A paean to the vanishing wild

Posted on December 22, 2020


Home sweet home @ +5,000 metres on the high Tibetan plateau: Peter Pickford makes his notes of the day’s activities

To the Edges of Earth — A Journey into Wild Land
by Peter Pickford (Bookstorm, 421 pages)

(First published on News24, South Africa)
Of the many books I have reviewed over decades, this is one of the few that stands out as an instant classic, a book that seems certain to be read — and often, perhaps, wept over — by future generations. This is no travelogue or part of that popular genre of diarised “Travellers Tales”; it is, essentially, both a paean — a song of praise and triumph — to the last remaining wild places of this earth and, at the same time, a deeply disturbing, heartfelt lament for that which has gone and that which is fast disappearing also, perhaps, never to return.

It was written by Peter Pickford, with the editing aid of his wife, Beverley, who together make up one of the best-known teams of wildlife photographers. Just how timely this book is was underlined for me by the fact that, as I was reading it this week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that nearly half of South Africa’s Protea flowering plant species face extinction.

This news also came at the same time that I heard that Norway had this year slaughtered a record number of at least 481 Minke whales. It made the reading of the book’s section on the Arctic (the only true wild land found in Europe by the Pickfords) frighteningly appropriate.

The Arctic journey was through the region known as Svardbard, meaning “Cold Edge” in the old Norse language. This is the collection islands that make up the archipelago roughly midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.

It is an area where once, hundreds of Beluga whales gathered to feed, a land of walrus and polar bears. Then came the whalers, the walrus hunters and the coal miners. After they left, there were no more whales, and the walrus was close to extinction.

In 1952, official protection was extended to the walrus population and it recovered slightly as global warming set in, threatening both this revival and that of the polar bears. As Peter Pickford notes, what humanity has done is unforgivable. “How can one lifetime of wealth for one man, or even a shipload of men, be considered reasonable exchange for a whale-filled ocean?” he asks.

There are many such questions raised in the book, the result of copious notes made during more than four years of journeying to — and through — some of the last wilderness areas of the world. And while I found it almost impossible to put down, the seven (continental) sections of this book are self contained, each deserving a separate re-read and review.

Financial and logistic considerations meant that the Pickfords had to decide on a single example of rapidly disappearing wild land on each continent. And they defined such regions as “vast, contiguous stretches of land in as natural a state as possible”.

These would be “the darkest areas on the map” without roads, fences, towns or villages although not necessarily without people. The lands they identified stretched from the polar regions to the Andes, the high Tibetan plateau and the deserts of Australia and Namibia. It was only in the Arctic reaches of northern Noway that they found theirEuropean wild land.

The odyssey began in 2012 and resulted, in August 2018, in the justly acclaimed large format photographic tome, Wild Land. And, as he had done over the years Peter made daily notes to use for captioning photographs as he and Beverley travelled and worked. But, this time, as the days went by, he found the notes becoming longer. “They changed from a record of details into description, until I was writing as much as we were photographing,” he says.

However, the descriptions bear the hallmarks of the photographer’s eye: the attention to detail and nuance. But to make manageable more than 1,500 days of detailed writing, pruning was required. It was Beverley who, according to Peter, “took an axe to my overgrown tree and fashioned it to stand in the garden of writing”.

The publishers and their editors agreed that it stood very much in the “garden of writing”, but the coronavirus lockdown arrived and launches and distribution were delayed. It was finally possible to release the book in time for December. Then came a second blow: in a printing and binding glitch, the publication contained two pages 94 and no page 95.

The books had to be withdrawn and a limited new edition produced. It arrived in some book stores by mid-December.

But Peter had no need to be concerned: what he and Beverley have produced is not a gift season offering any more than it is a travelogue. It is certainly a wake-up call to all who care about the fate of this planet — and also so much more in the wealth of tales, musings, facts and ideas it provides.

Posted in: Uncategorized