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Book review: Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman

· Book Review,Conservation

It's been a while since a book made me cry, but Irreplaceable: the fight to save our wild places made me unexpectedly emotional. It's a non-fiction read by Julian Hoffman, who writes extensively on the subject of 'place' and, in this book, turns his focus to our natural world.

What's 'Irreplaceable' about?

Leant to me by my uncle, who billed it as one of the best books he'd ever read, this book is a deep dive into amazing places and species that should be protected (or in a lot of the cases are actually supposed to be protected by law), but are under threat.

It follows the wonderful people who are so connected to these places and wildlife, their uniqueness and their importance to the local community and beyond, that they fight to save them from external threats.

The threats faced are varied – they include a proposed new airport on unique marshland, planned housing on ancient woodland, a motorway cutting up connected and rare waterways, a carpark on allotments, illegal deforestation and poaching impacting hornbills, and so much more.

Every small development or destruction may on its own seem like a tiny thing, but the horror of this book for me was that it highlights that each is not an isolated incidence of protected areas or species under threat. This is widespread and tragic.

What stuck with me?

There are so many shocking things in this read, but one that stuck with me was the story of the American Bison. These freely roaming creatures once numbered around 60 million. The descriptions of how they were massacred – mainly to cripple the Native American communities – haunt me. Julian described a photograph of a pile of bison skulls in 1870, where two men pose with their gruesome trophies. The number of skulls in this one pile is estimated to be 180,000 (you can see the photograph here). It made me feel physically sick.

Why should you read it?

This book is the story of individuals going above and beyond to protect living things and spaces that are important to them, while explaining why they should be important to everyone. It focuses mainly on projects in the UK and Europe, and includes urban spaces, too.

I am buoyed by the fact that there are so many people prepared to dedicate so much to protecting what is being lost, but this is overshadowed by my horror that the protections that should save our precious wildness are so weak (the book Client Earth is a great read to find out more about this from a legal perspective). Even the stories of wins in the book are usually tempered by a feeling that this is only a temporary stay of execution.

This book is an important read because:

  • The writing is beautiful – it will make you appreciate nature (even) more
  • People will amaze you – it's inspiring to hear about individuals taking action to protect the natural world
  • You'll understand that legal protection doesn't necessarily mean protected – the more I read about environmental law and designations of protection, the more scared I am for the future of our wild places. Something needs to change, but it can't happen until more people realise that we can't rely on special site designations and the law to do its job alone. 

Irreplaceable is available from Amazon here or all good bookstores. 

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