Splendor in the Grass

At the crossroads of civilization and nature, a writer finds hope and renewal.

By Frank Graham Jr.


For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera, and Other Journeys
By Thomas Urquhart
Shoemaker and Hoard, 314 pages, $26

For the Beauty of the Earth, by Thomas Urquhart, is a wonderful jumble-shop of a book, ranging far beyond what even its subtitle, Birding, Opera, and Other Journeys, promises. Taking his keynote from an old hymn heard as a child in an English church—"For the Beauty of the Earth / Over and around us lies"—Urquhart tries to grasp and express the human relationship with nature in a way that may point toward a renewal of earth's splendor.

As the hymn's "over and around us" suggests, Urquhart's search for nature's harmony in the modern age is, he admits, "unashamedly humanistic." A jovial traveling companion, Urquhart takes us to the places around the world he has loved best—southern England, Tuscany, Provence, Mali, Maine, even New York's Central Park—illuminating the grandeur of their landscapes, and pointing out the balance achieved across centuries as civilizations shaped the land with their agriculture, gardens, and architecture.

Too often now he finds those landscapes blighted by indifference, greed, sometimes violence. Parts of Mali are awash in plastic trash, and Italian hunters shoot 150 million birds for fun every year. Urquhart's beloved southern England has been scarred by dredged rivers and plowed hilltops. In one village, he writes, "the rounded contour of the hillside has been gouged by tracks of motorbikes doing wheelies and doughnuts." It sometimes seems as if he is searching for jewels in a dung heap. But in catching fugitive glimpses of nature linked to art, he finds, if not optimism, hope.

For Urquhart, in the beginning was the bird. "Birds lead me to see things I had not seen before and to associations that range from the trivial to the poetic to the philosophic," he writes. A former executive director of Maine Audubon, he shies from the intensity of the hard-core birder who rushes from shoreline to marshland to rainforest, building a life list. Nor is there any such thing as an avian hierarchy or a "trash bird" in his vocabulary. Hardly taking note of a black-capped chickadee and hurrying on to find "something better" is a source of embarrassment. He calls it perverse to celebrate the rare and the endangered while making "a bore out of the commonplace, regardless of the intrinsic beauty of either." And, he notes: "At the feeder, 'just a chickadee' is a miracle of charm, of tenacity, of biological efficiency."

If the flashing wings of birds captured his early imagination, so did those hymns heard as a child. But the two interests, instead of clashing, complemented each other and combined to become the driving force of his life. Urquhart's father, Brian, a British diplomat with the United Nations, regularly shepherded his family between their home in rural England and a New York City apartment. As a young man, Thomas first worked as an administrator with an orchestral company and as an opera critic before settling into the nature business. Birdsong (as he walks out) in the morning, immortal symphonies and operas in the evening, form the background of his life. And so he writes with conviction that music best expresses the awe with which we respond to the natural world. Here he explores in depth the oneness of great musical compositions and majestic nature: "As a prism for gazing at nature, [music] can capture physical and emotional weight—the sheer mass of a mountain or the restlessness of the waters—and interpret them in a way that brings the elements into a personal relationship with the listener to an extent impossible in any other medium. Sometimes this emulation is conscious—the surge of the ocean at the end of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade—but it can equally be a natural affinity with musical form."

This is a deeply personal book, and personal solutions don't often meet the immensity of earth's problems. Urquhart concludes that as advocates for nature, we moderns have failed to build a vocabulary equal to the grandeur of our subject. We resort to statistics, or jargon and cliché. "No self-respecting forest or river wants to be called a 'natural resource.'. . . How can words so impoverished hope to inspire?" In his zeal, Urquhart seems to have overlooked more than a few eloquent defenders of nature, such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Peter Matthiessen, who have soared high above earthly limitations. Fortunately, so has the erudite Urquhart, who wants everyone "to carry nature like music in the heart."



The Race to Save the Lord God Bird
By Phillip Hoose
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,196 pages, $20

The ivory-billed woodpecker has never really gone away. At least that's what many birders want desperately to believe. In fact, the last confirmed sighting was in Cuba, 17 years ago. In The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, conservationist Phillip Hoose offers a spellbinding account of the ivory-bill's disappearance and the quixotic hunt to find it. Nineteenth-century naturalists were so moved by the ivory-bill's stunning colors—the males sported a bright red crest—that they dubbed it the "Lord God bird." Hoose, for his part, calls it "the first modern endangered species," because many of the techniques now used to protect threatened animals, such as shooting pictures instead of specimens, were pioneered through efforts to save it. Hoose recounts how in 1935 a team from Cornell University's nascent Lab of Ornithology journeyed deep into a Louisiana swamp to capture the bird on tape. The group emerged with the only sound and film recordings that exist of the otherwise phantom bird, and triggered herculean efforts by the National Audubon Society to save the species, including the first detailed study and conservation plan for an endangered species. Despite meetings with lumber-company executives and letters to President Franklin Roosevelt, Audubon biologists could only watch as trees surrounding the last known female ivory-bill’s perch were cleared in the spring of 1944. Although the species is surely lost, Hoose contends that the hard lessons learned in its demise make it "the most important bird ever to have lived in the United States."

—Phil McKenna


Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier
By Jeffrey A. Lockwood
Basic Books, 304 pages, $25

When the Rocky Mountain grasshopper inexplicably disappeared a century ago, few tears were shed. Trillions had swept through the American Plains in the 1870s, leaving devastated farmers and impoverished communities in their wake. At the time, people tried everything to stop the winged insects: They torched them, poisoned them, and, in true Wild West form, set a bounty on them. But the insects kept coming. This dramatic chapter in frontier history is richly retold in Jeffrey Lockwood's Locust, perhaps the first ecological detective story ever fashioned from a bug's life. In retracing the trail of the lost locust, Lockwood, a biologist at the University of Wyoming, uncovers more than the possible truth about the pest's demise: His hunt, taking him from library archives to retreating glaciers, also sheds light on larger, more worrisome environmental changes, which the author presents as a cautionary tale.

—J.M. McCord

The New Consumers: The Influence of Affluence on the Environment

By Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent
Island Press, 190 pages, $24

When it comes to worshipping at the altar of high consumption, nobody outshines Americans. From microwave ovens and personal computers to DVD players and hulking SUVs, U.S. households are well stocked with the accoutrements of the good life. So what happens when the rest of the world wants in, particularly the billion "new consumers" in developing countries that now have purchasing power approaching that of the average middle-class American? Well, 120 million more cars by 2010, for starters. But Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent don't want to deny anyone else the same standard of living that Americans enjoy; they just want to emphasize the severe environmental costs. Thus the authors advise that we "must slay the dragon of rampant overconsumption—or at least put the dragon on a diet." Marshaling an array of statistics, they argue that the "new consumers" will compound global warming, water shortages, and the loss of arable land. Yet far from faulting the newly well-to-do, the authors put the onus on developed countries like the United States to lead the way, and they conclude: "If we can all contain and eventually reduce the adverse impacts of consumption, that could well rank as the finest environmental success story to date."

—Phil McKenna


© 2004 National Audubon Society

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