Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
More so than ever, I’m convinced that the purpose of literature is to educate us about the most pressing issues that we face as a species. Whiling away a few hours? Having a laugh? Being transported to a magical setting long ago or halfway around the world? Such age-old reasons for reading aren’t enough anymore. That’s not to say that I don’t rush to read dozens of each year’s new releases, no matter the subject, and I’ll always turn to books for comfort and diversion. But all around there is an increasing sense of urgency: we must wake up to the climate crisis and do something about it right away, and in that context nature writing and environmental fiction can no longer be minor subgenres; they must lead the way in showing us our duty towards the more-than-human world.
So if you read one book this year, make it Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable. I’m not going to dilute that statement with qualifiers (‘If you read one nonfiction book…’ or ‘If you like nature books…’). It’s too important a book to limit its audience in any way. “We live in an age of diminution, thinning, disappearances … ghosts of our own making,” Hoffman asserts. Yet species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts, he acknowledges. ‘Shifting baseline syndrome’ means we don’t realize how much biodiversity has vanished during the sixth mass extinction. This book is a way of taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. “So often narrative is more persuasive than statistics in getting many of us to pay attention,” he rightly notes.
From the Kent marshes to the Coral Triangle off Indonesia, Hoffman discovers the situation on the ground and talks to the people who are involved in protecting places at risk of destruction. Reassuringly, these aren’t usually genius scientists or well-funded heroes, but ordinary citizens who are concerned about preserving the nearby sites that mean something to them. Parish councillors tell the author about the coastal Kent scenery – made famous in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – that has been saved, at least temporarily, from airport expansion plans. Retirees tell of their efforts to prevent Smithy Wood, north of Sheffield, from being turned into an unnecessary motorway services. One chapter mixes up the format by keeping readers in suspense: one of the two sites it discusses, a meadow near Glasgow and a set of allotments in Watford, will be saved; which will it be?
Further afield, the author (who’s based in northern Greece and previously published an essay collection, The Small Heart of Things, in 2013) explores Mavrovo National Park in northern Macedonia, where bears, wolves and lynx are threatened by a proposed hydropower dam. He also visits Konza Prairie, Kansas, an example of North America’s most endangered biome. We may find it harder to care about such hotspots far from us – “distance negates responsibility,” Hoffman shrewdly observes – but the book cuts through that distance by showing how others bear the brunt of our (in)action: for instance, Bangka Island, Indonesia is overrun by the plastic pollution that has washed up on its beaches.
In other chapters the connections – or conflicts – between progress, traditions and conservation crises are made plain. Bovine drugs have led to a worldwide decline in vulture populations, which has rendered the ritual of sky burial nearly obsolete. In Assam, the Nyishi people once used hornbills’ characteristic casques in head-dresses for their tribal rites, but now high-quality fibreglass replicas are being introduced as replacements and nest protection campaigns are in place to save the endangered hornbills from predation.
Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. By profiling seemingly average places and the people who love them, it makes nature preservation accessible. It takes local concerns seriously, yet its scope is international – making it more useful than a UK- or US-specific conservation guide. But what truly lifts Hoffman’s work above most recent nature books is the exquisite prose. This is a long book, worth reading slowly not only so as to take in the complexities of the stories it tells, but also to savour the evocative writing, such as the opening and closing descriptions of starling murmurations and passages like “the sun burns like a hot coin in the saddle of the sky, the marshes dance with a hazy shimmer, rolling towards the river, a green prairie slanting to the sea.”
This also serves as an excellent companion piece to the recent Extinction Rebellion handbook, This Is Not a Drill, which similarly places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. Both are empowering reads, a necessary tonic to the despair that tends to accompany discussions of the state of the environment. As Hoffman puts it, “communal space has the capacity to elicit selflessness from the people who share in its concerns. … Sometimes it takes just the first step towards questioning the way things are for the radical possibility of people acting in cohesion to take shape, for the aspirational to turn active; to create the indispensable space where hope can become courage can become change.”
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Julian Hoffman, Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places (Hamish Hamilton: London, 2019). 978-0241293881, 416 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)