Caught by the River


27th June 2019

Paul Evans reviews Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, published today by Hamish Hamilton.

If the pen really is mightier than the sword, then Julian Hoffman is a knight errant, looking for trouble, a champion of underdogs. He has taken up with the unsung, under-appreciated, bloody-minded campaigners fighting against overwhelming odds to protect the last places that harbour unsung, under-appreciated, bloody-minded nature. 

The plight of nightingales, cranes, lynx, vultures, elephants and horrid ground-weaver spiders depends on resisting forces of development, commerce and industry that are about to wipe them out of their last remaining sanctuaries. All that stands in the way of such ecocide is a bunch of people who may otherwise be, ‘publicans, soldiers, school teachers, tool makers, tribal hunters, scuba divers, subsistence fishermen, taxi drivers, plumbers and schoolchildren,’ but have become campaigners, advocates, the awkward squad, setting their hearts, time, resources and intelligence on saving places for wild nature on behalf of their communities. 

These tales of Hoffman are about Julian’s mission to give voice to those up against it, to bear witness. In telling their stories, this collection of essays from the front line of environmental campaigning is a powerful form of place writing. It begins with the journalism of poking about, asking questions, talking to people and listening. Hoffman has a sympathetic, befriending way of moving with people like the starlings he loves on Brighton pier who, ‘perfected the art of synchronicity of grace under pressure.’ If you add together all the people fighting for their fens, allotments, woods, and coasts, you get testimony that is like a murmuration. 

I was fortunate to be in a group with Julian Hoffman invited by People Need Nature to the old army training grounds at Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. This is the last great stronghold of breeding nightingales in Britain; it is threatened by housing development and we met one of the campaigners Julian knew, the wonderful Gill Moore of Friends of the North Kent Marshes, already a veteran of the Boris Island airport battle and now dedicated to protecting nightingales. Gill has since died, and this makes Julian’s account of the campaign to save Lodge Hill’s nightingales and by extension, the other struggles for nature around the world, all the more personal, poignant and urgent. 

‘Nature and place needn’t be mutually exclusive ideas,’ says Julian, ‘as both are critically necessary to the flourishing of human and wild communities.’ Those standing up for the kind of inclusive communities of wildlife and people are an inspiration. Articulating ways in which these communities constitute place, that understands their emotive power, their recovery of meaning and the cultural and psychological links between human and nonhuman life, is tricky. It can appear preachy, naive, twee and anthropocentric, but Julian’s language is thoughtful, careful; it allows a lyricism when the passion pushes through and the place works through him. ‘What matters…’ he says, ‘is the quality of our connections, honouring wonder, relationships and community in the face of immense loss, the sustaining ties forged between people, nature and place.’ It is these relationships that make such places irreplaceable.

As I write this, I learn that one of the campaigns in this book – the protest against the M4 relief road across the Gwent Levels in South Wales – has been successful. Everyone knows the pressure for a new road is still there and the scheme will appear again in the future but for now, the first breeding cranes in centuries have a future in those fabulous ancient wetlands, thanks to the unsung, under-appreciated, bloody-minded and irreplaceable, awkward squad.


Irreplaceable is out now in hardback, priced £18.99.

Paul Evans is a nature writer, broadcaster, senior lecturer in the Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, contributor to the Guardian’s Country Diary, wanderer of woods and lives in Shropshire with his family. Visit his website here, or follow him on Twitter here.