Are humans a ‘keystone species’? This captivating new book rethinks our role in rewilding

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Sophie Yeo talks to us about her new book Nature’s Ghosts and the lessons for conservationists buried in landscapes of the past.

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Most of us today are familiar with rewilding – the concept of bringing nature back in certain areas, restoring lost ecosystems and biodiversity to a healthier state. It’s conservation work that’s often attached to the idea of “letting nature take care of itself”, with minimal human interference.

But is less human intervention always better? Or the most realistic approach on a 21st-century planet, home to 8.1 billion people?

Not necessarily. In some cases, a human touch can not only be helpful in designing rewilded ecosystems but also remain a vital part of them.

Perhaps because we’re so used to reading about the never-ending ways humans degrade the natural world, this is one of the themes that most excites me as I read Nature’s Ghosts, the captivating new book from UK journalist and Inkcap Journal editor Sophie Yeo.

What is Nature’s Ghosts about?

By surveying the work of ‘environmental detectives’ (think palaeoecologists, biologists and anthropologists), it digs into landscapes of the past to uncover lessons for conservationists today.

“At a time of unprecedented ecological collapse, it is our duty to restore something of that lost world,” argues Yeo in the introduction. She proceeds to take readers on a hike through the planet’s natural history – from Pleistocene-epoch forests filled with megafauna, to the present-day hay meadows of Transylvania.

On route, the author lays out debates about how these landscapes functioned, invites us to get curious about the past and also think imaginatively about the future, including our place in it.

“I always wanted there to be a strong human angle,” Yeo tells Euronews Green. “So I looked back at the history of humans in the landscape.”

“No one is living a prehistoric lifestyle anymore. But there are degrees of how we interact with the landscape and how harmful or positive our impact can be.”

Rethinking the role of humans in rewilding

It’s on a trip to Finland that Yeo encounters the clearest example of a rewilding project with humans embedded into the ecosystem.

At Lake Puruvesi, a traditional form of net fishing known as seining takes place in the icy winter months, nowadays with some modern touches involved (namely an operations warehouse and snowmobiles).

Keeping this rural tradition alive isn’t just about preserving culture – it serves an important ecological purpose too. As fish are removed from the water, so are excess nutrients, maintaining the lake’s clarity.

This presence of human activity challenges common ideas about rewilding, a term which Yeo points out can be confusing and contentious at the best of times. “Because it’s got that ‘re’ prefix in it, people think of rewilding as going back to a certain point in the past, which you can’t do specifically.

“It’s created a division between past and future. People are either very future focused or they’re more about just letting things go, letting nature take its course.”

But as she shows in the book, humans have shaped the landscape for thousands of years. When we’re co-existing with nature and not obliterating it, as Yeo puts it, we often have a productive role to play as a “keystone species” that maintains a healthy balance in ecosystems.

Why rural development must be part of conservation efforts

The case in Finland, where people are sustaining the lake and vice versa, is a testament to how weaving the traditional ecological functions of humans into the landscape can help both people and nature thrive.

On the flipside, excluding rural communities from conservation plans can further fracture the connection between humans and nature. There’s potential for depopulation and marginalisation if protecting landscapes is prioritised over the rights of local people.

For this reason, rural development needs to happen in harmony with conservation, Yeo explains. “It’s essentially doing conservation in a just way, that doesn’t leave people disempowered – feeling like they’ve been pushed off [the land].”

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“That’s why there’s so much backlash at the moment to a lot of rewilding ideas, particularly among farmers, because they feel like they’re not a part of it. Rewilding is sometimes going to be at odds with the desires of the people who live on the land and that’s why I think it’s important to bring people’s voices into it.”

How myths muddle with conservation

The pragmatic Finnish conservationist Yeo meets somewhat bluntly sums up the necessity for this modern human-nature coupled approach to conservation: “Romantic longings for some distant past are useless. We have to live today.”

Although Yeo presents the past as a rich and exciting source of inspiration, she urges a similar kind of realism, especially when it comes to untangling the myths wrapped up with natural history.

She reveals how the idea of nature untouched by humans is largely a myth in itself, cemented into popular understanding. In the US for example, “the Wilderness Act of 1964…defined such lands as ‘untrammelled by man, where himself is a visitor who does not remain,’ and has since infiltrated the minds and strategies of conservationists across the globe.”

Impressed into culture over the centuries, peeling away myths like these to uncover helpful, science-based blueprints for current conservation is no easy task.

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“Sometimes it even becomes scary to challenge them because they get entwined with our identity, or they become a part of how we see the landscape,” Yeo tells me.

But through Nature’s Ghosts, she skilfully takes on the challenge. Ultimately, she proves there’s enough magic in the real history and science of our landscapes without having to resort to myth-making.

Nature’s Ghosts: The World We Lost and How to Bring it Back is out on 23 May from HarperNorth.



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