Award-winning nature and travel author, and conservation pioneer Isabella Tree talks about her children’s book debut When We Went Wild.
What can you tell us about your work at Knepp and how it inspired When We Went Wild?
In 2000 my husband Charlie and I decided to turn over our 3,500 acres of unproductive, loss-making farmland to a rewilding experiment. In less than a decade our degraded land became a functioning ecosystem again, wildlife has rocketed and numerous endangered species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies, have made Knepp their home. The astonishing success of the experiment has drawn widespread interest both in the UK and round the world. One of the questions people ask is how to get this hopeful message across to children that nature can rebound, very quickly, if given the chance. A picture book seemed the obvious answer.
You wrote the hugely successful adult book Wilding, so what was it like for you to switch gears and write for a much younger audience?
It was fantastic fun! I loved reading picture books to our children when they were young – they had such an appetite for stories, particularly about nature and animals. So I just threw myself back to those bedtime evenings and tried to conjure up a story that would have entertained and intrigued them. I remembered what hard taskmasters they were. You can’t slip up where children are concerned. They notice the tiny details, and there are always so many questions.
Is there a reason you chose to explore this story through a fictional family?
The story had to be simplified from ours at Knepp because rewilding our land happened in stages over a number of years – we didn’t do it all in one go. And, because it was a large estate, there were many people involved – our estate manager, an advisory board of 20 ecologists, visits from government and NGOs etc. I needed the story to be immediate and for the children to relate to the characters directly so it made sense to make it smaller scale and bring it down to a small family farm. A lot of landowners and farmers in the UK now, especially on marginal land in the uplands, are rewilding on smaller areas.
What challenges did you encounter while writing this book?
I also needed a moment of jeopardy to have the reader closer to the edge of their seat, wondering if it’s all going wrong, will Jake and Nancy’s rewilding project succeed, and then the solution that comes along to save them – and though we had lots of these moments at Knepp, they were often drawn out over long periods of time (like the furious opposition to thistles and ragwort, or unfounded concerns about our ‘dangerous’ free-roaming animals). Using a storm as the moment of crisis was the answer. Restoring the soil and vegetation allows the land to absorb water again, preventing flooding – so that’s what persuades the angry villagers that actually rewilding might be a good thing to do, after all. With climate change we’re going to be having bigger storms more often so we need solutions like rewilding. Hard revetments like storm drains and concrete walls and canals are easily overwhelmed – and cost a bomb. If anything, they can make floodwaters more dangerous. Learning how to work with nature, rather than battle against it, is, I think, one of the underlying messages of the book.
What surprised you most?
I realized, when we were working on the illustrations, how misleading most children’s books are about farming. There are always these clean, neat little farmyards with scattered, happy animals, shaggy haystacks in the sunshine and a farmer wielding a pitchfork with straw in his hair. Modern farming isn’t like that! I think we have a duty of care not to instill these fantasies into our young children. We need to know, and be interested in, how the food is produced that ends up on our plate – or we’ll never be able to change the system for the better. Children have all the right instincts about good animal husbandry – we shouldn’t hoodwink them.
What do you hope kids will take away from your book? Why do you think a title like this is valuable for young children?
I hope kids will find it inspiring. The message is hugely positive – nature is there to help us, it’s our greatest ally. We just have to make that leap and trust it. I think most children are natural rewilders. They have an affinity with animals and enormous capacity for minute observation. They don’t mind so much about mess. In the outdoors, they’ll gravitate to the densest, gnarliest bit of scrub to make a den. They know the value of good habitat! They find it easier than adults to let go. So, in a sense, I think this book is as much for their parents as it is for children. I’m hoping the young readers will rewild the adults!
What are next steps people (children, parents, educators) can take to spread the message of your book?
It’s all about encouraging life – the tiny creatures as well as the largest. Almost everyone has a patch of soil they can look after – a back garden, a school yard, even a window box or a few pots on the doorstep – where we can grow plants, and particularly native plants, to encourage bees and butterflies and other insects. It’s amazing how they can find you. We need to learn to love all our insects! So, it’s about putting away the chemicals and detergents, learning to appreciate spiders, worms, wasps and ants for the amazing job they do. There’s nothing as wonderful as seeing a bumble bee or a butterfly landing on a flower that you have planted. In this age of eco-anxiety, when we’re hit with depressing headlines about the environment every minute of every day, the active doing of something that is a positive for nature – no matter how small – is balm for the soul and a window onto our planet’s recovery.
About the author:
Isabella Tree is an award-winning nature and travel author, and conservation pioneer. Her bestselling adult book ‘Wilding – the return of nature to a British farm’ (200,000 copies sold) tells the story of Knepp, the groundbreaking rewilding project in West Sussex, UK, that she started with her husband, the environmentalist Charlie Burrell.