Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem

Why I read it: I'm a conservationist by training and at heart.

Summary: (also the subtitle) A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about people looking at people looking at animals in America.

My Thoughts: Ugh. Where do I begin.

I guess I begin with my own experiences. I worked for Mass Audubon for about a decade, and spent a lot of time outdoors. And that may be the understatement of the millenium. When I was not leading public programming on some nature trail, I was standing in the woods counting birds or identifying amphibian sounds or flipping logs for salamanders. I witnessed nature's majesty, a few acres at a time, and still do, whenever I can.

I read the old accounts of wildlife. I wrote the new ones. I know what we've lost, where we've lost it and why we've lost it. I wish I could turn back the clock, but I can't. We'll never see the passenger pigeon again, nor the eskimo curlew, and it's all thanks to "us." Somehow, we're all tabbed as guilty with the degradation of the planet just by being human.

What bothers me most is that most of the world will never understand, or care to take the time to understand what we're losing. We've "greened" up quite a bit in the past few decades, but are hybrid cars and solar panels and wind farms enough to save the planet's species? And is saving them what we are supposed to do? If nature took its course, would all of the American kestrels die anyway, or do we have an obligation to try to keep a species around seemingly against its will to live with us because we posioned it or stole its habitat?

Mooallem takes a wide look at not the endangered species, but the people saving the endangered species. He covers some basic tenets, like shifting baseline syndrome (the notion that as each generation enters the world, the world they see is the baseline, and they don't truly get a sense of loss until their later years; as the next generation is born, the baseline reforms, etc.), and shows how humanity is not equipped to deal with longterm problems. We just don't live long enough.

The only reassurance I gained from this book is that people will always be willing to try. Zealousness goes a long way with conservation causes, but often the zealots are crackpots, hard to work with. Burnout happens, either from overexertion, or overexposure to difficult partners. But there's always somebody willing to step into the breach.

Mooallem tells his tale through the polar bear, the Lange's metalmark butterfly and the whooping crane, but he may as well have used any of thousands of other species. The story would be - and will always be - the same.

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