This Thanksgiving weekend I am thankful for Julian Hoffman, who manages to be – on Twitter @JulianHoffman – a good, kind, humble person. That is a difficult thing to do in a medium that rewards controversy, snark, and self-aggrandizement. Julian Hoffman shows it does not have to be that way: that you can be supportive of other writers and Twitter users, that you can post fascinating, subtle photos and video of the natural world, that you can showcase the work of those who are standing up for and nurturing the non-human world and their local communities. With a following in the thousands, he is successful by any rational, non-toxic definition of success as well, and his internet persona is a welcome tonic to the generally low internet standard of behavior.
In the realm of antique media, Julian Hoffman has written a book titled Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places which I highly recommend for the beauty of his writing about beautiful places, as well as a further unfolding of all the humane qualities he displays in his internet presence.
Irreplaceable begins with a quote by Barry Lopez, the patron saint of nature writing, about the efficacy of “a testament of minor voices” and continues with an introductory chapter comprised of a description of the miraculous ordinary: a murmuration of starlings witnessed by a crowd of everyday people on Brighton Pier at sundown. Hoffman has the gift of descriptive writing that rewires the brain, allowing for new perceptions and new ways of thinking (and perhaps acting?). His sentences are sensuous, surprising, genial, all at once: “The arm of the Ferris wheel spun slowly on the promenade and the air plumed with the unmistakable tang of the British seaside, a fusion of saltwater, fish and chips, and candy floss.” He sees the beauty in the people – middle-aged couples laughing together, teenagers distracted from their selfies by the aerial acrobatics of the starlings – as well as in the threatened natural phenomena he describes. And, without being tendentious, Hoffman provides a window into the science that is an essential part of the conservation equation.
From the familiarity of starlings, he moves on to narrate the struggles of more species and locales, such as the effort to conserve habitat for the lynx of south-eastern Europe, vultures in India, or the mangrove forests and coral reefs of Indonesia. His most detailed writing is about the work of ordinary people to conserve small patches of open space and woodland in Great Britain, however. His allegiance lies with ordinary people struggling to make their voices heard against the logic of economic “progress” which would replace a fragment of much-loved woodland with another over-sized filling station with its convenience store full of processed foods and acres of half-empty, entirely life-less parking lot, a struggle in which those who speak up for voiceless nature are often made to feel “grubby” and unreasonable.
Hoffman wears his politics lightly and perhaps elides the political ramifications of the fight to save wild places, focusing instead on the actions of individuals and organizations and the commonality that unites liberals and conservatives in facing down threats to particular places. If there is a theoretical element to Irreplaceable it is in an exploration of the concept of “place” as an element of human well-being. There is a politics there, and the people that Hoffman profiles are engaged in politics at its most particular, and serious, despite its localized scale. “I’d seen a small world in the process of returning, all those prairie roots going down again, drilling deep into the dark Illinois earth as people remake the tall grass that was taken.”
How do all those local voice, those minor voices, become a force in the greater culture without losing their primary allegiance to place? Political representation and organization on a national and international level is essential in order to stop the incessant threat to “our wild places” and to curb the greenhouse gas and other pollutants that threaten life whether wild or domesticated. Raising our minor voices is part of the path to building a larger politics and Julian Hoffman’s beautifully crafted book, in highlighting the heroism of ordinary people, is an act of generous service to all who love particular wild places.