4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Of all the creatures on this planet, humanity is the one that has been able to change the very face of the earth in a way that no other animal is able to. We can raze the densest forests, cut holes through rock, change the course of rivers and obliterate mountains. The only other thing that has this ability to change the very landscape is the earth-changing events of volcanos, earthquake and tsunamis or the out of this world asteroids.

Hoffman heads all over the world from his home in Greece to find these places that are right at the very end of their existence. He visits Kansas to watch the mating ritual of the leks or prairie chickens on the Konza prairie. This place has been under threat since the 1800s as the European settlers saw that the land was rich and put it under the plough. There is almost none (around 0.1%) of the original grasslands left.

We hear a lot about the tropical jungles, how it is being devastated by logging and agriculture. Hoffman travels to the northeasternmost state of India, Arunachal Pradesh where he is there to see the landscape of the Himalayan flood plain. The people here, the Nyishs, have managed to co-exist in this landscape with tigers and elephants for years. But it is only in the past few years that the realisation that the elephants have started to raid crops so they have reluctantly retreated from their rice paddies and plots. Their state bird is the hornbill, a species that is essential to their identity, customs and beliefs. This bird has a casque on its bill and it is this part of the bird that is used on the headdress of the tribe. The bird is under threat though and the Nyish tribe are looking at other ways of replicating this part of the dress.

It is not just exotic places that are under threat, closer to home we have woodlands in the UK that have been in existence for hundreds of years.  The British have a deep love for woodlands, as was seen when the government a few years ago thought it was a good idea to privatise the Forestry Commission. The backlash from the public forced a U-turn and a backtrack on this. The woodland he visits is just outside Sheffield and has been in existence since the 100’s. It was split in two after the M1 carved its way through it, and has recently been suffering because of those that go there for their leisure activity or riding through it with quad bikes. It is under threat again and local residents have formed groups to resist this, applying for village green status to protect what is left. Sitting with his back resting on an old oak watching the breeze ripple the bluebells is a perfect way to spend the evening.

Stories about these and the other places strongly underline the main argument of the book that all of these places are utterly Irreplaceable. With wholesale destruction of these places comes the loss of habitats. Even if you were to plant the same species of trees in a field a couple of miles up the road in Sheffield, you can’t replicate an ancient woodland. The myriad species and underground mycelia that live in it along with the complex interactions that have developed over the past 400 or 500 years cannot just be reproduced.  These unique ecosystems are disappearing under the machines of mankind and when they are gone, that is it, finito, no more.

Hoffman has written an eloquent series of essays taken from his first-hand experience of seeing places that are under threat from human activity. It is partly a celebration of our diverse world but is also a call to arms for those that care about this planet. He shows how local people are fighting back against the things that are happening to their area. Most importantly, it is a book that needs to be read and more importantly a stepping stone to inspire us to action and to pressurise our political leaders into doing something when the places we live are threatened.

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