IRREPLACEABLE: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places
Hamish Hamilton & Penguin, 2019, 416 pages
Paperback £9.99 ISBN: 9780241979495
Review by Janet Mackinnon
At a time of much stress on the natural world and on us humans, it is a welcome relief to read this exceptionally well-written book about extinction rebellions actually happening on the ground. For although Julian Hoffman’s writing certainly references the bigger picture his focus is on activists from around the world engaged in grassroots nature conservation together with environmental projects large and small. These endeavours range from saving urban open space in Glasgow to protecting the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle. Hoffman also reminds us that human efforts to preserve pristine environments and rectify harm caused by the destruction of ecosystems have been underway for two centuries.
In his profound exploration of these many conservation battles, Hoffman charts what might be described as the war – sometimes deliberate and sometimes unintended or unacknowledged – on nature by those engaged in various forms of economic development. Examples from Britain include: plans to develop a new global hub airport in the Thames Estuary despite the area’s designation as “wetlands of international importance”; and proposals by the Welsh government to re-route a section of the M4 motorway through the Gwent Levels, again notwithstanding their protected status. Fortunately, both these schemes are now in abeyance, largely due to the efforts of non-governmental and community-based organisations. Hoffman’s book is especially a testament to the tenacity of local people and groups whom he describes with much fondness as embodying that great motivating force wrought by strong connection to places.
A strikingly poignant encounter with this regenerative spirit comes towards the end of Irreplaceable when the author visits the prairielands of the American Great Plains. The once abundant prairie is now a rare global ecosystem following extensive conversion to agricultural land from the second part of the nineteenth century, during a period which also saw the destruction of tens of millions of bison (or American buffalo). At a place called Midewin – meaning “mystically powerful” for local native Americans – Hoffman meets with people engaged in ecological restoration of tallgrass prairie on the site of a former military base. “We’ve destroyed so much”, says one man, “but we can heal some of it as well”.
In this process, the author proposes that people can also heal themselves, because “the gradual severance of our relationships with the natural world stems, at least in part, from a lack of experience with it in our immediate surroundings”. This book strives to leave the reader with such messages of hope. It also highlights the nature conservation endeavours of young people, particularly in Julian Hoffman’s adopted homeland of south eastern Europe. Concerted efforts to save birds like the Egyptian vulture and Great Indian hornbill, in the face of concerted anthropogenic threats, have a particularly strong resonance for him. Indeed, a leitmotif of Irreplaceable is the humble but also endangered startling to whom he looks for inspiration: “…when we raise our voices, we empower others to join in, swelling to a chorus, a coalition, a murmuration”.