In Haunt

“We live in an age of loss, a landscape scattered with ghosts… but also a place of hope” – a thought-provoking reflection from author Julian Hoffman at the Manchester launch event for his new book Irreplaceable, held at the Blackwell’s Bookshop on University Green, on Tuesday 19 November.  The event was introduced by Dr David Cooper (Senior Lecturer in English and also of the new Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University).

Julian Hoffman And David Cooper

(Pictured above - from left to right: Julian Hoffman and Dr David Cooper) 

Irreplaceable (published by the Hamish Hamilton imprint of Penguin Books, available here) is an insightful work documenting ‘The Fight To Save Our Wild Spaces’, encountering endangered areas and places across the globe – exploring our connection to them, and crucially, our capacity to make positive change. Julian, an award-winning Creative Non-Fiction writer (with previous titles including The Small Heart of Things) who is currently living in north-western Greece, spent 6 years working on the highly-anticipated book: encountering countries and communities across the world to do so.

 A warm introduction from Dr David Cooper set the Place Writing context, but with a refreshing difference; expanding on the point that Julian’s emotive, almost lyrical approach avoids the pessimism seen in some contemporary writing within the genre – drawn to dwelling on irreversible damage and blame – instead considering how we can grow through an improved relationship with place and nature.  It is infused with a measured, meaningful positivity.

The book of course considers loss also: species and spaces sacrificed to human consumption, Climate Change – Julian going on to engage the audience, inviting them to hold up all ten digits on their hands, closing them slowly until just one remained, representing the 90% decline of nightingales in the UK across the course of the last half-century. Yet rather than taking this context of loss as a summary of the inevitability of the Anthropocene, Irreplaceable engages with it as a springboard for resistance; upholding the importance of acting now to save what we can, rather than resigning to decline. Julian referred to ‘the shifting baseline syndrome’ in relation to this – a term he uses to emphasise the point that the younger generation in this country for example, have likely experienced less abundant nature than their parents. Some see this as cause for mourning, harking back to a time where native species numbers were more fruitful – yet if this stalls into resignation by nostalgia, it is an attitude that can be unhealthy, unproductive. Indeed, a few prominent naturalists even hold the view that there is little point acting to make a difference whIrreplaceableen so much has already been lost. Yet Julian’s approach is radically hopeful, and relates powerfully to change, place and positive action. Indeed the ‘baseline’ of how much nature we are aware of may be shifting, but that does not devalue us fighting to protect what we still have. In fact, it makes it all the more important: a key point of Irreplaceable.

Julian’s fascinating, flowing prose invites the reader to learn about a range of threatened spaces more intimately, so we can then reconsider our relationship with the places around us and our ability to make positive differences within them. From endangered coral reefs and jungles, to British fenland and fields, Irreplaceable is global in its approach, yet has a profoundly personal message for us all: we can still create positive connections. Familiarity can be learned, felt and loved.  This includes places of personal significance – as Julian invited the audience to share those special spaces– and the book also considers urban spaces with people fighting to save them; from allotments to edgelands. Our capacity to connect stretches beyond the barriers of class, countries, continents.  It is encouraging point given the approach here at Haunt Manchester, aiming to engage with the alternative aspects and hidden histories of place.

Ultimately, as the book so dynamically demonstrates, no person’s connection with place is more or less valuable than any others. It is emotive, significant, special – to be appreciated. In turn, through researching and writing the book, Julian travelled widely and engaged with a range of communities and voices. For example, as he discussed during the event, he found himself surprised by the stories of spaces - becoming impassioned by the Hoo Peninsula and the people fighting to protect it during a chance visit. He now describes this place movingly as like a ‘second home’.

 Another example of profound place-based encounter was during Julian’s time staying with a tribal community, the Nyishi, in India. In the book. Julian’s consideration of places and people is fair and measured – rather than romanticising – he upholds the importance of providing honest, sensitive accounts. In terms of the Nyishi community, he gives the example of how they have come to challenge their own time-honoured traditions in the hope of supporting threatened species. Rather than crafting their headdresses involving the beak of a Hornbill, as they have for many years, they have adapted to use a sustainable alternative. Inspiring examples such as this underline that, yes, we may need to challenge our traditions and comforts – and this doesn’t necessarily feel easy at first – but it is doable, making a potentially transformative difference to the nature around us.

Irreplaceable is indeed packed with examples of hope – and perceptive questions from Dr David Cooper following Julian’s conversation and readings to the audience, allowed him to elaborate on this. He spoke of the importance of enabling other voices  ‘to be heard amidst the noise’ - a point applicable in Nature and Place Writing as well as more widely – championing the power of place in the heart, how hope has to be active in each individual: not just a passing interest. Tales of children fascinated by ‘pond dipping’ in Welsh wetlands, a man in India choosing to risk his life in fast-flowing water to save a baby elephant. Examples of moving natural encounter were shared not as tokenism, but as celebration of places and people. This is also a key element of the new Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, engaging with place in an open, interdisciplinary way – and considering creative responses that emerge in the written form.

During the launch event, Julian discussed how he aimed for the tone of the book to be ‘closer to defiance than to elegy’  and this is certainly the case: this is writing that is resonant, relatable – whether you have travelled far or not – and resounding in its exploration of our precious emotional relationship with place. 

By Emily Oldfield 

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