Posted on

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 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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

The Great (Unknown) Pet Massacre

The title of this book almost begs incredulity.

The Great Cat & Dog Massacre?

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.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (Animal Lives)

Posted on

Where Song Began

Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney

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.

But it is the birds that brought me to this amazing book: Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low.

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.

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

Posted on

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

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.”

Having read Rising, I wouldn’t bet against Rush.

 

Posted on

Ecovillages Around the World: 20 Regenerative Designs for Sustainable Communities edited by Frederica Miller

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.

Ecovillages Around the World: 20 Regenerative Designs for Sustainable Communities edited by Frederica Miller is the fifth book in a series. Each of the four previous books focused on one of four keys to designing sustainable communities: social, ecological, economic, and worldview.

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

Eager: The fall and rise of the North American beaver

Pity the keystone species.

Those animals upon which the health of so many ecosystems depend — wolves and jaguars, sharks and sea otters, to name just a few.

Due in large part to their outsized impact on our planet, they are often blamed for getting in our way. Wolves take our cows and sheep. Sea otters take our seafood. And jaguars and sharks take away our sense of comfort on land and in water.

Beavers are also a keystone species and, not surprisingly, no friend to many city managers or land owners. They create chaos with our human-built rivers and drains. And, because they are the member of a family with few human friends — the rodent family — we tend to view them as just another invasive species.

But what if beavers are not the sharp-toothed Beelzebubs we make them out to be?

What if beavers are actually a solution to many of the environmental crises we face today (crises brought about in part because we have done such a good job of getting rid of beavers in the first place)?

As author Ben Goldfarb makes engagingly clear in the timely book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter the eradication of the beaver across the United States over the past several centuries has had a significant and negative impact on water quality and supply, fish populations, riparian vegetation and the countless creatures that depend on those millions of ponds that once dotted continental North America.

And why did we lose the beavers?

Blame it on a hat, the beaver hat. This European fashion craze brought about their near extermination. Eager takes us back to the 1500s when Europeans began trading pelts with the natives until the fur gold rush attracted fortune hunters from far and wide. The killing was so complete that it was widely assumed by those who settled in California in the 1800s that beavers had never lived in much of the state (when in fact they once blanketed the state). But researchers and historians are finally and gratefully setting the record straight. And they are making clear that beavers played a critical role in building not just dams but in conserving water for dry summer months, providing nesting places for other animals, and breeding waters for fish.

Fortunately, we’re starting to relearn what was forgotten so long ago — that beavers are essential to healthy ecosystems. And there is a growing chorus of “beaver believers” who are spreading the word about their many benefits of these animals. These believers stand up in city hall meetings and write letters and letter our cities know that there are people who do not want to see beavers killed. Besides, one does not easily eradicate beavers. City leaders are learning that it’s far wiser to learn to coexist with beavers than try to kill them, because when you create a vacuum you only encourage new residents to set up shop. And there are businesses now that will help you build flow-through tunnels that allow beavers to have their dams while also maintaining human-built infrastructure.

It’s not often I feel inspired after reading books about animals these days. Everywhere I turn I find another species in rapid decline (and it’s partly my fault because I’m drawn to endangered species).

And yet we have the beaver, a species that despite our best efforts continues to survive and, in many parts of the world, thrive.

Thankfully, a growing number of scientists, citizens and ranchers now see that beavers not only have much to offer this land, but may in fact play a essential role in saving it.

Out here in the west, water can never be taken for granted. Once the snow melt goes dry so too do the valleys, unless we dam enough of the snow melt along the way, which we’ve done. But beavers do it better, in staggered steps, in ways that not only collect water but recharge the water table, provide nesting sites for birds (sandhill cranes in particular), filter the water that passed through and over the dams, providing the perfect spawning ponds for salmon. We talk a lot in the Pacific Northwest about removing human-built dams to save the salmon, but we also need to talk about allowing beavers back to building some of their dams, which will also help salmon rebound.

It’s nice to read examples of old-school ranchers who would have once shot a beaver on site now working to protect them (a handful of ranchers had been doing this way back in the early 1900s). To protect beavers is to embrace a degree of chaos. But the fact is, the more we try to manage nature the less manageable it becomes.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Chelsea Green Publishing

Posted on

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

In 2006, a wolf was born in Yellowstone National Park. Named O-Six, she would grow into a fierce fighter, doting mother, and merciful leader. She’d be beloved by the park’s wolf watchers and a favorite of tourists who flocked to the park hoping to catch sight of her. Upon her death, she would be celebrated in the New York Times as “the most famous wolf in the world.”

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

The backdrop of American Wolf is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the mid-1990s. It was a move heralded by scientists and conservationists and loathed by the hunters and ranchers who hunt and farm in the communities surrounding the park. In a case of unintended consequences, the reintroduction project was made necessary by a campaign begun in the 1800s, to kill off the country’s wolves, a campaign so successful that by the 1920s, the wolf population in the continental United States had been decimated. The last two pups believed to be born in Yellowstone were killed by park rangers in 1926.

This mass slaughter occurred in the name of wildlife management, a science that, Blakeslee writes, was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Park officials believed—inaccurately it turned out—that killing the wolves would preserve the park’s prey population. “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster… The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

With wolves absent from Yellowstone, the park’s ecosystem was thrown off balance. “[The] ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Over grazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease.”

The goal of the Wolf Project was to restore the park’s ecosystem, and it has—beyond even its most ardent advocates’ expectations. But through the years, the debate over the wolves’ presence hasn’t abated. It has grown more vitriolic as wolves, wandering beyond Yellowstone’s borders, prey on ranchers’ livestock and kill the elk hunters prize. Wolves, Blakeslee writes, had become “one of those polarizing issues like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country [can] not seem to reach a consensus.”

It is in this hostile environment we meet O-Six and the wolf watchers who, dawn to dusk, 365-days a year, chronicle the lives of Yellowstone’s wolves. Among the watchers is naturalist Rick McIntyre, the park’s unofficial wolf expert and the person who has likely watched more wolves than “anybody in the history of humanity.”

McIntyre, along with several other wolf watchers, shared with Blakeslee more than a decade’s worth of notes on generations of Yellowstone’s wolves, notes that capture every aspect of wolves’ lives from their personalities to their way of life—a way of life that, McIntyre has come to believe, makes wolves more like humans than any other species on earth. From these notes, and dozens of interviews with people on every side of the issue—including the hunter who would come face-to-face with O-Six in 2012—Blakeslee has crafted a sweeping multigenerational narrative that will have readers holding their breath, reaching for tissues, and rooting for the wolves.

***

Readers who would like to see photographs of O-Six and many of the wolves whose stories are recounted in American Wolf, are encouraged to visit the website of award-winning wildlife photographer Jimmy Jones.

Posted on

Return of the Sea Otter: The story of a resilient species and its many human friends

The sea otter should have been extinct by now.

We, as in human civilization, did our very best to eliminate the species — not because we saw it as a pest but because its pelts were among the most desirable. And so hundreds of thousands of these sea mammals were killed because they happened to posses the densest fur coats of any animal on this planet.

But the sea otter somehow managed to survive the slaughter. Handfuls of otters in Russia and the coasts of Alaska and California escaped, and, over time, their populations grew. Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast, by Todd McLeish, tells their comeback story — but with a caveat:  their comeback is not without its challenges.

Such as, sea otters are now considered pests. The fishing industry would like to see them eradicated or “managed” and this has led to much conflict and numerous accounts of sea otter attacks by boat and by gun. We simply do not know how many of these animals are killed by fisherman who deem them fair game, along with seals.

McLeish takes us with him as he visits researchers in Monterey, Alaska, British Columbia. We learn how sea otters are tracked and how the injured are nursed back to life. We watch them in the wild as they eat and play and use tools to pry open their shelled food — one of the few mammal to do so.

And we learn that their comeback story is geographically uneven. While they are doing better along the central California coast, there are vast areas along Alaska’s coast where they have declined. They are still missing from the coast of my home state of Oregon, where they were once numerous.

I always find it unfortunate when we must make the case for saving a species based on its value to us or the ecosystem. But the fact is, sea otters are considered keystone species of the coasts — and, as we are now learning, even estuaries. Sea otters love to exist among kelp and they feed on the creatures that would feed on kelp. By protecting the kelp they protect the countless other species that depend on kelp for their survival. Similarly, scientists have found that when sea otters live in estuaries, the grasses do far better, which in turn makes for healthier environments.

Of course, by eating sea urchins, fisherman have lost a key part of their industry. So, naturally, they say that sea otters must go.

It’s a tired story, but one that will play again and again as our oceans become increasingly depleted by, who else, the fishing industry. And make no mistake. The fishing industry is not the victim here. It’s time we as a society realize that there is no such thing as sustainable fisheries. We may want to believe they are possible, but they’re not. And you don’t have to look far to see atrocities taking place under the guise of sustainable fishing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this book. And not only am I inspired by the stubbornness of this species, I’m equally inspired by the many researchers and volunteers and citizen scientists who do their parts to defend it.

You’ll come away knowing so much more about this amazing animal and, like me, desperate to go to the coast in search of seeing one (or a raft of them) in the wild.

Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast

Sasquatch Press