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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2018

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

Here are the 2017 and 2016 lists.

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

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

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

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

Jacki Skole

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

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

Rising by Elizabeth Rush

Rising by Elizabeth Rush takes readers on a graphic tour of U.S. coastal communities grappling with the devastating effects of climate change. From Maine to Miami, the Gulf Coast to the Bay Area, Rush reveals how lives, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems are undergoing irrevocable changes that are destined to leave many of these communities uninhabitable. It is not an uplifting read, but it is an important one.  

Midge Raymond

Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro. 2017.

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

Heather Taft

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

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

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

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

John Yunker

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

Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

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

The Center for Humans and Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.

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

Chelsea Green Publishing

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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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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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