Creating “My” Island

A Personal Perspective on Writing & Rewilding

 Essay by Angela E. Douglas, “Nature Boy” Art by A.J. Springer 


My writerly life in the last year has been dominated by time. I have been grappling with time’s arrow in three different ways. The arrows of plot and character point relentlessly to the future, as I subject the main protagonist to a series of trials, each more troublesome than the last. The one obvious plot line is that my protagonist (or perhaps I should call her a heroine, given all those humiliating social indignities and occasional moments of terror) is transformed from an indecisive teenager devoid of ambition to a young adult who knows what she wants out of life. The arrows of plot and character are firmly anchored in the present. This gives my heroine instant access to the internet on her phone, allowing her to communicate with family and friends at home. As she talks, she reveals her innermost thoughts (and delusions) about her life working at a boutique hotel on a small subtropical island that offers paradise vacations for the über-rich. 

What about my third arrow, the timeline that defines my imaginary world? This arrow points firmly back to the past. My island is 20 miles south of Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean. To create this island, I rewilded Bermuda to the days before its discovery by the Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez  in 1505. The people on my island are so few and so eco-friendly that the island ecosystem is pristine. At least, that’s what they tell each other and their hotel guests.

The first step in my rewilding was to clothe the island in a forest of Bermuda cedar. (For readers who like the detail, Bermuda cedar is a kind of juniper tree, not a pine like the Cedar of Lebanon.) The forest is magnificent, with trees up to 50 feet in height and many hundreds of years old. It is a calm place with a pervasive aroma of tree resin, and a hush that is broken only by the occasional creak of a branch or twitter of small birds. I had to imagine it because Bermuda’s cedar forest is long gone. Most of the trees were cut down in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide timber for shipbuilding, and the forest remnants were killed by scale insects introduced inadvertently in the 1940s. Despite ongoing initiatives to plant Bermuda cedar, the dense human population and intensive pressure on land for housing and roads preclude the restoration of the original forest habitat. 

Then I added in magnificent coral reefs teeming with butterfly fish, damselfish, and angel fish  and, in the sandy bays, seagrass beds that support seahorses, queen conches, and green turtles. Bluebirds nest in holes in the cedar trees, and Bermuda cicadas buzz incessantly through the summer months. The island is a haven for seabirds, including thousands of breeding cahows (Bermuda petrel) and terns. My island is inescapably different from Bermuda, where strong conservation policies endeavor to ameliorate the depredations of tourism, pollution, and shoreline developments on the marine environment, the remnant bluebird population is dependent on artificial nestboxes for breeding, the Bermuda cicada is likely extinct, and the sole remaining species of tern (the common tern) is reduced to just a few breeding pairs. Bermuda’s big success story is the cahow. Apparently driven to extinction by hunting and introduced rats and cats in the 17th century, breeding cahows were rediscovered on uninhabited rocky islets in 1951 and have subsequently been nurtured to a population of more than one hundred breeding pairs. Perhaps the thousands of cahows breeding on my fictional island is as much a prayer for the future of the cahow as a genuflection to its past. 

I am aware that my imagined rewilding of Bermuda is tame compared to some rewilding initiatives in the real world. The scientific argument is seductive: that our natural world has been out of balance for the last 10,000 years when many of the very large animals that roamed the land went extinct. North America, for example, lost such fierce predators as the saber-toothed tigers and American cheetahs, and enormous herbivores, including ground sloths, giant armadillos, camels, and mammoths. What happened? These creatures were unable to adapt to rapidly changing climate at the end of the last Ice Age, compounded by the increasingly sophisticated hunting practices and habitat modification by the burgeoning human population. Does that sound familiar?

How can the land be rewilded, when so many of the big players are extinct? One strategy is to promote what we have. A flagship rewilding initiative re-introduced wolves and bison to Yellowstone National Park, resulting in substantial restructuring of the ecosystem: a welcome reduction in numbers of elk and coyotes, and positive changes in the vegetation. If the “right” species is extinct, consider introducing similar species. In parts of Europe, domestic animals, such as horses, cattle, and sheep, have been let loose in semi-natural spaces, with the expectation that they will regenerate self-sustaining “mosaics” of open habitats and woodland. 

Some scientists talk about introducing African cheetahs and Asian elephants to the American prairies as proxies for the extinct American cheetahs and mammoths. Enthusiasts add that any inadequacies of the proxy could be reduced by modifying its genes to give it traits that better match “the real thing.” Are these ideas unhinged, or merely ambitious? One well-funded research program is seeking to resurrect the woolly mammoth by altering the genetic makeup of Asian elephants to withstand the cold. In a recent issue of The New Yorker (13th November 2023, p.24), Ross MacPhee, an expert at the American Museum of Natural History, comments on these efforts to “de-extinct” the mammoth with the words, “What’s the point, really?” The response – to release the creatures onto steppe-tundra landscapes across the northern hemisphere, where they will promote the restructuring of the habitats, thereby reducing the negative impacts of climate change – is a stretch for my imagination and perhaps a great starting point for a climate-fiction novel. A program with higher chance of success in the real world (and not without fictional possibilities) is the selective breeding of the wild cat of Scotland to eliminate the domestic cat genes that have crept into the wild cat genome through occasional matings with domestic cats: an instance of rewilding by de-domestication, rather than de-extinction. 

My rewilded island has no big animals, fierce or otherwise. Bermuda has no native mammals, apart from the occasional visitation by migratory bats in the spring and fall. No rats or mice rafted on driftwood across the ocean to this speck of land (but they did come on ships over the last five hundred years). On one occasion, my heroine gets lost in the cedar forest. A bit panicky, she reminds herself that there are no snakes, wild beasts, or crazies in the forest. She is right, apart from the crazies. Every story needs at least one crazy. 

Was I tempted to add in some wild beasts? Although it would boost the excitement quotient, I was not persuaded. The breakdown of my island world is all the sadder for the credibility (meaning biological feasibility) of the initial paradise. What’s more, any “wild beasts on a small island” plot would be a pale shadow of the greatest rewilding-gone-wrong story of all time: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, where cloned dinosaurs run amok on the fictional island of Isla Nublar off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. 

These thoughts bring me to the first of my two take-home messages. The biological business of rewilding offers many writerly opportunities, both shaping the story world and driving the plot. 

My second line of thinking relates to a key feature of the concept of rewilding: that it turns traditional conservation practice on its head. For a century and more, people have wrung their hands as the natural world has been despoiled by human greed and thoughtlessness. The solution has been to create safe havens, such as nature preserves and wilderness parks, where animals, plants and the landscapes are protected from the march of human progress. These lands are managed actively and often at considerable expense to ensure the survival of specific species (such as rare orchids or eagles) and to protect landscapes that people relate to (e.g., flower meadows, ancient forests, mountain scenery). Some conservation projects are akin to King Canute, sitting on his throne on the beach and instructing the incoming tide to retreat. No preserve can be protected indefinitely from the assaults of invasive species, nutrient pollution, climate change, and more. 

Rewilding initiatives upend standard conservation practice by instructing us to focus on the process, and abandon the expectation of a single, well-defined outcome. In the rewilding scenario that I discussed in previous paragraphs, top carnivores and large herbivores are returned to the landscape, and the biological interactions are left to play out with little or no human intervention. The outcome is not necessarily predictable, but it is argued that the ecosystem will be more resilient than today’s impoverished, dewilded ecosystems to changing circumstances associated with climate change and other vicissitudes. Alternative rewilding strategies involve even less intervention: simply cease management of human-dominated habitats, such as marginal agricultural land and brownfield sites in cities, and let nature take its course. At least, that is the principle. The practice is that the best outcomes may require some intervention. For example, the re-establishment of native plants may require the selective removal of invasive plants or culling of super-abundant herbivores. 

This brings me to the second take-home message of rewilding. In its various forms, rewilding in the natural world is all about letting go, at least in part, to provide the space for natural processes to do their thing. Unfettered by arbitrary controls, the story begins. Some would argue that this is not prudent way to manage wild places. Whatever your position on rewilding of our natural world, there is, surely, a place for wilding in our fiction writing.





Angela Douglas has recently taken up writing fiction and about natural history. Her first book of natural history essays Nature on the Doorstep was published by Cornell University Press in spring 2023. Angela enjoyed her previous career as an academic biologist studying beneficial microbes in animals, also known as microbiomes. Her early work focused on plant-animals, including corals and flatworms; these animals that acquire photosynthetic algae which provide them with sugars and other nutrients. Subsequently, she extended her interests to the bacteria that contribute to the nutrition of various insects, including aphids and other sap feeding insects, as well as Drosophila fruit flies. Alongside her research and teaching, Angela has written scientific books, including Fundamentals of Microbiome Science (2018) and Insects and their Beneficial Microbes (2022) published by Princeton University Press, and Microbiomes (2022, Oxford University Press). See

A.J. Springer (b.1993, New York) is a multimedia artist who combines drawing, collage, painting, and printmaking to create immersive complex collages. Her work has been shown both nationally and internationally in exhibitions and fairs such as Galeria Taller La Maquina, Oaxaca, Mexico (2023), The Other Art Fair, NY (2021-2023) Miami Art Basel (2019, 2018, 2017, 2014), Monmouth Museum, NJ (2018), 21 Gallery in Cologne, Germany (2017), Seoul Museum of Art, South Korea (2017) and IPCNA Cultural Museum in Lima, Peru (2016). She currently resides and continues her practice as an artist in Brooklyn, NY.