Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Hamish Hamilton, 2019
The Overstory by Richard Powers: W.W. Norton, 2018
I’ve read two astonishing books in the past month; both tell the stories of people trying to save the places they love. Each writer beautifully captures the enthusiasm, knowledge, anger, determination and despair that drive people to protect redwoods in California or tiny allotment gardens in urban England, hornbill nesting areas in India or lynx habitat in North Macedonia. Each is incredibly well-researched with enough facts for the geeks and enough glimmers of hope for those who can’t bear to count the numbers in the species extinction race.
Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable opens with a stroll along the Brighton Pier on England’s southeast coast. With all its glitz and kitsch, it’s hard to imagine a place more removed from the romantic ideal of the natural world. But a child suddenly points to starlings beginning their evening murmuration – an apparently random gathering of a few birds at a time until they number in the hundreds and thousands, wheeling and turning in a synchronized shadow moving across the evening sky, inspiring in the onlookers a sense of amazement and joy. All stop to watch until the birds filter away to their night roosts in the pilings under the pier.
The passage illustrates Hoffman’s beautiful writing and also describes the trajectory Irreplaceable follows: he has found small pockets around the world where individuals who, by resisting threats to places they love, gather enough other people around them to bring a halt to seemingly unstoppable forces. Folks might cherish an estuary in the Thames River slated for an airport, a hectare of meadow in a run-down part of Glasgow destined to become a parking lot, or an iron ore mine that would virtually demolish a small island in Indonesia and succeed in fending off their destruction.
Hoffman doesn’t shy away from the irrefutable evidence of species decline and extinguishment, of climate change, of corporate and government corruption. But Irreplaceable not only gives us vivid images of the special qualities so cherished by the locals, his examples give us the hope that we can light small fires of renewal in the most unlikely places.
Richard Powers’ stunning novel, The Overstory, is not as hopeful. Through eight family histories, it begins with the destruction of the enormous hardwood forests of the eastern United States where seemingly endless forests were cut, cut, cut and finally wiped out by invasive pests (think mountain pine beetle). We see how each character is triggered to resist the continued devastation of the coniferous forests of the west and eventually come together in that fight. One treeplanter tells each seedling he inserts into the ground to hang in there until we’ve wiped ourselves out. He finally decides we are doing too much damage and many species won’t outlast us after all and so moves to take more radical action.
Both of these writers powerfully evoke how the beauty of the natural world moves and sustains us. One of Powers’ characters, a research scientist, finds evidence of the vast web of communication taking place within forests – in the soil, the air and the water that sustains the myriad organisms that make up an ecosystem. Hoffman writes about the way children’s excitement about discovering the living world around them calms and comforts them.
Both writers also take the long view – focusing on ancient trees and the time it takes to build a wild forest or any integrated and sustainable place that has room for our richly diverse cultures, but also for its own well-being.
My husband and I walked the Atrevida Trail on the Tla’amin lands north Powell River earlier this month. We were initially puzzled by a sign pointing to “The Avenue of the Veterans”. After a while we realized we were in the shadow of huge Douglas-firs. They would have been little more than saplings when the original old growth was logged in the early 1900s – the huge nurse stumps notched where the loggers stuck in the planks to stand on when cutting down the trees. Imagine walking through a forest of trees that big in diameter and thinking, when all you had was a Swede saw, that you could fell them. Cut them down and then move them. What hubris. But of course it was a hubris imported from a Europe that had been severely deforested. Hoffman quotes reports estimating that 95 percent of England’s forests had been cut down by the 1600s.
It is easy to agree with Greta Thunberg when she says all the children demonstrating have not really had any effect; when you see international conference after international conference fail to reach any consensus, when Canadian premiers are fighting even the most feeble efforts to curtail carbon emissions, when what little is left of BC’s old growth forest is being cut and shipped overseas. Despair is not, however, useful. Anger, yes. Despair, no.
Just as each starling makes its own way through the intricacy of the murmuration, so we make our own path through our communities, each step we take speaking to everything and everyone around us. At the same time, the world moves us, nudges us along paths we’re often not even aware of.
If we give ourselves enough time and space to step outside our homes, out of our cars into a piece of the world with a few trees, some songbirds, frogs, or butterflies, we’ll begin to understand why people come to love a place, why they’ll stand up for it. They know it’s irreplaceable.