Reviewer Rachel Jagareski Interviews Julian Hoffman, Author of Irreplaceable
Climate change got you down? Need a pick-me-up? Put on some trail shoes and head outside.
Yes, it’s an irony but just the thing that’s under assault is also our path to changing climate consciousness: Mother Nature. To inspire action, everyone should be encouraged to visit gardens, parks, preserves, and other places where plants and animals can astonish us with their beauty. It’s one thing to talk about greenhouse gases; it’s quite another to stand at the edge of a marsh full of cattails with a riot of birdsong overwhelming your senses.
More and more, we must strive to make the global warming issue personal and emotional. Only then will we consider wilderness sacred, only then will we ALL join in The Fight to Save Our Wild Spaces.
Forgive us for getting the subtitle ahead of the horse, but we couldn’t resist because we’re thrilled to spend time with Julian Hoffman, a top environmentalist and the author of Irreplaceable—home to that aforementioned subtitle. Raised in southern Ontario, Julian now lives in the Prespa Lakes region, a national park shared between Greece, Albania, and the Republic of Macedonia. His first book, The Small Heart of Things, won a National Outdoor Book Award in 2014.
Rachel and Julian, thanks for making this one extra special.
The irreplaceable environments you describe so evocatively are diverse indeed, from wetlands and woodlands to coral reefs and Himalayan mountains. I truly enjoyed visiting these special places through your writing. Do you view storytelling as an increasingly effective and important environmental protection tool?
So often our environmental crises—whether it’s the destruction of places or the extinction of wildlife—are relayed through statistics, such as how many thousands of acres of important marshland might be destroyed for the construction of an airport, or the fact that North America has lost over three billion birds in the past half a century. These figures are essential to understanding what we’re doing to the natural world, as they act as convenient shorthand for the dismal decline of nature under our watch.
But how do we internalize, on a personal level, such overwhelming figures? How do we make them relatable and real, so that we’re able to act on them in a meaningful way? One method, I think, is through stories. Stories can be engines of connection, having the potential to create a space for empathy and understanding, particularly when extinction renders those wild places and creatures as another kind of number—zero—nullifying all that is wondrous and remarkable about them in the process. In Irreplaceable, I wanted their beautiful complexity to animate the pages as a measure of all that we stand to lose.
You discuss the inadvertent 1990s decimation of India’s vulture species and touch briefly on the connections between the outbreak of disease when the human-wildlife balance is disrupted. Now we are living through an unprecedented pandemic stemming from another human encroachment on the natural world. Did you ever foresee such a dramatic event in your lifetime?
No, I can’t honestly say that I foresaw what is unfolding today, despite having written about the catastrophic vulture crisis in India and its terrible knock-on consequences for human health, or that David Quammen wrote an entire book, Spillover, about exactly this possibility a few years ago. We tend to live our lives thinking that this civilizational structure will hold. That what we’ve built is solid and unshakeable. But as we’re seeing, it’s actually so fragile and swiftly undone.
Our continual destruction of the natural world has long blighted our lives when you consider the awful health ramifications of air and water pollution, which by and large our governments have said we can live with and tolerate because of the need for economic growth, so we perhaps shouldn’t be so surprised by this virus. It’s another symptom of our unhealthy relationship with the natural world, and our response to this unparalleled modern crisis, which simultaneously offers us an opportunity to rethink and recalibrate those relationships, will be critical to whether we flourish into the future.
Do you envision that the movement to decelerate climate change and preserve wild places and wildlife will be strengthened or eroded in the aftermath of this global pandemic?
This is a really important question. I think we’ve reached a crossroads, and the road that we were on is now permanently closed behind us, because there’s no going back to what “normal” was before. Too much has already irrevocably shifted. A number of airlines will fail, countless businesses will close.
The big question will be whether politicians choose to kickstart collapsing world economies by further loosening environmental regulations and throwing everything they have at growth at all costs, or whether they’ll steer a more transformative, positive, and affirmative response to this pandemic. There are already signs that some European governments are looking at embracing greener practices and policies in the aftermath of the coronavirus, and public polls are beginning to show that people don’t want to go back to the way things were, suddenly seeing clearer skies and waters in their surroundings. The opportunity definitely exists to use this terrible situation as a springboard for creating a better, more equitable, and greener future. The choice is ours.
Your illuminating passages about the importance of insect and other invertebrate populations stress how essential these largely unpopular creatures are to so many natural processes. What are some strategies that you would advocate to increase public support for their protection?
It continually fascinates me just how much we rely on the smallest of things to survive, whether it’s microorganisms in the soils which help replenish its fertility or pollinating insects that make many of our food crops possible. And yet despite their critical importance to a functioning planet and our own wellbeing, insects are in terrible decline in many parts of the world. And that loss has been reflected in the anecdotal windscreen effect, when people recall how on drives through the countryside their car windows were always smudged with insects in the past. Something which happens far, far less in most countries these days.
In terms of public strategies, it’s always good to start close to home. Firstly: let kids play in the wild as much as possible, even if that wild is just a small neighborhood creek or a park. Because it tends to be bugs that we first encounter as children rather than any of the more totemic wildlife species. And from first contact can grow a lifetime of love and care for the natural world. Secondly: it’s time to rethink the lawn. Instead of a manicured green lawn maintained by fertilizers, weed killer, and copious amounts of water, we could have a restorative reimagining of our home ground, using it to sow native plants, wildflowers, grasses, and trees, which will naturally go on to support an entire community of insect life, including butterflies, beetles, hoverflies, moths, and bees. Lawns could be such wonderful places of possibility.
Another surprising aspect of your book was learning how important brownfields, old quarries, and disused military bases are as undisturbed founts of biodiversity and critical habitats for various species. There are some who might argue that many such sites should be cleaned up or remediated rather than left alone. What is your view?
Some brownfield is just ruined ground. That was very much the case with what is today Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Until very recently it was the Joliet Arsenal, where an enormous amount of armaments and ordnance was built for several wars. As a result, the land was contaminated; it was dead. So there, where the tallgrass prairie is now such an inspiring tapestry of grasses, wetlands, and reintroduced bison, ecological restoration was the ideal response.
But on quieter military sites, such as Lodge Hill in England, for example, where large parts of the base had been largely untouched for well over a century, the land holds on to a species abundance that’s been lost from surrounding landscapes, precisely because it hasn’t been under the same pressure for house-building, agriculture, and road-building as the outside world. And because of this, it acts as an important wildlife refuge. I think it’s important to assess each brownfield case on its own merits, and where the ecological value is high it should be preserved as it is, if possible.
I counted eighty-eight irreplaceable sites discussed in your book and poignantly listed in the epilogue. What other sites around the world would you like to document when it is safe again to travel?
There are so many, to be honest with you! But one which I was meant to be exploring this month, until my US book tour was postponed because of the pandemic, is the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. This wild, ancient, primordial swampland is now under threat from a proposal to strip-mine for minerals close to the refuge. So serious is the concern that the environmental organization American Rivers has just named Okefenokee and the St. Marys River, which runs from the swamp to the sea, on its annual list of America’s most endangered rivers. To think this jewel of a place is imperiled is both heartbreaking and angering.
For those of us (really, all of us) hungering for a bit of good news in this anxious time, do you have any positive things to report regarding the pantheon of the irreplaceables since you finished your book?
I began writing the book assuming that grief would be a large part of the journey. And while there has certainly been grief along the way, as magnificent places of irreplaceable beauty, wildlife, and human connection were lost, this has easily been the most joyous experience of my professional career. Because I’ve met the most remarkable people, in so many different parts of the world, who showed me that resistance to loss is possible. That we can protect and preserve the natural abundance and beauty we still have with us. And these were ordinary people, or that’s how they would describe themselves to me. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things on behalf of what they loved. And it made me realize that we all have this capacity to enlarge our idea of home so that it includes the more-than-human world in its embrace. Each of us can make a radical difference in this world.