Preserving Our Urban and Rural Wilds for the Next Generation

In Review: Irreplaceable: The fight to save our wild places.
Julian Hoffman
Penguin Books, 2019, 416 pages

As with his first book, The Small Heart of Things, Julian Hoffman’s latest book — Irreplaceable: The fight to save our wild places — is full of lyrical writing and evocative descriptions of landscape and place. But that lyrical writing sometimes obscures an upsetting trend, and one of the major themes of the book: the destruction of existing landscapes and ecosystems in the name of development.

photo of Hoo's Penninsula
The UK’s Hoo Peninsula is a brownfield area that has seen a wide variety of human uses but is now a thriving wetland and part of the Thames Estuary. Photo by Sarflondondunc / Flickr.

Hoffman covers topics that those of us who read a lot of nature and environment books know intimately: the sixth extinction (written about by Elizabeth Kolbert in her book of the same name); the plastic pollution crisis (including the widely-shared photos of dead seabirds with their stomachs full of plastic and the photographer who took them); and shifting baselines (here he quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.”). He touches on the bleaching of corals and the acidification of the ocean, the loss of invertebrates like insects, and diminishing songbird populations. (Indeed, a new report says that we’ve lost 3 billion birds in North America since 1970.) He covers the impacts of road-building on wildlife habitat, and the impacts of road traffic on public health. He also discusses the importance of nature for health, with examples like shinrin yoku, or children playing in a forest. He especially notes the importance of urban wilderness — brownfields where industry or military work has been abandoned, tenement gardens where people grow their food and socialize, and patches of wood that create community gathering places.

Hoffman explores two main themes in Irreplaceable, both of which borrow from existing environmental literature. The first is a nod to Wendell Berry and George Monbiot: that we have to name our feelings about the natural world, because we will only look after that which we care about. He quotes writer Lydia Millett to expand on this idea, as she says we need to give animals personal names — particularly “endlings,” or the last of their species — as we connect with what we name. Millet refers to the last passenger pigeon, who was known as Martha, and the last Pinta Island Tortoise, Lonesome George, as examples.

The environmentalist Hoffman visits in Macedonia notes that we need to start caring about common things, because we often fail to act until a species is at risk — which is often too late. Hoffman agrees, listing four kinds of loss that British ecologist Oliver Rackham wrote about: loss of beauty, freedom, wildlife, and meaning. Hoffman adds a fifth: loss of connection. He argues that instead of saving distant ecosystems, we should start at home, with what’s near and dear to us. In the words of Robert Michael Pyle, who founded the Xerces Society: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”

The second theme is a nod to E.O. Wilson. In this thread, Hoffman makes the case that we shouldn’t imagine ourselves as outside of Earth systems because we’re actually a vital part of those systems. Whatever happens to them happens to us as well. So in saving wildlife habitat or increasing wildlife numbers, we’re not just helping them — we’re helping ourselves. As Hoffman quotes American author B.K. Loren, “I think community has little to do with like minds. It has to do with very differently minded people finding a way to get along because we … are connected to, and share a sense of place.” And we share that space with non-human animals, too.

Hoffman starts the book by describing a murmuration of starlings, noting that the population of these birds declined by 40 million between 1980 and 2012. He follows this opener with an excellent discussion of place and nature, and how the two can be inextricably linked: “Nature and place needn’t be mutually exclusive ideas, as both are critically necessary to the flourishing of human and wild communities.” He writes about topophilia, our love of place, as “our instinctive desire to forge attachments to landscapes that impart personal meaning, value, and identity as they intertwine with our lives and communities.” He notes that a study by the National Trust found that “significant places spark greater emotional resonance in people than personally valued objects.”

Using these connections between humans and nature as a backdrop, Hoffman visits people worldwide — including in the UK, the US, Macedonia, Indonesia, and Pakistan — who are making a stand to save their natural places.

He visits the UK’s Hoo Peninsula, a brownfield area that has seen all kinds of historic human uses, but is now a thriving wetland and part of the Thames Estuary. Like several other places in the UK, this peninsula is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, which should provide a defense against development. But the government has talked about building a new airport here, when there is a perfectly useable airport in nearby Gatwick. Locals who love the Hoo have been working to stop the airport, because to them it’s not the empty space that potential developers see — it’s a “home” place, a landscape in which they feel comfortable.

Hoffman emphasizes that places deserving of protection need not be pristine wilderness areas. The Hoo, for example, has been the site of military, industrial, and agricultural uses. But today, it better supports biodiversity than it would as an airport. Similar sites within the UK include Lodge Hill, an old munitions depot that the Ministry of Defense has mothballed and that’s now a haven for all sorts of plant and animal species that are declining across the country; Canvey Wick, an old oil refinery; the Gwent Levels, a wetland area in Wales with human history back to Roman times. He visits sites outside the UK as well, like Medewin Prairie in Kansas, which used to be an ammunitions factory.

While he covers a lot of existing ground and familiar topics, Hoffman has some other ideas that don’t always get quite as much attention.

First, he notes specifically that the term environmental “protestors” is often “used as shorthand for those who are seen to be against what is considered the natural order of things. They are cast as being against development, advancement, and wealth creation.” But he makes clear that most of the people he meets aren’t “against” anything — they’re “for” woodlands, marshes, lynx, vultures, or whatever else they feel is important to their daily lives. For example, when he discusses the horrid ground weaver spider whose habitat is threatened by a housing development in disused quarries on the edge of Plymouth in Devon, it’s heartening to hear the local spider scientist say that he got 10,000 people to sign a petition to save a spider they’ve never seen. All those people are “for” the spider and the ecosystem that protects it.

Second, he says that we may need to rethink some of our deepest rituals and re-create them in ways that are less impactful on the natural environment. For example, Hoffman discusses an Indian tribe, the Nyishi, who traditionally used great hornbill heads and beaks to create a head-dress for ceremonial or celebratory events. However, these hornbills are becoming endangered, so the Nyishi have changed their long time ritual to allow for clay or fibreglass hornbills rather than real hornbills, and also pay several tribe members to be nest protectors and keep the hornbills out of harm’s way (in this case, defending their habitat from logging).

Another example, the decline of the Egyptian vulture due to it consuming too much diclofenac by eating dead livestock, has been a disaster for East Indian cultures that rely on the birds not just to clean away animal carcasses, but also for “sky burials,” in which dead bodies are placed on platforms and made ready for the vultures to eat. With the decline in vultures, there are not only more dead livestock lying around, but the sky burial ritual must change.

Finally, Hoffman discusses how we benefit today from the foresight of those who came before us to save national parks and national historic places. It is thus our responsibility to provide the same for the next generation, to protect both urban and rural wilds that will persist far into the future, instead of leaving young people with a motley collection of fragmented landscapes filled with threatened species. This may require small actions at first, but small actions can have big impacts, no matter that we’re told otherwise.

What’s particularly good about this book is that Hoffman checks up on the places he originally visited within two to four years to see how they have fared over time. Most of the places did well, expanding their nature programs and winning awards. Others were not successful: a motorway is currently expanding into the Gwent Levels, and one of the habitats of the horrid ground weaver spider was destroyed. As Hoffman acknowledges, it’s clear that we can’t win every fight. But we have to be engaged with the issues to have even the possibility of success.

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