by humans, is negotiated through both action and narrative. Thus Weardale-as-place includes Doreen Massey’s notion of space as the ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’; (2005:9) stories of particular relevance to testimonial imagination. Place is inseparable from a multi-generational sense of shared care and responsibility, the elements of which are assessed and reactivated empathetically through a balancing of testimonial and utopian imagination. 

Elements of an eco-ethical political imagination

Ricoeur’s discussion of the role of imagination in politics indicates the flaw in Monbiot’s approach to rewilding. Rather than facilitating the process of consultation necessary to give communal legitimacy, both Feral and related texts by Monbiot exacerbate  the possibility ‘of incommunicability through a protective withdrawal’ (Ricoeur 1996: 4) on the part of local communities. Fortunately, such communities increasingly include persons able to act as ‘cultural bilingualists’, capable of engaging with ‘the mental universe of the other culture’ by taking ‘account of its customs, fundamental beliefs and deepest convictions’. (ibid.: 5) This bilingualism makes it possible, at least in principle, to revise the wholly negative story presented by, in this case, Feral and related texts so as to ‘take account of other events’. (ibid.:6) This is facilitated, ironically enough, by Monbiot’s own inability to take any responsibility, via empathetic imagination, ‘for the story of the other, through the life narratives which concern the other’. (ibid.: 6-7) Feral’s imaginative failure lies in its author’s refusal to even begin to imagine the legacies of the suffering of others grounded in those neglected regional histories to which testimonial imagination gives witness, let alone to do so before considering his own “suffering” in relation to an absence of the wilderness necessary to meet his personal desires.  

Given Casey’s distinction between position and place, it might be argued that Ricoeur’s ‘cultural bilingualists’ are, figuratively speaking, also ‘polylocal’; at least in so far as they are able to work across more than one cultural mentality. (Solnit 2011(1997):182) Solnit’s notion of polylocality provides access into a more inclusive and complex sense of the multiple relationships between “urban” and “rural” inhabitation and the mentalities commonly associated with them.[6] Its value lies in complicating distinctions around at-home-ness between indigenous “locals”, “incomers”, second-home owners and casual visitors. Many of the culturally bilingual individuals I have in mind are polylocal in being at-home in a rural place, while earning a part of their living in a discursive setting predicated on an “urbane” mentality. As a result they are well placed to enact Bruno Latour’s understanding that what matters most is: ‘managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world’. (Latour 2018: 15-16) They may combine, for example, work grounded in the discursive worlds of translation, university teaching or the arts, with farming or other rural employment.

[1] Strictly speaking, ecocide is defined as ‘unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of either severe or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts’. However such terms, deployed with the emphasis on rhetorical effect that characterises Monbiot’s writing at its most aggressive, would no doubt be used without subtlety or proper attention to its strict definition. Feral suggests that “anything goes” when it comes to trying to obtain maximum popular support for “rewilding”. 

[2] Regarding this ‘quality of one’s own attention, see the section on Notitia in Watkins M (2008).

[3] The Earth Charter can be downloaded as a pdf at

[4] As the father of, and one of the long-term carers for our forty-two year old disabled daughter since she was thirteen, the implicit contempt for, and boredom with, the work of everyday care implicit in this passage seems to me particularly telling. It indicates that the central motivation for Monbiot’s environmental “radicalism” is less a genuine concern to address the ‘wicked problems’ consequent on our socio-environmental circumstances than a selfishness that insists he be allowed to indulge his own desires and opinions and cultivate his own self-regard. Such problems cannot usefully be address by perpetuating the “masculine” qualities perpetuated by possessive individualism and require the cultivation of the genuine ecological concern articulated in The Earth Charter.     

[5] For a discussion of what is intended by essaying in this context see Biggs I , 2010.   

[6] For further discussion of the relationship between designations of inhabitation and related mentalities see Biggs I 2015.