The Peace of Wild Things

Thomas Bolger travels to the Apennine Mountains with The European Nature Trust, looking for the endangered Marsican bear 

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

– Wendell Berry

A new-born Marsican bear cub weighs less than a pack of spaghetti, though it soon grows to be the largest carnivore in Italy. The Ursus arctos marsicanus, a unique sub-species of the brown bear, is critically endangered. No more than fifty roam the Central Apennines, frisking what food they can find in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, an area created specifically to protect them. Beech nuts, tubers, apples and cherries are supplemented by clandestine pickings from local farmer’s strawberry patches and chicken coops. Mostly nocturnal and with a calm temperament, they are both elusive and isolated. Their decline and survival are the reason I am currently waiting for luggage in Rome airport. Devout cyclists and Catholics jostle past, having flown in for the Granfondo Campagnolo Roma and canonising of Cardinal John Henry Newman respectively.

I’m here on the invitation of The European Nature Trust (TENT), a charity that organises trips throughout Europe – including Romania, Scotland, Spain – and raises funds for the protection and restoration of its wilderness. Its Italian project, which I’m to experience first-hand, works primarily with Salviamo l’Orso (Save the Bear), investing in conservation, research and rewilding for the animal. Together with a gaggle of other journalists and photographers, we set off East, driving for two hours on increasingly winding mountain roads. Eventually reaching the quaint, picturesque town of Pescasseroli, there is still time to try and spy some animals from a nearby vantage spot. Through binoculars I am able to spot a stag, all haunch and tangled antlers, poised like a life-drawing model. As the sun goes down over the valley, lighting the hills pastel pink and powder blue, our local guide Umberto notes that the Romans drained the second largest lake in Italy to create the initial depression we’re looking over, with Mussolini finishing the job 2,000 years later. Exhausted from travelling most of the day, our group retires to the family run Albergo Villino Quintillani, nodding off in front of the fire.

The following day, before morning breaks, we silently crawl in a 4×4 to the Southern area of the 150,000 acre Park. Ancient, immense Beech forests turning purple-brown cover roughly 60% of its territory, along with oaks, maples, yews, rare birch and black pine. In addition to the lightweight cousins of the Kodiak bear who have roamed the Apennine Mountains since the last Ice Age, Wolves, Roe Deer, Martens, Hares, Chamois, Vipers and Lynx hide within these woods, while Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and White-backed Woodpeckers wheel above. Altogether, the flora and fauna represent one of the richest examples of biodiversity in Western Europe. Our first expedition to try and see some bears begins with a dapple-dawn ascent, frost breaking underfoot along the trail. Walking wordlessly so as not to spook any wildlife we come across an incredibly friendly fox who I later find out is called Meta, named after the local mountain occasionally visible through the dense trees.

Finally breaking out of the undergrowth into warm Autumn sun, I walk alongside TENT director Duncan Grossart and ask just how much protection is needed for Europe’s natural landscape? “The remaining wilderness is incredibly fragile,” he notes. “There are still masses of virgin land, but the rapidity of logging across Europe is still quite aggressive and extreme – rangers are still being killed by illegal loggers. Once these areas gone, they’re incredibly difficult to restore.” Continuing to climb for a number of hours, occasionally hearing the soft xylophone tones of passing cowbells, we finally reach the top of the hill’s saddle. On a clear day I am told you can witness both the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian sea, and if you’re lucky, the island of Capri. It is also rumoured that many years ago, two monks froze to death after trying to reach an abbey on the other side of the saddle. They were only discovered the following spring, when the ice thawed.

Sitting atop the peak, soaking up the expansive azure view, Grossart sighs happily: “In a society engineered towards work, where there is an overload of sensorial experiences – visual, sound and air pollution – when I go to the natural world I can feel myself physically relaxing. My chest expands and I breathe deeper. For me, I get this immediate sense of wellbeing and calmness, a clarity of thought. I grew up on a diet of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau and we have a lot more information about the natural world now. The tension with that – is that an overload of information is creating a world where we don’t even know where to start. What do people need to do on a micro or macro scale? Sometimes it can be paralysing.” Our conservation meanders round to climate change and I wonder aloud why wildlife devastation doesn’t get the column inches it deserves within that context, despite there being a real possibility of irreversible destruction of biodiversity and the extinction of thousands of species. Grossart states that theClimate Emergency is still quite an abstract term for many people, even those engaged in it. One of the solutions to climate change is protecting and nurturing trees and forests, large swathes of undisturbed habitat. One of the best solutions is nature itself, in terms of combatting the levels of CO2. It is the single biggest help we can have in the fight.”

Our post-mountain meal of Boar Ragu with freshly made pappardelle, cooked by the chef-cousin of a local ranger, is washed down by many, many glasses of local wine. Slightly tipsy, the group proceeds to attend a talk with Salviamo l’Orso. Created in 2012 to introduce practical actions that reduce threats to the bear, the NGO is completely run by volunteers ranging from biologists to clerks, students to teachers. In order to preserve and help the expansion of the population in its natural habitat, it is engaged in work that tackles human-related conflicts and disease prevention, while monitoring the bears presence and delivering education initiatives to help sway public opinion. We are told conservation work is crucial but decidedly unglamorous – erecting electric fences, road signs and reimbursing grumpy, ransacked farmers. Although TENT only formally started funding it earlier this year, the organisation has already seen progress in its school education and vaccination work. I enquire what the balance is in the partnership, to which Grossart replies, “We are very much guided by our partners on the ground, we would never tell them what to do by diktat. Previously, this has been a characteristic of the charity model, telling countries and their citizens what to do with their lives. It’s about supporting people. Thinking about it in a business context, if you’re investing, you’re backing the people within the company, not the product. It’s the same thing in a wildlife context. We’re backing the people first and foremost – they’re the ones doing it day in day out.”

Once again, we rise early enough to see the sun come up, streaks of heather cloud daubed over black hills. Half frozen we wait patiently, ears and eyes alert for any movement. The bears and wolves must be slumbering as there are still no signs, so we pack up our spyware, snap back 3 espressos, and cycle around the rolling slopes of Macchiarvana and Camporotondo. In the late afternoon, our group rambles many miles to the Terraegna mountain refuge, deep within the Park. Along the trail we find a number of clues – claw marks, hair and paw prints – that show bears have been nearby. Their presence is confirmed by a camera trap a short stroll from the refuge, monochrome snap shots of a female called Sebastiana and her two cubs. It is the closest I’ve come to the animal and there is a reverence in seeing them, even digitally removed. Umberto points to the tree opposite the trap, before running his hand over the bark which has been shaped by multi-generational back rubs. The very reason he became a guide was due to a chance encounter with a female bear and her cub when he was a child. If you know where to look, he tells me, you can see them everywhere – in the trees, round the drinking water and marked throughout the nature reserve corridors.   

As it is our final night we are treated to all manner of local dishes in the former shepherds hut – rich Cavatelli stew and heaps of Scamorza cheese – undaunted and unfazed that we’d been unable to see the bears in the flesh. That was not the point of the trip, I had come to realise. Ask anyone keen on wildlife watching or fishing and they will say the chase is as good as the catch, or rather, sometimes it is enough knowing that you’ve tried. As we have become an increasingly urban animal, our connection to the natural world has weakened. Three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates and the last two major biodiversity agreements – in 2002 and 2010 respectively – have unsuccessfully halted the worst loss of life on Earth since the dinosaurs. Renewing that connection has never been more pressing. Without groups like TENT and their local partners making a concerted effort to preserve natural life, I worry I will have to rely on picture books to show my grandchildren what the peace of wild things looks like.

TENT can arrange itineraries for private groups to the Abruzzo National Park