Local by Alastair Humphreys
|Local by Alastair Humphreys
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason
|Summary: A gentle book exploring local landscape and big issues, as Humphreys adventures around the map of his home turf looking for nature and finding that and much else besides.
|Date: January 2024
|Publisher: Eye Books
|External links: Author's website
Alastair Humphreys has walked and cycled all over the world. And then written about it. For this book he walked and cycled very close to home and then wrote about it. As he says in his introduction, the book is an attempt to share what I have learnt about some big issues from a year exploring a small map. Nature loss, pollution, land use and access, agriculture, the food system, rewilding… One of the joys of the book for me was that the biggest thing he learned about all of these things was that there are no easy answers, no single 'right or wrong', that every upside is likely to have a downside for somebody and that there are some hard choices ahead.
Humphreys shares his own opinions strongly enough, while acknowledging that we are likely to have different views and/or different priorities. That's ok, he says, just think about it and then do something about it. Talk about it. Explore the ideas as well as the land.
Before you get to thinking that this is another polemic urging us on to action: it isn't. It is a whimsical journey around a smallish slice of England, highlighting the issues, pondering them, coming to some conclusions that may or may not be right or workable. It is an attempt to make us look more closely at what we're in danger of losing, and to care a little bit more. That he can make us smile in the process is the bonus.
If he hadn't already grabbed me by his intro, Humphreys nabbed me on the very next page by quoting one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, who had this to say:
Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
To be honest, the book is worth having for the chapter header quotes alone (poets and authors abound), but I'm guessing that's not what Humphreys wants to hear. He wants people to love his books. He actually wants to stumble across someone reading one on a train with a delighted smile on their face. I didn't meet him, but it's not my fault he wasn't on the train where I read a large chunk of this one. If you want wishes granted, you have to meet the universe half-way.
The premise of the book is to take his previous idea of the micro-adventure one step smaller and to adventure for a year within the confines of one single map. The map in question is an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map centred on his home. This isn't a fluke, you can buy custom-made maps from the OS centred on anywhere in the country you choose. (Check it out!). The nature of the map is that each grid square covers a square kilometre.
So, every week for a year Humphreys went out to explore a random square. To explore it in detail. To follow Mary Oliver's instructions to the letter: he paid attention, was astonished and sat down to tell us about it.
The subtitle of the book is A search for nearby nature and wildness. The word search in there is an important as the word pursuit in the American Declaration. There is no 'right' to happiness, only to the pursuit of it. Likewise, there was no guarantee that Humphreys would find nature and wildness, only that he would look for it.
As it turns out he found a lot of it, and then he spent time learning about what he'd found. One of the important lessons of this book is that there is a lot of nature out there, but perhaps an equally important one is that there is also the internet, there are also apps, and books and other ways of exploring what we find ourselves looking at. There are apps to identify birds by their song, to identify wild flowers from photos. There are internet rabbit warrens that take you on meanders through local (and thence into not-so-local) history and mythology. If we want to explore our local patch, and after reading this book I defy you not to want to, then we will get so much more from it if we take the time to learn what it is we are looking at. Not just what it is, but why it is, how it came to be, what it might mean.
It is also an object lesson in being able to see the natural among the man-made, encouraging us to enjoy the marsh even if it is crossed by power lines. It reminds us of our value-judgements when we look at the world. Both dandelions and magpies would be more treasured if they were but rare.
Not everything will be explained, but isn't that part of the joy of travelling? The point of this book is that travelling really can be done on your own doorstep, in an area only 20km across – a distance that he tells us is less than a half-marathon.
Another thing I loved about the book is that it isn't a greenwash of his local area, nor of his own responses to it. He talks as much about the rubbish he finds as he does about the flowers. He acknowledges his own grumpiness as well as his intrigue and curiosity and occasional (rare) moments of bliss. He talks about housing estates and industrial estates as well as marshes and woodland.
I love this, because I see myself in it. I know how hard it can be to just sit still in a wood. I know what nettle sting feels like (but also that dock isn't the cure for it). I know the frustration of a blocked route, and the guilty feeling of knowing you're off-piste and hoping no-one will mind if you're respectful. I also know that I'm as often charmed by graffiti and street art as I am annoyed by it. And I especially know, because I don't drive, how many (allegedly) grotty streets you walk down to (allegedly) get to the good bit. Looking those streets differently is a lesson in itself.
This is a very easy read that belies the amount of research that has gone into it. It's meandering at times, in the way that a good conversation down the pub meanders. It's full of the joy of having just found something out…and it gave that joy to me. It gave me lots of I did not know that! moments.
As always, the number of page corners turned down is testament not just to how much I have enjoyed this book, but how much I will continue to do so. I am pleased that I am not the only one who reads grave stones and the notes on funeral flowers, or who marks the seasons by the cross-quarter days, who ponders who might have walked this footpath before me (yesterday or a hundred years ago), who wonders where it used to lead and why.
My favourite discovery so far, thank you Alastair, is that the jay bird doesn't just bury acorns, it actually re-plants saplings. That explains something about my herb bed.
Humphreys studiously doesn't name any of the places on his map, though I'm sure we could work it out if it mattered – it doesn't – the principle will be the same wherever we are in the UK, which is also his point. He wants us to do the same…to get ourselves a local map, OUR local map, and repeat the experiment or at least our own version of it.
And I have to say I am tempted enough to have just sent off for my own 'home ground' map.
If you enjoy this, and haven't already come across it, I heartily refer you back to The Marches by Rory Stewart
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