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Book Review: The Cow with Ear Tag #1389

We want to believe that cows live happy lives. From our childhoods of Old MacDonald and his farm, field trips and cartoons and stuffed animals, we are raised to believe they are happy. The dairy industry tells us they are happy. The advertisements we see on TV reinforce the illusion. But it is only an illusion and more of us are awakening to the cruel reality of the world we have created for them. A world in which animals — cows, chickens, goats, sheep, and so many other species — are viewed and treated as little more than their component parts.

Why should a cow not receive the same degree of love and protection as the cat or dog we share our homes with?

This is a question in desperate need of an obvious answer. So I’m always happy to see more authors and publishers posing this question. Like this book by Kathryn Gillespie, published by the University of Chicago Press.

In The Cow with Ear Tag #1389 Gillespie takes us on a necessarily uncomfortable journey through America’s dairy industry. The core illusion built around the dairy industry is that cows somehow want to share their milk with us. And that they want to be milked. But the truth is, the milk is there for a very specific reason, one that is stolen from them every year. Each year, dairy cows are artificially inseminated and separated from their newborn calves within minutes after birth. A mother cow may bellow for weeks, calling out to a child that has been taken from her. Of course we can imagine the terror of this because we can imagine ourselves losing a loved one. And yet this is how milk is made. Cows don’t want to give their milk away. They create it for calves who are most often sent straight into veal crates, which the industry now euphemistically refers to as “hutches.” And the fact that the dairy industry is very much intertwined with the veal industry has long been the industry’s dirty little secret.

Gillespie is not the first person to analyze animal agriculture, but she provides an honest and human element to the journey that I found deeply moving. Her candor throughout her visits to farms and auction houses had me squirming in my seat as she watched those poor animals being pushed and prodded along. And it was not surprising but sad that nearly every dairy farm she approached for her research turned her away under the sad excuse of “biosecurity.” This is an industry that thrives on ignorance. On illusion.

But this book is not all pain and misery. There are inspiring moments amidst the stories of those who have founded animal sanctuaries, like Animal Place and Pigs Peace. Gillespie takes us along with her, where we can get a sense for what it’s like to care for an animal after it has suffered so much. As the founder of Pigs Peace noted, she had difficultly finding vets who understood how to care for aging pigs because in our world pigs aren’t allows to age. They all die young, as do cows and chickens. Those few chickens who do make it to sanctuaries have great difficulty simply standing upright because they were bred to get large quickly, so large that they can barely support their bodies.

Gillespie notes that there are 9.3 million dairy cows in the US that are used for their milk until they are “spent” after about three years and then sent to slaughter, to the tune of roughly 3 million cows per year. As Carol Adams writes in The Sexual Politics of Meat, “Female animals are doubly exploited: both when they are alive and then when they are dead.”

This is world I was raised into. A world in which I assumed we needed meat to survive, that violence to animals was necessary. I know now it is not necessary. That humans don’t need meat to survive and that we have never needed milk from a cow or a goat.

Gillespie is not out to belittle those who work in the industry — she is empathetic to the worlds they live in as well, and the emotional toll this work ultimately exacts on them. They are part of a system, a system that supplies a demand based on illusion, based on a tradition that so many of us except without question. Gillespie travels to a trade conference and notes how intertwined the dairy industry is with notions of family and patriotism and what it means to be an American. And it is these ideas that make it so difficult for people to give up milk and cheese and ice cream (even though they don’t have to give up any of it — vegan alternatives are far tastier and healthier).

This book is a valuable addition to a growing canon of literature that challenges our understanding of “normal” and that will, hopefully, as more people become aware of the horror, lead to positive changes for animals. It’s simple enough to start, really. You just stop eating meat and go from there. The Cow with Ear Tag 1389 is doing its part to opens hearts and minds.

The Cow with Ear Tag 1389

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Book Review: The Man with Bees in His Beard by Brian Dempsey

I enjoy reading children’s books that help kids connect with the environment and spark a passion for conservation. The Man with Bees in His Beard by Brian Dempsey, published by Chatwin Books, is advertised as just such a book. The main character in the book is an old man wandering in nature who has a colony of bees that live in his beard. He is represented as being one with nature. The bees are part of him and he is part of the larger environment. This character reminded me of Thoreau at Walden Pond, happy to be in the woods and away from city life. The focus of the book is on this unity between man and nature. There is not a story to follow the man through.

I was left feeling confused about The Man with Bees in His Beard. Twice in the book it stated that “No one knows how the bees got there.” This seems like an important question to answer, especially for a children’s book. Many people also associate bees with being stung, and while it was stated that the bees do not sting, having a colony living in his beard may make children uneasy. It was unsettling for me. It made me wonder if people would embrace this man as described in the book.

Without addressing how the bees got there, or giving more detail about the way the man is welcomed by others, I wondered if the man is intended to be real. Maybe he is a metaphor, but I’m not sure for what. If he is a metaphor that is a large concept to understand for kids in the intended age range of four to eight years.

Both of my kids read the book as well. My seven year-old read the book on her own. Her initial reaction was “I don’t like bees that close to him.” She was worried the man could get stung. She also felt bad for him because he was wandering alone in nature. Kids between the ages of four and eight do not experience much alone time in nature. If they did it could be a scary situation for them, as I think my daughter felt while she tried to relate to this man.

I also read the book to my five year-old son, who had not heard my daughter’s review. He had a different perspective on the book. He seemed to enjoy it and said he did want to be outside more than he had before we read it. This may be because he was reminded of being outside by the book, a place he enjoys.  

Overall, I was confused about the purpose of the book. I would have enjoyed this book better if the main character were closer in age to the children reading the book and if the bees were not living on the person. This would allow children to relate to the character better and see themselves connecting with bees and nature in a similar way.

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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2018

This is our third year of recapping the best books we’ve read over the past year.

Here are the 2017 and 2016 lists.

We’re so glad that the number of both readers and reviewers of EcoLit Books have grown enough to now have an annual tradition of celebrating our favorite books of the year.

And this is indeed something to celebrate because there were some amazing environmental and animal-themed books published over the past year, and these aren’t necessarily the books you’ll see on more mainstream “best of the year” lists. 

But these books are, in our humble opinion, some of the more important books of the year. Tackling topics that range from rethinking farming practices to how to coexist with wildlife in urban areas to our evolving relationship with the land and its many creatures.

I hope you enjoy the list. Thanks so much to our readers — and especially our contributors — for making EcoLit Books an online hub for eco-literature. Here’s to another year of reading like you give a damn.

Jacki Skole

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee 

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of the life and untimely death of O-Six, Yellowstone’s most famous wolf. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

Rising by Elizabeth Rush

Rising by Elizabeth Rush takes readers on a graphic tour of U.S. coastal communities 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. It is not an uplifting read, but it is an important one.  

Midge Raymond

Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro. 2017.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Paul Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world….Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world. 

Heather Taft

Reflecting on the environmental books I’ve read this year, two really stand out to me. My first recommendation is a children’s book I read this summer for 8-11 year olds called Poacher Panic by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler, illustrated by Diane Le Feyer.

This book focuses on the rescue of a wild tiger in Sumatra and her two cubs that are set to be taken by poachers once the cubs are old enough to leave their mom. Ben and Zoey work to track down the tigers, while they try to figure out who the poachers are, so they can rescue the tigers before the poachers get to them first. Their research also teaches them about the trafficking of wildlife and animals parts. The book is written at an appropriate level for children. It is also the first book in the Wild Rescue series, so there are more books focused on other species and wildlife issues around the world to choose from if your child likes this one.

Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats by Andrew Loveridge

Clearly I have a passion for big cats. As a conservation biologist I knew trophy hunting had devastating effects on lion prides in Africa. This book explained the nature of lion prides and the impact of losing males over and over again, leading to decreasing pride sizes. I also was not aware of the extent of government involvement in trophy hunting and the impact this can have on a researcher trying to save the lions they are using to make money. It was a very interesting and informative read for me.

John Yunker

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World by Tim Low

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.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

When we started EcoLit Books five years ago, this was the type of book I had in mind. A novel that places nature in its proper place in relation to people. That is, above us — in this case, both figuratively and literally. In The Overstory, Richard Powers has crafted an epic novel that stretches hundreds of years, culminating in a series of life-and-death environmental battles. But even more so, this is a novel about rediscovering the largest and oldest living creatures on our planet.

The Center for Humans and Nature

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green Publishing 

Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature by Liam Heneghan, University of Chicago Press

Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds by Matt Stansberry, Belt Publishing

This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent by Daegan Miller, University of ChicagoPress

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, Milkweed Editions

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers, W.W. Norton

Food from the Radical Center. Healing Our Land and Communities by Gary Paul Nabhan, Island Press

Wildly Successful Farming Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic by Brian DeVore, University of Wisconsin Press

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen, Simon & Schuster

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press

 Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli, Farrar, Strauss Giroux

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle, Verso

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Verso, 2018

The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn, University of Chicago Press

Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature by Strachan Donnelley, edited by Ceara Donnelley and Bruce Jennings, University Press of Kentucky


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The Friend: A Novel

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 the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction.

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.”

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*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.

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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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