Local: A Search for Nearby Nature and Wilderness by Alastair Humphreys

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We have just this one tiny planet to live on, now and for the foreseeable future. We must care for it, and use its resources wisely, sustainability, and fairly. If we do, then the future is brighter for both humans and nature.

Alastair Humphreys has spent his life travelling and writing, ranging across fantastic and wild landscapes around the globe. He’s won the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012 and the Royal Geographical Society New Award in 2023, marking, one would think, these wide-ranging adventures: in fact, the former was for his concept of “microadventures” and the latter for his promotion of public engagement with the outdoors and a greater understanding of our world. So, when he orders a map centring on his home in an area of the southern UK that is not, he assumes, very exciting or interesting and vows to visit a square a week for a year, it’s from a background of both impressive adventure and learning and teaching others to see the nature and landscape value in the everyday and, indeed, local. 

Humphreys has settled “somewhere” in southern England, aware of the climate change impact of travel and with a family to keep settled and educated. You feel him yearning and straining for a more exciting landscape to live in, dreaming of the Lake District and Scotland yet trapped in a mix of suburbia and farmland, factories and fields with not a hill to be seen, and he’s also interested in finding out more about how humans impact the places they build on and farm. He decides to do a project to reconcile himself with the area and look into this aspect, and buys an Ordnance Survey map centred on his house, aiming to explore a square of the map every week and write about it. As he progresses, he gets glimpses of landmarks from squares he’s already visited; part-way through he spends an afternoon cycling around the ones he’s been to so far; and six months after the end of the project, he makes an attempt at cycling through as many of the squares as possible in a giant spiral. 

As we progress through Humphreys’ squares and year, we learn a lot of information about the area he’s exploring. He purposefully doesn’t give place names, as he wants to encourage readers to explore their own areas, not follow him. He starts off with what he considers the most boring square, one without a road or a river or a house, just a footpath, a pond and a bit of a contour line. Immediately, he has an adventure and meets some people, and this is how things progress through the book. He tracks birdsong, plant names, geology and stars through various apps and is constantly frustrated by wire fences and Keep Out signs, sometimes for people’s safety around ponds, usually put up by landowners. He laments the lack of access this causes for people to woods and waters, and also has awareness of his privileges as he points out that as a “white middle-class bloke” it’s unfair that he finds this less intimidating than others might. 

Lots of things crop up in addition to access to nature: the effect of housing estates and concreting over gardens on water and other landscape features and quite a lot on rewilding. He’s British so talks a lot about the weather, but gets joy eventually from going out in the rain. At the end he shares the joy he has gained from looking at odd, liminal places, areas he thought would be boring and the details of plants and birds, which makes it a life-affirming and positive book even through the warnings and worry. 

The Author’s Note in the front shares his central tenet, listed above, and reminds us that we all probably agree with it, yet action or agree with actioning it in different ways. He mentions that we can be the first generation to leave our neighbourhood and the plant in better condition than we found it. Humphreys exhorts us to all get hold of a map of our local area and explore it in detail. He also offers resources, a “Take Action” list (support Right to Roam, travel lightly on the Earth, support Rewilding) and a small list of further reading at the back of the book. 

A fun and engaging read with a serious message about climate control, our relationship with our planet, local and global, and about taking joy from the everyday. 

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Liz Dexter comes from the county this book is about, although not from the same part of it. And yes, she’s bought an Ordnance Survey map centred on her house in the Midlands. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com where a version of this review first appeared.

Alastair Humphreys, Local: A Search for Nearby Nature and Wilderness (Eye Books, 2024).‎ 978-1785633575, 367pp., ill. paperback.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds like an excellent and important read Liz – thanks for bringing this to our attention!

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