This One Wild and Precious Life: the path back to connection in a fractured world by Sarah Wilson

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This One Wild and Precious Life: the path back to connection in a fractured world by Sarah Wilson

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A book that's right on message in terms of what we need to do to save our world, but sporadic in approach and not without its flaws. Be prepared to feel judged.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: August 2023
Publisher: Eye Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785633843

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My favourite Mary Oliver line is the one in which she asks What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I get to love that line so much because my answer is This! Precisely this. I'm lucky enough to be living my one wild and precious life the way I want to. Sarah Wilson is equally lucky. In her book that takes Oliver's words as her title (though I can't see that she acknowledges the source) she pushes us to think about whether we really are living the life we want – the best life that we could be living. Her answer is an unequivocal no, we are not. Don't care what you're doing, she thinks you (we, I) could be doing more…And she's effing furious about the fact that we are not.

That's putting it mildly. Her working title for the book was Wake the F**k Up'. She doesn't delete the expletive, but I try not to swear as much as I used to do back when I was really angry. Unlike Wilson, these days I'm not big on anger, mainly because it really doesn't help. Shouty in-your-face anger obscures the message. And the message is that yes, Wilson is right, you (we, I) could all be doing more than we are to protect our wild and precious lives and the wild and even more precious lives of those who share our home planet.

But beyond that she starts to lose me, as a reader.

Generally, a multitude of turned down corners is a sign of how much I have loved a book. In this case, a fair number of them are places where I really want to take issue – and if I did that at length, you'd soon lose interest.

My first attempt at reviewing this book foundered because trying to explain what I liked and didn't like became as disjointed as the book itself.

So that's my first problem: the book's structure. Quite deliberately Wilson has written this as a conversation – or perhaps a conversation starter - it is not in chapters; it is in snippets. It is not a cohesive narrative or a cohesive argument; it is snippets. She jumps forward and winds back. It actually makes it a very easy read, provided you're happy to read in soundbites and data downloads. Perhaps I'm just too old. This isn't how I like to read.

According to the intro the book is in three parts. (1) An exploration of why and how we landed where we are an attempt to understand what some are calling the loneliness epidemic and others refer to as a spike in the diseases of despair (suicide and addiction primarily), namely our increasing disconnection from each other and from the planet we live on. (2) Some of the ways Wilson has found of reconnecting, in which (taking her cue from the poet David Whyte) she seeks to find the more beautiful questions. Here she rambles through philosophers and poets and how they connected and also talks about people she met along the way. And (3) a new level of radical, determined kind of hope and a blueprint for living.

In case that sounds like an orderly progress that will fill you with hope for the future…erm, maybe not. Not for me anyway. That's my second problem. Part three requires that first we wake the f**k up before we can use the blueprint…and by Wilson's standards, most of us will not do so. By her standards, cards on table, I will not do so – not because I'm sleep-walking and happy about it, but because I dispute her fundamental premise that being angry is a good thing. In her less judgemental passages she does allow us mere mortals to do what we can, where we are, and that any something is better than nothing. But a lot of the time she cannot help ranting at us that it really isn't enough.

For all I know she might be right…but her mode of expressing it I found both off-putting and anything but generative of hope.

To be fair I am also uncertain how to deal with her honesty, because while she's telling all of us how to live, she is also telling us of all the ways in which she fails to do so. In some books, that might feel like authentic imperfection, here it felt (in my purely personal opinion) more like hypocrisy.

In amongst all of that we get a selection of travellers' tales. I love that Wilson is a walker, and I know that the hikes were integral to the writing of the book. Even so they feel like an intrusion into the reading of it. And that's before I get onto my own response to anyone who thinks that walking without carrying water or a paper map, and with a phone stuffed down her bra is a good idea. It seems to work for her, but please folks: don't do it.

The hikes also raise the question of her globe-trotting. All the time she is warning us to change our lifestyles, and she singles out travel in particular, she revels in telling us about hikes in England, Switzerland, Australia, Crete, Slovenia, America, Tasmania, Japan, France, Jordan, all taken within the three years it took to write the book.

She tries to tackle this criticism head-on but her basic justification for her globe-trotting is that most of it was work with a few side trips thrown in. I'll leave you to decide whether that argument holds water.

All of that said, I'm sure that (the hiking aside) this is a worthy book. It might even be an important one. The early sections are good on both data and anecdote, the shock-tactics of 'look how bad the world is'… and our evolutionary response to it. They're also good on how some societies seem to handle the modern world better than others. She singles out the Greeks and Slovenians in particular, probably purely on the back of personal experience, but it's non-the-less valid for that.

It doesn't escape her notice, nor should it ours, that the societies that are still better-connected are those that are primarily rural, not as enmeshed as the rest of us in the nightmare that unregulated capitalism has become.

Wilson's activist starting point is climate change, but she quickly realises that the root cause of all our ills (including our sugar addiction, which is where I believe her writing career began) all stem from the economic system, and specifically from the fact that we have allowed all the checks and balances to be dismantled. Capitalism worked when it was pared with what the UK called 'the welfare state' – that's gone. The world is now fully geared to function on greed and competition, rather than empathy, compassion and mutuality. And that is (in every sense) not sustainable. If we don't dismantle it, it will collapse.

A question that she leaves un-asked is whether, that being so, anything we do to change the system might just prop it up for longer. She makes the point that every small thing is a contribution to the big things being done elsewhere, but it seems to me that there is a fundamental danger in trying to 'fix' a system that we really want to do away with.

Along the way, there's a healthy ramble through philosophy ancient and modern. The Dalai Lama told her not to bother trying to quieten her frantic mind, but to go out into the world instead and practice altruism. Elsewhere she quotes other philosophers and mystics who also realise that little good is done sitting in a cave meditating and that more good is done being out here in the wild, being as kind as we can manage on any given day. That's an important message.

Another one that she absolutely nails is the truth about climate change. A lot of the current debate is about whether or not we are killing the planet. No. We are not. The planet absolutely can handle temperatures far in excess of the current worst-case predictions. The point is that humanity cannot. In making the planet un-liveable for many current species, we are making it unliveable for our own. That is the point. If empathy isn't getting us anywhere, surely self-interest should. It's no longer about pandas and polar bears, it's about your kids and grandkids. That's the message. And maybe that's why it's the youth that are leading the way.

I also like her very simple solution for how we start to dismantle capitalism – the one that doesn't involve getting angry and drowning in bad news (which she calls 'being aware' and I call 'poisoning your soul') or taking to the streets – the solution that is even more radical: just buy less stuff. Simply stop shopping.

Actually she wants us to a lot of other stuff too, some of which I do and will (rituals, earth connection, sharing hope & wisdom, trying to connect more meaningfully) and some of which I reject (news/propaganda consumption, joining any & all protests). She wants us to be angry. I don't.

But the bottom line of buy less stuff is irrefutable. Think about the time, effort and angst we'd save if we stopped up-grading and only replaced what didn't work and couldn't be fixed? What if we cared less about how old our clothes are or what the neighbours think of our house and garden? I'm sure there's a flaw in the argument at some point – and I'll admit that my food waste reduction won't stretch to taking other people's leftovers in restaurants – but I think the system can be undermined enough to see a need to change if we all did that one simple thing. Consume less, and waste nothing.

Of course…whatever we do, the transition from where we are to where we need to be is going to be painful. It's not something that Wilson addresses directly, but a lot of the pain and diseases of despair she starts with might well be the growing pains of that transition starting to take hold.

So? Do I recommend that you rush out and buy this book? Hand on heart, I can't go that far…I do recommend that you pick it up and take a look – maybe it will speak more to you than it did to me in terms of tone and style. And maybe you'll find the one thing that you're not doing that you could do that would make a difference.

For other takes on 'living more sustainably' take a look at The Wilderness Cure by Mo Wilde or if you want to know more about how/why it's all so wrong right now try Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer.

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