Book review written by Paul Conium
Cornerstones by Benedict Macdonald
You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no good news anymore. The last few years have felt like an onslaught of the senses; such rampant use of the word unprecedented is, well, unprecedented. In matters of the environment specifically – focus of so much media attention and political rhetoric in recent months – it can be difficult to maintain hope.
Hope though, is something we all need. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Benedict MacDonald’s book, Cornerstones, is an eminently hopeful book. Refraining from debate about tipping points or engaging in finger-wagging blame, the book is a celebration of the diversity of animal species the British Isles once held – and could hold once more.
Cornerstones is a paean to a time when Britain, with its lush green meadows, boggy swamps and ethereal forests draped in mist, housed an array of majestic animals many today would struggle to identify as native. Eagle owls, anyone? MacDonald paints a picture of a time when elephant, elk, bison, eagle and lynx would have enjoyed bountiful hunting courtesy of a self-regulating food chain. You are invited to drink in this picture and lament our current status as one of the most diversity poor areas in all of Europe.
The book is divided, simply enough, into chapters on specific species: boar, birds of prey, beavers, whales, bees, cattle and horses, trees, lynx and wolves and, finally, humans. Although each chapter is, in effect, a mini essay, rather than talking about a species in isolation, MacDonald weaves in intricate detail around each animal’s food chain, their natural predators and how interference in this natural order has a profound effect on its ability to survive.
This is not an accusatory book. Nor is it political. MacDonald refrains from demonising us for our part in the current state of things. It is made clear, however, that prior to the Bronze Age, sixty per cent of Britain is estimated to have been made up of various forms of scrubland, wood pasture and dense-canopy woodland. Our detrimental involvement is made clear throughout, but the focus is solely on how each species could thrive if reintroduced and how this remains very much in our gift. It is a genuinely thrilling thought to allow yourself to picture the author’s vision while reading about seas dark with the sheer number of whales, skies rich with birds of prey, wondrously colourful butterflies visiting our meadows, dense woodland stalked by lynx and beavers swimming in our rivers.
In the case of the beaver, which has been reintroduced in recent times, there is the opportunity to discover just how well such projects have fared. The results are surprising with bat, otter and boar just some of those benefiting from the abundance of fish and amphibians that take advantage of the ecosystem beavers create.
At some points in the book, you will likely find yourself asking what you would do if, on your weekend family walk, you were confronted by a lynx or wolf. At such points, it would be tempting to disregard the idea as a fantasy. However, as with the reintroduction of beavers, which was and still is greeted with horror in some areas due to concerns about flooding, research is showing that there are ways to mitigate the risks, and the benefits – to biodiversity, landscape and us – are innumerable.
The book makes clear that we did, once upon a time, have way of co-existing with other species on these isles; taking what we needed but without destroying whole ecosystems. Industrialisation changed that as we tore up the countryside looking for ever more brutalist ways to expand our operations. In his final chapter, on us humans, MacDonald quotes Sir David Attenborough: “We are the cleverest species on our planet. Now, it is time to be wise.”
As the world is waking up to the emergency we face, and people in Britain begin to understand how species poor we have become, we can indeed be disappointed at what has happened in the past but remain infinitely hopeful of what can still be achieved if we try. Cornerstones paints a picture of how that world could look and it is strikingly beautiful.
Thanks for the review, Paul. You can purchase your own copy here below or instore.
Thank you for reading, more reviews coming soon!