1 Oct 2019

Author interview: Irreplaceable - the fight to save our wild places

What makes a natural site special to people? Too often realisation hits after a place is gone. We interview author Julian Hoffman about human connection to landscapes, experiences shaped by endangered natural places and unsung species, and the stalwart local people fighting urgently to save them.

Wildlife at Hoo Peninsula, UK © Julian Hoffman
Wildlife at Hoo Peninsula, UK © Julian Hoffman
By Shaun Hurrell

Your book, Irreplaceable, contains captivating depictions of natural scenes and events. Why do you think you’re able to transport a reader to places so powerfully?

Thanks! The closer you get to the heart of your subject, the more moving the conversation will be. In the case of a starling murmuration on a bitterly cold evening on Brighton Pier [UK], I’d never been so near; you felt like you were inside that magical swirling cauldron of birds. And as with the other wildlife in the book, I wanted to let those starlings animate the pages in a way that was radically different to the statistics that are so often our measure of their presence or decline. Extinction reduces a wild animal to a number – zero – nullifying all that is wondrous, resilient and remarkable about it.


What was it about the book’s featured threatened places that struck you?

They were all imperilled: an urban meadow threatened by luxury apartments; an ancient woodland threatened by a motorway services; an island and coral reef threatened by illegal mining. But the book began when I spent a day with three residents desperately fighting to protect the remarkable Hoo Peninsula in Kent [UK] from becoming Europe’s largest airport, threatening the (supposedly protected) habitat of 300,000 waterbirds, nightingales and turtle doves, and two entire villages. I came to realise what loss – to both human and wild communities – meant in the larger landscape of our lives.


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You explored the concept of place: what does it mean to you?

The definition of place that comes closest to elucidating its fundamental essence belongs to the artist Alan Gussow: “The catalyst that converts any physical location... into a place is the process of experiencing it deeply. A place is a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.” These journeys have shown me that the feelings people have for natural places and their wildlife run far deeper than I ever imagined. We’ve often overlooked these indelible connections because many of the people seeking to protect some place of value lack the kind of power that has traditionally made some voices louder than others.


You share tender insights of different people who love ‘their’ local place or species. What do they have in common?

Everyone I met – taxi drivers, nurses or precision tool makers – in whatever part of the world, seemed to have enlarged the very idea of home itself, so that it included the other-than-human in its embrace – whether it be water voles, avocets, or redwoods. I think that sense of inclusivity, that broadening of our connective horizons, whereby we recognise the inherent right of existence for wild species, is the critical transformative shift we need to make if we’re to repair and renew the world we are undeniably a part of.


Tell us about spending time with field staff from BirdLife Partners in Greece (HOS) and Bulgaria (BSPB), working to protect the Egyptian Vulture [Neophron percnopterus - Endangered] ...

It was an extraordinary privilege. They work in gruelling conditions, often at the height of the blazing Balkan summer, abseiling down cliffs to return a fallen chick to its nest, or roaming the stony hillsides with an anti-poison dog to make sure the landscape is as safe as possible for this now extremely rare bird. Despite setbacks, they’re doing absolutely everything humanly possible.

Bulgarian Muslims call the bird akbuba, or the white father, in honour of the story that it was the Egyptian Vulture that saved Mohammed from the grasp of a Golden Eagle. In exchange, Mohammed is said to have granted the vulture eternal life, and turned its plumage white to mark its honesty and bravery. So it’s a bird with especially deep connections to the people and places where it continues to dwindle, but it has at its side a group of determined people working to ensure it stays where it belongs.



You were there when conservationists captured camera trap images of Balkan Lynx in a new area. What did that mean to them?

It was a real turning point for the lynx team at MES [BirdLife Partner in North Macedonia]. They’d persevered through countless difficulties, such as the government plan for potentially devastating dams in the lynx’s heartland of Mavrovo National Park. Those images of a mother and cub revealed not only that their efforts were positively altering the trajectory of that species’ fate, but also acted as a powerful symbol of hope.


Your book is very timely: more than ever people need to resist the loss of natural areas...

Absolutely. And not only the larger, wilder and more iconic natural areas – without the small, immediate and familiar places in our cities and suburbs it’s profoundly difficult for people to nurture the everyday connections with the natural world that are imperative to human well-being and the long-term flourishing of the wild. But often people feel powerless...I know that feeling well, because we live in an economic and political system that celebrates individualism at the expense of collective action. But nearly all communal movements begin with just single voices, which means, of course, that we’re not nearly as powerless as we often feel.


Get Julian Hoffman's new book, Irreplaceable, here: