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Book Review: The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University

In his “Prologue” to The Way of Coyote, Gavin Van Horn, Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature, leaves no doubt as to what his book is about. Before coming to Chicago, his “Plan A” was to inhabit a cabin with his family far from an urban area. But he found himself in a decidedly urban environment.

In this biographical journey, he reveals how he adapted with the help of one non-human animal known as a great adapter: the coyote. This book is both his and Coyote’s journey. Along the way,Van Horn also enlists the wisdom of Lao Tzu and Aldo Leopold as he meanders the pathways of the city. The Way of Coyote is in part philosophical meditation and in part a word artist’s close observation of the natural world within the city. As Van Horn says, “These are the stories of my own adaptation to the city, the adaptation of other animals to the city, and how we might better adapt our cities to the larger landscapes on which they depend.”


Following this promise, he begins the book with a deceptively beguiling tale featuring the character Coyote playing dice with his friends Badger and Wolf. The game ends abruptly when the dice encounter a concrete roadway that Wolf and Badger fear walking on. But Coyote, the great adapter and trickster, jumps playfully onto the surface, gathers up the dice, and coolly walks away. The tale is deceptive, like the coyote, because this story resembling a bedtime story for adults is Van Horn’s way of introducing the reader to his admirably adaptive central character. The story also sets the style of the book, a delightful lyrical prose that beckons the reader to follow along with Van Horn on his personal journey, accompanied by non-human animals and even insects. The journey takes the reader into the wilds of one of this country’s most populous cities into which non-human beings are beginning to feel less and less threatened by or threatening to greater numbers of humans.

Van Horn invites the reader to walk with him throughout Chicago’s many pathways and to ply with him its waterways. The city “bleeds out” into majestic Lake Michigan to the east and into flatlands to the south and west beyond its suburban communities. Two hundred years ago, Van Horn reminds us, this was wilderness where non-human animals thrived. Their abundance brought the hunter and the pioneer who slowly diminished their numbers and their habitats by building their own city, thus making subservient the water and land to their own use and convenience. Even so, through the insight of a few city planners and architects such as Daniel Burnham, large swatches of natural land were preserved and a long process of non-human animal inhabitation has followed. Now, as Van Horn suggests throughout this book, a multitude of non-human beings is once again inhabiting this city and other urban areas throughout the country. The coyote is no longer simply an evanescent being unlikely to be encountered by a city dweller. The urban adapter now walks pathways within neighborhoods, created by prescient city planners who know the value of balance within the natural world.


Van Horn plies Chicago’s rivers and walks Chicago’s lakefront, parklands, trails (both completed and in progress), and garden corridors planted by those citizens who understand the value of green spaces for the health of human animals and non-human animals alike, right down to bees and butterflies. Creating an environment to promote interconnectedness within the magnificent architectural constructions of Chicago is an ever-present theme in Van Horn’s narrative. The city, of course, is not Leopold’s sanctuary within a wooded area, brought back to life and for whom the grouse’s call is the noumenon, or in Van Horn’s words, “the mysterious essence” of place. Interestingly, Van Horn chooses as the noumenon of Chicago not the coyote or peregrine falcon, both returning to the city in numbers, but another recent city dweller: the black-crowned night heron, or Nycticorax nycticorax, inhabiting trees in Lincoln Park, as though to greet their cloistered cousins living at the Lincoln Park Zoo. For Van Horn, it is the heron’s red eye, “a ruby supernova that deepens to a black-hole center,” that pulls you in. “This red eye fixes you in its gaze, letting you know that you are part of the heron’s passing world, not he of yours. Black-crowned will do, it is evocative as species names go, but better would be the red-eyed night heron.” The black-crowned night heron, he concludes, “carries the juxtapositions of the landscape in his body, reclaiming the fruits of modern engineering with a premodern disposition. He is the noumenon, the will and self-expression of the land, the mysterious essence of this place.”

Van Horn’s journey leads him eventually to a meditation on Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” which Leopold defines in this way: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Wrong when it tends otherwise.” And that well-known thought of Leopold’s that has governed many conservationists and environmentalists over the past three quarters of a century brings Van Horn to contemplating an “urban land ethic,” one that will engender this: “New patterns of thought about the purpose and possibilities of a city [that] can create new corridors of life in the urban landscape. Imaginative leaps across neural bridges may build the bridges between our lives and those of other creatures, and may compel us to demand corridors that repair the frayed weave of life giving pathways throughout. Rewilding the mind can rewild our cities.” It is right that his final chapter before his last words in the “Epilogue: Postscript to Hope” is titled “Mindways.” His book, after all is a mind journey inspired by the way of the coyote, trickster and capable thinker who has learned to adapt in the wilds of human constructions.

In the “Epilogue,” Van Horn talks to his three meditative and real companions throughout the book. It is one more beguiling story. Coyote and Leopold begin a walk through the city and eventually come upon Lao Tzu who is cooking a fish that Coyote would like to eat. He does so after practicing a little trickery on the ancient philosopher. Coyote’s abrupt but good-natured departure into the woods is preceded by this declaration: “I know this! You can build, or not, with minds turned toward your animal-kin in the city—I know this! You can create new paths and not destroy the old ones—I know this!” And then Lao Tzu whispers as Coyote disappears and he and Van Horn walk back toward the well-lit city, “Follow your path to the end….Accept difficulty as an opportunity….This is the sure way to end up with no difficulties at all.”

It is difficult to predict a classic. But certainly Van Horn’s book will be read by new generations of those gaining an appreciation of urban wildlife and, indeed, an ethical concern for all living things. While Van Horn relies upon many historical sources, he capsulizes an argument in this journey, this way of the Coyote, that cannot be ignored nor easily forgotten. I expect it will become a classroom staple at the very least, and an exemplary model of nature writing and a thought-provoking discussion of how we might achieve what to some may now seem impossible.

The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds

University of Chicago Press

Read an excerpt from The Way of Coyote in Emergence Magazine.

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Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

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Book Review: The Driftless Reader, co-edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Readers of Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley’s anthology The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) will find selections from eighty writers whom the editors describe as “eminent and obscure, bygone and contemporary, indigenous and outsider, poetic and scientific, and historic and hybrids .” Among some of the better-known writers are Henry David Thoreau, Robin Kimmerer, John Muir, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wallace Stegner, and Black Hawk. The selections are accompanied by fifty-five illustrations which help to tell the story of the Driftless region, its settlers, inhabitants, scientists, and those who journeyed through the unglaciated topography in southwestern Wisconsin and adjoining portions of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

To help the reader understand the area and its effect upon those who have lived on it, studied it, or simply traveled through it, the editors have divided the essays into eight thematic sections: 1) Geologic Origins; 2} Ancient Peoples; 3) Historical Ecologies; 4) Native Voices; 5) Explorations; 6) Early Economies; 7) Settler Stories; 8) Farming Lives; 9) Waterways; 10) Conserving Lands; 11) Communities in Transition; and 12) Futures. This convenient organization should be a model for examining virtually any geographical area of the United States to which people have gravitated because they found a welcoming and, as with the native inhabitants, a satisfying spiritual environment awaiting them.

This book, as the editors make clear in the “Preface,” is intended to emphasize the relationship between both the character of the place and the people who have lived and live within it. They write, “More than just a location, a place is built on the meanings people find and create there.” The layers of the Driftless’ are rich and their meanings are brought to life through the observations of those who have studied and lived upon it:

Geology provides our foundation for understanding the extent of the place, but from there we step into other modes of understanding. The geological, hydrological, and ecological space becomes personal and cultural through the stories and meanings that it gathers—layered, shaped, grown over, and occasionally exposed, like the strata of Driftless bedrock. Individual experience colors these lenses and layers….

The Driftless Area

The editors’ “Preface” contains brief but enlightening personal accounts of their own encounters with the area. Keefe Keeley, a native of Kickapoo Valley within the Driftless region, is currently the executive director of the Savanna Institute, an organization that helps famers develop sustainable agro-ecosystems in the Upper Midwest. He writes of standing at a rock face of dolomite where he saw “sketches of wind and water, roots and fire, claws and paws, and, most recently, human etchings.” Then he adds, “Compared with writing on paper, or uploading words into the cloud, this little cliff seems an enduring place to have made a mark, but these rocks, too, are pages of history, turning into eroded stories, myth, and mystery.” It is where the story of stories of discovery has been inscribed. But, as he continues to observe, “Yet at its most innocent, discovery is personal. As the mural on a wall of my school in the Kickapoo Valley paraphrased Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’”

Besides being known for his many books on conservation and as an Aldo Leopold scholar, Curt Meine is a Senior Fellow at both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, a Research Associate with the International Crane Foundation, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. While he is not a native of the Driftless region in Wisconsin, he says that he has found himself “along the margins of long gone glaciers” for as long as he can remember. But now he lives “at the east portal of the Driftless, marginally more aware of its anomalous geology, its kaleidoscopic ecology, its deep and complex human history, its problems and its potential.” And as with Keefe’s remembrance of Proust’s words on the mural at his school, Meine also recalls Gary Snyder’s words written in the Sierra foothills: “’If the ground can be our common ground, we can begin to talk to each other (human and non-human) once again.’”

This book is not just a collection of commentaries on the Driftless region. It is orchestrated and presented by the editors in a manner that not only focuses attention on the Driftless region but also suggests a model that others might use to evoke the meanings underlying the natural surroundings that they call home. The editors’ insights and the voices they collect here become a poetic rendering of the meaning of place. In their final comment in the “Preface,” they write this: “We can dwell on that which divides us, but we all dwell within landscapes that connect us. By listening deeply to the voices of our diverse places, we may find many ways home and many ways forward.” This anthology helps the reader understand the diversity that can be found in multiple regions within this country, and it will encourage readers to look more deeply into the meaning of the regions in which they live.

The Driftless Reader

University of Wisconsin Press

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Book Review: Force of Nature by Arthur Melville Pearson

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

The bastions of environmental protection that have been erected over the years are once again being tested by shortsighted individuals who occupy our government and allow special interests to violate public and private preserves. During the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, far-seeing naturalists and politicians founded institutions and established government policies intended to protect the environment into the future. John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, was one of those visionaries. And at the highest level of government, Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership led to the establishment of the Forest Service. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the National Park Service came into being. In A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, Aldo Leopold defined the “land ethic,” which, for many generations, has provided a philosophical underpinning not only for how we should live on the land, but also how it should be preserved for the health of future generations of all plants and animals.

Now Arthur Melville Pearson’s biography of George Fell (1916–94) serves to introduce many readers to an environmentalist who has had immense impact on the ways that we can better protect the environment from the threats generated by a growing population and its attendant industrialization. By the 1940s, Fell had gained a deep appreciation of the environment. When young, he accompanied his father on plant collecting rambles along the Rock River and into natural areas around their home in Rockford, Illinois. Later he majored in the natural sciences in both undergraduate and graduate school coming to understand the need to preserve the environment. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he was assigned to work and live in Civilian Public Service Camps. There he fought bureaucratic injustices at the camps and also experienced firsthand the mistakes of agricultural practices that harmed the production of food and the health of the environment. Back in Illinois after the war, he married and interned at the Illinois Soil Conservation Service. While there, he began lobbying for statewide preservation of remaining natural areas “for educational and research purposes.” When he began to be known by leaders of the naturalist movement in the East, he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Washington, DC to join the Ecologists’ Union which shortly, under the leadership of Fell and Richard Pough, became The Nature Conservancy in October of 1951.

Pearson’s account of Fell’s essential role in and eventual departure from The Nature Conservancy is well researched and informative. Fell served as vice president and later executive secretary of the fledgling organization. Pearson writes that Fell “conceived and put into place the conservancy’s vaunted chapter system, set the stage for its massive membership program, and inculcated an institutional commitment to conserving land systematically and strategically.” To help assure that his ideas remained on the table and to help support The Conservancy in its infancy, he and Barbara staffed the office “for little or no pay.” (Barbara kept them going by working as a lab technician in a medical office.) But Fell’s methodical approach to laying the groundwork for a strong national organization conflicted with the ideas of Pough, who had served on the board and became The Conservancy’s third president in 1954. Pough and others “preferred a far more flexible, opportunistic approach to protecting land.” Nevertheless, Pearson notes, Pough “readily acknowledged that ‘were it not for George Fell, the Ecologists’ Union might never have become The Nature Conservancy.’” Pough, astute at fundraising and spreading good will, was the affable face of the infant not-for-profit organization. Fell lacked that sort of personality. He clung steadfastly to the idea that it was absolutely necessary to begin to develop an organization that could work nationwide to realize the mission of preserving and conserving the land essential to life for every species.

It soon became clear that Fell could not long remain within The Conservancy as it was developing. In 1958 Fell left The Conservancy to return to Illinois where he immediately began a lengthy campaign to convince the Illinois State government bureaucracy to authorize the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act—which, when passed, opened the door for the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. These events, as Pearson notes, became a template for similar action in states across the country. Fell was also central to the establishment of the Natural Land Institute, a model for similar country-wide organizations.

George Fell (right) and Barbara Fell (center) scouting in Okefenokee Swamp, between Georgia and Florida, with a guide. Courtesy of the Natural Land Institute

An important subplot to Pearson’s biography details the role Fell’s wife, Barbara, took on for herself. She was an important ally in his work to create environmental organizations, and she shared her husband’s sense of purpose and his seemingly infinite persistence in bringing into existence long-lasting and successful environmental organizations.

They lived frugally throughout their marriage. Even when Fell became a successful investor in stocks, their frugality continued as a way of life, simply because it fit in with their philosophy that one way to serve the environment was to limit one’s indulgence in unnecessary things. They continued to scout out natural areas in need of preservation and conservation, often sleeping in their pre-war car during overnight trips and bringing their meals so that they did not have to pay for hotels and restaurants.

Pearson’s telling of Fell’s story matches the economy with which Fell and his wife approached their own lives. His closing comments on Fell explain the conservationist’s considerable legacy in the movement to save and to protect natural lands, both large and small. Pearson writes,

At a time when there were few models sufficient to the task at hand, Fell had the persistence to build new, innovative institutions. The very act of building those institutions galvanized a lot of people, offering them mechanisms within which to focus and realize their own conservation passions. The fact that Fell was not the one to nurture the institutions he built to maturity ultimately is immaterial. George Fell was a stone, a rock, a force of nature, whose legacy lives with us still: in the institutions he built, in the people he inspired, in the natural lands he loved and protected forever.

This biography serves to remind us of who George Fell was and to help us to understand that we need environmental defenders who possess his qualities, a leader who is a “force of nature,” a creator of long-lasting policies and institutions.

Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement

University of Wisconsin Press

Read an interview with Arthur Melville Pearson in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2017 issue of Minding Nature.

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Q&A with Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Florence Williams is a journalist and Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature who often writes about the connections between people, health, and nature. She is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, and she also writes for  the New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, High Country News, and other publications.

In her latest book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W.W. Norton 2017), Williams sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. From forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, to groves of eucalyptus in California, she investigates the science at the confluence of environment, mood, health, and creativity. Delving into completely new research, she reveals the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

Where and when did you develop your love for the outdoors?

I grew up in New York City. My parents were divorced, and every summer my father took me on long wilderness vacations to Canada or out West. From an early age, I learned that forests and rivers and big landscapes provided fun and excitement, as well as peace and reflection. As a teenager, I sought out pockets of green in the city. I spent tons of time in city parks, biking, running, and hanging out with friends. We felt like we owned the parks, which is how city parks should make us feel.

Your book examines natural environments all over the world, but you’re American. How does the way people in other countries engage with nature compare to people in the United States?

I think some other countries are way ahead of us in terms of understanding how valuable nature can be for mental health. I think we have a lot to learn from how Asian and Northern European countries incorporate nature engagement into everyday life, from house plants to recreation to preschools to medical treatment. Our healthcare establishment is largely driven by drugs and profits, whereas a lot of other countries take preventive health more seriously, but I think there is growing awareness of that here.

America has had a long literary relationship with the outdoors, from Thoreau to Bill Bryson. Where do you see yourself within this long tradition of American nature writing?

I don’t really consider my work nature writing, which can lean a bit too romantic for my taste. I have a journalist’s eye, and I like finding connections that are sometimes obscure. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of humans and the environment. I like putting people into the equation, and I like to think I bring a balance of humor and serious science and social questions about why we feel and think the way we do.

An extended excursion into nature is a privilege that many people living in cities don’t often have access to. How can civil and state governments adapt existing urban environments to enhance them and make them more nature friendly?

That’s a really important question as we become an ever-more-urban species. I was surprised to learn that most large cities in the U.S. have pretty decent park and natural resources. The problem is making them accessible to everyone and then reducing the hurdles to using them. These include cultural hurdles, perceptions of safety, and finding plain old time. I’d love to see schools and civic institutions promote programs that help urban populations feel more comfortable in nature from an early age. The more we use the parks, the safer they’ll feel, both physically and culturally.

Much of the environmentalist discourse of the twentieth century has been founded on scientific principles, but you cite Wordsworth in addition to scientific research. Why?

Actually, I would argue that not enough discourse is founded on science. I think we are still very much living out the Romantic legacy, which became the basis of the American environmental movement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Romantic poets taught us how to see beauty and even divinity in the world apart from the way organized religion did, and they understood that time in nature was critical to humanity. In a lot of ways the Romantics inspired and anticipated the neuroscience we see now. But not everyone can relate to the Romantic discourse, and often it didn’t make allowances for, say, native populations or the realities of conservation. Science can really help us there. For example, there is more biodiversity in cities than we think, and we should be putting resources into coexisting with nature where we live as well as protecting it “out there” in the backcountry.

You say that “a 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology.” Have you found that different natural environments yield different physiological and psychological benefits?

Definitely. Humans are primed to love the natural world, but we still have to cultivate it, and cultivate it early. Because of how and where we do this, I think there’s a lot of variation in what people respond to emotionally. For some, it’s the ocean. For others, the ocean freaks them out and it’s a sunset over a city skyline. Because of where I grew up, my heart starts to sing when I enter Central Park. I also love the desert and a big river rolling through it. Think about where you were happiest outside as a child, and chances are you will feel joy in landscapes that are similar.

Did you find, while you were doing research and working on The Nature Fix that your engagement with the natural world had a direct effect on your writing?

I think the natural world inspires me to be a better person and to care about the communities I live in, and that in turn drives my journalism. On a more logistical level, writing a book is like running a marathon. Because I was aware of the nature-creativity-productivity axis, I did make an effort to go for regular walks in the woods and parks. I positioned my writing desk so that I could see the trees in my yard, and I was fortunate to spend some nice chunks of time in the wilderness. I’m convinced all of these things helped me stay sane under deadline as well as give my brain big and little rests to help me think. These are all things I will continue doing as long as I can, which I hope is a long, long time.

How can one balance a modern, digital life with a life that’s also connected to the natural world?

With increasing difficulty! We are all distracted and time crunched. We work longer hours and spend dramatically more time inside. I think the first step is to just notice this, and then it may begin to naturally self-correct. Beyond that, parents need to foster the connection to nature in their children’s lives so that it will always be there on some level. In the same way as we are coming to value exercise as part of a healthy daily routine, I think we will also come to appreciate time in nature as a critical part of the mix that keeps us going. It’s not a luxury; it’s essential to who we are and who we want to be. Because it’s joyful, spending time outside, in whatever way you love, doesn’t feel like a chore.

Is there an activity that you do that makes you feel particularly connected to nature?

My own weird eccentric habit is that I crumble leaves in my hand as I walk, even in the city, and take in the scents. I’ve always done it, but after writing this book I understand better the power of these substances in the trees and shrubs, and sometimes I can imagine them boosting my immune system and lightening my mood. I feel like I’ve discovered that trees have a secret superpower.

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Book Review: Stories from the Leopold Shack by Estella Leopold

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

In Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited, Estella Leopold takes her readers on an intimate journey into that now-fabled place to which her father introduced the world in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). The site in central Wisconsin close to Baraboo that Aldo and now his daughter Estella have chronicled is where Aldo, his wife Estella Bergere, and their five children spent their summers. They lived in a once-abandoned farm shack, where they worked together to restore the land upon which it sat—land they found to be despoiled by decades of agricultural malpractice. The site remains today a monument to what was Aldo Leopold’s idea of ecological restoration, and it is living testimony to what Leopold’s formulation of the “Land Ethic” can bring about.

In her “Acknowledgments” Estella explains that the book began as a project in reminiscing. To occupy herself during long flights to Wisconsin from the West Coast where she lived and taught, Estella began to record stories she remembered from her childhood summers at the Shack. Of the Leopold’s five children, she was the youngest. And by the time her father was completing and revising A Sand County Almanac in the 1940s, her older siblings were in college. She often spent her adolescent summers at the Shack as the only companion of her parents.

Following the first chapter introducing the reconstruction of the Shack, Estella writes four chapters of stories taking place in the seasons of the year, following the general direction of her father’s book. These chapters offer memories of her time as a young girl when Estella came to know the treasures the land had to offer to her and her family. Like her father, she is a close observer of the minute. Here is an account of an early summer morning:

The family ritual started with Dad getting up very quietly, sometimes as early as 4:00 a.m., or even 3:00 a.m. when he was checking on bird songs and light. Dad would build a fire in the yard fireplace and make coffee out there, listening to the early birds with his light meter. He was measuring how much light there was as each species began to sing in the morning chorus….

As the Sun warmed the air, he went on his morning walk with Gus [his dog]. When the sun came up, Mother would rise, and then us children. It was always so pleasant to step out barefoot onto the dewy grass and walk to the Parthenon [privy], studying the pretty birdsfoot violets (Viola pedata) blooming along the path. In Dad’s prairie garden in front of the Shack, we would check out the gorgeous spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), which could always count on producing one new fresh blue flower with three petals and a yellow center every single morning all summer.

In the final chapters, Estella recounts humorous and always respectful stories of her mother’s achievements in archery and bow hunting. She then moves on to stories that reflect the influence her childhood memories had upon her throughout her life, including learning the early restoration efforts on the land around the Shack, as well as learning the ongoing progress of restoration from the time of Estella’s father’s death to the present, largely carried on by the Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold with family at the Shack. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

“The Shack Idea,” her concluding chapter, describes how Estella’s siblings and she continued to imprint her father’s legacy afar by settling into and protecting threatened places by constructing “shacks” of their own that anchored their intentions for restoration and sense of place. The five siblings established their own shacks in the midst of natural surroundings in California, Wyoming, Wisconsin (an “eco-friendly house” built by Nina—Estella’s older sister—and Charlie Bradley near the Leopold Shack in Wisconsin), Costa Rica, and, Estella’s own in Colorado. Each shack became a statement by the Leopold’s grown children that the land and the wildlife which inhabited it could thrive in concert with human presence. Estella writes this of her own adult experience:

The enrichment of the land community constituted what I call the “greening of Shack West” in Colorado: it was an area that under my protection was now freed of the terrible strychnine poison pellets that had wiped out the original coyotes, and doubtless many birds. My land was now free of grazing cows (except temporarily when the fence broke). I have been happy to know from the occasional tracks and exciting personal encounters that my land also includes a family of black bears and a family of mountain lions.

Estella Leopold’s reminiscences offer engaging and informative stories, intended primarily for the generations to come who tend to be raised in a culture that sees wilderness or despoiled landscapes as places to be circumvented. In a culture that is fearful of the outdoors and its nonhuman inhabitants, from insects to wolves to bears, this book shows why it is necessary to encounter and to preserve our natural surroundings by learning what it is to be part and parcel of these spaces and how much we depend upon them for our own existence. Parents should read this book for the lessons in living with the natural world and with one another that it provides. The Leopold children, when grown, followed these lessons they learned at the Leopold Shack. Three, including Estella, a paleobotanist, became members of the National Academy of Sciences. All have devoted their lives to investigating how much we and the environment depend upon one another for our existence. Estella Leopold’s book is an important introduction to how to achieve a complete life for generations to follow.

Aldo Leopold at the Shack. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited

Oxford University Press

Read an interview with Estella Leopold in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2016 issue of Minding Nature.

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Book Review: Trace by Lauret Savoy

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is both a memoir and a study of human events within the natural landscape of the United States. As an incessant traveler from childhood and on into a career as a professor of geology and environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, she has embraced and studied a significant portion of the ancient landscape of the United States upon whose surface the history of a people has only recently been written. Her informed perspective leads her to write, “Tumultuous histories, human and geological, formed the landscape in which I am implicated, and they continue.” Human history is, of course, but an instant in the history of the planet, particularly on the North American continent. In this book, Savoy invites the reader to accompany her on a quest to understand the human drama that has defined who she is, and she encourages us to take a closer look at our own roles on this stage we share with her.

trace

Throughout the book, Savoy explores the many meanings of the word “trace.” Through indefatigable research in familiar and unfamiliar places she seeks to trace the experiences of her parents and ancestors. She begins by describing her childhood journey from her native California to the Grand Canyon and on to Washington, DC, a journey in which her childhood idyll is replaced with a thirst for knowledge of the world around her and her place within it. As an adult, on a determined quest to find her heritage, she brings us to locations such as Spartanburg County, South Carolina, the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest of Arizona, and on to a summer of meditation, discovery, and writing on Madeline Island among Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. While in the Apostles, she contemplates the haunting traces of indigenous Americans who identified closely with the natural world in which they lived, of slaves whose labor contributed to building the nation’s economy from its earliest days to the Civil War and beyond, and of their descendants who fought for the country’s freedom in WWII while enduring Jim Crow traditions of the military. And along the way she reminds the reader that all of what we call human civilization is but a recent phenomenon in the evolutionary scheme of life.

Savoy’s story is about the presence of the past in the here and now and what the past portends for the future. She surmises it was on Madeline where she might have gained her first insight into the fact she was only then catching up with the past. She writes:

Catching up with the past need not mean retrograding or living in it. At least I hope not. Dissecting learned stories might yield some retrievable fragments of context and relationship, and reveal the vector of storying’s power – its direction, its magnitude, and its agency.

. . . .

To understand the storying of any place, I must also understand the storying of myself. I must follow traces beneath familiar surfaces to where ancestral structures lie.

Savoy’s story does not end with this resolve. It is much more complex. The daughter of a father who “could pass” for white and an African American mother, she is intent on explaining her own experience of Jim Crowism and the lingering prejudice that kept it alive. In writing about Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and the Land Ethic, she wonders, “Did Aldo Leopold consider me?” She is dubious, saying his only mention of slavery was in his reference to Odysseus’ treatment of the slave girls in ancient Greece. It can be argued the Land Ethic includes human property that has been abused and flung aside in the name of the expediency that Leopold condemns. But Savoy details the stories of more recent demeaning experiences suffered by her and her family and of the minority community at large through sheer prejudice wrought by ignorance.

Leopold does say ethical progress has been made in dealing with “the relation between individuals” and that later “accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.” But this does not mean, Savoy believes, these ethical standards have been accepted by everyone, in particular among those who think that their ethnicity, race, or creed makes them superior. Ethical treatment of others and the land has to be taught, learned, and abided by. Individuals need to possess a moral compass. Even Leopold’s calling for an ethic that deals “with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” is far from being accepted or understood by many. He was well aware that would be the case, even after he articulated the necessity of having an ethical relationship to the land.

For most of the population, land equals property that gives its owner the authority of control, just as slaves were legalized property until the Emancipation Proclamation and, unfortunately, have remained so for succeeding generations in the minds of many who believe there are humans fit only for subservience. After all, the English-speaking settlers to this country came to build a “city upon a hill” and often were fearful of the forest reaches into which indigenous Americans retreated and where wild beasts, if not evil spirits, lurked. They were intent upon taming the land and the natives who inhabited it. They did this by naming the territory and declaring it their property. Names meant ownership, as Savoy emphasizes, and ownership meant domination.

Even though she makes a point that Leopold’s ethical argument does not appear to reach into the present in which she and her parents have experienced unethical treatment, Savoy believes as strongly as Leopold that current-day humanity should live by the ethical prescriptions laid out for relationships between people of all backgrounds and between them and the natural world of which the human species is an integral part. Now over sixty-five years after Leopold cut the history-revealing oak on his farm (detailed in his chapter “The Good Oak”), Savoy adds a dimension to Leopold’s land ethic. She calls for an ethic of place that acknowledges people who have been there before us, a sense of their lingering presence evoked by the way the land around us has been treated.

Re-membering,” Savoy concludes, “is an alternative to extinction.”

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Counterpoint Press