To fall in love with a place: Interview with Julian Hoffman

Otny Thomas, Bangka Island, Indonesia. Photo: Julian Hoffman. Otny Thomas, Bangka Island, Indonesia. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

“I sank to my knees to look more closely, to try to see with the levelling perception of an insect’s height, peering with new admiration at this miniature world about my feet,” writes British author Julian Hoffman about his encounter with a rare and threatened brown-banded carder bee. This quote is a fine example of the beautiful heart at the centre of Hoffman’s latest book, Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, which was published last year. This March his book was released in the United States, and the UK paperback saw daylight shortly afterwards.

From the tiny to the vast, from marshland to meadow, and from Kent to Glasgow to America to India, irreplaceable habitats are disappearing alongside the wildlife that calls them home. Julian Hoffman captures the haunting beauty of these landscapes and reveals the human communities which form around these special places in their defence. It is a book of hope, not despair, and something very valuable to read right now. “So rare and threatened,” Julian writes about the same bee, “it gathered pollen with no concern for its scarcity, dressing itself in gold as if for an evening out. With no idea of just how close the end of its line might be, it circled the flowers as it always has, with an unchanging faithfulness…”

"Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places" by Julian Hoffman. Photo: Beach Books.
“Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places” by Julian Hoffman. Photo: Beach Books.

With the beautiful paperback in my hands – there’s a hornbill, a butterfly, a sea horse, a lynx and a murmuration of starlings on its cover – I wrote Julian these questions from a riverside village in Jūrmala, Latvia, to his home village by the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece.

Do you remember a moment, when you decided that your explorations of threatened landscapes had to come together in the form of a book? What motivated you to write this love letter to the vital connections between humans and nature?

Yes, that moment occurred when I saw the first of what was to become many threatened places over the course of several years. And it was a moment that I couldn’t have divined or foretold; it simply was. I was staying in London for a week researching an entirely different book that I’d been planning on writing at the time when I was contacted by a woman called Gill Moore through a message on Twitter. Gill asked me whether I’d be interested in seeing a place imperilled by a proposal supported by London’s mayor at the time, Boris Johnson, to build Europe’s largest airport over it. And that place was the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

The marsh country, Hoo Peninsula, Kent. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
The marsh country, Hoo Peninsula, Kent. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

That day I was introduced to a vast and remarkably atmospheric landscape on the rim of the Thames Estuary, where marshland, ancient villages and a stunning abundance of birdlife entwine in a world of earth and water only thirty or so miles from central London. And Gill, along with two other residents of the peninsula, opened me to the visceral reality of loss and what it means. Loss in the natural world, as it is for so many people, had largely been statistical for me, composed of the haunting numerical declines of wildlife, not only in the UK but right across the planet. And yet there, where avocets, redshanks and marsh harriers moved through the air in precisely the same spot where aircraft would ascend and descend, those losses became suddenly vivid, relatable and real. Because almost everything that thrived on the peninsula, including three entire villages and their ancient churches, would have been condemned to destruction by the airport. And that day, after just a few hours in the company of Gill and her friends in this astonishing but threatened place, I knew that I needed to write Irreplaceable.

Place is at the core of Irreplaceable. To define what a place is, you quote artist Alan Gussow; he says that a catalyst to convey any physical location into a place is “the process of experiencing deeply” and that a place is “a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings”. Why are our own feelings so important?

Firstly, place is such a difficult word to define, as it can mean so much to so many different people, but I think Gussow gets at the essence of its integrity in these lines. Importantly, he distinguishes place from space, which is how developers and politicians so often describe lands they see as being ripe for development. As empty spaces; spaces waiting to be filled.

Some years ago, I monitored birds on a limestone plateau near my home in Greece, compiling the data for an environmental study, as this entire plateau was threatened by a plan to effectively industrialise a pastoral mountain landscape with wind turbines. I spent months being dazzled by the range and quality of light up there, by the woodlarks, rock thrushes, skylarks, kestrels and short-toed eagles that called it home. I spent months being entranced by its rare profusion of wildflowers and butterflies, all bursting from this rolling country of sinkholes and stones and grasslands that swayed and rippled in the hot summer winds. And one day, the director of the wind energy company came to see how my work was progressing. He was an incredibly nice guy and was clearly concerned about how best to mitigate against and minimise threats to birds by the specific placement of turbines. We got on very well and spent a morning walking the karst country together, and at one point he stopped and proudly told me how other wind energy companies in Greece were clear-cutting forests in order to raise turbines there, but that his company never would. He then took his arm and swept it across this immense country of light and wildlife, a place I’d fallen in love with while working there, and said: “At least here there’s nothing, just a bunch of rocks.”

For him that landscape was space, while for me it was place. An incredibly rare and significant place, too. And because of the deep-seated feelings that I had for this plateau, having had the opportunity to experience it deeply because of the demands and details of my work, I felt profoundly protective of it. As studies have shown, it’s often a potent combination of feelings and morals that are effective at making change possible rather than just facts and statistics on their own. And to have feelings for the natural world, we fundamentally need contact with it, something which is itself imperilled as we’re continually losing places of importance from our surroundings.

Great hornbill, Pakke, India. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
Great hornbill, Pakke, India. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

You can’t replace an ancient woodland by planting new trees – this is just one of many examples that wild places are irreplaceable, which is the main premise of your book. Why is it crucially important to understand this?

In the spring of 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Like so many others, I watched the flames and pouring smoke with horror. Although I’ve never been to the cathedral, I recognise it as an irreplaceable cultural monument of considerable historic, architectural and spiritual richness, like the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan that the Taliban blew up in 2001. These iconic treasures are the product of our history and roots and the paths we’ve taken, and they can’t be replaced without losing much of their essential meaning. But then the same is true of the planet’s irreplaceable natural sites, whether the towering old-growth redwoods of California, the stunning coral reefs of Indonesia or complex ancient woodland dotted around the UK. They are the product of their own unrepeatable histories and roots, and in the case of ancient woodland, of their interwoven relationships with human communities and livelihoods that have evolved alongside ecological processes over long periods of time. For me, there is direct equivalency between these positions, in that we inhabit an extraordinary world replete with natural wonders that are as deserving of our respect and care and protection as Notre Dame Cathedral and other irreplaceable cultural sites.

On a more pragmatic level, we’ve seen a surge in development plans towards biodiversity offsetting in recent years, which essentially comes down to the creation or augmentation of new habitat in exchange for the destruction of old. The writer and theorist Walter Benjamin examined a similar issue in relation to art in an essay of his called ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. We all know that a copy of Van Gogh’s sunflowers or stars on a living room wall doesn’t carry the same weight and meaning as the original. In Benjamin’s phrase, it doesn’t have the same ‘aura’. And the same is true of ancient woodland. These woods, at least four hundred years old and often far, far older, are the result of unrepeatable processes, conditions, histories, livelihoods, soil types, interacting organisms, wildlife and climate. Simply put, in the words of the great environmental scholar Oliver Rackham, “to recreate an ancient wood is beyond human knowledge.” And yet there are currently 108 ancient woodlands under threat in one way or another from the HS2 railway project in Britain alone.

Some would argue that these woods can be replaced by planting new woods, and one former British environment minister, Owen Patterson, even put a number on their replacement value, suggesting that ancient woodland could be bulldozed as long as 100 trees were planted elsewhere for every one that was destroyed. Which completely misses the ecological point of veteran trees and woods. While saplings may well become important dwelling grounds for wild species and meaning over the course of their lives, 650 beetle species alone are found almost entirely in ancient woodland or on old trees in Britain. Turning to Rackham again, “A single 400-year-old-oak… [is] a whole ecosystem of such creatures for which ten thousand 200-year-old-oaks are no use at all.” Let along what he might have said about saplings. What is clear, though, is that our ancient trees and woodlands are utterly irreplaceable.

Nest protectors, Pakke, India. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
Nest protectors, Pakke, India. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

Before I started to read, I prepared myself for a sad and maybe even angering book. But it turned out to be extremely inspiring, because of the people whose stories you tell: the ones who work to save small gardens and huge prairies to keep an eye on birds, beetles, and other animals. Your book reveals the power of an individual passion that becomes infectious in a good way and also the phenomenon of a communal place, where selflessness starts to thrive. Sadly, some of the wonderful people you meet have already passed away. What did you learn from your most memorable encounters?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure myself when I began whether this would be a largely sad, angering or miserable book, but along the way I couldn’t help but be inspired by the people I was meeting. They gave the book its cadence of hope. And these were ordinary people, or that’s how they would repeatedly describe themselves to me. Ordinary folk doing extraordinary things is how I’ve come to think of them. And during the years I was writing it I realised, along with the dynamics of political and economic power that leaves so many voices silenced or unheard in this world, that stories about positive and radical change go largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. And yet some of the most powerful, potent, cathartic and transformative actions are taking place close by us all the time. Between individuals, within communities, across borders. It will be happening on your street, in your neighbourhood, in your county and country. We’re surrounded by the capacity for change, and my time with varied communities around the world revealed to me that it so often begins with just single voices, gaining power and influence through union with others. I see the image of a starling murmuration as the perfect metaphor for this potential cohesion, because at the heart of those great, swirling, transfiguring masses are just single birds. Individual birds that become something else through connection.  

What I remember most about my encounters with people is generosity. The kind of heartfulness that transforms realities through kinship and connection. How it’s possible to enlarge our idea of home so that includes the wider community; so that it includes the more-than-human world in its embrace. Not only did I learn from them that the love of wildlife and place can be profoundly protective in character, but that it is also foundational in building communities and societies that are grounded in wellbeing, which in the midst of a terrible pandemic, triggered by the destruction of the natural world and its wild inhabitants, seems a vital shift to make if we wish to flourish into the future.

Wild places and entire species can be gone forever because of new airports, car parks, buildings, roads, and dams. But you write “however depleted the planet might appear, what remains always matters”. Your Greek friend Dimitris reminds us how crucial it is to start appreciating the common species, while they are still common. Can you elaborate on the necessity to notice little things, common things, good things, while the task to save a planet seems too huge to even comprehend?

In an ecological sense, of course, everything begins with the little things, the common things. Microorganisms in the soil and insect species in their great multitude and breadth underpin the health of whole ecosystems. We utterly depend on this abundance, this commonness, but as a number of recent studies have shown, insects are in dramatic decline in many parts of the world, including essential pollinator species we rely on for food crops. This diminishing of common things threatens our own health and wellbeing at a fundamental level.

Beyond that, though, Dimitris was acknowledging that all too often we take the common things for granted. They’re simply there, a part of our shared landscape, until they’re not. By which time it’s often too late to do much about it. Which was very much the case with house sparrows in London, for example. One day, it seemed, they were everywhere, and then the next they were nearly gone. But by recognizing the beauty, wonder, significance and necessity of the common species, we stand a chance of being more attuned to any changes in their presence. And this connection with the common opens a space for joy to exist in our lives, too. To take pleasure and enjoyment in the flash of blue on a magpie’s wings; to experience happiness in that great spill of spring suns that is the common dandelion.

And I suppose this brings me round to the beautiful if haunting line by Gerard Manley Hopkins from his poem Binsey Poplars. Having seen a beloved row of trees cut to the ground in 1879 on his regular walk beside the Thames, he wrote “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” At its most basic and crucial level, what remains always matters because future generations, those ‘after-comers’ of ours, will only know the extraordinary natural wealth, beauty and wonder that we still have with us if we protect it today.

A 'protected' reen, Gwent Levels, Wales. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
A ‘protected’ reen, Gwent Levels, Wales. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

Endangered water vole, Gwent Levels, Wales. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
Endangered water vole, Gwent Levels, Wales. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

You underline the importance of words we use to talk about nature to recreate understanding that we are a part of it and not alone in it. Words and narratives are power. Where do you suggest to start in the way we speak about everything around us?

Language is one crucial way we have of navigating the world and embedding ourselves in it. And yet for some of our most special and irreplaceable places, in both an ecological and cultural sense, our language is often deaf to their resonance. Protective designations like Site of Special Scientific Interest, Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest, Special Protection Area. These terms hardly call us to attention, and because of that it’s all the easier to dismiss places and make them more readily erasable, because to many people they don’t sound like much of anything at all. So, I think we need to reconfigure our terminologies, but on a more local and personal level, I’d say a good place to start is to learn a few of the names of your common neighbours, whether it’s great tit, red admiral, slow worm or blue bell. Names are a tool, and like so many tools we use as humans, they have at times been put to horrific use, to subjugate and own things, but as Jackie Morris’ and Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful book The Lost Words has shown in such an inspiring manner, words are also windows. They can open us to a view of the world that is wondrous and reciprocal. And from words emerge stories, which are the engines of connection. Learning something about our common wild neighbours can be the beginning of a long, respectful, caring and confirming relationship.

Loss is ever-present in your book, but you manage not to let despair enter the pages. You mention photographer and film-maker Chris Jordan, who photographs dead albatrosses because of trash in their tummies, and you quote his idea that grief is love. Do we need to learn to grieve to be able to save?

In a way, yes. Because grief is founded on love. As Jordan says, “Grief is a felt experience of love for something that we’re losing, or something that we’ve lost.” And by allowing ourselves to grieve and mourn the loss of so much in the natural world that is disappearing, from nightingales and water voles to coral reefs and tropical jungle, we allow our love for it to strengthen its resolve. Because love is a powerfully protective instinct, force and feeling. It propels us into action. Think of how parents will do anything in their capacity to save a child whose life is threatened in some way. Sometimes it takes loss, or the immediate possibility of loss, to know just how deeply we love. So, while I understand despair, and feel it to some degree most days, it’s also a paralysing emotion that is difficult to act on. Grief, however, with love as its foundation, gives us a chance of moving on to action, radical hope and defending against further losses.

North Kelvin Meadow and Children's Wood, Glasgow. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
North Kelvin Meadow and Children’s Wood, Glasgow. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

Many pages in Irreplaceable are dedicated to kids. You write about the “extinction of experience” and also about their special openness to wonder and awe. What was your childhood like? Did you have the freedom to roam?

Yes, absolutely. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Canada, where my brother and I had a remarkable freedom to roam. We explored the nooks and crannies of nature in suburban southern Ontario like they were whole kingdoms of wonder, possibility and playfulness. There we met garter snakes and frog spawn and butterflies. We floated stick canoes down rivulets that were raging rivers to us. We rode our bikes or toboggans down what seemed back then an unbelievably steep hill we knew as Devil’s Ditch. We lived those hours in sunshine and rain and snow. And we drained every last drop of a day out there in these small pockets of meadow, wood or field because we didn’t know anything different. Parents at that time, still loving and caring parents that would do anything for their kids, allowed us to make choices about where we went and for how long on the condition that we abided by certain rules and made sure they knew roughly where we were going. But for many children today that’s no longer the case, as structured play time and being driven to school have come at the expense of those freer, less regulated joys of self-discovery. At times, naturally, our freedom led to mishaps and trouble for us, but what we gained from our experience, what we came back home with at the end of a day in terms of contact and connection with nature, was foundational for me. It was a freedom that was irreplaceable.

You mention Henry Beston and Rachel Carson, two important writers for the Sea Library as well. Why is this the right time to read Beston and Carson?

Curiously, Rachel Carson said that Henry Beston was the only writer to influence her, so there’s a nice pairing about these two vital voices. Though they worked in different ways, and were occupied by quite different themes, I see them as kindred spirits, in that they sought through a poetry of place to illuminate our relationships with the natural world and the inherent value of all we share this planet with. As well as being a distinguished marine biologist, Carson raised the alarm in Silent Spring about the untold damage caused by our indiscriminate use of pesticides, and hers is a voice we could learn from right now in the other, but related, context of a pandemic, while Beston’s beautiful paragraph in The Outermost House, written in 1929, about needing a wiser concept of animals, is more urgently needed today than ever.

If you had to choose, what is an irreplaceable book for you?

It’s so hard to choose from the many I consider to be irreplaceable on a personal level, but right now, as I’m struggling to read longer works in the midst of the pandemic, I’ll go with a small gem, and that’s Winter Count by Barry Lopez. Although Lopez is best known as a non-fiction writer, this is a slim volume of stunning short stories. The lines are stripped back and buoyant; the themes of human and wildness perennial; the atmosphere enlarging and evocative. It’s a book that brings a clarity to mind right now.

Restored bison, Konza Prairie, Kansas. Photo: Julian Hoffman.
Restored bison, Konza Prairie, Kansas. Photo: Julian Hoffman.

In the chapter on tallgrass prairie in America, you describe two tokens on your desk: an antique bison bone and a thatch of bison hair. Have you collected other special tokens or talismans from your travels?

The talismans that I have a particular attachment to are the ones secured by a deeper meaning. I pick up the odd stone or shell here and there, and I have bird nests that have blown down in storms or feathers unstitched on the wind, but those bison tokens signified the possibility of the animal’s wider return after being nearly annihilated from North American grasslands in the 19th century. I also have a whole desiccated stag beetle, with its astonishing antlers still intact. Not only is the dried creature simply stunning but it was found by my father on one of our walks here in Greece when my parents were visiting one year, so it carries fond memories of family for me. I have coins dug from the soil when we’ve been planting vegetables that have Arabic script on them, from a time when this village belonged not only to another age but to an entirely different empire. And I have a beautiful spice box that I wrote about in my first book, The Small Heart of Things, as it was given to me by a wonderful young man named Rashid in Istanbul. In the form of memories, the spice box held the difficult stories of his migration from his native Afghanistan, but now it acts as a reminder of our friendship, too.

What does home mean to you? And have you found one? You mention that it is possible to be at home in more than one place…

I have found one, yes. My wife and I moved to a village in the mountains of northern Greece beside the Prespa Lakes nearly twenty years ago, and the place has very much come to be home for us both. But I also believe that home is about the connections we make with the world around us, and what I learned from the many people and communities I spent time with while writing Irreplaceable is that it’s possible to bring other places into the circumference of our care – so that they essentially come to feel like home, too. To bring the living world within range of the heart.

Julian Hoffman. Photo: Jon Webber.
Julian Hoffman. Photo: Jon Webber.

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