Homeward BoundBefore global warming disrupted nature’s pulses, before strip malls ate through America’s wilds, there was room to roam. Two writers set off in search of a lost continent.
By Ted Levin
Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season
Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul
When I was in grade school my mother gave me a copy of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America, which chronicles their 100-day, 30,000-mile journey from fogbound Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland, to the bird-crazy Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Peterson and Fisher, a well-known British naturalist and seabird authority, sought mostly lonely landscapes filled with wild, beautiful things. Peterson’s sweeping knowledge of plants and animals and Fisher’s fresh outlook—he had never been to North America before the trip—made Wild America a classic. After reading the book, I have forever longed for desolate, untrammeled places, where, eyes wide, I could face the landscape straight on and see the bright green valleys and wave-battered shores of my home continent.
Like Fisher and Peterson before them, when Bruce Stutz, in Chasing Spring, and Scott Weidensaul, in Return to Wild America, seek home, theirs is not the parochial view but a broader one fit for the 21st century. For Stutz home is the length (and history) of a season; for Weidensaul it is (more or less) the rim of the continent, from maritime Canada down the East Coast, across the Gulf States, into the hinterlands of Mexico, then north to Alaska. The authors travel by car (in Stutz’s case, a quirky 20-year-old Chevy sedan named Dick, after Moby) and bush plane, and are chaperoned by knowledgeable and (in several cases) entertaining guides. Both seasoned nature writers testify to America’s vitality and its languor.
Of the two quests, Stutz’s is more introspective, often humorous, an awakening and a renewal, his own as well as America’s. The journey begins after he recovers from heart surgery, and along the way he realizes that spring is the sum of individual responses to changing light: the stirrings of birds and salamanders and mushrooms, the melting of the Rocky Mountain snow pack, the flushing of prairie rivers, the migration of caribou, the craziness of Mardi Gras, the memories of Passover. The synergy between the season and the author’s life makes the writing crisp and thoughtful. “This, I realize, is what I want to experience, a beginning, middle, and end—9, 10, 12, 24 hours of sun, from south to north, from equinox to solstice—a narrative of light and warmth. I imagine surfing a wave of green as it sweeps north, catching the first bloom, first birds, first thaw, first rains, first flood, first leaves, first fruits, plowed fields, desert flora to tundra bloom . . .” And he does.
During the pursuit, Stutz returns to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to visit his boyhood home and to eat a Philly steak sandwich. Above all he seeks to reconnect with the spring of his own life. Of his bedroom, he writes, “I remember my room as always bright. But then, these were bright years.” All Elvis and I Love Lucy. In those days global warming wasn’t on the screen. Today, however, it arrives as if on steroids. Blooming dates occur weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago. “What will your and my children’s and grandchildren’s springs be like?” Stutz wonders.
He chronicles myriad examples of global warming: Northbound pollinators, for instance—hummingbirds, white-winged doves, long-nosed bats, butterflies—time their flights across the desert to feast on blooming cacti and ocotillo, a wispy, thorny bush with red, tubular, nectar-filled flowers, through what ecologists call the nectar corridor. Waxing sunlight triggers migration; temperature and moisture open flowers. The timing of these events, which took thousands (if not millions) of years to synchronize, are slowly diverging. To personalize the effect of global warming, Stutz writes: “Imagine that the train you take to work begins to come earlier and earlier each day but your alarm continues to wake you at the same time each morning.” Migrants are caught in a time warp.
Weidensaul is in his own time warp. His journey retraces the cold, 50-year-old trail left by Peterson and Fisher. En route, Weidensaul braids his observations with those of his predecessors, highlighting both the power of recovery and the hubris of our culture. “Ours is still, at its core, a wild country,” he writes. Jaguars have reappeared in the Borderlands, and ocelots still prowl the south Texas brush; gray seals have colonized remote stretches of Cape Cod, and northern elephant seals on the West Coast number 160,000, up from the vanishing point less than a century ago.
Like Stutz, Weidensaul rails against the problems plaguing his home—global warming, sprawl, invasive species, oil spills, pesticides, fertilizers, gender-bending hormones, heavy metals, even flushable kitty litter (linked to the death of sea otters in California)—and against the political inertia that keeps those problems from being addressed.
Return is filled with environmental history, which makes it a useful reference, but when Weidensaul inserts him- self into the narrative, the book sizzles. Of a Mexican cloudforest he writes, “Some of the oaks were huge, with limbs from which dangled hundreds of long, narrow green strands, like cooked spaghetti—epiphytic cacti, just opening dozens of pink flowers,” and “Everything was wrapped in moss—hell, the air even smelled green, don’t ask me how.” Occasionally he gets angry, which stokes his prose. “Look, this isn’t really complicated. For four centuries, America’s economic engine has bloated itself on the continent’s old growth, chewing through forests that took millennia to grow, like a layabout kid burning through his inheritance money. We cut down sequoias to make kitchen matches, for God’s sake.”
Wild America once overflowed with geographic beauty, seasonal symmetry, and biologic diversity. With Weidensaul and Stutz at the helm, we see the breadth of our home—the good, the bad, the ugly. The rest is up to us.
Ted Levin won the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades.
Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam
Florian Schulz and his partner, Emil Herrera Jara, draped themselves in dark cloths and began mooing at each other on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. The idea was to convince the swift fox pups playing nearby that the two people were, in fact, cows and not a couple of photographers trying to get close enough to snap a picture. Schulz, a German, was drawn to North America by the wild landscapes of the Rocky Mountains. “In them, I see what we in Europe have lost,” he writes in Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam. He spent five years documenting the nearly 2,000-mile-long stretch of wilderness called the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) ecoregion. It covers 460,000 square miles in the United States and Canada, encompassing 11 national parks and about three dozen other protected areas. The book features 200 of Schulz’s stunning color photographs in addition to six essays by noted writers and activists, a preface by David Quammen, and an epilogue by Robert Kennedy Jr. The “Y2Y vision,” as the authors describe, involves expanding the region’s existing reserves and linking them with unspoiled wildlife corridors. Animals must be able to venture outside of traditional park boundaries, they argue, in order to better adapt to environmental changes and ensure healthy populations. “If we have learned anything from wildlife, it is that lines on a map mean nothing,” write conservationists Harvey Locke and Gary Tabor in the final essay. “Animals and plants do not distinguish between protected and unprotected lands—there is simply the place where they live.”
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime
Anyone doubting the therapeutic power of nature need only read Kenneth Helphand’s new book, Defiant Gardens. In the trenches of World War I and Europe’s Jewish ghettos, in Japanese internment camps, and in World War II’s POW camps, both military personnel and civilians suffered terrible atrocities. Many people fought back, however, by cultivating the land to provide hope, battle boredom, sustain morale, and, more practically, help supplement a meager diet that was often less than 800 calories a day. Because these wartime areas were all nearly devoid of arable land, the soldiers and prisoners used incredible ingenuity to make things grow. In two of the many first-person accounts that make the book flow, a German World War I soldier describes the way howitzer cartridge cases were used to plant snowdrops, while a Jew in the Lodz ghetto tells of a worker who planted onions in an old baby carriage. “Gardens domesticate and humanize dehumanized situations,” writes Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. “They offer a way to reject suffering . . . assert the dignity of life, human and nonhuman, and celebrate it.”
When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century
The Rio Grande failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico for the first time on record in 2001, blocked at its mouth by a sandbar 325 feet wide. “You could drive a car across the beach between the United States and Mexico,” writes New Scientist reporter Fred Pearce in When the Rivers Run Dry. Pearce, a longtime science writer, traveled to more than 30 countries to see how the world’s great rivers were being exploited and, like the Rio Grande, drying up. Humans have depended on rivers since the beginning of civilization. As the global population swells, engineers build dams to provide water for cities, and farmers tap ever greater amounts to grow their crops, thus depriving others downstream of their fair share. Meanwhile, once-raging waters have become mere trickles in some areas, and wetlands are disappearing at a rapid rate. In a highly readable style, Pearce makes the case for a new water ethos: “It requires us to find ways of storing water without wrecking the environment, of restoring water to rivers and refilling lakes and wetlands without leaving people thirsty, and of sharing waters rather than fighting over them. It requires us to go with the flow. And to do it before the rivers finally run dry.”
Art of the Wild
Acclaimed Canadian novelist and birder Graeme Gibson spent 10 years compiling The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 370 pages, $29.95), a dazzling exploration of the history of the human–bird relationship. Gibson, a devoted environmentalist who has led ecotourism trips to help save Cuba’s Zapata wetlands, presents fiction, folklore, nonfiction, and poetry along with vivid visual depictions of birds in sculpture, drawings, and paintings (including the work above, by Nanavut artist K. Pootoogook). Birds have been worshiped as divine beings and hunted for food and feathers; they have inspired dreams and nightmares, fear and love. Gibson’s book captures this spectrum, highlighting excerpts from the Bible and the Quiché Mayan Book of Creation; myths retold by Aeschylus and Ovid; lyric poems by T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, and Robinson Jeffers; travelogues by Marco Polo and Bruce Chatwin; and paintings by F.O. Morris and John James Audubon.
© 2006 National Audubon Society
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