Book Review: Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman

In Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, Julian Hoffman shows us endangered habitats and the creatures who inhabit them—as well as the humans who are fighting to save these fragile landscapes. He puts us vividly within these places, portraying just how special and vulnerable they are, and also shows us the passion, dedication, and integrity of the special people who believe these landscapes are worth saving, and who work toward preservation and conservation even at great personal cost. 

Hoffman travels around the world—from England to the U.S., from Greece to India—to visit myriad natural places, showing us in beautiful, poetic prose why they are worth saving. But even more significantly, he spends time with those who live near or within these places, listening and reporting on the history, significance, and possible futures of these animals and landscapes.

Each chapter, while focused on a specific region and/or species, expands into additional places and animals, completing the bigger picture and uniting these places in a way that shows how dependent one ecosystem is on another, and just how vulnerable the entire planet is to losing species, both plant or animal. 

As Hoffman takes us from English marshes to American prairies, from the oceans of Indonesia to the forests of the Balkans, he brings these places to life with the voice of a poet, as in this passage about the waters off Bangka Island: “Sea-sway, sun-drift, water-light. Schools of silver fish spilling like shimmering silt through a river … The coral reef rippled and dipped with long valleys and hidden glades, their sweeping vistas broken by steep, crenellated bluffs, where domino damselfish, black and white and striking, danced on the lip of the crevasse without any fear of falling.” 

Irreplaceable is a cautionary tale, essential reading for all who love the wilderness and the animals, from birds to invertebrates, who inhabit it. “We live in an age of diminution, thinning, disappearances,” Hoffman writes. “We live alongside shadows—ghosts of our own making. There is no easy way to convey the magnitude of loss currently underway in the natural world.” 

Indeed, while the stories of what we humans have done to animals and the planet can be horrific—it’s heartbreaking to read about albatross feeding their chicks the plastic that they themselves consume, or contemplating that the bison on the Midwestern prairies went 30 to 60 million down to fewer than 1,000 by 1885—the people who make it their life’s work to save these places are inspiring. As Dimitris Vavylis, a young Greek biologist working to save the Egyptian vulture (birds who reproduce slowly, and in the meantime are hunted for body parts and for sport), tells Hoffman: “Nature gives you hope. You go out and you see something beautiful and you gain strength from it, and you say, OK, it’s worth protecting it with all your power.” 

Many whom Hoffman interviewed are rightly concerned about their children and grandchildren, hoping to ensure they have natural spaces to play in, to gain strength from, in an uncertain future. “For some coming from inner-city Newport a trip to the marsh reveals animals to them for the first time,” says environmental educator Kathy Bagley of the Magor Marsh Nature Reserve in Wales. “But it doesn’t take long before that awe and wonder shines through.” It’s the fear of losing this awe and wonder, in our generation or the next, that keeps these incredible scientists and activists going. 

Irreplaceable is a gorgeous book that highlights all of the reasons—from wildlife to plant life to human life—why nature matters, and why we need to protect it before it’s too late. In a wonderful combination of personal essay and narrative journalism, Hoffman’s celebration of wild places will inspire readers to take action in our own communities and beyond: “This is the only world we have, the one whose water and air we need, and from whose substance we shape our lives.”

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