Ben Goldsmith’s remarkable memoir begins with his daughter, Iris, swimming into the sea to place her hands on the carcass of a humpback whale, captured by whalers off the island of Bequia in the Caribbean. The powerful image of the “teenage girl in the blood-red water unafraid, tenderly handling the dead monster” illustrates Iris’s reverence for the natural world as well as being a portent of tragedy.
In 2019, the gentle rhythm of a normal summer’s day was shattered by Iris’s death in an accident on the family farm in Somerset. Goldsmith’s world was thrown into disarray. He recounts those final, awful hours in quiet, careful prose that nevertheless lays bare their gut-wrenching agony.
The resulting shock and grief fuel a relentless pursuit to understand why. He seeks out other grieving parents. Their conversations are moving and enlightening and show the repercussions of loss over decades. He explores different religious beliefs about death and the afterlife, even engaging with a psychic medium. Finally, he experiences an intense ayahuasca ritual, the visions furnishing him with the intriguing title of the book.
Inspired by Iris’s sense of connection to all living things, Goldsmith pursues the restorative, healing aspects of nature. Plunging into the cold water of a pond, while subsumed by grief he notes, “I felt nature enveloping me, reassuring me, beneath a sun that shone hot even as it approached the conclusion of its long, daily descent westwards”. The natural world, particularly on the farm, is where Goldsmith feels closest to his daughter. Gorgeous descriptions of her merge with captivating nature writing. Iris remains vividly alive through his words as he recounts her childhood and the time they spent together, as well as the history of the landscape in which she grew up.
There is another loss at the heart of this book. Goldsmith describes the terrifying rate at which plants and animals are disappearing from our countryside. He is already known as a strong and credible voice for conservation and, in particular, as a campaigner for rewilding, which seeks to undo the damage inflicted by humans on the landscape, restoring complex ecosystems, such as the delicate balance between vegetation, herbivore and predator. Goldsmith believes that this is only possible with the return of missing keystone species, such as lynxes and wolves. In the year that follows Iris’s death, he becomes even more passionate about reversing the decline of species and habitats.
His research brings him into contact with a range of experts and conservation pioneers. A visit to Avalon Marshes shows how land can be “rewetted”, and he also takes inspiration from the experience of his friend Isabella Tree, author of Wilding, at the Knepp Castle estate. Goldsmith is an advocate for the reintroduction of beavers, which can play a role in the creation of wetlands but are often held up as the symbol of rewilding’s potential for disruption. Instead, he argues that they “know what they are doing. Everything we are told presupposes that nature is chaos while we bring order. In fact, the opposite is true; nature is order, while we bring chaos.” This makes perfect sense; nature is the ultimate balm in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
Goldsmith begins to take action on his own land, and the alchemy of rewilding becomes his obsession and redemption. First comes the “rewiggling” of a human-made drainage ditch, encouraging the curves that make for a healthy, meandering stream. When it fills with rain for the first time, he’s greeted by “an unfamiliar sense of joy that coyly hovered, tentatively awaiting permission to wash over me”. Next comes the ripping out of fences, and a poignant sense of how much Iris would have loved to ride her pony over the newly opened-up landscape.
There are now a number of monuments that celebrate Iris’s life. There is a circle of stones to mark where she died, the Iris prize to recognise young environmentalists and, of course, this book, which will bring comfort and hope to anyone experiencing grief. Most beautiful of all, perhaps, is the almost magical yet very real resurgence of wildlife on the family farm. With love and time, nature regenerates, forgotten creatures return and wild irises can grow.
• God Is an Octopus: Loss, Love and a Calling to Nature by Ben Goldsmith is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.