Julian Hoffman’s latest book, Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, is a cry to see, to examine what we still have, to appreciate what is quickly disappearing from our world. Hoffman is also the author of The Small Heart of Things, as well as a blog called Notes from Near and Far. Irreplaceable doesn’t just celebrate threatened places, according to Hoffman, the book also tell the story of ‘the vital and inspiring engagement of those people who seek to protest what is of value to both wild and human communities.’ Hoffman moves from the large to the small, from ancient woodlands to urban allotments, from the sort of capital ‘N’ nature we associate with documentaries and travel photography, to patches of land that, at first, may seem expendable in a greedy industrial society, Hoffman describes the ‘sustaining ties forged between people, nature and place.’
Unsurprisingly, he is a passionate interviewee. The interview was finalised as millions marched around the world in Climate Crisis actions from Montreal to Kabul. Hoffman’s book takes a similar global view — in it he covers stories in Kent, Glasgow, the Balkans, Indonesia, and others.‘But wherever it is set,’ he writes,‘and in whatever language or accent that was spoken there, I heard the same words as I traveled: Once it’s gone it’s gone. And we can never get it back.’
Since this is a book about loss, could you tell me when you felt a sense of loss overwhelming enough to embark on the project?
The opening chapter, The Marsh Country, is set in the Hoo Peninsula, this extraordinary marshland landscape that has a long-lived human history. It’s where Charles Dickens set Great Expectations, and there are 300,000 wintering water birds around the adjacent estuary, as well as Britain’s largest heronry and avocet roost. And yet I’d never heard of this place.
I had no idea where it was. I couldn’t have found it on a map for you.
About six years ago, I had a completely different book in mind that I wanted to write. So I’d booked a week in London, where I was going to carry out some research. And that week I received a message from a woman who lived on the Hoo Peninsula.
She had contacted me by Twitter and simply asked if I would come to see their landscape, because it was deeply imperilled. London’s then mayor, and of course now the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was arguing for Europe’s largest airport to be built on this extraordinary and supposedly protected set of landscapes.
At the time, I thought, ‘Well, I could make a trip down there by train and spend a day in the company of this woman and two fellow campaigners that she’d wanted to introduce me to’, and perhaps in response to this threat, I could write a short blog post or an article that I might be able to sell to a newspaper that detailed their plight.
But that day profoundly altered the course of my life.And I say that with no exaggeration whatsoever. I fell in love with this place.
What I understood on that journey to the marsh country, for the very first time in my life, was what loss looked like. Previously, it had been statistical for me. It had been numerical. These catastrophic figures of decline that are really difficult for most humans to interpret in a way that’s meaningful. Such as the 40 million starlings that have been lost over three decades from the skies of the European Union. But what do 40 million starlings mean?
I now know that it translates to about 140 birds per hour for that period of 32 years. But, what does it really mean within the context of our lives and these shared landscapes?
That day, I realised that these people understood precisely what loss meant in the widest possible sense, not only for their human communities, and two entire villages, along with their 12th and 13th century churches, respectively, which would have been wiped from the face of the earth, but also much of this remarkable place and all of the wild creatures that depended upon it.
At the end of that day, I took the train back to St. Pancras in London, and I knew I needed to put to one side the other idea for a book because a new book needed writing.
I really wanted to write a book that was about what still lives on this side of loss, a book that I hope is closer in tone to defiance than elegy.
Those three people opened my heart and mind to the extraordinary presence of place, but also to the potential catastrophe of its loss.
You don’t diminish the idea of loss. You speak of its importance. But you also struggle to think of anyone who would suggest that loss should be actively and continuously courted.
Without a question, loss is absolutely, fundamentally a part of the human experience.There’s no way around that. But at the same time, we are living through an age where there’s an unparalleled quality of loss. We are living alongside shadows, ghosts of our own making in many ways.
‘Loss is the aperture through which a radical hopefulness might emerge.’
We face the sixth extinction, this devastating decline of wild species in our midst, and I think it’s of crucial importance to confront loss in whatever way we are able to.
Alongside that often comes a great deal of grief. The artist Chris Jordan has written that while studying and photographing Laysan albatrosses on Midway Island he learned the awful, awful tragedy of their deaths due to the consumption of plastic.
He said that grief and love are essentially the same experience. Grief is an expression of love for things that we’ve lost or we’re about to lose. It’s important to go as deeply as we possibly can into the nature of loss in the wider world we inhabit, because it’s only when we confront loss that we can come out the other side and find, hopefully, ways to repair and renew and restore and reengage with the natural world in a meaningful sense.
Loss is the aperture through which a radical hopefulness might emerge.
You speak of a poorer, leaner, thinner layer of human experience when the spectrum of human encounters with the wild world are reduced.
What effect does that have? It’s tough to know what you’re missing when you can’t see it. Do you think people intuit they’re experiencing a thinner version of the natural world?
I open the book with a scene that depicts the starling murmuration off the coast at Brighton Pier. My visit that evening was remarkable for me because of this wild spectacle, this great, dark, weaving, spiralling apparition in the sky.
But it was also remarkable because of the human response to it. Young girls who were taking selfies in front of the amusements arcade suddenly stopped what they were doing and turned around and faced the sea. They took their phones and fiipped the cameras over so that they could photograph and film these starlings weaving through their lives.
Young couples on their way to the pub, dressed up for a Friday night out, stopped what they were doing and pulled their phones from their back pockets and engaged with this remarkable murmuration.
That quality of wonder and mystery is part of what lends our days, and ultimately our lives, some of the richness that would have once been more commonplace. Starling numbers have declined profoundly, but often it’s easy to be unaware of that diminishing.
The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a wonderful, though grieving and mournful poem back in 1879 called ‘Binsey Poplars’, after he witnessed on one of his regular walks along the banks of the river Thames near Oxford, a beloved line of poplars that had been levelled overnight and cut down and felled to stumps. The logs were just lying flat across the earth.
There’s a line in it which is quite profound, but also prescient, in which he says that ‘aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been.’
What he was essentially foretelling is what we now scientifically describe as the shifting baseline syndrome, the way that it’s almost impossible for us, in an experiential sense, to understand past presence in the natural world. And because of that, we tend to normalise, we psychologically normalise and celebrate paucity, as we’re unaware of what richness once was, except theoretically. Because aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been.
If we were to lose starlings entirely from Britain, then future generations visiting Brighton Pier wouldn’t have any way of truly knowing that that extraordinary spectacle was once part of people’s everyday lives throughout the winter months on the coast there.
But watching how people reacted to it also made me viscerally aware of how easily we can re-attune and reengage. That wonder can ripple out through human lives, and often through lives that aren’t necessarily connected to the natural world on an everyday basis. So, for me, it was a really profound experience of how that mystery, that sense of extraordinary beauty and gracefulness, can still pass through our lives in an instant.
Without those murmurations, without those starlings, though, we condemn future generations to that far leaner life.
The pessimistic part of me thinks that people won’t pay attention. Our talent for self-delusion is strong, as well as our talent for being tempted by digital distractions. Do you think people will feel the mournfulness?
There is that element of asking the question, ‘Will we?’ Will we take charge of the situation to a degree that it demands and re-connect? I didn’t know what to expect when I began the journeys that comprise the bulk of Irreplaceable. Time and time again, though, from lorry drivers, from soldiers, from nurses, from schoolchildren, people responded with a deep understanding about the issues, a deep and felt and lived quality of connection to these places of importance.They weren’t necessarily on the front lines, but they understood exactly what loss meant. On one occasion, on the Gwent Levels, this absolutely magical landscape in southeast Wales, one of the last remaining fenlands in the country that glitters with this gorgeous light off the estuary,I called a taxi to take me further into this realm of watery ditches that theWelsh call reens, with grazing marshes to either side.
And because the threat to that particular landscape was 14 miles of six-lane motorway that would be laid over, again, this supposedly protected landscape, I wondered to myself whether the taxi driver would be the ideal candidate to support the proposed motorway because his livelihood depended upon the reliable movement of traffic. He’d only quite recently started up this taxi business, which meant, of course, that delayed fares could cause havoc for him.
But as we drove deeper and deeper into the Gwent Levels I casually asked him about the motorway proposal and he immediately replied, knowing exactly what he wanted. He wanted the motorway to be shelved, and he gave two very explicit reasons why. One, the landscape was far too important in a cultural and historic sense to be destroyed. And two, he said that other species lived there. If we destroy the Gwent Levels, he said, if we build over them, where will those wild creatures go?
Time and again I understood that people are connected to the natural world, but there is what I would describe as a spectrum of connection. At one end of the spectrum you have individuals that are doing everything that is feasibly possible to reduce their carbon footprint, and to recycle and engage and examine and study issues of bio-diversity loss. But at the other end of the spectrum, you have a great many people who want their children to grow up with clean air and clean water, and in a landscape that has some quality of wildness or greenery or wildlife to it.
All too often, we’ve splintered that spectrum by not recognising that so many of us are on a similar path, even if it manifests itself in different ways. What’s absolutely imperative is to fully connect that spectrum, to acknowledge those links between people with different, but related, concerns, because I discovered that, fundamentally, people do care.
Of course, that’s not to ignore the pessimism you described.I gave a talk just a couple of days ago in Malvern and at the end, a woman in the audience said, ‘This is very interesting, thank you. I’ve enjoyed your talk very much, but I feel very, very pessimistic.I don’t think anything will shift.’ And there was an elderly man in the audience, probably the oldest in the room, and he simply turned to her and said,‘We said the same about the slave trade.’
Place is one of the hardest words to define. You chose a definition from Alan Gussow. Place is a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.
Yes, and what preceded that part that you quoted is that he also said ‘the catalyst that converts any physical location into a place is the process of experiencing deeply.’
I think what he was suggesting is that we all have it within us to lay claim to a place through our meaningful interactions with it.That can be on a day to day level, or more irregularly, if we pass through or travel through different places. What’s important is that it’s the quality of attention and engagement that really makes those places, certainly the ones that I tried to evoke in the book. That indelible relationship between people and place is what makes them so enriching for those who know them. These are places that are an essential part of their lives.
The Czech writer Václav Cílek once wrote that a place in the landscape corresponds to a place in the heart, and that seemed very much to be at the core of nearly everyone’s story that I listened to for the book.
Why did you choose these specific locations for the book? In the first chapter, you stumbled upon a place. What guided you to these other woodlands and meadows and reefs?
I had a few parameters that I sketched out at the beginning. Firstly,I wanted to explore places that were under threat from some kind of development, whether it was an airport, mine or motorway, and all that stood to be lost in terms of wonder, wellbeing, wildlife and human experience.
Also, I only chose places where I didn’t know what the final decision would be at the time I began writing about them. I wanted to follow their story so that their future was as new to me as it was to those who were campaigning on their behalf.
I also wanted to make sure that this idea of equality of place emerged in the book, because far too often, within writing about the natural world in particular, there has been a tendency to write about the vast and the iconic, the remote, the really — and I’m putting this, although you can’t see me, I’m putting this in quotation marks—
I can hear them.
‘The wild landscapes of the world.’ I wanted to write a book that lent credence to those places that for large numbers of people — especially when over 50% of the world’s population is now urbanised — are of equal validity to them as are the great national parks and far remoter regions to others who are able to access them.
And so that brought me into contact with inner city allotments and urban community meadows and other small patches of greenery that might seem incredibly tiny, but their depth and span within the lives of those individuals and communities utilising them was profoundly vital. So I wanted to tell the stories of these places that are also overlooked when we write about the natural world.
Those were two of the guiding principles behind the book.
As much as the book is about the natural world, it’s about people too, and I noticed certain attributes that could be applied to each of the campaigners.What would you say were the important traits that you saw in these human beings who were fighting? What did it take to be a good campaigner?
It required what I would describe as heartfulness, first and foremost, this connection that was emotional in quality to these lands and their surrounding wild communities. It required determination and grit. It required a fierce sense of protection and a valuation of place that was far more expansive and inclusive in character than most governments would ever put on a piece of land.
I found most of the people I met to be quite extraordinary, but each and every one of them would also say that they’re absolutely ordinary, and that was one of the most fascinating aspects of my journey for the last six years.
There are plenty of books out there engaging with the natural world that are largely devoid of people. I wanted to make a conscious effort to explore and elaborate upon the indelible connections that we humans have with the natural world, because we are fundamentally part of the natural world, and any attempt to o set climate change or to reel back in the sixth extinction, has to have humans at its heart.
‘That quality of wonder and mystery is part of what lends our days, and ultimately our lives, some of the richness that would have once been more commonplace.’
And, of course, each and every person was fundamentally different in character, and many of them existed on a radically different part of the political, economic or social spectrum.
I wanted to give voice to varied experiences, but those essential, underlying qualities were always similar wherever I went: heartfulness, determination, grit, protectiveness, and this real sense of curiosity. Sometimes this phrase is used as denigration, I suppose, which it should never be, but they were childlike in their curiosity. That rapt attention and focused awareness to what is; to what the great writer Jim Harrison described as the luminosity of what is always there.
These were people who were out engaging and looking and listening and watching over and caring for these places, but they also had day jobs. Few of them were professional ecologists or conservationists, but had, for example, jobs as the manager of a wedding band or worked in the office of a custom car bodywork business. Or they worked in a café.
So these connections are within reach of all of us. And the qualities of connection, resistance and hopefulness they showed me were deep and powerful and potent.
And, from the vibrancy of the people, you sometimes slip back to the intentional blandness of the language that’s used by authorities to describe these places. You reflect on the problem of terminology, of ‘protective designation’, of ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest.’ What is the problem with the language we use these days?
Much of the language about these places is essentially legal in character, about scientific designations or protective descriptions. And because of this it lacks mystery. It lacks beauty. It lacks potency. It lacks the very qualities that the actual landscapes that are meant to be protected by this bland terminology have in extraordinary abundance.
You go somewhere like the marsh country of the Hoo Peninsula, for example, and if it’s an early summer’s day the grasslands are swaying with light. And you’ve got these great ships riding up the Thames in much the same way that Charles Dickens would have seen — although the type of ship would have been different — because there’s this unusual optical effect, where the sea wall rises to such a degree that the boats seem to be magically afloat on meadows of grass.
You’ve got redshanks firing out of the marshes. You’ve got egrets like squalls of snow. You’ve got water that glints and glimmers in creeks when sunlight strikes the peninsula, and none of the terminology such as ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ or ‘Special Protection Area’, none of it conveys that raw, elemental beauty and the unrivalled interwoven-ness of the human and the natural in these places.
It seems tactical — a way of draining these places of their beautiful descriptions.
That’s definitely one of the issues that we need to confront; how we describe these places, how we talk about them, how we push them into our conversations in some way that at least carries a hint of their actual qualities.
You’re asking people to examine how they value the different qualities of place. At the end of the book, at the end of the process of writing it, did you have any idea of what could be done better? How can we improve the way we value the world?
A lot of it comes back to the way we raise children, but how we listen to them, too. I met children in many different parts of the world, but I remember most specifically meeting large numbers of school children on the Gwent Levels in Wales, and they taught me something so extraordinarily profound, even though I, of course subconsciously, was always aware of it, because I’d been a child myself long ago.
Their quality of connection, their quality of engagement, their ability to transform the absolutely smallest of places into whole worlds of possibility, is really transformative in character. And yet, so often, we tend to lose that appreciation for the small and the familiar and what is already around us as we age. We tend to lift our heads and start looking out at these larger horizons and tap into seemingly bigger stories as it were.
But children on these journeys reminded me that actually the most vital connective point, that join between people, places and the natural world, is often close and informal and familiar to us. So, I would go back, in a sense — imaginatively, emotionally.
We critically need to retain that intimate perspective, but also cultivate the intuitive connection that children have with the natural world. To further it; to deepen it. This great push towards forest school classes in Britain right now is very positive. And the response to Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ book, The Lost Words, has been remarkably inspiring. How it’s engaging children, enabling them, within an educational system or within their own communities, to deepen those inherent connections with the natural world through the use of words and poetry and painting and song, and to explore the natural world around them in a hands-on way.
‘So often, we tend to lose that appreciation for the small and the familiar and what is already around us as we age. We tend to lift our heads and start looking out at these larger horizons.’
Quite often, the ways are already with us. The key is to clear away the distractions that are built into an economic system and its supporting political framework that’s so heavily invested in the ruination of the living world.
It’s like there are curtains that keep us from seeing what we already have.
Do you ever wish you could just go back and warn previous generations?
That’s a really interesting idea. Towards the end of the book, I do point out that in many ways the only way we can go back, in a sense, is to protect what we have now. Because we’re a future generation ourselves.
When local scientists and citizens around Santa Cruz in California worked ardently at the beginning of the 20th century to protect what was already then some of the last towering stands of old-growth coastal redwoods, they must have struggled, as we all do, to imagine a future generation in that place, but we are that future generation.And so, in a sense, our going back is about being present today.To acknowledge what those campaigners did and what we have with us because of them. But to also devote our protective energies to another generation that is yet to come, one that we ourselves will never know, but who will be the beneficiaries of what we preserve today.
With regard to the past, it’s also important to remember that enormous losses were already occurring well before our current age of dereliction and devastation. Although our destructive technologies are far more powerful these days, loss is nothing new.
Species like the passenger pigeon were wiped out in the 19th century; the American bison nearly went the same way. But while we sometimes think of the conservation movement as being a largely modern phenomenon, there are written accounts of people in the 19th century and even earlier who were viscerally aware of what was being violently uprooted and being lost. We are also the past in the sense that many of our contemporary decisions, as with the Amazon right now or any of the stories I explored in the book, are no different to what has gone before. We are descendants of that violence.
We can all strive for a better future, but we also have to understand that we’re complicit with what’s been going on.
We are. Climate change is us.The sixth extinction is us. We are at the heart of all of these issues.
There are two strands that emerge, I think, from discussing these larger issues. One, we can make an enormous difference on a personal level—though there are those out there who would argue that looking at things from a personal perspective, whether it be recycling and minimising our carbon footprint, or reducing our use of plastic products or whatever it might be, distracts us from the systemic basis of the problem.
While I agree that these issues are systemic in nature, to focus solely on underlying systems ignores the extraordinarily galvanizing potential of personal action. The consequence of personal choices and deliberate action is something I call furtherance. This idea that our actions and the decisions we make, ethically, morally, thoughtfully, can spool out well beyond the initial act. Like the ripples from a stone dropped in water, they are potentially enlarging in character. What begins with thinking about not buying a plastic water bottle, and all that that entails, might lead further down the road to somebody becoming an environmental campaigner or a politician with a deep resolve to heal the wounds of the world.
And often, when one person acts with decisiveness and with this ethical foundation behind it, it often triggers into action others who you know. It can be the beginning of a movement, as we’re seeing with Greta Thunberg and other young climate campaigners right now.
But of course, those personal actions won’t, of their own accord, reduce the underlying systemic causes of the sixth extinction or climate change.To do that we absolutely have to work in a way that is collective in nature, because behind those causes are corporations and industrial forces that are critically dependent, both for profit and for their source materials, on the degradation of the living world.
But what happens within a neo-liberal economic system, whereby the mantra of our age is individualism, is that we lose touch with our collective agency. Individualism, at its most fundamental level, undermines the bonds of community. It distracts us from our collective agency at a time when collective agency is really our only tool in resisting and resetting a system so heavily engaged in ruining the natural world we all share and are dependent upon.
We need to find ways of twining those strands together, the personal and the collective. Neither of them needs to be exclusive of the other.
Do personal decisions make you more amenable to governmental decisions that might come down the line? If they ban plastic and you’re already thinking about your usage of plastic, you won’t fight it tooth and nail. You’ll be accepting of something larger, hopefully.
Absolutely. Those larger decisions that are political and legal, they are necessary because they shift the structure of a society.
But, without an inner transformation, at a societal level, at a community and individual level, those overarching political shifts can be quite fragile in character, and potentially undone by future governments, so they need to be underpinned by something substantial and meaningful from within for them to endure.
I’m going to end with a searing question about birds. Do you have a new appreciation for the nightingale after writing about it in the book?
I’ve always loved the nightingale but, hearing it here in the UK, where it’s now in such tragic decline, and finding a place where it’s still vibrant, and that the powerful resonance of its music was present, despite the threat that its dwelling place was under, was one of the most wondrous parts of these journeys. To appreciate yet again the splendour of its song.
Listening to a nightingale also makes me realise just how deeply privileged we are.We’re privileged to share this planet with such beauty and wonder and mystery; we’re privileged to live alongside such multitudinous, compound and patterned forms of life. To dwell here, as we do, is a great gift. And I think the nightingale is one of the finest examples of that recognition for me.
You mention that perhaps we won’t come across a field covered in butterflies, but it’s important to take pleasure in the four or five butterflies you do see. I’ve tried to think of that in my own life, with the nature around me. Certainly there’s degradation happening, but the sight of one bald eagle is still enough to stop you in your tracks.
And that stopping in the tracks can be the trigger for a lifetime of care and concern. That’s often what’s needed to enable the deeper connectivity between people and the natural world. Of course, that becomes more difficult because of the dwindling of wild species, and those relationships become scarcer too because of that loss, but when that moment of connection occurs, it can be the most extraordinary hinge on which so many other things open.