I was in the Wollemi national park a few evenings ago. Our campsite was by a river in a large clearing. Ringed by large rock formations, there was no exaggeration in the National Park website’s description: “Mother Nature’s amphitheater.”
An unexpected treat lay down river. Two winding kilometers away are the Newnes Industrial Ruins. For about 30 years between 1900 and 1930, oil-rich shale was mined, processed, and piped away. The ruins emerge out of the bush quite suddenly and there is something forlorn about the way they cling on to the landscape. Today the columns are long gone, the distillation trenches are caved in, and the railway tracks overgrown. The skeletons of human industry are still visible, but I was surprised by how much nature has reclaimed over the last 90 years; especially when you consider how violent and toxic shale mining would have been.
It got me thinking about rewilding. I recently watched David Attenborough’s new documentary, A Life on our Planet, where, amongst other things, he calls for rewilding much of the natural world. Appropriately, the film starts and ends in Chernobyl, where the wild has quickly returned to the hastily abandoned exclusion zone. Newnes is a similarly hopeful reminder of nature’s resilience, although it should not inspire complacency; Newnes has been closed for 90 years, more time than we have, and nuclear disaster is an unreliable conservation strategy.
The obstacles to rewilding may come in unexpected forms. The biggest roadblock to rewilding the Scottish Highlands with woodland is deer, which eat the saplings. Ironically, the solution to date has been year-round culls; reintroducing bears or wolves has been a step too far, for now.