Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, is a meditation on grief, writing, and the transcendent power of the human-canine bond. It is also a 2018 National Book Award finalist.
How is one to mourn the sudden death of a loved one? For the novel’s narrator, whose best friend and literary mentor has taken his own life, there’s writing. There’s therapy. And there’s the unexpected companionship of a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound harlequin Great Dane.
The dog, a one-time stray, had belonged to the narrator’s friend. After his death, his widow, who had never wanted the dog, has put him in a kennel. “He didn’t understand that Daddy was never coming home again,” she tells the narrator. “He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn’t even eat, I was afraid he’d starve to death. But the worst part was, every once in a while, he’d make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever it was. Not loud, but strange, like a ghost or some other weird thing. It went on and on.”
The dog’s despair recalls, for the narrator, the remarkable story of the Japanese Akita, Hachiko, who is memorialized with a statue outside a Tokyo train station. The Akita would meet his master at the station each day upon the man’s return from work. After the man died, in 1925, the dog continued to show up at the station at the hour of the train’s arrival. He did this day after day, for nearly a decade, so devoted was he to his owner.*
It’s this devotion of dog to human, notes the narrator, “so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it,” that has turned her into a cat person. “Give me a pet that can get along without me,” she says.
Still, despite her fondness for felines and living in a tiny, no-dogs-allowed New York City apartment building, the narrator opens her home to the mighty Dane. At first, he takes no interest in her, and she views him more as burden than companion. But that will change.
Whether the narrator will be able to keep the dog—and her home—provides the drama and the one plot line that runs through the novel. Otherwise, The Friend reads less like a narrative and more like a series of musings, scribbled in a diary, by a woman grappling with loss, loneliness, and the changing world she inhabits.
This unconventional structure gives the novel the feel of nonfiction as the narrator, a creative writing professor, wrestles with topics both timeless and contemporary, including suicide, the #MeToo movement, trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the writer’s life. All the while, weaving in quotations and anecdotes from the lives and works of writers and poets too numerous to name.
The narrator contemplates, for example, whether there is utility in writing to heal one’s wounds and discovers that on this, there is debate. Natalia Ginzburg said no, “You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.” But Isak Dinesen “believed that you could make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it.” Such storytelling worked for Virginia Woolf, who, the narrator points out, said that writing did for her what psychoanalysts did for their patients. But, wonders the narrator, “Does the effectiveness of the catharsis depend on the quality of the writing? And if a person finds catharsis by writing a book, does it matter whether or not the book is any good?”
Nunez’s prose in The Friend is crisp and spare; it is also infused with wit and humor. The characters go unnamed, save for the dog, Apollo, and the building’s super, Hector, who repeatedly tells the narrator, “You cannot keep that animal here.”
The Friend is a page-turner, due in large part to the unconventionality of the storytelling—as a reader, I was eager to discover just where the narrator was taking me. At its heart, though, The Friend is a novel about friendship—friendship between people and friendship between people and their dogs, those magnificent creatures who, the narrator says, “may well, in their mute unfathomable way, know us better than we know them.”
*Hollywood’s version of Hachiko’s story, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, was released in 2009. In the film, which takes place in a quaint New England town, Richard Gere stars as a music professor who takes in a lost Akita puppy. It’s a tear jerker, so have a box of tissues close at hand.
You can’t find a better deal than this — a free online class from the International Writing Program (the IWP) at the University of Iowa: Stories of Place: Writing and the Natural World.
You as participants will work with some of the many possible types of creative non-fiction, ranging from essays, science journalism, travel narratives, and speculative portrayals of the natural future. And as writers you will work with ways to portray truth and fact, whether it involves telling stories about the local, the global, the invisible, the beautiful, or the uncertain.
The course content includes writers who are both native and non-native English speakers, and we welcome those of you who are working on your own English language skills. Reading and listening to writers from a variety of backgrounds, and locating your own voice and experience through the writing of stories are strong language practice techniques.
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.
When I first saw the book cover I struggled to imagine what the book was about exactly. One of the pictures features men in helmets carrying animals, so I initially assumed the massacre was the result of bombings.
But, no. This massacre — and it was indeed a massacre — was entirely self inflicted.
During the earliest days of the war, British citizens killed their pets. Not because the government asked them to. Not because veterinarians asked them to. But because, for lack of a better word, they panicked.
It was September 1939. The bombing was still many months away. But, the people could not know this. They knew only that war was imminent, that bombs would eventually fall, that Germans could wash ashore at any moment. And many people thought it wiser to put their companion animals to death than risk the great unknown that awaited. And, given human nature, a stampede soon developed.
In less than a week approximately 400,000 cats and dogs, bunnies and birds were put to death. The run on shelters was so great that one shelter saw a line of people and their pets a half-mile long. Shelters ran out of chloroform and animals were buried in mass graves. Vets pleaded with people to rethink their decisions but a mania of sorts spread through communities rich and poor. In the end, roughly 26% of all London cats and dogs were put to death.
This book clearly illustrates how the widely accepted narrative of Brits keeping calm and carrying on was not all that it was cracked up to be.
Author Hilda Kean does a thorough job of collecting anecdotes, letters, news clippings that collectively shed light on the many experiences of pet owners, their children, vets, animal rescuers, politicians, and the animals themselves. Because this was not a phenomenon that was widely publicized and, after the war, was quickly forgotten, this book provides an important historical record.
I particularly appreciated the focus on the animals themselves — how their lives were so often an afterthought. How animals became just another element of the virtual war with the Germans, a war that was as much about “civilization” as anything else. At the time, the Germans were vilified for their poor treatment of animals, so it became incumbent upon the English to rise above. How should a civilized people treat its animal companions? This is a question that was debated then — and is still rightfully being debated today.
There are many sad stories in this book. Such as the accounts of children who lost their pets, often for reasons not at all made clear by their parents. And there are stories of parents who took a hands-on approach to killing their pets, which was equally traumatic on not only the children but, in some cases, the parents as well.
Now it is likely that a number of these animals would have died during the years of German bombings. More than 60,000 citizens died during that six-year span. But how much more difficult were those years for the people who so quickly sacrificed their companions? This was a tragedy during a time of so many tragedies. And this book does a service to those animals who gave their lives before their time.
What I most missed after a trip to Australia last year wasn’t the beaches or the local accents. It was the sounds of the birds.
The plaintive cries of the Australian ravens, the laughing kookaburras, and the screeching cockatoos. I realized after I returned home that I never had associated Australia with exotic birds. This is the land of the kangaroo and the koala and so many other marsupials.
Australia is not some avian backwater, as early European visitors widely assumed. Settlers introduced starlings and other species in an effort to introduce songbirds to the land. But it wasn’t that Australia didn’t have birds that could sing, it was that the Europeans weren’t fully listening.
Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.
New South Wales has 33 species of parrot — and the Sydney region alone boasts more species than most countries on the planet.
Australia is also home to the largest concentration of honeyeater species. And why? Because the country gave us trees that are actually very large flowers that give off stupendous amounts of nectar. These are eucalyptus trees. In Australia, it’s not just the bees that pollinate — it is birds.
Back to the songbirds, one of the most ancient songbirds is the lyrbird, native to Australia.
I found this video of a lyrebird and it is truly unbelievable to see — and tragic when you hear the final sounds the bird echoes.
This is a dense book that I would advise only for those who are eager to be overwhelmed by bird species (with each passing chapter I realized I knew less and less about birds). But it’s also a beautiful book written by an author who not only loves Australia’s many avian species but is doing his part to help protect them.
In 2012, on assignment in Bangladesh researching a story on the world’s longest border fence, journalist Elizabeth Rush “inadvertently” became interested in sea level rise. By 2015, she’d become obsessed. Now, after immersing herself in the subject, Rush is out with Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a tour-de-force of literary reportage.
Rising takes readers on a graphic tour of coastal communities in the United States that are already grappling with the devastating effects of climate change. From Maine to Miami, the Gulf Coast to the Bay Area, Rush reveals how lives, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems are undergoing irrevocable changes that are destined to leave many of these communities uninhabitable.
Take the southern edge of Louisiana which is experiencing some of the fastest rates of land loss on the planet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1932 and 2000, Louisiana lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastline, an area about the size of Delaware. In another fifty years, scientists anticipate another 1,750 square miles will be under water.
Rush visits what is, perhaps, the hardest-hit of the state’s coastal communities: the Isle de Jean Charles, the long-time home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Over the past sixty years, tribal members have watched as more than ninety percent of the island’s land mass has steadily disappeared. Rising sea levels and powerful hurricanes are to blame—but only in part. So, too, Rush reports, is erosion triggered by the channels that oil companies cut but never filled, and by the mismanagement of the Mississippi River, whose sediment-rich waters replenished the wetlands before dams and locks, levees and floodwalls impeded the river’s flow.
The result of this perfect storm, islander Chris Brunet tells Rush, is that Jean Charles is “a skeleton of its former self.” And so, too, is his tribe. Today, Rush writes, for every house on the island that sits on sixteen-foot-high stilts, “there are two abandoned ones. For every person who has stayed, two are already gone.” Gone, too, is much of the flora and fauna that made the island home.
To help Rush visualize the vast transformation the island has undergone, Brunet hands her a 1959 photograph of his father tilling soil. Standing where Brunet’s father stood, Rush adeptly contrasts what is and what was. “The cypresses are all in the same places, but their leaves have vanished. Some of the land where gardens once sat remains, but salt rests in the soil; the plants won’t grow, and the land lies fallow. And what was once a wetland rich in fowl is now open water. In the photo Chris shows me, his father stands surrounded by pastures. You can even make out a black cow in the upper right corner. In the sixty years since, the meadows where the cattle used to graze have all slipped beneath the surface of the sea.”
Rush says she considers those who have fled the island “some of the world’s first climate refugees.” By 2050, she writes, “there will be two hundred million of them worldwide.”
Rising intermingles chapters on vulnerable communities, like the Isle de Jean Charles, with powerful first-hand accounts of life—and lives lost—inside them. It explores the science behind rising sea levels and wetland degradation, and explains why climate change is an existential threat to neighborhoods that hug the shore. Of course, the residents most at risk are those living not just near the water’s edge, but on the financial edge. For them, every storm, every flood, ushers in the starkest of choices: “retreat or perish in place.” As one Miami resident tells Rush, “I used to have a nice garden here, and now you see how it is. The water comes in and sits. And everything dies because of the salt. It’s not rain that floods this place. It’s the ocean… I wanted to leave this house to my kids, but soon it’s going to be worthless.” On his stoop, Rush notes, “sit two pairs of rubber boots, ready for the flood that is already here.”
With Rush’s keen eye for detail and prose verging on poetry, Rising is a powerful meditation on threats posed by the varying effects of climate change. It is not an uplifting read, but it is surely an important one.
As I write this review, Hurricane Florence heads steadily toward the Carolinas and Georgia. Forecasters say it could be the most severe storm to hit that area in more than 60 years. One of the reasons for its expected ferocity: climate change.
Welcome to hurricane season 2018.
This season follows 2017’s historic year, when ten consecutive storms became hurricanes. They are the title of Rush’s Afterword: “Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katie. Lee. Maria. Nate. Ophelia.”
In that Afterword Rush writes, “What might currently seem like an anomaly—the “record-breaking,” “game-changing,” “unprecedented” 2017 hurricane season—will soon become all too common. Recent research shows that events comparable to Sandy (once considered a four-hundred-year flood) could happen as often as every twenty-three years by century’s end. And I would be willing to bet that in the future this figure, like so many others in the world of climate science, will only continue to rise.”
As a conservation biologist I see ecovillages as an example for all of us. We need to reduce our impact on the Earth, and these communities are doing that well. This book looked like it would provide good examples to show my students how they could reduce their impact as well. However, I would have liked more detail to help others start their own community, or give people ideas for ways to reduce their individual impact on the Earth.
This one includes examples of ecovillages that range from ones that are just developing to ones that have been around for decades, and from more typical community designs focused mostly on efficient housing to communities that include sustainable housing, shared spaces and vehicles, gardens, forests, and more.
The book started with a description of what elements comprise an ecovillage and several pages dedicated to each community highlighting these same elements. Differences were observed between the communities. Each had their particular spiritual focus supporting their community. Many had shared economies, and some even had their own monetary system. The communities shared the common themes of having master plans to drive the community design, the desire to use more sustainable, and often low-cost, housing options. Many had shared items and spaces that not everyone needed to own individually, such as cars and kitchens. There were sustainable farming practices, sustainable waste disposal systems, and sustainable power generation was practiced. There was not much detail though for each community and how the people began their community with these systems.
The book had the potential to show people how to create a sustainable community by providing more detail and highlighting the way the communities combined the four keys for sustainable design they mention. The four keys were not mentioned specifically in the sections on communities though, and the detail provided in each section was not enough to help people understand how to start their own ecovillage based on the examples of others.
After the 20 ecovillage sections there is a section with the biographies for each person who wrote about one of the communities. This seemed out of place. At that point in the book I could not remember the details of the community each person came from to be able to place them in the life of that community. It would have been nice to have each of the author’s biographies with the section they wrote.
Following the biographies is information on Gaia education. This also seemed out of place. Designing sustainable communities is part of this education, and there are specific programs for learning different elements, even ones that lead to graduate degrees. This focus on education at the end did not flow from the focus on the 20 ecovillages though.
Overall, I thought the topic for the book was a great idea, and it had good potential, but it didn’t provide the information I expected to help others adopt more sustainable practices.
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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