From rewilding to ‘wild’ swimming, nature has been hijacked by modern-day Marie Antoinettes

In the decade I defined recently in this column as the Troubled Teens, many words have changed their meaning. Now, it isn’t just old fogeys muttering darkly about verbal appropriation, as one lovely word after another falls to the monstrous regiments of the woke. I am, too.

“Brave” – once meant rescuing orphans from burning buildings; now means talking about one’s troubles in public. “Activist” – once meant getting out and about to help others; now means staying indoors on the internet screaming at people who think differently. “Community” – once meant a cheery group of neighbours getting together for street parties; now means a posse of peevish wallflowers going for gold in the Victimhood Olympics.

And now “wild” – a word which, predictably, I have a weakness for. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “uncontrolled or extreme” with the slang “unusual, often in a way that is attractive or exciting”. This is the wildness that produced numerous cultural artefacts: songs like Wild Thing, films like Wild At Heart, books like Where The Wild Things Are.

But in recent years there’s been a creeping encroachment of a version of the word which doesn’t mean life-affirming risk but rather self-denying caution – to quote Cambridge, “wild land is not used to grow crops and has few people living on it”. “Rewilding” predictably showed up in the woke Archers a while back when the rich old Archer matriarch Peggy awarded half a million pounds to a “rewilding” project. Though it seemed an unlikely alliance at first, it’s worth remembering that “conservative” and “conservation” have a common root – and probably a manky old root thieved from common land and made into a stew, if the two-legged hedge-hogs have anything to do with it.

Lockdown, meanwhile, has exacerbated the craze for foraging as part and parcel of the wildness trend, along with wild swimming (swimming outside) and wild dining (dining outside) to the point where Epping Forest – once most notorious for dogging – has been rebooted as an Essex Eden, keen to share its opulent bounty with the furloughed.

You can see how plague-laden supermarkets might make outdoor scavenging look like the healthy way to get your five a day, but I’m not convinced. As a big people fan, I’ve never been overkeen on nature; when as a teenager I heard that there was a book called Against Nature, I became so thrilled I carried a copy around for a year, as though it was a trendy Etam handbag. This aversion stayed with me into adulthood, to the somewhat illogical point where, living in a house with fruit trees in the garden, I would leave them for the birds and buy apples from the supermarket, all nicely done up in plastic.

In recent years, commercial mushroom foragers in Epping Forest have been fined thousands of pounds for removing the fungi that supports ancient trees and serves as food for wildlife such as deer. I’ve never trusted mushrooms since I saw some growing on the bathroom carpet of a friend (reader, I married him!) and the idea of breaking the law in order to get your greedy paws on some does strike me as somewhat surreal. And the only forager I ever knew fell in a stagnant pond while reaching for blackberries, having scratched her arms and legs; soon after, she woke up with a brain infection and had to learn to walk all over again. Give me the concrete fields of the city any day, where you can see trouble coming.

As a counter-jumping meritocrat, I’ve always thought Nature best left to the posh; like them it doesn’t have a lot to say and clings blindly to an outdated “natural” order. Scratch a friend of the earth and find an enemy of earthlings; look how ecology movements are so white and bourgeois they make a Monday Club meeting look like the Reggae Sunsplash festival. Because rewilding is an attempt to go back in time, before pesky people and their petty desires to have a decent standard of living caused human habitats to blight the landscape.

“Gonna make it happen/Take the world in a love embrace” sang Steppenwolf in one of my favourite songs Born To Be Wild. Let the modern Marie Antoinettes keep their fellow humans six feet away while they gorge themselves on buckshee fungi; this fashion for “the wild” is an adventure only for the mild at heart.

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