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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: 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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Book Review: I am Jane Goodall by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written a child-friendly account of Dr. Jane Goodall as she grew up and began her research on chimpanzees in I am Jane Goodall.  I recommend this book for budding environmentalists.  It shows kids the importance of caring for the Earth and the need to work with others to advance conservation efforts.  It also demonstrates that passions can turn into careers. If you have a young environmentalist in your home this could be a good addition to their library.

The book starts with Jane’s first birthday, then gives a humorous glimpse of trouble she got into as a child due to her curiosity and passion for nature.  All kids experience this type of youthful naivete as they explore their world that would cause parents to want to pull their hair out, like Jane providing worms a cozy home on her bed.

As Jane grows up, the importance of hard work to achieve a goal is demonstrated.  She surmounted obstacles to get to Africa. She overcame discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated field.  Then, finally, with a lot of patience she was able to get close to chimpanzees in the wild. She was able to observe them for extended periods of time noticing their individual behaviors, and the similarities to human behavior.   

My kids, ages four and six, were not initially interested in the book.  As I began reading they were quickly drawn into the life of Jane Goodall as a child, from her attachment to her stuffed chimpanzee toy Jubilee, to the games she played, her innocent mischievousness, and her excitement for animals and reading.  These are common elements in their daily lives. By the end of the book my kids were glad we read it. We had a passionate discussion about threatened animals and what they could do to help.

I found the book entertaining and inspiring.  It is intriguing to hear how prominent figures in conservation discovered their field.  It is also useful to see an example of how they overcame obstacles that people in conservation still face today – lack of money, controversy about the way to do research, etc.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulous are cute.  They have a comic feel with text bubbles depicting what Jane would have said in different situations.  Jane is depicted as a short girl throughout the book that does not appear to age though, which led to questions from my daughter about why she wasn’t getting older as she started doing research on chimpanzees.  

The book ends with pictures of Jane through the years, and a timeline of major events in her life.  She continues to be an inspiration to care for the Earth through her work at the Jane Goodall Institute.  The book mentions her Roots & Shoots program as well, which connects kids around the world and engages them in projects to help save the Earth, animals, and people in need.  It is a good reminder of all the ways we can help, and can be a discussion stimulus to encourage kids to relate their own actions to conservation efforts.

This book is from a series of books Meltzer and Eliopoulous are creating for Scholastic called Ordinary People Change the World.  If you enjoy this one, check out some of the other ones in the series too.

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Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

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Book Review: Force of Nature by Arthur Melville Pearson

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

The bastions of environmental protection that have been erected over the years are once again being tested by shortsighted individuals who occupy our government and allow special interests to violate public and private preserves. During the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, far-seeing naturalists and politicians founded institutions and established government policies intended to protect the environment into the future. John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, was one of those visionaries. And at the highest level of government, Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership led to the establishment of the Forest Service. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the National Park Service came into being. In A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, Aldo Leopold defined the “land ethic,” which, for many generations, has provided a philosophical underpinning not only for how we should live on the land, but also how it should be preserved for the health of future generations of all plants and animals.

Now Arthur Melville Pearson’s biography of George Fell (1916–94) serves to introduce many readers to an environmentalist who has had immense impact on the ways that we can better protect the environment from the threats generated by a growing population and its attendant industrialization. By the 1940s, Fell had gained a deep appreciation of the environment. When young, he accompanied his father on plant collecting rambles along the Rock River and into natural areas around their home in Rockford, Illinois. Later he majored in the natural sciences in both undergraduate and graduate school coming to understand the need to preserve the environment. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he was assigned to work and live in Civilian Public Service Camps. There he fought bureaucratic injustices at the camps and also experienced firsthand the mistakes of agricultural practices that harmed the production of food and the health of the environment. Back in Illinois after the war, he married and interned at the Illinois Soil Conservation Service. While there, he began lobbying for statewide preservation of remaining natural areas “for educational and research purposes.” When he began to be known by leaders of the naturalist movement in the East, he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Washington, DC to join the Ecologists’ Union which shortly, under the leadership of Fell and Richard Pough, became The Nature Conservancy in October of 1951.

Pearson’s account of Fell’s essential role in and eventual departure from The Nature Conservancy is well researched and informative. Fell served as vice president and later executive secretary of the fledgling organization. Pearson writes that Fell “conceived and put into place the conservancy’s vaunted chapter system, set the stage for its massive membership program, and inculcated an institutional commitment to conserving land systematically and strategically.” To help assure that his ideas remained on the table and to help support The Conservancy in its infancy, he and Barbara staffed the office “for little or no pay.” (Barbara kept them going by working as a lab technician in a medical office.) But Fell’s methodical approach to laying the groundwork for a strong national organization conflicted with the ideas of Pough, who had served on the board and became The Conservancy’s third president in 1954. Pough and others “preferred a far more flexible, opportunistic approach to protecting land.” Nevertheless, Pearson notes, Pough “readily acknowledged that ‘were it not for George Fell, the Ecologists’ Union might never have become The Nature Conservancy.’” Pough, astute at fundraising and spreading good will, was the affable face of the infant not-for-profit organization. Fell lacked that sort of personality. He clung steadfastly to the idea that it was absolutely necessary to begin to develop an organization that could work nationwide to realize the mission of preserving and conserving the land essential to life for every species.

It soon became clear that Fell could not long remain within The Conservancy as it was developing. In 1958 Fell left The Conservancy to return to Illinois where he immediately began a lengthy campaign to convince the Illinois State government bureaucracy to authorize the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act—which, when passed, opened the door for the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. These events, as Pearson notes, became a template for similar action in states across the country. Fell was also central to the establishment of the Natural Land Institute, a model for similar country-wide organizations.

George Fell (right) and Barbara Fell (center) scouting in Okefenokee Swamp, between Georgia and Florida, with a guide. Courtesy of the Natural Land Institute

An important subplot to Pearson’s biography details the role Fell’s wife, Barbara, took on for herself. She was an important ally in his work to create environmental organizations, and she shared her husband’s sense of purpose and his seemingly infinite persistence in bringing into existence long-lasting and successful environmental organizations.

They lived frugally throughout their marriage. Even when Fell became a successful investor in stocks, their frugality continued as a way of life, simply because it fit in with their philosophy that one way to serve the environment was to limit one’s indulgence in unnecessary things. They continued to scout out natural areas in need of preservation and conservation, often sleeping in their pre-war car during overnight trips and bringing their meals so that they did not have to pay for hotels and restaurants.

Pearson’s telling of Fell’s story matches the economy with which Fell and his wife approached their own lives. His closing comments on Fell explain the conservationist’s considerable legacy in the movement to save and to protect natural lands, both large and small. Pearson writes,

At a time when there were few models sufficient to the task at hand, Fell had the persistence to build new, innovative institutions. The very act of building those institutions galvanized a lot of people, offering them mechanisms within which to focus and realize their own conservation passions. The fact that Fell was not the one to nurture the institutions he built to maturity ultimately is immaterial. George Fell was a stone, a rock, a force of nature, whose legacy lives with us still: in the institutions he built, in the people he inspired, in the natural lands he loved and protected forever.

This biography serves to remind us of who George Fell was and to help us to understand that we need environmental defenders who possess his qualities, a leader who is a “force of nature,” a creator of long-lasting policies and institutions.

Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement

University of Wisconsin Press

Read an interview with Arthur Melville Pearson in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2017 issue of Minding Nature.

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Book Review: Stories from the Leopold Shack by Estella Leopold

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

In Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited, Estella Leopold takes her readers on an intimate journey into that now-fabled place to which her father introduced the world in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). The site in central Wisconsin close to Baraboo that Aldo and now his daughter Estella have chronicled is where Aldo, his wife Estella Bergere, and their five children spent their summers. They lived in a once-abandoned farm shack, where they worked together to restore the land upon which it sat—land they found to be despoiled by decades of agricultural malpractice. The site remains today a monument to what was Aldo Leopold’s idea of ecological restoration, and it is living testimony to what Leopold’s formulation of the “Land Ethic” can bring about.

In her “Acknowledgments” Estella explains that the book began as a project in reminiscing. To occupy herself during long flights to Wisconsin from the West Coast where she lived and taught, Estella began to record stories she remembered from her childhood summers at the Shack. Of the Leopold’s five children, she was the youngest. And by the time her father was completing and revising A Sand County Almanac in the 1940s, her older siblings were in college. She often spent her adolescent summers at the Shack as the only companion of her parents.

Following the first chapter introducing the reconstruction of the Shack, Estella writes four chapters of stories taking place in the seasons of the year, following the general direction of her father’s book. These chapters offer memories of her time as a young girl when Estella came to know the treasures the land had to offer to her and her family. Like her father, she is a close observer of the minute. Here is an account of an early summer morning:

The family ritual started with Dad getting up very quietly, sometimes as early as 4:00 a.m., or even 3:00 a.m. when he was checking on bird songs and light. Dad would build a fire in the yard fireplace and make coffee out there, listening to the early birds with his light meter. He was measuring how much light there was as each species began to sing in the morning chorus….

As the Sun warmed the air, he went on his morning walk with Gus [his dog]. When the sun came up, Mother would rise, and then us children. It was always so pleasant to step out barefoot onto the dewy grass and walk to the Parthenon [privy], studying the pretty birdsfoot violets (Viola pedata) blooming along the path. In Dad’s prairie garden in front of the Shack, we would check out the gorgeous spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), which could always count on producing one new fresh blue flower with three petals and a yellow center every single morning all summer.

In the final chapters, Estella recounts humorous and always respectful stories of her mother’s achievements in archery and bow hunting. She then moves on to stories that reflect the influence her childhood memories had upon her throughout her life, including learning the early restoration efforts on the land around the Shack, as well as learning the ongoing progress of restoration from the time of Estella’s father’s death to the present, largely carried on by the Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold with family at the Shack. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

“The Shack Idea,” her concluding chapter, describes how Estella’s siblings and she continued to imprint her father’s legacy afar by settling into and protecting threatened places by constructing “shacks” of their own that anchored their intentions for restoration and sense of place. The five siblings established their own shacks in the midst of natural surroundings in California, Wyoming, Wisconsin (an “eco-friendly house” built by Nina—Estella’s older sister—and Charlie Bradley near the Leopold Shack in Wisconsin), Costa Rica, and, Estella’s own in Colorado. Each shack became a statement by the Leopold’s grown children that the land and the wildlife which inhabited it could thrive in concert with human presence. Estella writes this of her own adult experience:

The enrichment of the land community constituted what I call the “greening of Shack West” in Colorado: it was an area that under my protection was now freed of the terrible strychnine poison pellets that had wiped out the original coyotes, and doubtless many birds. My land was now free of grazing cows (except temporarily when the fence broke). I have been happy to know from the occasional tracks and exciting personal encounters that my land also includes a family of black bears and a family of mountain lions.

Estella Leopold’s reminiscences offer engaging and informative stories, intended primarily for the generations to come who tend to be raised in a culture that sees wilderness or despoiled landscapes as places to be circumvented. In a culture that is fearful of the outdoors and its nonhuman inhabitants, from insects to wolves to bears, this book shows why it is necessary to encounter and to preserve our natural surroundings by learning what it is to be part and parcel of these spaces and how much we depend upon them for our own existence. Parents should read this book for the lessons in living with the natural world and with one another that it provides. The Leopold children, when grown, followed these lessons they learned at the Leopold Shack. Three, including Estella, a paleobotanist, became members of the National Academy of Sciences. All have devoted their lives to investigating how much we and the environment depend upon one another for our existence. Estella Leopold’s book is an important introduction to how to achieve a complete life for generations to follow.

Aldo Leopold at the Shack. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited

Oxford University Press

Read an interview with Estella Leopold in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2016 issue of Minding Nature.

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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.


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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Book Review: An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar

An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar

An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the JaguarExpect to learn a bit about the history of species conservation as Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit dedicated to big cat conservation, tells the story of his work to protect the jaguar in An Indomitable Beast (2014, Island Press). Along the way, the book presents numerous ideas of interest to anyone interested in jaguar, specifically, or species conservation, in general.

Rabinowitz’ research and advocacy was instrumental in helping to create the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, the first of its kind, in 1984 in Belize. He made the case that protecting the jaguar was good for the country’s future: a path to “clean water, good air, and healthy forests” as well as eco-tourism. This work was noted as “the major achievement in cat conservation for the triennium” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the oldest and largest global environmental organization.

Here some key ideas about modern conservation efforts explored in the book:

  • Epigenetics — The role of DNA research and epigenetics, how traits can be passed on across generations, in understanding animals and aiding their protection.
  • Anthropocene — The age in which humans are pervasive in nature and across ecosystems and seeing what we do as part of the natural order. Rabinowitz talks about his own understanding of this in relation to conservation: from the realization that, “Decisions that affect animal and human lives should not be taken lightly,” to understanding that, “People were part of the solution, not the problem.”
  • Empathy – Understanding animals and seeing the world through their experience of it. Rabinowitz talks a great deal about understanding “jaguarness”.
  • Fine-filter conservation – The importance and role of conservation approaches aimed at conserving rare, specialized species as opposed to nature reserves which, in and of themselves, might not be enough to support certain species i.e. the jaguar.

Particular to jaguars, Rabinowitz discusses two interesting factors:

  • Jaguar Cultural Corridor — the spiritual and cultural connections between human and jaguar.
  • Jaguar Corridor Initiative — the conservation effort to preserve jaguar habitat, focused not on one specific location, but on the interconnected places where jaguar roam and breed.

In addition, to history, facts, and ideas, Rabinowitz shares his passion for the jaguar, unique among the big cats, and his, “unwavering belief that animals needed a voice in the human world.”

One of the most touching aspects of the book is how Rabinowitz formed a bond with this species at a young age and overcame a speech impediment, stuttering, in order to speak on the cat’s behalf.

“Visiting with the big cats at the Bronx Zoo taught me early in life that you could be big, strong, and clever, but still locked in a cage from which there was no escape. Despite this sobering realization as a young child, I also realized that if the cats and other animals at the zoo had a human voice, if they could cry, laugh or plead their case, they would not be locked up so easily in small cages for display. They would never have that human voice—but I would, I was sure of it. And when I found that voice, I promised the cats at the zoo, every time I visited them, that I would be their voice. I would find a place for us.”

Rabinowitz displays an impressive dedication to and love for this animal, which he demonstrates through scientific research, action, and advocacy.

What to read next?
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Read the EcoLit review.

Inspired by this book?
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Book Review: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold


Reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold I am struck time and again by how contemporary it feels.

This is a testament to Leopold, who wrote this book back in the late 1940s, yet clearly had future generations in mind.

Leopold saw the environmental issues we are struggling with today because he was struggling with similar issues in his time.

During his life in the forest service and in teaching he had come to believe that we needed to develop a new relationship with nature, one no longer based on dominion and extraction. He saw the need for wilderness areas in a time in which people might have assumed we had more than enough wilderness, writing: Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.

The Sand County Almanac is often cited along with Walden for its influence on the modern conservation movement, and rightfully so.

It is a collection of essays and observations, each of which can stand on its own.

My favorite essay is one in which Leopold turns the simple act of sawing through a fallen tree into a dive back into history, recounting the events that occurred during the period of each tree ring.

An ever-present theme to this book is that of loss. The loss of virgin prairies, virgin forests, virgin streams and bogs. The loss of passenger pigeons. Grizzly bears and elk. I found myself stopping again and again to jot down lines such as:

Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.

We grieve only for what we know.

And boy, did Leopold take issue with the recreational use of our national parks, the day-trippers and trophy hunters. He writes:

Because everybody from Xenophon to Teddy Roosevelt said sport has value, it is assumed that this value must be indestructible.

The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

Here in Southern Oregon, where mountain bikers now crowd hikers and birders off trails, I think of Leopold’s book often.

A Sand County Almanac

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)


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