Are We in a New Era of ‘Re-Wilding’?

The contrasting conditions of the resurgent Föritz and the depleted forests of Albania are a microcosm of the planet. We are living in the Anthropocene, a time when human activity, more than anything else, shapes the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Our hunting, fishing, deforestation, overgrazing, and pollution have created a period of mass extinction the likes of which haven’t occurred since the dinosaurs. E. O. Wilson, the preeminent biologist and conservationist, predicts we could lose half of all species on the earth by the end of this century.

But might we also be in a period of “re-wilding,” a time of ecological restoration and the return of species that had previously been exterminated?

In New England, where I live, the countryside was so denuded in the early twentieth century that scarcely a tree remained. Reforestation over the past eighty years has been so extensive that British author Nigel Williams was only half joking when he wrote of the region’s “tree epidemic.”

Similarly, forest cover in Europe has increased by more than 70 percent since 1960, as generations of young people moved to cities. Despite subsidies that encourage European farmers to stay put, they will vacate 30 million hectares of marginal farmland, an area the size of Poland, by 2030.

As forests and open meadows return, so too have the creatures that once inhabited them. European bison, nearly one-ton beasts that bear a striking resemblance to their North American cousins, were extinct in the wild a century ago. The only remaining individuals lived in captivity. Now, through breeding programs and reintroductions, they number several thousand in the wild.

Phil McKenna, writing in The Big Roundtable about efforts to transform the no man’s land that once separated Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc into an eco-corridor. McKenna’s piece also tells the story of two men who met as boys living on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and who were bonded by their shared love of birds. The piece was produced in partnership with PBS’s NOVA Next.

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