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An interview with NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS author Roger Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

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

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

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

Q: What kind of pressure?

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

Q: How are they in the way?

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

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

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

Q: How is this being combatted?

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

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

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

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Looking for a new ecolit book to read? Here are 20 from which to choose…

I’m happy to be participating on a unique promotion, organized by Margi Prideaux, that showcases 20 environmentally themed eBooks on Instafreebie.

And, yes, these book are free to download. All you have to do is sign up for the author’s email list.

To see the full list of books, click here.

The promotion goes from today until June 15th.

And I think I speak for all authors by saying that if you enjoy the book we welcome your reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. These reviews really do matter — and not just to our egos.

 

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Book Review: Galapagos at the Crossroads by Carol Ann Bassett

Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution by Carol Ann Bassett should be on the reading list for anyone traveling to the archipelago, whether as a researcher or a tourist. This insightful essay collection, while offering deep dives into some of the islands’ flora and fauna, also covers the controversial history and present challenges of the human impact on the Galápagos in ways all visitors should see in order to truly understand this remarkable place.

In these seventeen chapters, Bassett writes of her personal experiences in the Galápagos, the first time being 1990. When she returned twenty years later, she witnessed the explosion of tourism as well as the local population, and these effects on the native wildlife were substantial, to say the least.

Most striking about this book is the real vision Bassett gives us of this “paradise.” To the casual tourist, the Galápagos Islands are pristine white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, spectacular snorkeling, swimming with friendly sea lions—but beneath that is a startling reality: that of invasive species threatening to decimate native plants and animals, a human population struggling to survive in a changing world, and a political system so corrupt that it threatens to destroy the most unique ecosystem in the world, which desperately needs protecting.

The book begins with background on the islands and grows increasingly interesting through Bassett’s interviews and research into conservation efforts—not only what studies are being done but what good work is being undermined by other interests, including the local fishing and tourism industries. Bassett highlights local problems, such as lack of education and healthcare, that contribute to wider issues: children who grow up without an appreciation or understanding of where they live, and local tour guides who do not believe in evolution.

Among my favorite chapters is Bassett’s Q&A with Alex Cornelisson, then director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Galápagos. Sea Shepherd does incredible work worldwide for the oceans and its creatures and has been especially crucial to the Galápagos. Sea Shepherd’s work in partnership with Galápagos National Park and the Environmental Police is one of many examples Bassett offers of how it’s only through engaging with those who live on the islands that change can happen and be effective. The stories of those working to educate local children and create environmental stewards are truly inspiring.

The book is filled with dramas large and small — from stories of poachers and mafia to the “siblicide” of masked boobies and other fascinating animal mysteries. The essays appear to have been written individually and, when read together, can be repetitive—introducing the same people more than once, repeating facts—but in many cases, underscoring the islands’ issues and those who are working for change (or getting in the way) is not a bad thing. The more readers can understand about these islands, the better.

Written with an obvious love for the islands and a sense of urgency about protecting them, Galápagos at the Crossroads shows readers a Galápagos that most tourists will never see but absolutely should. It is only through understanding and truly appreciating this World Heritage Galápagos treasure that it can be preserved.

For more on the Galápagos, check out this short video, Voices of the Galápagos, which showcases the people who live on the Galápagos Islands and highlights their perspectives, goals, and efforts to preserve the place they call home.

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Upcoming writer and artist opportunities at PLAYA

PLAYA, a creative residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon, is organizing two exciting artist+scientist opportunities for next year:

Confluence of Creative Inquiry: Climate Change Communication Residency
July 3-4, 2017

Art + Science and the Cultural Terrain
July 17-August 11, 2017

For more information on how to participate, click here.

And, of course, PLAYA is also accepting general artist residency applications for 2017.

PS: PLAYA is a generous sponsor of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature.

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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

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Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day, readers!

Today, we’re celebrating the launch of Cassie Premo Steele’s book Earth Joy Writing, a wonderful guide for reconnecting with our planet through writing prompts, meditations, and other exercises in creativity.

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Click here to read an excerpt of Earth Joy Writing, and visit the Earth Joy Writing website to learn about Cassie’s book tour and to download audio recordings of the meditations and readings from the book.

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We hope you have a lovely Earth Day, in whatever way you’re celebrating the planet and its creatures today.

 

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

People of a certain age (myself included) remember growing up outside. Our families opened the doors, shooed us out, and shut them again, leaving us free to wander through our neighborhoods, parks, and/or wild places, making up our own games. I have particularly vivid memories of being let loose on the beaches of Southern California, with only a vague notion of adults close enough to make sure we didn’t drown or get too sunburned but otherwise being free to run around, swim, and build and destroy things in the sand.

These are memories that today’s children may never have, worries Richard Louv, and his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder outlines the risks, challenges, and solutions for children who are growing up indoors.

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Last Child in the Woods is a comprehensive book, even a bit daunting at first glance, but it should be required reading for anyone with children in their lives. Based on meticulous research and using anecdotes as well as science, Louv takes a close look at the changes in society that have distanced today’s kids from nature — as well as the changes children’s physical and social lives — and offers both stark warnings and hopeful solutions.

Divided into seven sections (beginning with quotations from writers from Whitman to Thoreau to Frost, and many others), Last Child in the Woods covers the immense gifts that nature offers us humans as well as the onset of fears that often cause parents to keep their kids too close. Louv offers data that indicate how the benefits of nature and outdoor physical activity can help with many of the problems that plague childhood populations. To offer a few examples: One study shows that the amount of TV children watch correlates with measures of their body fat; Cornell University researchers discovered that even a room with a view of nature can protect children from stress; natural surroundings encourage boys and girls to engage in make-believe play in egalitarian ways; researchers recommend nature to minimize symptoms of ADHD (“[e]ven without corroborating evidence, many parents notice significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behavior when they hike in the mountains or enjoy other nature-oriented settings”).

In addition to changes caused by housing developments — such as homeowners’ association rules or a lack of green space — issues from stranger danger to fear of the outdoors also prevent children from running around outside. Yet Louv points out that so many perceived dangers are overly hyped, and that in fact, more dangers lurk indoors than out, from toxins to poisonous spiders (the brown recluse, as one example, prefers to live indoors) to allergens to the very real risk of obesity.

Not only are there short-term and developmental effects from what Louv calls nature-deficit disorder, but distance from nature can have a wide-reaching effect on our planet’s well-being in the long run as well: “Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder.” How can children be expected to preserve and protect something they fear rather than love?

Last Child in the Woods is powerful and important, though there is one especially disappointing section of the book, in which Louv makes “the case for hunting and fishing.” While Louv admits he does not encourage hunting, he does encourage fishing, acknowledging “the slim moral logic” dividing the two. While he offers a bit of balance, citing PETA’s objections to fishing as a sport taught in Scouting programs and quoting a young spokesperson who says, “Scouting has taught me that Scouts should not harm the environment or animals in it,” Louv nevertheless goes on to encourage fishing as a way to engage with nature—a very poor message to send to children if we want them to respect the environment in a non-destructive way. And anyone who wants to make an argument for catch-and-release should read Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (just for starters), which makes clear that, with pain receptors on their heads (trout have twenty-two of them), fish do feel pain; there is simply no way to catch fish that is not cruel or violent, and it’s a shame that Louv encourages fishing as a way for children to engage with the natural world.

Still, otherwise the book offers other good tips and advice for bringing kids into nature. For anyone who might feel overwhelmed by the usual stressors such as a lack of time or travel funds, Louv reminds us to start with small steps: “Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden.Look for the edges between habitats: where the trees stop and a field begins; where rocks and earth meet water. Life is always at the edges.”

Louv emphasizes that the solutions will need to go beyond parenting to educators, school systems, camps, neighborhoods, and cities—but that spending quality time in nature is as essential to children’s development as it is to the care-taking of the planet we call home. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity…Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air, and other living kin, large and small.”

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Book Review – The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature by Donna M. Jackson

The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature by Donna M. Jackson is particularly intriguing for me as a resident of Ashland, Oregon—which is home to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. Open since 1989, this lab is the only full-service animal crime lab in the world, and all evidence of crimes against animals (poaching, illegal hunting, selling, or transport of endangered species, and more) come through its doors.

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The Wildlife Detectives is a picture book, comprising photographs of magnificent animals (among them: bald eagles, wolves, owls, tigers, parrots) as well as images of the forensics lab and those who work with evidence to solve crimes. The main narrative is the heartbreaking story of Charger, a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park who was gunned down for his antlers. The story tells of how detectives investigated the killing and eventually tracked down the murderer—a fascinating and page-turning story (though ultimately disappointing in that the sentence didn’t seem to be at all equal to the crime).

Interspersed throughout this mystery are “Wild Files,” in which the author highlights various aspects related to the story, such as the facts about the crime lab, endangered species, poaching, and what these animal parts are used for (“Heartbreak Zoo” shows images of snakeskin sneakers and a footstool made of an elephant foot, among other things), including sections on feathers and ivory. It’s eye-opening and informative, and especially important for young readers to be aware of, as it’s a great way to teach compassion as well as smart buying and traveling habits (a section at the end, “Wild Work to Be Done,” outlines what readers can do to help).

 The Wildlife Detectives is aimed toward readers in grades 4 to 7, according to School Library Journal. Yet the gripping detective story will interest kids of even younger ages, and the language and information is sophisticated enough for older readers as well—it’s certainly not a kids-only book. Its photos, both beautiful and tragic, illustrate the crimes against animals that continue to occur, and the book honors these animals as well as the people who do the important and challenging work of solving these crimes.

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Cli-fi

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I enjoyed this recent New York Times article on universities using fiction (or “cli-fi”) to teach climate change.

I particularly enjoyed seeing our own University of Oregon represented. Go Ducks!

From the article:

University courses on global warming have become common, and Prof. Stephanie LeMenager’s new class here at the University of Oregon has all the expected, alarming elements: rising oceans, displaced populations, political conflict, endangered animals.

The goal of this class, however, is not to marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects — the reality and severity of it are taken as given — but how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it.

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The Greening of Literature

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A week ago I traveled to Seattle to participate at the AWP Conference and Bookfair — the world’s largest gathering of writers and writing programs. Ashland Creek Press hosted a booth, and a number of our authors attended for panels and book signings. We also met editors at the environmental journals Newfound, Flyway, Catamaran, and Terrain.

With more than 12,000 writers at the conference, it was a crazy few days. Perhaps in part due to its Seattle location, a strong environmental theme ran throughout the conference, and I was pleased to see so many people at the “Greening of Literature” panel that I moderated with writers Ann Pancake, JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, and Gretchen Primack.

I only wish I could have recorded this session because each writer offered outstanding advice and inspiration for any writer pursuing eco-fiction or eco-poetry. I frantically took notes during the presentations. Below are a few nuggets that I was able to capture.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float and Addled. She posted her AWP talk on her blog and I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few passages that stuck with me:

As John Clancy said, the difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. So when I started Float, I began reading about marine plastics, which turned out to be not just unsightly, immortal, and deadly to sea animals, but toxic to humans as well. As the writing continued, my interest in the health of the oceans expanded. I read about dead zones, overfishing, bottom-trawling, acidification, and the opportunistic appetite of the jellyfish. I learned a lot about the sea, but much of it was pretty dry. Pages and pages of one damn fact after another. No racy scenes, no humor. No plot, no narrative, no characters. No Pauline tied to the train tracks. It was informative, but not particularly engaging. Intellectually, I was concerned; emotionally, I was on the outside looking in. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. Academic papers and straight journalism cannot convey human suffering; they can only calculate or report it.

But most readers don’t want to hear about populations; they want a specific person. Not the planet, but a particular place in a moment of time.

And…

As writers, our most sustainable energy source is creativity, and we should use it freely. Literature teaches us to notice, to care, and to create meaning.

Gretchen Primack is a poet and author of Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces. Gretchen made clear that any writer aiming to write about the environment cannot overlook the animal industries. The pollution generated by these industries far outweigh the impact of cars — so we would make a much greater impact if we all simply stopped eating animal products.

Gretchen read Love This from Kind. Many of Gretchen’s poems take the perspective of the animals — and this is not pleasant place to be. It’s horrifying to see the world through a dairy cow’s eyes, to see your offspring yanked away from you immediately after giving birth, over and over again.

When asked how she could stay upbeat while writing such challenging poetry, Gretchen said that the writing process actually helped her, as she felt engaged and able to make a difference. And I think this is a key takeaway for any writer tackling difficult issues. It’s easy to get depressed when you see and learn horrible things, but by remembering that you’re putting your talents to work to help make a bad situation less bad, you can at least know you’re making an impact.

Gretchen also talked about a word that I find is too frequently used to distance us from animals — anthropomorphism. She asks: What if we, what the planet, erred on the side of having too much compassion for animals? Would that be a bad thing? And how much better would this planet be if we did just that?

Ann Pancake is the author of Strange as This Weather Has Been, a novel about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Ann  told us about her extensive research, which included newspapers (there were no books out yet on this issue), interviews with residents of the regions, time spent living in the region, and research at the state archives. She then let all this information “compost” for a period of time before she began writing. I love her compost metaphor because it drives home how important research is but also how this information often doesn’t make it into the writing directly, if it all. That is, Ann was clear in emphasizing how she often had to leave out information she wanted to mention when she realized that it would have come across as didactic — something writers of eco-fiction must strive to avoid.

She also provided tips about how to get a message in more subtle ways, such as relying on a child narrator. But she emphasized that you must prioritize your art above politics. That is, the story and the characters are most important — that the message will emerge through them, and not vice versa.

Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper. Mindy said that she didn’t set out to write an environmental work initially. She was simply writing a love story — a story about a zoologist and her relationship with a Komodo dragon — and that everyone loves a good love story. I couldn’t agree more!

Mindy talked about how she spoke to a classroom of students about her book and how they responded to fiction vs. nonfiction. What was interesting was how they had trusted her to get the science right — and this is a key lesson to any writer: The reader is placing faith in you, the writer, to not only tell a great story but to get the science right.

A bright future for eco-fiction and eco-poetry

I didn’t expect to leave Seattle feeling more energized than when I arrived, but that’s exactly how I felt — because I realized there are so many writers out there who are passionate about eco-literature. Based on the conversations, the readings, the number of people who dropped by our booth, I am optimistic about the future.

PS: I have to mention a nearby restaurant that I frequented while we were in Seattle: Veggie Grill. This place is all vegan, and I challenge any omnivore to eat here and not come away impressed. It’s one of many plant-based restaurants that prove that adopting a vegan diet is not about deprivation but about delicious, sustainable,  environmentally friendly food.