Wild Ones: Looking at People Looking at Animals
I recently read Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals, by Jon Mooallem, which, despite the excessively long subtitle, is a terrific book. Mooallem elucidates (OK, OK, I use excessively long words) the history of wildlife conservation in North America, and present-day efforts to save endangered animals, by taking a look at three species. In one section, he visits Churchill, Manitoba, to see how polar bears are faring there. Threatened by global warming, bothering townsfolk, drawing tourists and environmentalists (they’re incredible artists), polar bears have become poster children for climate change.
In the next section, he spends time in the dunes near Antioch (in the East Bay), trying to see the endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly. There, habitat destruction is the main culprit. However, plants introduced to stabilize the dunes have actually crowded out the butterfly’s favorite food. And heroic efforts to save and reintroduce the butterflies have meant damage to other species.
The third animal is the whooping crane. Mooallem goes to Wisconsin, and from there sets out to travel with the people who lead young cranes in migration to Florida by flying ultralight aircraft. Apparently, there is some disagreement among conservationists about whether or not this is the best way to get the cranes to their destinations.
Mooallem really writes well, and gives a nuanced picture of the effects of our fiddling with nature. One of the concepts he mentions stuck with me: shifting baselines syndrome. Each generation of people has a different idea of the way it’s supposed to be, based on their experience of nature when they were growing up. Are there supposed to be hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons darkening the skies? Or were those huge flocks an artifact of the wiping out of so many Native Americans? Should we try to clone the pigeon as part of a “de-extinction” project? Or leave well enough alone?
Other "Wild" Books
I noticed the other day that there are several wildly popular "WILD" books! Another one is Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Following the death of her mother when she was 22, Strayed quickly went downhill. A chance glance at the back of a book on the Pacific Coast Trail inspired her to hike it alone. This book is about her adventures, the fellow hikers who helped her on the way, and the sense of awe she felt in nature, all of which turned her life around. Strayed is the online advice columnist Dear Sugar, of whom Jessica Weisberg wrote in The New Yorker: “Strayed is the Internet’s greatest relief from itself.”
Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, by Jo Robinson, is about foraging for tasteful, nutritious foods in your supermarket or farmer’s market, just in case you can’t devote your time to finding miner’s lettuce or candy-cap mushrooms out in the wild. It also gives a natural history of each fruit or vegetable discussed, so you can get an idea of what has happened to it since it was domesticated. Robinson is the creator of the website Eatwild.com.
Then there’s Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life, by Graham Nash. He’s the musician and member of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s about sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but, as Nash told NPR’s Jeffrey Brown, “it's not only that.
JEFFREY BROWN: No.
GRAHAM NASH: It's about love and friendship and loyalty and being there for your friends when they're obviously hurting.”
Vaughn Harrison figured if she put the word "WILD" in enough times, people would read this.