Francis ducked into the sallow copse that had sprung up on the land next to his cottage, pushing aside the pliant branches when he needed to and weaving through them when he could. As the slippery mud of the lane gave way to firmer ground among the trees, his tread relaxed and his attention expanded to take in the October air, already cool but still soft; the scent of growing fungus and sodden moss; the red defiance and yellow lethargy of decaying leaves, and the crows rasping in a nearby field. He felt the life around him and the life inside him flowing into each other, some of it in a tangle of sensation – when he touched the branch it also touched him – some of it in similes and resemblances and some, on the outer edge of his awareness, like a network of underground streams, or the pale mesh of roots under his feet, known without being seen. He felt this confluence of mutual life, although it was hard to hold in mind, was the fundamental background to all the sharp particularities that tried to monopolise his attention, like the robin that had just landed briefly in front of him, making him mirror the tiny, abrupt movements of its neck and then inviting him to follow the loops of its descending flight through the trees, to the rustle of its arrival among the leaves. Each form of life was bringing its own experience into the world; sometimes tightly overlapping with others, like the Purple Emperor cocoon he had seen stitched to one of these sallow branches last May; sometimes briefly interpenetrating, like the robin that had paused on a similar branch only a moment ago, and at other times radically isolated, like a streak of bacteria hidden in an Antarctic rock, but still embedded in its niche of whistling wind and perpetual frost.
Later today, Olivia was coming to stay with him for the first time. It was a bold move for two people who knew each other so little, but neither of them had wanted to end the last weekend with vague promises to meet in a future of crumbling enthusiasm and growing diffidence. At the conference in Oxford there had seemed to be some subterranean attraction that connected them before they were introduced. They felt something more like recognition than discovery. Olivia was certainly pretty, her dark brown hair set off her pale blue eyes in an obviously striking way, but it was the clarity of the eyes themselves that got to him. He had the sense of someone who would not just hold his gaze, as she did when they first met, long past the fading smiles of routine sociability, but someone who would also hold the gaze of an unsettling experience or an inconvenient fact. It was a kind of moral seduction that lent inevitability to her physical appeal. They had only spent one night together, but it had the tentative intensity of a love affair rather than the practised abandon of hedonism.
What would it be like for her to be on this walk? Would she, like him, feel part of a web of living experience? Francis couldn’t help wondering how Olivia’s relationship to the natural world had withstood her training as a biologist. So much biology consisted of killing animals, during or after performing experiments on them, it was an education that cried out for dissociation from the rest of nature. It had never been a good time to be a ‘model organism’, a fruit fly, a mouse, a dog, a rat, a cat, a rhesus monkey or a chimpanzee. As an undergraduate, he had done more than enough vivisection, dissection and deliberate infection of laboratory animals to drive him to specialise in botany as soon as possible. Why did every generation of biology student have to amputate the legs of living frogs and spectate on the beating hearts of crucified mammals, as if they were trying to join a tough gang whose rite of passage was a random murder? At the peak of his rebellion against this tradition, he had come across a remark by Wittgenstein, not especially eloquent in itself, but striking at the time, because it seemed to vindicate his unease about the way he was being taught: ‘Physiological life is of course not “Life”. Nor is psychological life. Life is the world.’ He might not have made the grade as a lethal biologist, but he remained a naturalist, trying to appreciate the last of those three short sentences as deeply as he could. Being a naturalist wasn’t a bad tradition; after all, before neo-Darwinism there had been Darwinism and before Darwinism, Darwin, a man writing about earthworms and making detailed observations of living creatures and joining pigeon fancying clubs and gardening and corresponding with other naturalists, without treating their testimony as ‘merely anecdotal’.
Francis came to a halt. After eight years at Howorth, he had grown to know the mushrooms scattered around the estate, identifying the woods where he might expect to forage giant puffballs, or porcini for lunch, as well as the meadows and pastures where the flimsy and modest-looking liberty caps hid their psilocybin charge, like jewels sewn into the lining of a refugee’s tattered overcoat. Right now, he had almost stepped on a chanterelle. It was evidence of a vigorous mycorrhizal network under his feet, the product of a symbiotic association between fungi, foraging for nutrients in the soil, and the roots of these young trees. In some ecosystems, the nutrients were transferred from favoured plants to struggling ones, but in any case, the whole network was supposed to take much longer to establish. It was exciting to see new knowledge emerging from the wilding experiment that was taking place on the land around his cottage. Ten years ago, his landlords had noticed that the old oaks at Howorth were sickening and beginning to die back; they had lost their bloom and some skeletal branches were sticking out of the canopy like bare antlers. They called in an expert who told them that the oaks were dying from the constant ploughing that churned up their roots and from the pesticides and artificial fertiliser being showered on the soil. Trees that had withstood the demands of shipbuilding, the Industrial Revolution and the timber quotas of the Second World War were being killed by improvements in farming. George and Emma made the radical decision to abandon intensive agriculture and turn over their estate to wilding. The monotony of wheat was replaced by Red deer and Fallow deer, Tamworth pigs, English Longhorn cattle and a herd of Exmoor ponies, acting as proxies for animals that would have roamed Britain in the past – aurochs, tarpan and wild boar – in a landscape that was gradually turning into a kind of English savannah of open grassland dotted with trees and shrubs.
Francis, who had arrived at Howorth two years after the wilding began, was given the job of monitoring the resurgence of species and taking visitors on tours of the estate. He found himself living in a world of growing richness, a hotspot for nightingales and turtledoves, a place that might help save a species from extinction and where scientific knowledge was being advanced. The Purple Emperor cocoon, for instance, that he had seen ensconced on the branch of some scrubland sallow in the middle of a field, disproved the established view that the Emperor was a woodland butterfly. Agriculture had simply eliminated isolated sallow before the observations were recorded in scientific literature. There had been one clear-water pond on the estate in the agricultural days, less polluted by nitrate run-off than the others, where the rare water violet led its happily neglected life. Now, the violet had spread to the other ponds and, radiating around them, there was also a series of ‘scrapes’ – shallow indentations made to collect rain. Sometimes in the early summer, before they dried out, Francis had seen animals gathering around these ephemeral watering holes in a density that seemed more African than English; deer and cattle drinking, ducks and moorhens swimming, swallows and dragonflies dipping, and the cries of nearby skylarks piercing the chatter of all the other birds twisting through the air above the water and the reeds.
The flat land around Howorth, with its heavy clay soil, set in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, was quite different from the Somerset village where Francis had been brought up, on the edge of the Quantocks, the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to be designated in England. The village contained a house where Coleridge had lived for a couple of years. About thirty miles away, on Exmoor, was Ash Farm where he had been writing ‘Kubla Khan’ before he was interrupted by the ‘person from Porlock’ – a coastal village which Francis often visited as a child, scanning the beach for the vandal who had done such a disservice to poor old Coleridge. Francis’s father had dreamt of becoming a vet, but there had not been enough money to complete his training and he had taken up a job in the Taunton branch of Lloyds where his parents’ small dairy farm had its debts. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, but between the mortgage and the costs of bringing up a child, there had never been time to go back to his vocation and so he led his life as a reluctant banker, specialising in agricultural loans, which at least allowed him to drive around the countryside to visit clients who appreciated the astute and compassionate gaze he brought to their herds and flocks.
Francis’s childhood home was full of animals: the brilliantly intelligent sheepdog, Balthazar; a tank of tropical fish; a tortoise slowly exploring the garden, and a nervous albino rabbit, Alphonso, who died by nibbling voraciously through an electric cable. Without sheep to work with, Balthazar practised herding the hens that Francis’s mother kept, until she finally asked his father to put up a fence between them. Although Francis was only six, he was invited to help.
His father took to the hammer with uncharacteristic ferocity, frightening Francis with his strange atmosphere. After a few violent blows, he apologised, explaining that the bank had repossessed a farm belonging to a family he had known all his life: they had fought so hard to keep it and he felt guilty about his failure to protect them. ‘Let’s measure out the fence,’ he said, in a calmer voice; ‘you can cut the wire.’ By Sunday afternoon they had completed the job: half a dozen willow stakes, connected by three rows of gleaming wire, curving across the end of the garden. At first it all seemed rather stark and new, but then in the spring Francis saw the bare stakes, which had appeared to be old timber, coming back to life; they were sprouting and turning into willow trees. This early experience of regeneration had a strong impact on his imagination and connected the landscape at Howorth with his own deep past, making the differences between his current home and his childhood home less important than their shared regenerative power.
He belonged, like Olivia, to a generation that felt it had been born on a planet irretrievably damaged by human greed and ignorance. The previous generation had perhaps been preoccupied by the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but for Francis, who was only five when the Berlin Wall came down, there was clearly no need for a war to lay waste to the biosphere; all that was needed was business as usual. In his first conversation with Olivia at the megafauna conference, perhaps already exhilarated by their meeting but not yet prepared to express it directly, he couldn’t help noticing the strangely cheerful, almost rivalrous way they had discussed the inevitable death of nature. They agreed that the Anthropocene Age was more likely to mark the downfall than the triumph of its brash protagonist; or rather, that they would both be parts of a single event, like a property developer cutting the ribbon on a looming skyscraper that bears his name, only to be buried moments later under its tsunami of rubble and dust. He told Olivia that during his adolescence, the weight of ecological doom was sometimes so great that he had felt the pressure of misanthropy and despair. When he read that the acidification of the oceans through the absorption of excess carbon dioxide would lead to the loss of thirty per cent of marine life, the scale of the crisis invited a sense of impotence equal to his sense of horror. He felt that if each soldier killed in a war deserved to have his name inscribed on a monument, an entire species wiped out by hunting or the destruction of its habitat must deserve to have its name recorded as well. After admiring endangered species in captivity, a Hall of Extinction would provide a solemn and natural finale to a day at the zoo. In his early twenties the antidote to his sense of dread was to join other eco-warriors in clandestine operations, releasing beavers into Devon rivers in the middle of the night. The excitement and camaraderie were sometimes outweighed by an angry assumption that the rest of the human population was made up of ‘consumerist zombies’ who regarded nature as little more than a recreational facility, a virtuous alternative to watching television on a cloudless afternoon. In Francis’s experience, ecological angst was in fact almost universal, but most people found it hard to know what to do other than eat and drink around the clock in a conscientious drive to fill as many recycling bags as possible.
When he moved to Howorth and started to participate in the wilding project, he found himself transformed by the transformation taking place around him. The paradox of forcing a landscape to become wild was no longer a paradox in the Anthropocene Age, which was bound to reverse man’s absorption in nature’s rhythms and force nature to mimic favourite human narratives. Wilderness, after being exiled from paradise, could find salvation in national parks and conservation areas. It was too late to let it be itself, but it could be legally exempt from exploitation, placed beyond the reach of utility and, as a place of ‘Outstanding Natural Beauty’, like the Quantocks, acquire some of the glamorous self-justification of art. The lost paradise had of course not been one of bloodless harmony, but of self-regulating abundance and predation, before the devastating advantage of machines fell into the hands of a single species. The passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird in North America and perhaps the world – with one flock, observed as late as 1866, a mile wide and three-hundred miles long, with three and a half billion birds in it – was extinct by 1914, without the assistance of an asteroid or an Ice Age.
In the Yellowstone National Park, the reintroduction of wolves had rebalanced the entire ecosystem, breaking up large herds of grazing animals, keeping elk away from favoured pastures, leading to the regeneration of aspens and cottonwoods, and to an increasing number of eagles and ravens, which were able to feed on the carcasses of wolf kills, and so on: a ‘trophic cascade’ correcting the extermination of the wolves initially endorsed by the Park authorities. Wilderness enthusiasts argued for the reintroduction of wolves and lynx in Scotland, but they ran up against the opposition of livestock farmers and sporting estates. Instead, a hundred thousand deer had to be culled each year to prevent them from overgrazing and impeding forest regeneration.
Wilding was not a fantasy of returning to a primordial land, emptied of traffic and filled with extinct species, but an attempt to understand the dynamics of an unmanaged landscape and relaunch them in the modern world. One reason Francis had gone to the conference was to look into the historical question of how ecosystems had achieved equilibrium in the past. Had Britain been an almost uninterrupted woodland before the dominance of human influence, the need for fuel, building materials and agricultural land, or had megafauna prevented the emergence of unbroken forest by knocking over and trampling trees, together with smaller animals that inhibited tree growth by damaging bark and feeding on saplings? Fascinated as he was by the rival visions of ancient wilderness presented at the conference, Francis soon found that he was even more fascinated by Olivia. On the second day, they drifted away from a discussion group dedicated to portraying the life and environmental impact of the giant sloth before its extermination by Native Americans – or murderous newcomers, from the giant sloth’s point of view – and started discussing their feelings for each other instead. Catching up the next day, Francis was relieved to hear that the conference had come out in favour of the kind of landscape that was emerging at Howorth.
Francis’s thoughts were interrupted by a series of short, multiplying caws. He turned around just in time to see dozens of rooks launch themselves from the shaking branches of a tree. They made him think of the drops of ink flying from his fountain pen as it twisted through the air in his Finals. The whole episode had seemed to take place in slow motion – at just about the speed of these flapping and circling rooks in the distance – induced by the spellbound terror that his pen might land on its nib in the middle of his life’s most important exams. The association was so strange, but so intimate, showing his imagination and memory were forming their own combinations in parallel to the guided tour he seemed to be compulsively preparing for Olivia.
Her train would be arriving in a few hours and it was time for him to head home to change the sheets and get the remaining ingredients for dinner. He had come to the green lane that had once been used by drovers to take sheep and cattle from the South Downs up to London for sale and slaughter. Now he could cut back along it, walking the straight edge of his semicircular path. He set off rapidly under the midday sun, his longing for reunion uneasily combined with the feeling of how little he knew Olivia, and by the stress of so many specific novelties: her first visit to his cottage, the first time he had cooked for her, the first time he had bought the barely affordable red wine recommended by the local wine merchant, and then there was the potential for disappointment that surrounded all these novelties. Francis stopped for a moment, interrupted his anxiety, took in his surroundings again and burst out laughing, realising that everything was perfect just as it was and that it couldn’t be improved by speculation.
Excerpted from Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Edward St. Aubyn. All rights reserved.