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Book Review of “Wild Souls” by Emma Marris: Rethinking nature conservation and the wild


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Emma Marris’ book Wild Souls was an easy read for me at the beginning of 2022. I saw it in the nonfiction section at my local book store and I was intrigued by the cover. I have been reading a lot of books about nature, the wild, conservation, and human relationships with the non-human world. Marris’ book seemed to cover all those things and so, I had to get it.

I feel like it is hard to cover all the topics that Marris brings up throughout her research. Marris is a contemporary environmentalist and conservationist and throughout Wild Souls, she talks about everything from moral and ethical problems for the conservation of endangered species as well as invasive species, to what it means to be ‘wild’. What Marris does best in her research is to provoke the reader to think more broadly about nature, our human impact, and how we might be adding human morals onto plants and animals that have no notion of human morality. Marris uses the example of endangered albatross chicks being attacked by an invasive mice colony. She brings up thoughtful discussions on killing animals and if and how this might be wrong or right. She notes that the conservation of one species might also mean the systematic extermination of another and that the black and white discussions around endangered species might actually be a lot more grey.

I found her discussions relating to the definition of the term wild and its use in early and contemporary colonialism to be particularly interesting. How I understand Marris’ discussion on the term ‘wild’ is that wild is deemed as everything that might not be part of the human world (this can also be read as the civilised world especially when we think about colonialism, Christianity, and white supremacy). We can also think of this understanding of ‘wild’ as meaning untouched by humans. On the surface this might seem rather benign, however, it is actually quite problematic which is something that Marris tries to unpack in her research. Essentially, when we think of wild in this way, it means that we are also devaluing and delegitimising indigenous knowledges about land, flora, and fauna. In a colonial context, when European colonisers arrived in foreign lands they deemed these places wild (read untouched by humans). What this means is that the history, knowledge, relationship, cultures, traditions, and land management practices of indigenous peoples were erased. It also implies that indigenous peoples aren’t ‘part of the human world’ (read white European culture).

The reality is that indigenous peoples had pets, farms, hunting traditions, festivals, land management practices, fashions, beauty practices, and so much more that was directly impacted by their relationships with the land, flora, and fauna native to their areas. Marris tries to come up with a new definition for ‘wild’ that relates to freedom rather than something’s relationship to the human world. Although, I still don’t know if that works for me and I will have to think on this more before saying more on it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Marris’ book. It felt like I got to travel the world when Australians really aren’t going anywhere at the moment. It made me think about nature and how amazing it is. It made me think about what decolonising our relationship with nature might mean and how we can start to challenge how certain definitions of words contribute to the perpetuation of colonialist beliefs.

Buy your copy from Book Depository here!

With all that said, if you love nature, natural history, ethics, conservation, and environmentalism – then this is the perfect read for you. I cannot wait to revisit Marris’ work and it has gotten me thinking about what other books on nature that I need to add to my TBR. As always, share the reading love.

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