Hoffman’s elegiac book is both a celebration and a warning of the fragility of small pockets of wild nature in a world dominated by human activity.
Elsewhere in Kent, a housing development threatened the UK’s largest population of nightingales, while a six-lane motorway was planned to carve through prehistoric wetland of the Gwent Levels.
What you finally take from this heartfelt book is that the issue of the Sixth Extinction may have dawned on the world’s media, yet the need to safeguard wildlife has just partial support in the corridors of power, whether in Sheffield or Jakarta. Its real champions are not governments or politicians, but extraordinary ordinary individuals, like Ulva Takke and Gill Moore.
He starts and ends the book with a characteristically evocative account of the transformative power of a starling murmuration, “an incandescent sky dance”, on random promenaders along Brighton’s Palace Pier. He has made a very strong case that such experiences are as vital to our humanity as nature itself is to our survival.
The power of Hoffman’s book lies in the reporting: he doesn’t deal — as many environmentalists do — in generalities and alarmist warnings about what lies ahead for the world, but in the specifics of the here and now... What you don’t get is any sense of what greater things can be done to protect these places. If the battle is to be fought trench by trench, yard by yard, it will in the end be lost. However flawed, the big structures of the state, and the power of independent bodies such as the National Trust, also matter very much. The battle to save and improve the world’s wild places must be won in government offices as well as on remote mountain tops. That’s why there is more to be said than Hoffman has room for about the need for a broader change in the way we respond to nature and the environment: such as the principle of natural capital championed by the economist Dieter Helm. But in showing that these battles have direct consequences and telling the stories of the people who fight them, and in understanding that nature and people need not be in conflict, Hoffman has done good service to the horrid ground-weaver spider among many other species.