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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.

 

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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.

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Book Review: Penguins in the Desert by Eric Wagner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

And I’ll leave you with a photo of a beaver from my neck of the woods, spotted just a few weeks ago here in Southern Oregon…

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

Chelsea Green Publishing

 

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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.

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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

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BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

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Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Book Review: Back from the Brink by Nancy F. Castaldo

Back from the Brink, by Nancy F. Castaldo, is a collection of stories for older kids (10 – 12 years old) about animals that have come very close to extinction.  Due to efforts from conservation researchers and passionate individuals who want to see these species survive, their populations have increased again.  I recommend this book for students who are interested in conservation and learning about how researchers help save species that are on the verge of extinction.  It would make an excellent addition to a school library.

The book starts with an introduction to the legislation that helps protect species, including the Endangered Species Act.  It is then divided into chapters that cover seven different species that have faced extinction: whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison. The chapters discuss causes of population decline from issues such as hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and competition from invasive species.  Castaldo follows that with information on how the populations were turned around and brought back from the brink through hard work by passionate individuals. The book ends with child-appropriate ideas to help save species.

The beginning and ending of each chapter is written in first person, recounting Castaldo’s visit to see the species of focus and where they live now.  The use of first person was an interesting choice. I think it will help students get the feel for actually being there and seeing these species.

The book is also filled with a lot of wonderful pictures of the animals.  Images that help support the information discussed in the text are also included, such as what a hacking tower looks like, which is used to fledge bald eagles, and what crane puppets look like, which are used to prevent chicks from imprinting on humans.

The book has a lot of detail, so it is long, as would be expected for older kids.  I do not recommend it for bedtime reading. The longest chapter is 30 pages. It is ideal for independent reading, reading for research projects, and for stretches of time when you can sit down for a while to read a chapter with your child.  I read this book with my daughter during the time between her brother’s bedtime and when she goes to bed about an hour later, reading just one chapter each night. It led to some great discussions about conservation. One night after we finished the chapter on whooping cranes I told her I was excited because the chapter the next night was going to be on wolves.  She was not happy. She told me she did not like wolves, but couldn’t elaborate on why. I pulled out my phone and showed her the video by Sustainable Human about how wolf reintroduction has had a wonderful impact on the environment in Yellowstone National Park.  She seemed more interested after watching it. When we went to read that chapter the following night she was excited and really engaged in the story of the wolves and the pictures in the chapter. I was glad to see her more interested in wolves and why it is important to save them.

Overall, I thought this was a great book to help students understand how species conservation has worked for these species, and the hard work involved in conserving a species.  Hearing these stories may help budding conservationists envision a future where they could do the same.

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The Overstory: An arboreal love story (and lament)

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.

So many of the characters are alien to the trees they share the planet with until various events open their eyes. And they look. They smell. They see and feel the loss. And they act up.

The book could be used to teach a course on trees. And it should be used for just that purpose. I have books about trees — mostly identification. But identifying a tree is only step one. How does a tree relate to the creatures around it? How does it respond to insect attacks? How does it care for its siblings? And other species of trees? For example, the Douglas Fir, which we live among here in Southern Oregon, are called “giving trees” because the dying trees will send out nutrients to the Ponderosa Pines. Powers does an outstanding job of providing insights into beings we have only just begun to understand.

But there are oversights in the novel in regards to activism. While the novel addresses environmental activism in Oregon and elsewhere, the players are too often seen eating meat without any awareness of the irony of defending one living entity while eating another. I know that many of those activists who have served actual time behind bars for similar crimes are vegan. They don’t differentiate between protecting trees and protecting non-human animals. And it must be noted that millions upon millions of acres of forests have been cleared for the sole purpose of raising cows and sheep for human consumption.

In many ways I feel that this novel begins where Barkskins by Annie Proulx ends. And I highly recommend reading them in chronological order. And I’m not just talking about time but about awareness — our collective awareness that the planet is not some all-you-can-eat buffet, that the planet is, like us, finite and fragile. If you are not a “tree hugger” before reading these two books, you will be afterwards.

And I think what I like most about this book are the voices he gives those who have no (human) voice. Such as: All the ways you imagine us–bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal–are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

Like the trees Powers writes so beautifully about, this book towers above us and nurtures us. And, I certainly do hope, it motivates us to do more. And quickly.

The Overstory: A Novel