BOOK REVIEW Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys (2024) Eye Books. pp. 366, £12.99 paperback.
A confession. When I review a book, I don’t always read every word! I open it, feel it, look at the cover, read the intro and selected excerpts about things I am familiar with and things not so familiar, and make my assessment accordingly. Not so this time. I was immediately intrigued by the rationale behind it (finding joy and adventure on one’s metaphorical doorstep), and once I started reading I soon realised I was hooked.
Alastair Humphreys (again a confession, his name was previously unknown to me) has made a career of adventuring, but rather than raping the world in his quest for experiences, has focussed primarily on exploring on foot, cycle or boat, and then sharing his insights through writing, speaking and social media. For him it was a natural progression following the enforced restrictions of Covid19 and increasingly the screams of a beleaguered planet.
Each (short) chapter describes a day exploring a randomly selected 1km square from the OS map that encompasses his home. He doesn’t say where it is, although I have my own inklings, and anyway it doesn’t matter as similar things could be written about any map of the lowlands. The sense of place forms an evocative matrix for the book, underlain by the layers of history, from ancient tracks to 21st Century ‘Keep Out’ signs and fly-tipped detritus, but each square has its triggers for philosophical digressions into some of the huge issues of our time as well as points of overlooked interest that anyone can, and should, find around their daily lives. Sometimes these are gently woven in, like the thoughts on the true place of the oldest parts of many a natural landscape, the ancient Yews that adorn but pre-date a churchyard. Others are more strident and polemic, but fit precisely with my own world view, albeit offering me new perspectives and facts on the way.
Criticisms? Very few – and only issues of personal preference. I don’t get along with footnotes, of which in some parts of the book there are many. Yes, they are useful for detail, but I do find myself losing the narrative as my eyes scan for the asterisks. I prefer boxed text. And while the whole book is commendably low-footprint given its message, this doesn’t lend itself well to photographs: some of those included here are a bit of a black-and-white mush. It would be a shame if for some the message from the book was interpreted as ‘local every-day adventures are the sign of a spartan existence’.
While born of the Covid era, this is much more than one of those books of that new genre of pandemic publications (‘it was always in me, but only then did I have the time to write it’), although of course the break from ‘normality’ helped trigger the author’s behavioural change. I wholeheartedly recommend the book: it’s one I wish I had written myself. Anything that establishes the view that exploration is an attitude, not an activity, has to be a good thing. Regrettably, for all sorts of reasons – political, environmental, medical – the physical bounds of our children will be smaller than ours. It is up to us to show that by rewilding the mind and finding adventure in the commonplace, a life constrained by necessity is still a life worth living.