A quiet gardening revolution

In one of the essays in this quietly revolutionary collection, Paul Kingsnorth quotes Ian Hamilton Finlay's famous riposte, when accused of retreating from the real world to create his now internationally famous art garden, Little Sparta, that 'certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks'.

Paul Kingsnorth's book
Paul Kingsnorth's book

Like Finlay, Kingsnorth concluded that in order to challenge the status quo he must first disentangle himself from it, as far as possible, and so in 2014 the Booker-shortlisted author and his wife moved from “urban England to rural Ireland”.

Prior to this, Kingsnorth had been an environmental activist, occupying wild places like Twyford Down, near Winchester, in the hope of preventing them being turned into motorways. Like many people of his generation, however, he became disillusioned with what the environmental movement was turning into. As he puts it in one of the best essays here, The Quants and the Poets, the green movement has “torpedoed itself with numbers”.

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Presenting nature as a quantifiable resource may help get the attention of business leaders and politicians, he reasons, but once you’ve given an ecosystem a cash value it simply becomes another commodity. The only way to preserve what’s left of the natural world upon which we all depend, he believes, is for us to recognise its inherent specialness – to tap into the “biophilia” that still “sings in the human body”.

The essays in this book, then, are attempts to dismantle some of the key narratives we have come to take for granted – about the inevitability of things like “civilisation” and “progress” and the manifest destiny of our species – and to replace them with alternative ways of looking at our place in the world. To read them is to feel the ground begin to shift slightly under your feet.

The alternative stories Kingsnorth offers aren’t always comfortable or even appealing, but they certainly feel a lot more honest and a lot more plausible than the ones they set out to replace.