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Book Review: Penguins in the Desert by Eric Wagner

As a former volunteer for Dee Boersma at the Punta Tombo Magellanic colony in Argentina, I was especially eager to read Eric Wagner’s Penguins in the Desert, in which he recounts the six months he and his wife, El, spent among the penguins in 2008. Two years earlier, my husband, John Yunker, and I spent a week at Punta Tombo, and we walked through many of the same places, counted many of the same penguins, got to know the colony’s beloved Turbo, and probably stayed in the same trailer Wagner and his wife shared two years later.

Yet Wagner’s six months at the colony was an enviably and admirably longer period of time during which he and El, too, spent fourteen-hour days in the field and got early morning wake-up calls from the penguin living under the trailer. Wagner’s description — “At times, he sounded like he was directly under my pillow, his bill aimed at my ear” — was not only spot-on but brought me back to this magical and complicated place.

I was also eager to read a nonfiction account of a volunteer’s time at Punta Tombo — as fiction writers, both John’s and my experiences eventually ended up being parts of novels, The Tourist Trail and My Last Continent, respectively — and I very much enjoyed revisiting the place and the experience through Wagner’s nonfiction lens. Yet this isn’t a book solely for those familiar with this part of the world; it will appeal to a range of readers, from travelers to penguin lovers to anyone interested in conservation.

Dee Boersma, who holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science at the University of Washington and is founder and director of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, is arguably the best-known penguin expert in the world, her name as synonymous with penguins as Jane Goodall’s is with chimpanzees. Boersma has studied the penguins at Punta Tombo for thirty-five years, and her passion, tenacity, and vast experience come through in these pages. As Wagner writes early in the book, “Her [UW] lectures were memorable for the energetic brazenness with which she could hold forth on the way things ought to be. It was inconsistent with the objectivity I thought the dictum of science, but Dee was unapologetic … ‘You can’t listen to everything I’m telling you and not feel anything,’ she had said.”

This is one Boersma’s many gifts: translating science — and especially the precarious lives of penguins — in ways that all of us can relate to. As Wagner notes, Boersma once described penguins this way in an interview: “These birds are curious. They walk upright. They dress well. They’re highly social. They know their neighbors.”

Getting to know the penguins of Punta Tombo makes it all the more difficult to learn that this colony has declined in population by more than 40 percent and is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world. Wagner details the birds’ challenges in ways that are highly personal — and this is a huge strength of the book. Like Boersma, Wagner makes it impossible not to fall in love with these birds, and to care about their fate in an uncertain world.

As Wagner notes in the prologue, most people think of penguins and “see a cathedral of ice and snow … a forbidding landscape thousands of miles from anywhere.” Penguins in the Desert focuses on those who live among “sand and dust and dirt … blazing heat … a couple of hours from a city, eminently reachable on any old summer afternoon.” And while John and I merely counted penguins as volunteers, and helped measure and weigh a few, Wagner and his wife did all of this and much more, including tagging them and even performing a necropsy. They witnessed a lot more as well: They saw chicks grow up and fledge; they observed one penguin couple adopt another’s egg and raise the chick as their own; and, sadly, they encountered a great many dead chicks (on average, about 40 percent of chicks starve to death; some years it can be as many as 85 percent).

While 40 percent is a staggering statistic, it is still a number, and though Wagner has a scientific background, it is his non-scientific details that are most affecting. “We soon can tell which chicks are not long for this earth … The ones that gain almost no weight between our visits, or even lose a few grams. The ones that beg in raspy, thin voices, while their parent can do little … The ones whose feet become shriveled and translucent, the ones whose thin bones we can feel through the sagging skin of their chests. The ones who lie quietly in the dust, breathing shallowly, waiting for the end.”

Perhaps most engaging of all are Wagner’s descriptions of the birds that can only come from the firsthand contact that researchers must endure. “ … as I wrestle [the penguin] into submission, I realize there are certain things you cannot know about the Magellanic penguin, cannot understand, unless you are trying to restrain one between your thighs…For example: A penguin’s chest all but bursts with thick slabs of muscle, and the flippers … are solid bone. His bill, which is clacking away perilously close to my fingers, is heavy, black, ridged, and very sharp…The red of his eyes, too, can look surprisingly demonic.” Accompanying the text are thirty black-and-white photos, including one of Wagner’s bite-scarred hand.

Despite the many details and stories that bring our empathy to these creatures, the science is not neglected; readers learn about the research being done and what Boersma and her team are learning about penguin behavior — satellite tags, for example, show where penguins forage for food and how far they have to go (from 250 up to 700 miles away from the colony). The bad news is that the farther the penguins have to travel for food, the higher the risk their chicks will starve before they return to feed them. Wagner notes, “If the satellite tags paint a grim picture in some ways, however, then they also point to a way to lessen conflicts between human fishers and penguins, who are often in search of the same species of fish. The more we claim for ourselves, the less we leave for penguins and other seabirds.”

In 2015, a Marine Protected Area was established around the colony, covering thirty-seven miles of coastline and extending three feet into the ocean. It was a victory for the penguins, but “just a postage stamp” of what Boersma and her colleague were hoping for. It’s an example of what conservation can do, and a reminder that it has to begin somewhere and often in baby steps. In the mid-80s, Boersma, along with Argentine students, began to count penguins who were showing up dead on shore due to oil, which causes them to lose their insulation and leads to certain death from hypothermia or starvation because they can’t go to sea to feed. Boersma and her students realized that more than 40,000 penguins were dying each year due to the ballast being released from large ships. Boersma and her students presented their research for years until finally, in 1997, the government of Chubut province moved the shipping lanes farther offshore, out of the penguins’ paths. In the years since, Boersma and her colleagues followed up, counting fewer and fewer oiled birds until one year they found none at all.

Finally, I was thrilled to see so many words devoted to Turbo, famous among Punta Tombo researchers and a little famous to others as well. He inspired the character of Diesel in The Tourist Trail, and Admiral Byrd in My Last Continent — and most readers find it hard to believe that these fictional birds were inspired by a penguin who actually exists. Turbo is an odd penguin who tried to nest under a turbo truck (hence his name) before realizing it didn’t make a good nest — but even though he moved on to nest in bushes like the other penguins, he never found a mate. Instead, he knocks on the door of the researchers’ house with his beak, walks in, and does flipper dances (a courtship ritual) with the humans. He is the rare penguin who not only doesn’t scamper away from humans but who welcomes affection. “It isn’t that he thinks he is a human,” Wagner writes. “Rather, he thinks we are penguins … All the things we wish we could do with all the penguins but do not dare, Turbo lets us do to him. We coo over him and caress the firm pelt of his feathers. We scratch the back of his neck as he closes his eyes in pleasure.”

I’ve been on Dee Boersma’s mailing list for a dozen years now, and the first thing I always look for is news of Turbo. He is now thirteen years old, still a bachelor, and still friendly with all the researchers. (Click here to join the mailing list for updates on Turbo, and to learn more about how you can help penguin conservation.)

Penguins in the Desert may be specific to one species of penguin, but it offers a glimpse into the important work of conservation, with insights that extend beyond this region of Patagonia. It’s also a tribute to Dee Boersma, a pioneer in conservation and penguin studies, and a call to action to protect our oceans before it’s too late to save the creatures who depend on it for survival.

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Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution tells the terrifying and important story of plastics in our oceans, framed by Marcus Eriksen’s journey aboard Junk, the all-plastic raft he and his sailing partner took from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of our seas.

Eriksen, who would later go on to co-found the organization 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna, writes about the 2,600-mile journey over eighty-eight days and its challenges—among them, structural problems with the raft and bracing storms—interspersing the narrative with facts that all consumers should know about plastic and its effects on the environment, especially the oceans. For example, even if we are among those who recycle, it’s not enough: up to 12 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean.

The statistics are staggering: Plastic production, which was zero during World War II, rose to 40 million tons by 1972, to 311 million tons in 2013, and is projected to reach 1 billion tons by 2050. Yet the recycling rate in the United States is only 9.2 percent (based on the latest study in 2013), and, even more alarming, non-recyclable plastics are exported to countries where environmental standards and workers’ health are unregulated. Of a visit to a processing site in India, Eriksen writes, “After ten minutes, my eyes were tingling and the back of my throat burned. The men [working] in this room absorb the largest dose of volatile plasticizers and pollutants, and according to a local NGO, they give up somewhere around twenty years of their lifespan for two dollars per day sorting our trash.”

India and China are among countries that send the plastic right back to the U.S. via new products created with the plastic sent to them. To tackle the problem at its inception, Eriksen advocates for an end the “throwaway culture” that leads to such waste in the first place. “I’ve witnessed a growing movement to end throwaway living…We need zero-waste and end-of-life design for everything we create; a world in which social and environmental justice becomes part of product and systems design.”

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Ericksen has a unique perspective on the politics of plastic: After the war, while rafting on the Mississippi, he “witnessed a never-ending trail of trash, which had its roots in the petroleum I had been sent to defend in Kuwait. Now I watched it drift to the ocean via America’s greatest watershed.” During some of the quieter moments during his journey onboard Junk, he reflects on the sense of betrayal he felt as a veteran: “I had given everything, a willingness to kill and be killed, for the sake of cheap oil and national interests.”

Junk Raft details the history and contemporary problem of plastics, including their production, the powerful lobbying that keeps such items as plastic bags in the marketplace, and the devastating effect plastic has on marine life. Countries like Germany and Chile are on the forefront of recycling that works—from reducing packaging to requiring producers to recover the waste from their own products—and by contrast, Eriksen writes, the U.S. is the only country of the thirty-five members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not have extended producer responsibility for packaging. Only ten U.S. states have bottle-recycling programs.

When it comes to plastics, marine animals are the biggest losers of all. Various studies have estimated that between 9 and 35 percent of fish have plastics in their stomachs—and this doesn’t even include sea lions and seabirds, and all those animals caught in discarded fishing gear. If today’s plastic waste goes unabated, up to 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. “Even in fish markets,” Eriksen writes, “clams and fish have been found with abundant micro- and nanoplastics in their guts, which we ingest if we eat them whole.” One recent study in the U.S. and Indonesia found that 25 percent of the fish in markets had plastics in their stomachs.

While the statistics are daunting, Eriksen writes with optimism—yet it is only through commitment to change our ways that life will improve for the oceans and its creatures. Eriksen writes, “I have tremendous hope. I am confident that we possess the collective intelligence and will to overcome the course that was set in the last century…Are we capable of replacing the globalization of stuff with the globalization of new ideas to transform our culture of consumption? To rebut Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph for our species—‘Nice try’—I argue: ‘Not done.’”

 

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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An interview with NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS author Roger Thompson

If you were asked where the rarest bears on earth lived, would your first guess be an hour’s drive outside of Rome?

That wasn’t our first guess, either — but it’s the truth, and these bears are fighting to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Author Roger Thompson has documented their struggle in his fascinating new book, No Word for Wilderness: Italy’s Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth.

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia.

This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy—one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

The Abruzzo bears of central Italy have survived amid one of the oldest civilizations on earth—but now, with numbers estimated at as low as fifty individuals, they face a critical future as multiple forces, from farmers to the mob, collide within their territory. The Slovenian bears of northern Italy, brought to the Alps at the turn of the century, have sparked controversy among local and international interests alike.

The stories of these bears take readers on a spectacular journey across Italy, where we come face-to-face not only with these fascinating species but with embattled park directors, heroic environmentalists, innovative scientists, and a public that is coming to terms with the importance of Italy’s rich natural history.

“Full of drama, adventure, tragedy, and heroes fighting against the most daunting of odds, No Word for Wilderness shows us what nature writing can be.” — J. Scott Bryson, author of The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry

Award-winning author Roger Thompson has traveled throughout Italy documenting the history and current crises of these bears, and the result is an engaging and in-depth examination that resonates across all endangered species and offers invaluable insights into the ever-evolving relationships between human and non-human animals in a rapidly changing world.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.

Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?

A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.

Q: What kind of pressure?

A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.

Q: How are they in the way?

A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.

Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?

A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.

Q: How is this being combatted?

A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.

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Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!

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