‘Nature and place aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. ‘Both are critically necessary to the flourishing of human and wild communities,’ writes Julian Hoffman, author of the superb Irreplaceable, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation.
According to an Italian study, during starling murmurations, each bird’s orientation and velocity has been found to calibrate to the seven birds closest to it. Imperceptible calculations and adjustments ripple out to create a graceful, swarming whole. Each small role is essential for collective beauty. This is mirrored in Irreplaceable, in which we hear about the small roles, the minor voices and places that are essential for the collective countering of creeping loss – of habitats, of species, of the relationships between people and place.
In 2017, a National Trust study called ‘Places that make us’ found that personally significant places spark a greater emotional resonance than valued objects. In a material culture, and with increasing uniformity in both urban and rural settings, this finding is striking. Hoffman was determined to explore place and ‘explore loss in a way that wasn’t simply elegiac but defiant’. He travels to places known to be significant to people and communities – on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent; in woodland north of Sheffield; in India; in Indonesia; on urban allotments and open prairies; among landscapes of lynx and nightingales and coral. In each place, he listens to stories of conservation – from grassroots groups, professional ecologists and academics. The love and knowledge he finds is tangible, as is the call to arms in the face of the destruction of nature.
Irreplaceable is a love letter to habitats and species, and an account of the ties between humans and wildlife. Understanding these ties lessens the hopelessness that can come when considering the state of nature. Hoffman shines a light on what we still have to lose – and how we might combine the best of people and place to make sure we don’t.