Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton)
We begin with a murmuration of starlings above Brighton Pier; some people have come especially to see this, some are caught up in it after a day at the seaside, or on their way elsewhere. Hoffman describes the birds “…being sieved unseen from the sea” and we can imagine exactly the sight of these birds appearing as if from nowhere, creating their strange patterns in the sky, hundreds of individuals acting as one. The effect on the onlookers is magical – two girls stop taking selfies and point their phone cameras at the sky instead. A boy jumps excitedly, joyfully, on the pier’s boards, pointing this unexpected marvel out to his Mum. Yet I can remember the starling murmuration being commonplace, above my head in Leeds as a child. It’s only in recent years I realised I hadn’t seen a murmuration for decades – and that is Julian Hoffman’s point. The starling is in catastrophic decline, and we are the poorer for it “the spectrum of human encounters with the wild world…is inevitably reduced by their leaving” Those two girls are never torn away from their selfie taking by the thrill of the sight of this union of birds.
We all know by now (surely) that being outdoors amongst nature is immensely beneficial to human beings physical and mental wellbeing. What research into this is beginning to show – though I’m hopeful that most of us know it with our ‘sixth sense’ (Rebecca Solnit, quoted in the introduction) – is that ‘place’ is hugely important to us, although it is hard to define – it’s more than ‘that patch of woodland over there’ or ‘a nice beach we went to last year’. Place is experiential, bound up in our personal and community histories, we are connected to ‘place’ emotionally, they “spark greater emotional resonance in people than personally valued objects”. We feel great distress at the loss or destruction of these loved places, and increasingly campaign to protect them.
‘Irreplaceable’ is about people as much as it is about place. These are the stories of diverse groups of people who come together to fight off developers and land grabbers, people who’ve often had no experience in campaigning or politics before, but who’s urge to protect their wild places isn’t cowed by the often huge battles they face.
Hoffman tells their stories with affection and admiration – it seems clear that long standing friendships grew from initial meetings. By visiting some of these places more than once we get more than ‘a piece’ from a reporter flying in and out for a story. Hoffman’s prose is beautifully descriptive, the poetry in it made me feel I too walked the hot summer plains in Greece, or explored the sea off Bangka Island in the Indonesian archipelago:
Sea-sway, sun-drift, water light. Schools of silver fish spinning like shimmering silt through a river. Wave shadows mirrored and rippling across a bed of soft corals, the tug of the sea fanning a million tiny polyps like meadow grasses on a summer breeze
The writer not only reports on his travels to each place and the conversations he has there, the things seen and noted down on site, but has clearly done extensive research into the background of each of these places. This book allows us to enjoy the history and prehistory, philosophy, psychology, sociology of these places; and there are compelling statistics in here which I actually read rather than skimming over!
The book covers campaigns all over the world; campaigns to save Indonesia’s coral reefs, to prevent the extinction of Meteora’s Egyptian Vultures and the Balkan lynx, these campagins are fascinating, and the need for them compelling. Everyone Hoffman meets is passionate about their project, single minded in the work they’ve undertaken. Wherever they are, protecting lynx or vole, prairie or fen, nightingale or vulture, they all say the same thing – that we must protect this now, for future generations, because once it’s gone we cannot get it back.
On the site of Smithy Wood – an ancient woodland close to the M1 near Sheffield – the campaign is to prevent development of a motorway service station. On his visit Hoffman is met by the campaigners of Cowley Residents Action Group; Jean, Mick, Paul and Geoff; all retired, all tied to this place. Twenty acres of 850 year old woodland would be destroyed for a hotel, a petrol station and fast food joints. The plans were in with Sheffield City Council, which sadly has form when it comes to getting trees chopped down for spurious reasons. ‘You look at these trees” says Jean “and you think, how on earth can anybody even contemplate shopping them all down and building a concrete service station?’ I know Jean, I know…(I also know, and it’s noted here, that there are plenty of services on that part of the M1). Reading this I was so angry. Is it not obvious that an ancient woodland is an irreplaceable thing; that ‘biodiversity offsetting’ does not replace like for like, though it may sound good on paper. We cannot trade these ancient, unique places, because they are not tradeable. As Hoffman points out, the very good replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Las Vegas is very much not Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“I think progress is looking at innovative ways of what is effectively moving people around at predictable times of the day, and should not be “you know what, we’ll just take point A and Point B and shove concrete in between“
So, says James Byrne of the Wales Wildlife Trusts, in response to the prospect of an extension to the M4 which would effectively destroy the unique eco system of the Gwent Levels. There appears to be so much short termism around the destruction of so many places. What price ancient reens and voles if it means people can get to place a little faster (for a bit, at least, roads just mean more traffic) or if you can sell them a burger. Why protect a coral reef for the future if you can make a few dollars from mining now? I live very, very near the ‘development corridor’ proposed for the Oxford – Cambridge Expressway. With this scheme looming over the Oxford greenbelt it really was impossible to read Irreplaceable with any kind of reveiwerly detachment, I felt deeply – even at a distance – about each of these places, angry about the danger they are in and despair at the lack of care taken of them.
Then I took stock – every one of the stories in this book is remarkable; not simply because the places Hoffman visits are beautiful, often unique, habitats for flora and fauna, but because of the people he meets who are fighting for them, people who are strong, brave and hopeful. I have found this over and over in a number of books I’ve read this year; notably The Outpost (Dan Richards) and Underland (Robert MacFarlane). They all relate the compelling stories of the people on the ground – individuals and groups – who have chosen to fight for their place. These are the heroes, mostly unsung, who are saving the irreplaceable.
Irreplaceable is a big book in all senses of the word, an important piece of work which I think deserves to be widely read.
Thanks to Julian Hoffman for conatcting me via Twitter about his book (proving Twitter is not all bad!) and to Maria Garbutt-Lucero at Penguin Random House for the review copy.