Peter Matthiessen in 2008 (courtesy Melissa Eagan, WNYC New York Public Radio)
Peter Matthiessen was a mentor and model to me in the early seventies, when I was dropping back in after the mind-blowing sixties. I had lived in the New Hampshire woods with my “old lady,” and there, as my mother put it, “nature hit me,” which was not surprising, as I come from a family of Russian explorers, naturalists, and natural scientists. My dream to become the next great poet in the great tradition, the next T. S. Eliot, had morphed into wanting to be the next Bob Dylan, and that dream too had run its course.
In 1971, I came obsessed with birds, and was making watercolors of them and keying them out in the Peterson field guide, and taking copious notes in my journals. Writing about nature, having read Wordsworth, Yeats, Cowper, Frost, and other poets who wrote so beautifully about their natural surroundings, came naturally. Having been on the Harvard Lampoon, when in New York I would usually visit George W. S. Trow, the Lampoon’s editor-in-chief two classes ahead of me who was now writing for the Talk of the Town and producing long elegant profiles at the old New Yorker’s Dickensian offices at 25 West 43rd Street. Trow introduced me to the finely crafted literary journalism of John McPhee, who also wrote beautifully about nature in his portrait of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, for instance.
Jane Goodall speaks at the World Bank in 2011 / courtesy the World Bank Photo Collection
Looks can be deceiving. The always tactful and elegant Maria Shriver found out firsthand one day when she called Jane Goodall to the podium in 2009 to award her the Women’s Conference Minerva Award. Intending it as a compliment, Shriver offhandedly remarked that despite her “frail” appearance, Jane was a mighty woman.
As Jane took the podium, she remarked that she was anything but “frail,” and proceeded to prove it by hoisting the heavy award trophy over her head. She then delivered an energetic acceptance speech and spoke of her tireless 300 day a year lecture tour, describing a schedule far beyond the reach of a fragile woman.
I had to laugh, for I knew the minute that Shriver uttered the word “frail,” she had entered dangerous territory. I have had the good fortune to know Jane Goodall for 42 years, and I can guarantee you that she is anything but feeble. Jane runs on sheer determination, even now as she celebrates her 80th birthday.
As soon as John Winthrop and his gang of Puritans landed on the little temporary island known to the locals as Shawmut, they started digging and delving and filling marshes and swamps and inlets to build more land. Nothing new in all that, it seems to be a habit of Western culture; Rome was constructed around the Pontine Marshes, the Dutch put up massive dikes to keep the North Sea at bay, and Venice was built on pilings set in the marshy Venice Lagoon.
Boston, as the Shawmut came to be called, was separated from the mainland by a narrow little strip of land (now, basically, Washington Street) that flooded in spring tides, creating a tight little island. By the 1650s, more tidal streams were channeled, more marshes were filled, and more land was created over the centuries—including the massive filling of the banks of the Charles to create the famous Back Bay.
But coastlines are a fickle things, always coming and going. There was at time, not that long ago as geologic time is measured, when Boston sat under a mile of ice. And there was also a time when you could have hiked out to Georges Bank. Now according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences, Boston could once more be under water (literally, not financially). The town is one of many coastal cities, including New York and Miami, that could see high tides flooding commonly used streets and neighborhoods in the next decades or so as a result of rising sea levels created by global climate change. And more high water to come in the next fifty years.
The last time Boston flooded entirely was about 11,000 years ago, as a result of the melting of the glacier.
This time around, it will happen from the same reason—melting ice—only this time it will be the polar ice cap and the 600,000 square mile Greenland ice sheet. And this time around, it will be our own fault.
A 7-year study just released by Kansas State University has found that wind turbines have no serious impacts on greater prairie chickens or their reproduction. This discovery is monumental.
In Harvest the Wind, I explore the concerns raised by some biologists that wind turbines could disrupt prairie chicken mating and nesting. It was thought that turbines, standing tall on the landscape, might be mistaken for trees on which predatory fowl could perch looking for food. Similar concerns have been raised about wind power's impact on sage grouse habitats in states like Wyoming.
While KSU's Brett Sandercock has reported that there may be some avoidance of turbines by female prairie chickens, data collected from nearly a thousand tagged birds has revealed an increase in female survival rates where turbines have been installed. One possible explanation - not studied in this survey - is that the predators themselves may be avoiding the turbines.
The KSU study may help shift the focus of biologists and wildlife managers to a more obvious and unequivocal threat to grassland fowl: the annual springtime conflagration that sweeps across much of the Kansas prairie, including 1.7 million acres in the Flint Hills. These fires are intentionally set by cattle ranchers, eager to promote the growth of grasses favorable to cattle grazing. On the downside, the torch-bearing ranchers who engage in "controlled burning" leave vast stretches of scorched, naked ground in their wake as they cruise the grasslands in their ATVs. After the spring burn, prairie chickens and other grassland fowl have too little thatch to make their nests and too little cover from soaring raptors.
A few years ago, EDP Renewables (then known as "Horizon Wind") collaborated with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas in creating conservation easements covering more than 25,000 acres of mixed and tallgrass prairie in the Smoky Hills. That important boon to grassland ecology was triggered, in part, by concern that the 67 turbines of EDPR's Meridian Way Wind Farm, located a short distance away in Cloud County, might end up harming prairie chicken nesting and mating. The company's concerns appear not to have been borne out in this particular case, yet conservation easements by responsible wind developers can go a long way toward creating goodwill while mitigating the environmental impacts of large-scale wind projects.
A lively and lyrical account of one woman's unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work
Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal "traildog" maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from "the real world" before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding-more real-than she ever imagined.
During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works-the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life-along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations-including her own-that she would follow a "professional" career path.
Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, "women's work" and "men's work," white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.
Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park outside the town of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and her stories and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. She owns and operates a small trail design and construction business.
In honor of Earth Day, we asked a handful of our nature writers: "What
is one thing that people should do to connect with nature? Why
is it important?" Here are their responses. Read, enjoy, and GET OUTSIDE!
Go outside. Be outside. It sounds obvious, I
know, but it's amazing how easy it is to forget this. In the noble but often
all-consuming quest to make sustainable choices and fight big environmental
battles and visit spectacular places, daily time spent present in the outdoors—skiing,
walking the dog, splitting wood, just watching—is the most grounding thing I
know of. It not only hitches me to the details and inhabitants of my own place,
it reminds me that I am nature. Not separate from it. As reliant on my
ecosystem—no matter how fragile or fractured—as a chickadee, a birch tree, a
moose. For me, this realization is the most important thing: the world is my
The best way I know to connect with nature,
sullied and otherwise, is to spend a week descending a river in a canoe. Why a
river? Because water is the root of all biology, and gravity is its only motor.
Why a week? Experienced paddlers agree that it takes at least three days to
leave day-to-day time-clocked headspace behind and enter "river
time," leaving at least three days of circadian gravy. Why is it
important? You can tell me when you get back.
So many things come to mind
with this question, the biggest one being: Go outside. Alone. Spend time alone in nature. But something even more important, I think,
is to come to know well one wild creature that lives where you do. Today,
after cleaning my teeth, the dental hygienist showed me a photo she'd taken and
posted on her Facebook page. It was a photo of a coyote with a dead
snowshoe hare in its jaws that she took near her house. The big white
feet of the hare looked longer than the coyote's face. The coyote's coat
was thick and luxurious. She told me she'd seen lots of showshoe hare
tracks in the snow on her walks, but that was the first hare she'd seen in a while.
She told me she'd dreamed once of being a wildlife biologist. But in a
way, she is. She is a citizen biologist. Because she knows these
creatures intimately, knows their habits, she couldn't stand by if something
threatened them. I believe she'd act. So my advice for Earth
Day is to come to know a species of wild creature that shares your habitat,
even if it's just a house sparrow.
Or a flock of crows. Or a family of raccoons. Or monarch
butterflies. Or a spider. Consider it a neighbor, not just another
animal. When you encounter this animal on your walks outside (alone as
often as you can) say hello, even if it's just a whisper, or a voice in your
It may be a sad and telling measure of our disconnection
from nature that we even feel the need to contemplate the question, “What is one thing that people should do to
connect with nature, and why is it important?” It implies that the
objective is difficult to achieve, requires time and effort, and one can only
attain this level of connectedness through methodical planning and perhaps a
good self-help book. It’s not, it doesn’t, and you don’t really need anything
more than a doorway to a natural environment.
A regular fix of nature doesn’t have to be complicated or
time-consuming. One deep irony being an outdoor writer who works at home is
that I can go an entire day literally without stepping outside once. It’s
easy, in fact, to get lost in what I’m working on and suddenly realize, at the
end of the day, that I have no idea whether it’s warm or cold outside, sunny,
windy, or snowing. Then I know what I have to do: walk out into my back yard.
I take nothing—especially not my phone. I have two trees and
a garden and it’s mostly quiet back there except for the birds flitting between
my trees. I see the colors of flowers and drink in a big visual gulp of green.
In an adequate dose, green can solve any problem; I’m convinced of that. And I
just stand out there, doing nothing except listening and watching—feeling the
sun’s warmth, the breeze on my arms. My blood pressure takes a nice, healthful
dip and levels off. I’m pretty sure it does, anyway, based on the instantaneous
sense of relaxation I gain just by stepping out there.
Often, I only spend ten minutes in my yard—not a very deep
commitment to connecting with nature on a given day, I admit. But there’s a
huge ROI in psychological and emotional gains for the insignificant time and effort
invested. I’m no health professional or psychologist, but I will confidently
predict that if you carve out ten minutes in every workday to stand under trees
and listen to birds singing, you will live longer, raise smarter children,
develop amazing abs, enjoy a more vigorous sex life, and smile more often. Or
at least the last thing.
I need and regularly get more than ten minutes a day outside
(in a good week, all day, every day). You should, too. Leave home for a day or
a week and go someplace off the grid. Hike a mountain, paddle a river, climb a
cliff, sit by a lake, fish a stream. We evolved to live in the natural world
and we starve ourselves physically and emotionally when we divorce ourselves
But in the interim, those ten minutes under a tree—now
that’s the ticket.
Science entwines with matters of the human heart as a whale researcher chronicles the lives of an endangered family of orcas
A question we all eventually face is whether we have the courage to love someone or something when we know we are going to lose them. In Eva Saulitis's case, her answer is a resounding yes.
At twenty-three, as an idealistic college graduate, Saulitis drove to Alaska to work in a remote salmon hatchery. There, on a winter day, she saw her first orca. Over the next twenty years, as she found her footing as a biologist, she was drawn deeply into the lives of a unique and endangered orca population struggling to survive in Prince William Sound. She came to know and love the whales as a culture and as individuals. In 1989, she witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez oil spill-after which not a single calf was born to the group.
With the intellectual rigor of a scientist and the heart of a poet, Saulitis renders the whales' secretive lives, as well as the abundant life of the waters-the birds, seals, and otters with whom the orcas share their world. Vividly she conveys the whales' personalities, from the matriarch Chenega and her companions to the trio of mischievous "Bad Boys," and the majestic Eyak, who sang like a siren.
In the wake of the recent BP oil spill, we still don't know what the long-term effects on marine life might be. From the vantage of over twenty years dealing with the aftermath of the Valdez spill, Saulitis shows how a group of shy orcas carrying out their lives in a remote corner of Alaska have something to teach us about our connectedness to animals to place-and what we stand to lose if we don't protect both.
Both an elegy for one orca family and a celebration of a species, Into Great Silence speaks for all vanishing species in an increasingly vulnerable natural world.
“[A] sensitively written memoir...Readers who enjoyed Alexandra Morton’s Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us will be fascinated by Saulitis’ account of her often remove, cold, and wet life as a field biologist and her respect for the whales and the people who lived around her.” Library Journal
"A vivid, moving depiction of a way of life tragically becoming increasingly endangered." Kirkus Reviews
"Saulitis' stunning and sorrowful "book of contemplation" elucidates the discipline, tedium, danger, and bliss of whale studies; the solace she finds in art; and her intense relationships with her fellow orca experts. Candid, transfixing, and cautionary, Saulitis celebrates and mourns for a wondrous and imperiled species." Booklist
"Eva Saulitis is a rare creature herself: a scientist with a poetic soul, a philosopher, a gifted writer. Into Great Silence is at once a love song to a wild place, an elegy, an inquiry into purpose and change, and a call to bring all our senses and ways of knowing to understanding and protecting our fragile world." —Nancy Lord, author of Fishcamp and Beluga Days
Eva Saulitis has studied whales in Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and Alaska's Aleutian Islands for the past twenty-four years. In addition to her scientific publications, her essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in numerous national journals, including Orion, Crazyhorse, and Prairie Schooner. The author of the essay collection Leaving Resurrection and the poetry collection Many Ways to Say It, she teaches at Kenai Peninsula College, in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, and at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference. She lives in Homer, Alaska.
Today's post might provide a little inspiration for your 2013 vacation, much as editor Alexis Rizzuto received for her outdoor adventures.
At this time of year, I start pulling out maps and guidebooks and poring over my lengthy—and always growing—list of outdoor trips I want to take. (My document slugged “Trip Ideas” is now 11,855 words long.) There are two reasons: First, to make those big dream trips happen, you have to think, plan, and dream months in advance. Plus, the planning is almost as much fun as taking the trip.
Here are my 10 favorite family adventures at The Big Outside (another list that will keep growing and evolving), to help give you some ideas and inspiration for 2013. All have a story and photo gallery, and most also have a video. In a couple of weeks, I’ll share my list of 10 all-time favorite adventures at The Big Outside, domestic and international, that are not necessarily for families—although there are definitely trips that could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two lists).
Here’s wishing you an adventurous 2013.
Campsite below Zoroaster Temple, along the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
The inspiring story of David Wingate, a living legend among birders, who brought the Bermuda petrel back from presumed extinction
Rare Birds is a tale of obsession, of hope, of fighting for redemption against incredible odds. It is the story of how Bermuda's David Wingate changed the world-or at least a little slice of it-despite the many voices telling him he was crazy to try.
This tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic was once the breeding ground for millions of Bermuda petrels. Also known as cahows, the graceful and acrobatic birds fly almost nonstop most of their lives, drinking seawater and sleeping on the wing. But shortly after humans arrived here, more than three centuries ago, the cahows had vanished, eaten into extinction by the country's first settlers.
Then, in the early 1900s, tantalizing hints of the cahows' continued existence began to emerge. In 1951, an American ornithologist and a Bermudian naturalist mounted a last-ditch effort to find the birds that had come to seem little more than a legend, bringing a teenage Wingate-already a noted birder-along for the ride. When the stunned scientists pulled a blinking, docile cahow from deep within a rocky cliffside, it made headlines around the world-and told Wingate what he was put on this earth to do.
Starting with just seven nesting pairs of the birds, Wingate would devote his life to giving the cahows the chance they needed in their centuries-long struggle for survival - battling hurricanes, invasive species, DDT, the American military, and personal tragedy along the way.
It took six decades of obsessive dedication, but the cahow, still among the rarest of seabirds, has reached the hundred-pair mark and continues its nail-biting climb to repopulation. And Wingate has seen his dream fulfilled as the birds returned to Nonsuch, an island habitat he hand-restored for them plant-by-plant in anticipation of this day. His passion for resuscitating this "Lazarus species" has made him an icon among birders, and his story is an inspiring celebration of the resilience of nature, the power of persistence, and the value of going your own way.
Fifty years ago today, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson's revolutionary book Silent Spring. In honor of the anniversary, we share this excerpt from Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, a collection edited by Linda Lear and published by Beacon in 1998.
Linda Lear is a biographer and historian. She is the author of the acclaimed biography of Rachel Carson, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Lear’s research papers and adjunct collections dealing with Carson’s life, Carson’s friends and colleagues, and the controversy over Silent Spring form the core of the Lear/Carson Collection at The Linda Lear Center for Archives and Special Collections at Connecticut College. Find out more about Carson, Linda Lear, and upcoming events at RachelCarson.org.
This address to the Women’s National Press Club (December 1962) stands as one of Carson’s most important statements following publication of Silent Spring and the beginning of the ferocious industry backlash against her. Like Silent Spring, her speech can be read as a democratic manifesto in the long tradition from Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe through Martin Luther King Jr. Carson dares to suggest here that “profit and production” might be motives that would make industry and government officials lie to the public about what was being done to the environment and to the whole fabric of life. This was an astonishing idea in the Cold War. Like those who came before her, Carson as an individual was pushing back to power and in doing so she was declaring that environmental rights were also human rights.—Linda Lear, September 2012
My text this afternoon is taken from the Globe
Times of Bethlehem, Pa., a news item in the issue of October 12. After
describing in detail the adverse reactions to Silent Spring of the farm
bureaus in two Pennsylvania counties, the reporter continued: “No one in either
county farm office who was talked to today had read the book, but all
disapproved of it heartily.”
This sums up very neatly the background of much of
the noisier comment that has been heard in this unquiet autumn following the
publication of Silent Spring. In the words of an editorial in the Bennington
Banner, “The anguished reaction to Silent Spring has been to refute
statements that were never made.” Whether this kind of refutation comes from
people who actually have not read the book or from those who find it convenient
to misrepresent my position I leave it to others to judge.
Early in the summer–as soon as the first
installment of the book appeared in the New Yorker–public reaction to Silent
Spring was reflected in a tidal wave of letters–letters to Congressmen, to
newspapers, to Government agencies, to the author. These letters continue to
come and I am sure represent the most important and lasting reaction.
Even before the book was published, editorials and
columns by the hundreds had discussed it all over the country. Early reaction
in the chemical press was somewhat moderate, and in fact I have had fine
support from some segments of both chemical and agricultural press. But in
general, as was to be expected, the industry press was not happy. By late
summer the printing presses of the pesticide industry and their trade
associations had begun to pour out the first of a growing stream of booklets
designed to protect and repair the somewhat battered image of pesticides. Plans
are announced for quarterly mailings to opinion leaders and for monthly news
stories to newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Speakers are
addressing audiences everywhere.
It is clear that we are all to receive heavy doses
of tranquilizing information, designed to lull the public into the sleep from
which Silent Spring so rudely awakened it. Some definite gains toward a
saner policy of pest control have been made in recent months. The important
issue now is whether we are to hold and extend those gains.
The attack is now falling into a definite pattern
and all the well-known devices are being used. One obvious way to try to weaken
a cause is to discredit the person who champions it. So the masters of
invective and insinuation have been busy: I am a “bird lover – a cat lover – a
fish lover”– a priestess of nature – a devotee of a mystical cult having to do
with laws of the universe which my critics consider themselves immune to.
Another piece in the pattern of attack largely
ignores Silent Spring and concentrates on what I suppose would be called
the soft sell, the soothing reassurances to the public. Some of these
acknowledge the correctness of my facts, but say that the incidents I reported
occurred some time in the past, that industry and Government are well aware of
them and have long since taken steps to prevent their recurrence. It must be
assumed that the people who read these comforting reports read nothing else in
their newspapers. Actually, pesticides have figured rather prominently in the
news in recent months: some items trivial, some almost humorous, some
These reports do not differ in any important way
from the examples I cited in Silent Spring, so if the situation is under
better control there is little evidence of it.
We are told also that chemicals are never used
unless tests have shown them to be safe. This, of course, is not an accurate
statement. I am happy to see that the Department of Agriculture plans to ask
the Congress to amend the FIFRA to do away with the provision that now permits
a company to register a pesticide under protest, even though a question of
health or safety has been raised by the Department.
We have other reminders that unsafe chemicals get
into use – County Agents frequently have to amend or rescind earlier advices on
the use of pesticides. For example, a letter was recently sent out to farmers
recalling stocks of a chemical in use as a cattle spray. In September,
“unexplained losses” occurred following its use. Several suspected production
lots were recalled but the losses continued. All outstanding lots of the
chemical have now had to be recalled.
Inaccurate statements in reviews of Silent
Spring are a dime a dozen, and I shall only mention one or two examples. Time,
in its discussion of Silent Spring, described accidental poisonings
from pesticides as very rare. Let’s look at a few figures. California,
the only state that keeps accurate and complete records, reports from 900 to
1000 cases of poisoning from agricultural chemicals per year. About 200 of these
are from parathion alone. Florida has experienced so many poisonings recently
that this state has attempted to control the use of the more dangerous
chemicals in residential areas. As a sample of conditions in other countries,
parathion was responsible for 100 deaths in India in 1958 and takes an average
of 336 deaths a year in Japan.
It is also worthy of note that during the years
1959, 1960, and 1961, airplane crashes involving crop-dusting planes totaled
873. In these accidents 135 pilots lost their lives. This very fact has led to
some significant research by the Federal Aviation Agency through its Civil
Aeromedical Unit – research designed to find out why so many of these
planes crashed. These medical investigators took as their basic premise the
assumption that spray poisons accumulate in the pilot’s body – inside the
cells, where they are difficult to detect.
These researchers recently reported that they had
confirmed two very significant facts: 1. That there is a causal relation
between the build-up of toxins in the cell and the onset of sugar diabetes. 2.
That the build-up of poisons within the cell interferes with the rate of energy
production in the human body.
I am, of course, happy to have this confirmation
that cellular processes are not so “irrelevant” as a certain scientific
reviewer of Silent Spring has declared them to be.
This same reviewer, writing in a chemical journal,
was much annoyed with me for giving the sources of my information. To identify
the person whose views you are quoting is, according to this reviewer, name-dropping.
Well, times have certainly changed since I received my training in the
scientific method at Johns Hopkins! My critic also profoundly disapproved of
my bibliography. The very fact that it gave complete and specific references
for each important statement was extremely distasteful to him. This was padding
to impress the uninitiated with its length.
Now I would like to say that in Silent Spring I
have never asked the reader to take my word. I have given him a very clear
indication of my sources. I make it possible for him – indeed I invite him – to
go beyond what I report and get the full picture. This is the reason for the 55
pages of references. You cannot do this if you are trying to conceal or distort
or to present half truths.
Another reviewer was offended because I made the
statement that it is customary for pesticide manufacturers to support research
on chemicals in the universities. Now, this is just common knowledge and I can
scarcely believe the reviewer is unaware of it, because his own university is
among those receiving such grants.
A penetrating observer of social problems has
pointed out recently that whereas wealthy families once were the chief
benefactors of the Universities, now industry has taken over this role. Support
of education is something no one quarrels with – but this need not blind us to
the fact that research supported by pesticide manufacturers is not likely to be
directed at discovering facts indicating unfavorable effects of pesticides.
Such a liaison between science and industry is a
growing phenomenon, seen in other areas as well. The AMA, through its
newspaper, has just referred physicians to a pesticide trade association for
information to help them answer patients’ questions about the effects of
pesticides on man. I am sure physicians have a need for information on this
subject. But I would like to see them referred to authoritative scientific or
medical literature – not to a trade organization whose business it is to
promote the sale of pesticides.
We see scientific societies acknowledging as
“sustaining associates” a dozen or more giants of a related industry. When the
scientific organization speaks, whose voice do we hear–that of science? or of
the sustaining industry? It might be a less serious situation if this voice
were always clearly identified, but the public assumes it is hearing the voice
What does it mean when we see a committee set up to
make a supposedly impartial review of a situation, and then discover that the
committee is affiliated with the very industry whose profits are at stake? I
have this week read two reviews of the recent reports of a National Academy of
Sciences Committee on the relations of pesticides to wildlife. These reviews
raise disturbing questions. It is important to understand just what this
committee is. The two sections of its report that have now been published are
frequently cited by the pesticide industry in attempts to refute my statements.
The public, I believe, assumes that the Committee is actually part of the
Academy. Although appointed by the Academy, its members come from outside. Some
are scientists of distinction in their fields. One would suppose the way to get
an impartial evaluation of the impact of pesticides on wildlife would be to set
up a committee of completely disinterested individuals. But the review
appearing this week in The Atlantic Naturalist described the composition
of the Committee as follows: “A very significant role in this committee is
played by the Liaison Representatives. These are of three categories. A.)
Supporting Agencies. B.) Government Agencies. C.) Scientific Societies. The
supporting agencies are presumably those who supply the hard cash. Forty-three
such agencies are listed, including 19 chemical companies comprising the massed
might of the chemical industry. In addition, there are at least four trade
organizations such as the National Agricultural Chemical Association and the
National Aviation Trades Association.”
The Committee reports begin with a firm statement
in support of the use of chemical pesticides. From this predetermined position,
it is not surprising to find it mentioning only some damage to some wildlife.
Since, in the modern manner, there is no documentation, one can neither confirm
or deny its findings. The Atlantic Naturalist reviewer described the
reports as “written in the style of a trained public relations official of
industry out to placate some segments of the public that are causing trouble.”
All of these things raise the question of the
communication of scientific knowledge to the public. Is industry becoming a
screen through which facts must be filtered, so that the hard, uncomfortable
truths are kept back and only the harmless morsels allowed to filter through? I
know that many thoughtful scientists are deeply disturbed that their
organizations are becoming fronts for industry. More than one scientist
has raised a disturbing question – whether a spirit of lysenkoism may be
developing in America today – the philosophy that perverted and destroyed the
science of genetics in Russia and even infiltrated all of that nation’s
agricultural sciences. But here the tailoring, the screening of basic truth, is
done, not to suit a party line, but to accommodate to the short-term gain, to serve
the gods of profit and production.
Today's post is from Tom Hallock, Associate Publisher of Beacon Press.
I was thrilled when I realized that our family’s annual White Mountains High Huts trip would coincide with one by Beacon author Michael Lanza and his family. We made plans to hike together on the Webster Jackson trail and exchanged cell phone numbers. Michael and his family arrived first and, with Nate and Alix eager to start their climb, set off. Michael texted to say that they we were just a few minutes ahead of us, assuming that two adults would be able to catch up with hikers going at a “family pace.” It never happened (see trail photo). My brother-in-law and I had a great hike at our own pace and met other family and friends at Appalachian Mountain Club's Mizpah Hut, hiking to Lake of the Clouds the following day. Our own “Before They’re Gone” moment came when the hut naturalist told us that the entire White Mountains alpine zone, the largest one east of the Rockies, could be gone in 25 years, as a result of acid rain. Hiking in the alpine zones of the Whites is an incredible experience, whether you’re in a cloud (which you are half the time) or making the trip on a clear day. I always return feeling gratitude to the AMC staff and volunteers for all they do to protect this environment and make it possible for us to experience it.
We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.
By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.
My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”
Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.
We do have an ace in the hole, though: our other companion today, my buddy Steve Howe. Steve has been Backpacker Magazine’s Rocky Mountain Editor for years—which is how we became friends—and runs Redrock Adventure Guides. Having lived in nearby Torrey for more than two decades, he knows Capitol Reef’s backcountry quite possibly better than anyone. He and a friend of his made what was probably the first descent of this slot canyon only months ago, and Steve went down it most recently two days ago.
Although this slot has no known name, for purposes of organizing this park’s largely anonymous wilderness in his own mind, Steve has dubbed it Stegosaur Canyon, and the unnamed but distinctive white fin soaring above us The Stegosaur. He calls the narrows section that we’re looking down on a “butt-crack slot”—a highly visual descriptor meant to inspire a mental image of a slice in the rock that continues narrowing as it drops deeper, eventually pinching down to just inches wide. Someone losing their grip on the walls in the chimney section could fall and become wedged in.
It is definitely serious stuff. But Steve and I had also discussed the difficulty of the slot canyon in painstaking detail at his house last night, and he showed me his pictures of it. I thought about the challenging situations Nate and Alex have handled well before—particularly rock climbing, which most closely parallels this endeavor, and where they had to follow instructions and remain calm. I became convinced that they could manage this.
When I tell Penny again that I think the kids will be fine—and Alex and Nate both insist they want to do it—she gives in to the implacable momentum of will to move forward. But she tells me, not entirely in a joking tone, “I’m holding you responsible.”
Yes, well then. It’s good to know where you stand.
We’ve come to Capitol Reef in the last week of March, on our kids’ weeklong spring break from school, to spend a couple of days on off-trail dayhikes with Steve and then backpack for three days into Spring Canyon.
Dominated by the Waterpocket Fold, a spine of sandstone ridges, cliffs, canyons, and spires that extends nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is one of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System. Situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, with minimal infrastructure and roads to attract the masses of tourists who never stray far from their vehicle, Capitol Reef (like Canyonlands, another easterly neighbor) sees a small fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk here on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a permit for wherever you want to hike, no reservation needed. Try that at Yosemite or Grand Canyon.
On previous visits, I had discovered that Capitol Reef has scenery comparable to its neighboring parks—but it feels wilder, less overrun. I’ve squeezed through other slot canyons here, hiked trails through a landscape of rock formations that look sculpted by a giant child with an unlimited supply of mud and crayons, and camped below night skies lit up like Times Square with stars.
During conversations at home before the trip, the kids had eagerly suggested we go backpacking and descending a slot canyon during their spring break. So we came here fired up for an adventure.
Nate and the rest of the party scramble up a rising, flared crack on an off-trail hike in Capitol Reef. Click on the photo to see the complete photo gallery.
Yesterday, our first day in the park, we dayhiked with Steve from the end of the park’s Scenic Drive into Capitol Gorge, a wide, sandy-bottomed canyon of sheer walls. Steve pointed out petroglyphs of bighorn sheep, deer, and sun figures that are 900 to 2,000 years old, carved by Fremont Indians who once inhabited these canyons. After walking 30 minutes down Capitol Gorge, we turned onto The Tanks Trail, ascending steeply a quarter-mile to rock basins the size of small swimming pools, filled with water—features found throughout the Waterpocket Fold, explaining its name.
Then we left the trail behind, following Steve up and up onto the almost barren, wildly contorted, otherworldly rock-scape of the reef formation. Domes of rippled white, red, and golden sandstone, petrified sand dunes from the age of dinosaurs, rose above us on all sides. Alex noticed something moving in the distance, and we all turned to watch a bighorn sheep grazing on one of the rare patches of vegetation growing up there. We scrambled, often on all fours, up a steep slope of loose, shifting talus blocks, traversed a sidewalk-like ledge across a cliff, and wriggled our way up a flaring groove in stone.
Explore Capitol Reef off-trail and you quickly understand why it remains so unknown: It would take years of patient, hit-or-miss forays over its convoluted, labyrinthine topography—and countless episodes of getting turned back by impassable cliffs and canyons—to piece together a twisting, seemingly improbable route that actually got you from point A to point B. In other words, it would take the kind of time that Steve has put into getting to know this park.
At a high pass, we sat down in warm sunshine and gusts of cool, early spring wind for a break. Below us unfolded a valley lined by white and golden cliffs and spires, a spot also unlabeled on maps but Steve says is known to a few locals as Sand Blow Canyon. We hiked to its upper end, to the base of a feature that actually is named on maps and visible from many points in the park, a massive dome called the Golden Throne.
Whenever we walked across beach sand yesterday, I looked for other footprints, but saw none. In 22 years of exploring Capitol Reef, Steve told us, “I have never, ever encountered another person while hiking off-trail in the park.”
As if to punctuate that point, near the end of our rugged, six-mile, mostly off-trail dayhike, as we descended a gully of loose rock, Steve noted, “Probably no one has walked through here since I came here 10 years ago.”
That gully narrowed into a slot that abruptly turned vertical. We pulled out two ropes and we adults rappelled about 12 feet over blocks of stone jammed in between the slot’s walls; we lowered Alex and Nate over. Then we descended one at a time, helping the kids as needed, through a vertical chimney that was sort of like a twisting sandstone laundry chute. That dropped us into a short, narrow hallway that terminated at a cliff, where we made a 25-foot rappel—lowering the kids again—to the ground. As the late-afternoon March sunshine started throwing long shadows across the cliffs and domes in the distance, we picked up the Golden Throne Trail and hiked the two miles back to our car.
After seeing how Nate and Alex did on that rugged day, Steve told me, “Your kids can handle Stegosaur Canyon.”
Now we are about to find out.
On the rim of Stegosaur Canyon, we put on climbing harnesses. Steve makes the 100-foot rappel first, followed by Nate, who rappels on his own, though I back him up with a belay on a second rope. I lower Alex, then Penny and I follow—and we are in the hole.
I see none of the usual signs of human traffic, like a beaten path or the branches of the occasional bush broken off. We scramble over rocks deposited by periodic flash floods, push through brush, and use a rope to lower over two vertical drops of about 15 feet. The walls steadily close in and rise maybe a couple hundred feet above us, keeping us in cool shade. Then the canyon makes a 90-degree left turn, and we stop at the mouth of the narrows.
The walls close in to two feet or less apart—too tight to squeeze through wearing our daypacks, which we take off to carry in one hand while edging sideways over sand and rocks. At the chimney section, Steve and I cross first with Nate between us, talking him through placing his feet, hands, and back side against small features in the walls to inch gradually across the traverse. Maybe 20 feet below us, the canyon constricts to a crack less than a foot wide with several inches of standing water.
Leaving Nate at the other end of the 100-foot traverse, Steve and I chimney back and repeat the procedure with Alex. Both kids traverse it slowly and calmly—just the way they should—and beam with pride at the other end. Beyond the chimney section, we hike through more sandy-bottom narrows, the walls still not much more than shoulder-width apart, to emerge from the canyon’s mouth, where it ends in a 100-foot pour-off that we rappel and lower off.
Later, back at Steve’s house, he and I measure Stegosaur Canyon’s length on his mapping program: it’s 0.6 mile long. It took us three hours to descend the slot canyon itself, sandwiched between an approach hike of about three hours and an exit hike of another hour or more—a pretty full day, and one of my kids’ most exciting adventures to date.
Backpacking Spring Canyon
At the park visitor center on our third morning in Capitol Reef, the ranger at the backcountry desk tells me that we’re the only party that has obtained a permit to backpack into Spring Canyon today, our third day in the park. We’ll see a few dayhikers in Chimney Rock Canyon, the tributary of Spring Canyon where we’ll begin and end our three-day hike. Beyond that, we’ll have the entire canyon to ourselves.
It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where it meets the Fremont River. While some hikers knock it off in a day, backpackers often do it as an overnight trip, to spend a night below Spring’s soaring red walls. But at the canyon’s mouth, you have to ford the river to reach UT 24. When we eyeballed the river yesterday, we decided it was moving too fast and deep to ford it with the kids. So we’ll hike in six or seven miles and camp two nights, giving us a day to explore farther down canyon before hiking back out the way we came in.
The temperature sits around 60 degrees and the sun filters through a slight haze; we wear T-shirts and shorts without breaking much of a sweat starting up the Chimney Rock Trail. To our left, burnt red and orange walls rise some 300 feet tall above steep slopes of broken rock and fine sand; to our right stand darker burgundy cliffs of Moenkopi Shale with horizontal striations in hues of red, including the severe pinnacle called Chimney Rock. A 30-minute climb through switchbacks on a good trail brings us to a pass, where we start the gentle descent into broad, sun-baked Chimney Rock Canyon.
Towering red cliffs with patches of white and orange and black water-stain streaks rise up on both sides; enormous boulders pile up below the cliffs. In the canyon bottom, the trail ends and we follow the dry, sandy channel to the junction with Spring Canyon, about three miles from the trailhead. The route continues down the canyon bottom of sand, cobblestones, and slickrock, beneath walls several hundred feet high.
At a pour-off, we walk a wide slickrock ledge above a narrow gorge maybe 12 feet deep, with walls sculpted in dramatic, smooth curves. At another pour-off, we detour up onto a goat path across a steep, crumbling slope. Some six to seven miles in, after more than four hours of hiking, we pitch the tent on a grassy bench beneath cliffs topped by domes and spires—our home for the next two nights.
Accessible and not very difficult, Spring Canyon is one of the more popular backpacking destinations in Capitol Reef. But “popular” has a different meaning in this park. While we’re not exploring virgin terrain, as we were Stegosaur Canyon, not seeing anyone else in here allows my kids to feel like explorers.
On our middle day we hike a couple of miles farther down the canyon and back. We scramble over boulders and I boost Nate and Alex up into cave-like “windows” in the rock that they crawl inside. Even though daytime temperatures have reached around 60 degrees every day since we arrived in the park, in a narrows that rarely sees direct sunlight we find thick plates of ice in the inch-deep trickle of water flowing from a spring—a reminder that winter only made its exit a week ago.
The kids spend at least an hour of our walk telling me about wild dreams they’ve had. Their stories sound to me like a perfect soundtrack to a dreamlike landscape—one that we have to entirely ourselves for a few days of hiking and exploring.
For every childhood summer as long as I can remember, my family went to visit my grandparents in a bucolic mountain town in upstate New York. To my brother and I, this was roughly equivalent to a yearly prequel to heaven. Almost every morning, we two boys would tag along behind our grandfather, like a couple of rollicking puppies, as he walked down the hill from his house, across the railroad tracks, and down into the deep woods along the river.
My gramps was a fierce-looking man with a thick shock of white hair, who wore workingman’s clothes and long johns even in hot weather. His pocketknives, and all his tools, were stropped to a lethal sharpness at all times. His temper could be equally sharp. My brother and I feared him as much as we adored him, as if he were one of those alarming Old Testament prophets glaring out of some ancient family Bible.
Once we got down to the river, the air would be loud with birdsong, you could smell the dank rush of wild water, and the old man would periodically kneel before some odd disturbance in the mud and the grass, trying to puzzle out the mystery of what had taken place there the night before. Though he never really talked it very much, it was my beloved “grampie,” Earl S. Krom, who taught me to love the woods.
When I first encountered William Temple Hornaday, while doing the research which would eventually lead to Mr. Hornaday’s War, I was struck by how much he reminded me of my grandfather. In fact, my memories of grampie became a kind of magic door into the personality of Hornaday, bringing him alive, as if he were rising up like Lazarus out of those dusty archives of his letters and papers at the Library of Congress. By the end of the nearly two years I spent working on this book, Hornaday had become so vivid that I could practically smell the sweatstained collar of his hunting shirt, after a couple of days afield. I could almost hear his voice, both the bombastic shouting voice he used in public, and the sweet, confiding whisper he used in his private letters to his wife Josephine, who remained the love of his life for sixty years.
Hornaday was very much a 19th century man, born on a farm in the Midwest in 1854. My gramps was also a 19th century man, born on a farm – everybody was born on a farm in those days – in 1889. Neither one of these men were the least bit cuddly, modernized or “metrosexual” (at least, not in public). In fact, they were both cranky and cantankerous in the same sort of way; difficult, ornery, intimidating. Both men were fundamentally at odds with this world in many ways – though my granddad mostly just grumbled, and Hornaday actually left the world profoundly changed from the way he found it.
Most of all, both men seemed to come alive when they were outdoors, in some remote hunting camp, close to the sound and smell of mud, bark, moss, leaves, boot leather and wild nature. Hornaday, who spent much of his very public life wearing a suit, once wrote Josephine that “if you should actually see me when I come from hunting when out in the jungles, I fear you would refuse to even look upon me again… It shows a depraved taste, I know, but it does my heart good to wipe everything on my pants.”
But, like all of us, both Hornaday and my grandfather had their shortcomings and blindnesses. I particularly remember one day when my grandfather brought along a .22 rifle on our walk down to the river. Usually he carried nothing more than a walking stick or a berry pail, but on this particular day he was armed. And when he spotted a big owl in a shade tree down by the river, he laid the gun on a fencepost, aimed, and – to my absolute amazement -- squeezed off a shot. Luckily, he missed, and the owl went silently winging off, like a gigantic moth. But for years afterwards, my brother and I were both astounded by this. If you saw something beautiful, why would you shoot it?
Because, if you grew up on a farm in the 19th century, that’s what you did. That was the 19th century view of the nattural world. Though my grandfather loved the woods, he also believed that certain “varmints” -- hawks, owls, crows, woodchucks, snapping turtles and any number of other living things -- deserved to be destroyed. And, of course, nature was considered to be a limitless resource: If you shot an owl, a thousand more would appear to take its place. (These attitudes are hardly confined to ancient history. As recently as the 1950s, if you shot a bald eagle in Alaska, you would not only not be fined or imprisoned, you’d get a bounty from the state government. That’s because people thought eagles were destroying the salmon fishery, and killing lambs. According to one Alaska historian,120,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska’s bounty program before it ended in 1953.)
These were the kinds of attitudes Hornaday also grew up with, but which he spent fifty years of his life fighting to change. (Yet even Hornaday himself, the great conservationist, was not free of such notions. Based on studies of the contents of their stomachs, he believed both the sharp-shinned hawk and the Cooper’s hawk deserved to be destroyed, because of their special appetite for domestic poultry.)
One key difference between my grandfather and William Temple Hornaday was that Hornaday not only changed the world, he also changed himself. As a young man he was a specimen collector, rifleman and taxidermist, who brought down more than his fair share of birds and game. But as he ranged further and further into the world’s remotest places – Borneo, the Malay penninsula, the Orionoco – he began to realize that even in these far-flung places, wherever wild nature made contact with human habitation, birds and animals were in full-scale retreat. And if the natural was in peril in Borneo, the entire natural order, everywhere, was at risk. Hornaday saw this long before most other people did, and as a result his attempts to educate the public were often bitterly contentious. People – especially hunters – just didn’t believe him when he said that birds and game were in grave danger.
My granddad, much as I loved him, never really changed. He never really saw that his predatory relationship to that owl in the tree would have to change if the complex web of nonhuman life on the planet was to be kept safe. Still, he did bequeath to me a love of the wild things and wild places that has carried through to this day. And for that – as well as his injunction that I always keep my pocketnife sharp -- I will always be thankful.
As an editor, I feel very fortunate to have worked with Stefan Bechtel on his book about the early and fierce conservationist William Temple Hornaday. As an eco-activist myself, I was captivated by Hornaday's story, that he went up against circumstances just as dire as we face today—so many species just about to blink out of existence due to the actions of some humans and the apathy of others—and said, “No, I will not allow this to happen.” And then fought by every means he could for the rest of his life.
His crusade for the bison is especially inspiring. Like the flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which would darken the sky for miles, the bison herds historically thundered by the millions over the Great Plains. But, as Hornaday said, there is “no volume of wild life so great that civilized man could not quickly exterminate it.” The massive bison slaughter was an intentional act of genocide, against the Plains Indians with the bison as proxy: from millions to a few hundred. His description of the carcass-covered plains, where once bison families stood peacefully eating prairie grass, is heart-rending. But thanks in good part to Hornaday, descendants of those last few still survive, and I was lucky enough to be able to visit Yellowstone last fall to see them for myself.
The first bison I saw was a solitary male, out in a field grazing. Not too close but within good binocular distance. To me, this was an almost mythic bison: I looked at him through the spiritual debt my species owed his. He was a magnificent representative of his almost-extinguished race, and I had the urge to bow in respect. At that moment I recalled that the “Indian name” I had as a child (my mother’s best friends were Oneida) was Little Buffalo.
It was also at that moment I banned my husband from eating buffalo burgers.
During our week in Yellowstone my view of bison went from mythical to personal as I got to know them better. In Lamar Valley we sat for hours, observing small herds dotting the plateau near and far. Mothers with frisky calves, trotting and frolicking. A couple of young males butting heads, one alpha leading his herd across the river (which reached only to their knees). Small family groups, sitting or sprawled out in the grass under an afternoon sun. When grazing, they had an undeniably bovine placidity, chewing, kicking up insects for the cowbirds that hopped near their feet and sat on their backs. At other times they were completely undignified, especially when taking their dust baths: it was funny to see these majestic animals belly-up in the dirt with legs flailing like grass-happy dogs.
Their cattle-like appearance lulls people into forgetting that these are wild animals, and the parks department includes warnings in their literature to keep your distance. The males weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run over 30 mph. Both genders have horns. More people die from bison goring than bear attacks, because people think these quietly ambling animals are harmless. I heard a story of someone putting their child on a bison’s back for a photo.
The only hint at aggression we saw was a male defending his chosen mate. He never left her side, quietly chuffing sweet nothings into her ear, sniffing her, nibbling her side. But if another male came too close, he lowered his head and grumphed at them. I was glad the others gave way. Michael Lanza (in Before They’re Gone) has compared a charging bison to a grand piano sprouting horns and moving at the speed of a race-horse. I did not want to see two grand pianos collide.
We got more up-close and personal when we ran into a bison jam; cars were stopped in the middle of the road not because people were stopping to watch wildlife, but because a herd was crossing the road, with some of the animals simply standing in the midst of traffic. A few got within ten feet of us, close enough that we could see the patchiness of their fall coats and hear their munching as they pulled up grass by the roadside.
Our most intimate experience of bison was tactile. In a couple of visitor centers, we could bury our fingers in the thick, wiry fur of preserved hides, feel the heft of their horns, and examine their vertebrae. We learned that the hump on their shoulders is actually specialized musculature designed to keep bison moving in deep snow: they swing their heads back and forth like a plow, and the vertebrae in this area are elongated to support these massive muscles.
Though the animals’ continued existence is history's best tribute to Hornaday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mountain in Yellowstone named for him. I could not leave without seeing it. Before departing the lodge on the morning of our quest, we asked a ranger for help locating the mountain. We had a map that showed the general spot, but I wondered if they could be any more specific. The ranger had not heard of Mt. Hornaday, but she wanted to be helpful, so she looked it up in a reference book and sure enough there it was with a short bio of the man. I filled her in on the rest of the story and why I wanted to see this mountain so badly. Because I had told her something she didn’t know about the park, she awarded me a “Junior Park Ranger” sticker, which is one of my favorite souvenirs.
My husband used his GPS to locate the mountain but it wasn’t really visible from the road, so we took an unplanned hike up Pebble Creek Trail to reach a high enough elevation to see the 10,000-foot peak named for my new hero. The trail was more than I had bargained for, and we were low on water. I wanted to give up, but Alex urged me on and only a couple of miles later we reached a clearing that gave us the perfect of view of the adjacent summit we were after!
Since then, I have kept up with bison news and goings-on in the West. One of the most exciting recent stories has been the reintroduction of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The Yellowstone bison are among the last genetically pure, wild bison (others have been interbred with cattle on ranches). They are the direct descendants of the last few survivors of the genocide, and about 60 of them have now been returned to the prairies of Montana, under the care of their original Plains cohabitants. Since the move, five new calves have been born to the herd, their little hooves aerating the tall-grass prairies that have not felt their tread in over a century.
Last Mother’s Day, I woke to a rainy, chilly day, one that nonetheless began nicely with breakfast in bed—poached eggs and toast, tea, and a cupful of my own coconut yogurt. “What next Mom?” four year-old Helen asks. “I’d like to walk in the woods.” I say. “Let’s check in on the spring flowers, the migratory songbirds, and newly unfurling ferns. Maybe collect some wild leeks for dinner.” “It’s raining,” they complain. “But it’s Mother’s Day,” Dad replies firmly.
We dress and prepare to leave the house for a local trail. Helen chooses her own wardrobe for the rainy outing—Crocs, a pair of tights under a summer dress, and her favorite hat with a butterfly stitched in the front. An hour later, we are all damp to the skin and heading for home to light a fire and make tea. But we have managed to hear and see the rose-breasted grosbeak, to identify four species of fern, to marvel at the rare white trillium, and to collect a handful of wild leeks. Not a bad catch for a raw, 40-degree day.
Then the idea of a matinee comes up. We check Netflix: Earth and Monsters vs. Aliens emerge as options. The four of us crowd around the laptop to watch the previews. Mother/infant pairs of humpback whales swim in an immense ocean, elephant herds famous for their bonding are tracked across Africa, and baby polar bears—the icons of climate change—nurse from their mother’s teats before exiting icy dens and encountering an all-too bright and warm world. James Earl Jones’ voice draws me like a preacher, but the children grumble, “We’ve seen all this on Planet Earth.”
Next we preview Monsters vs. Aliens. Ginormica, the 10-story tall monster with Disney eyes to die for, is skating across the San Francisco Bridge while a genetically-engineered blue tomato swallows highway medians and extraterrestrial aliens land in Modesto, bent on capturing the speck of a planet the locals there call Earth. The trailer is hilarious, funny, silly, and captivatingly colorful.
Can we make a film that addresses a future affected by climate change as captivating as sci-fi monsters saving humanity from aliens? As good a question is, should we?
I raise my children in a TV-free household. Much of our media comes through the radio, and Celia knows to turn the NPR station off when the news of a car bombing or other inappropriate material is aired. My children receive National Geographic and National Geographic Kids Magazine, along with an occasional catalog. We take weekly trips to the library for story hour and kids book group. But by and large my husband and I deftly censor the entrance to media, opening doors to information we deem suitable and in keeping with our values and closing doors to information that is contrary to our beliefs –violence, a culture of consumption, and the overly sexualized characterization of girls and women being chief among them. (Does the Title 9 catalog fall into this category? I’m still deciding…surely the Athleta one does.)
Still, it isn’t difficult to see where the marketers are making inroads. Scholastic Book Sales at the school introduce Hannah Montana, books featuring TV characters, and cheap gadgets and toys. The library at my daughter’s small school (6 grades and 130 children) now carries American Girl Magazine, a newly created zine full of tween marketing strategy, with articles on room redecorating and birthday party themes. Even though my children are not seeing the 100 commercials a day viewed by TV-watching children, the $15 billion spent each year on advertising and marketing to children manages to pervade even the most “gated” households. My point is that I’m finding it increasingly hard to instill positive values—ones that resonate with the message of why, for instance, we need to stop climate change—in the context of a consumer culture that explicitly targets children.
While we may want to educate our young about climate change—explaining why there is no pond hockey at Christmas, or why the hollyhocks that used to bloom around my daughter’s birthday are now blooming well before, or why we are walking 8 miles down Vermont’s Route 7 with a thousand other people carrying signs that read “Save our Syrup”—we need to do it in the context of a culture that is just waking up to the certainty that climate change is happening. Happening now.
Children are wise. But they also have short attention spans. From my own experience I know that when I go down the path of overtly educating my children about global warming, often triggered by an extreme weather event like March’s heat wave, I am likely to hear one of the following: “Can I have a play date?” (Helen) or “I’m going to go ride my bike” (Celia). This is not to say that they aren’t taking the information in, aren’t mulling it over while they shift into low gear to get up the hill. But what I realize is that children orient themselves toward fun; a little bit of sober information goes a long, long way.
Enter the marketers who understand that fun for children is what it’s all about; colorful fun—crazy blues, electric greens, hilarious yellow—silly and giddy and popping-out fun. Like the eyes on Ginormica, the spandex-clad star of Monsters vs. Aliens. Every bit animated and every bit sultry, Ginormica hits, neurologically speaking, the bull’s eye for every child’s attention.
As adults concerned about global warming, what we want is for our message to be factually accurate, long-lived, one that serves to evolve a new set of values, or to strengthen values already in place. But I believe the message has to on some level be enjoyable too, something people want to be a part of, something kids want to do.
I don’t have an answer here except to say that marketing and our own literacy in it has to be part of the equation. The messages we give to our children land in a greater context than the one we create in our households; parents of children older than mine can attest to the superpower strength of these other contexts. They are powerful, and highly strategic, as Juliet Schor concludes in her book Born to Buy on how advertising and marketing sells to children. But our messages are powerful too. And they can be more powerful with better strategies.
Talking with children about climate change is in essence talking to ourselves about our own stewardship of the planet. The response to the facts, in our minds as well as theirs, quickly becomes, “Why do we keep emitting greenhouse gases knowing what we do?” or “What are we doing to stop global warming?” The fact is we are collectively complicit and therefore collectively responsible to come up with solutions, ones that will define our future.
I would have much preferred to watch the nature documentary on Mother’s Day, so I wasn’t in a great mood after watching my daughter’s choice of film. I won’t give away the ending of the movie, but suffice to say the monsters go up against an even larger crisis than climate change, an unwinnable one. But when I put Helen to bed that night, tucked her in against the raw chill that had continued into the evening, she recited the four species of fern we’d learned on our walk: oak, marsh, sensitive, and lady.
May 6, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, the father of American nature writing. His influence on contemporary environmental writing is still very significant, and this weekend, we're highlighting that influence on our blog. Today, we hear from Michael Lanza and Elizabeth Gehrman.
I would be less than honest to claim that, when I read Thoreau’s classic Walden; or, Life in the Woods, years ago, I couldn’t put it down. To me, it seemed like the book begged to be put down. By modern literary standards, it is not the most accessible read. It probably wasn’t back when it was first published in 1854, either.
I grew up not far from Walden Pond, where, beginning on July 4, 1845, Thoreau lived for two years, two months, and two days alone in a cabin “to front only the essential facts of life, and… suck out all the marrow of life.” That’s heady stuff. I’ve walked the trail around the pond—which can take an hour only if you dawdle—and visited the replica of his tiny cabin that stands there today. In reality, the second-growth forest (less dense than Thoreau’s prose) in which he dwelled just two miles from town probably felt little more isolated back then than it does today, within earshot of a busy highway.
But the degree of Thoreau’s isolation is not what matters; and in an era when so much entertainment delivers an intellectual experience akin to eating apple sauce—no chewing necessary—perhaps we should celebrate writing that requires some brain effort to interpret. Thoreau’s real importance was introducing ideas about returning to nature that were ahead of his time and helped inspire the conservation movement, among other social trends to which he contributed (transcendentalism, abolition, and civil disobedience, to name-drop a few noteworthy examples). His words ring particularly prescient now, when we lament the myriad, tragic consequences of so many children spending so little time outdoors. Certainly, all of us who today write about personal experiences in nature stand on Thoreau’s shoulders.
As no less an authority than the late John Updike once wrote: “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Maybe Thoreau’s classic work should be required reading for all high-school students, or at least any who would aspire to join the long parade of writers walking rocky trails in his footsteps. Those who put in the time and effort might discover the meaning that has stirred so many people. And I doubt we’ll ever have an app for that.
Though I dutifully recorded and often revisited quotes from it — so many I could never choose just one to cite here — what I remember most from my high school English reading of Walden is that it was a bit of a slog. I was no philosopher, and though I grew up on an island, my playgrounds the Niagara River and acres of untamed forest, nature had never really flipped my introspection switch. Maybe, as an only child, I had enough solitude; I was content simply to explore the woods and water without feeling the need to examine myself in the bargain. It wasn’t until college, when I got around to Cape Cod, that I really discovered Thoreau.
Where Walden turns inward, Cape Cod turns outward. Often described as Thoreau’s “happy” book, it is not so much about nature as about people in nature. It tells of those who are drawn to the sea — the oystermen and lighthouse keepers and industrious old women who come to it because of work or circumstance or its inexorable pull on the soul. “Cape Cod is but another name for human culture,” Thoreau writes early on. His initial tale of a horrific shipwreck never strays far from his mind as he recounts the power of the “vast and wild” Atlantic over the lives cast upon its shores with an eye for detail that any journalist would envy.
And that, it seems to me, is more affecting than bean-planting any day.
May 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, the father of American nature writing. His influence on contemporary environmental writing is still very significant, and this weekend, we're highlighting that influence on our blog. Today, we hear from Christine Byl and Brad Tyer, two forthcoming Beacon authors.
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. She lives in a yurt outside of Healy, Alaska with her husband and retired sled dogs. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Sun, Glimmer Train,Broadsided Press, Lumberyard, and others. She worked on trail crews on public lands for 15 years; with her husband she now runs a family business doing trail design and construction.
I had not split firewood or hoed a row of beans when I first read Thoreau in high school English. I lived in urban Michigan, had no experience with subsistence tasks. Yet I loved Thoreau from the first page. Now I live in Interior Alaska, off-the-grid without running water, and daily chores take up much of my time (picking berries, hauling water, cutting wood). But the reasons I was drawn to Thoreau in high school remain consistent now: something about what centered him made sense to me—life connected to a place you lived, and what you did there. I liked how he was humble yet sure of himself. I liked that he admired squirrels.
As a writer, I've respected other things. His cultural critique feels germane 150 years out. He's a dialectical thinker, finding fertile ground between assumed dichotomies. He summons a childlike wonder at the world. He reminds me to laugh, to take words and ideas seriously, but myself less so. Simply put, Thoreau writes with mind, heart and body fully engaged. Among the many writers who've influenced me, Thoreau may best embody Henry James’ famous quote: "A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost."
The conventional way to write off Thoreau is on his so-called inconsistencies (Walden wasn't wild, it was a mile from Concord!), but Thoreau's wisdom is that he never claimed a deliberate life had to happen in the middle of nowhere. An authentic life isn't an escape: it has less to do with location than attentiveness to it.
Despite the solitude he was best known for, I think Thoreau would make good company. (I feel so friendly toward him that I refer to him in my mind by the pet nickname, HDT.) I can imagine working in the woods with him, tossing 8-foot logs into the truckbed, making him blush at a bawdy joke. After, in the cool spring evening I'd pour us hot cocoa (mine with whiskey, his without.) I can see myself leaning on the axe near the splitting stump while HDT quotes himself from Walden, "Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection." Yep, HDT, and every woman, too.
Brad Tyer is the author of Opportunity Montana, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Outside magazine, High Country News, the Texas Observer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.
I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.
At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake.
It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.
What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization.
To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass...
Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.
May 6, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s death. Thoreau is viewed by many as the father of American nature writing, and his significant influence continues. In the passage below Tom Montgomery Fate describes his own “cabin experience” in southwest Michigan and reflects on Thoreau’s continuing relevance.
One sunny afternoon a few years ago I drove to southwest Michigan to build a cabin in the woods. It was spring break and I had just reread Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s nineteenth century account of his life in the woods at Walden Pond. The famous hermit-philosopher had again inspired me, but it was different from the first time I read it. I was not an idealistic 19-year-old college freshman, but a harried and married 46 year-old father of three in suburban Chicago. Different things mattered. The book called me with more urgency––from my distracted middle-class, middle-aged life into the wild solitude it conjured.
That same morning, before leaving, I discussed the weekend with my wife, Carol, packed food and clothes, and then went to the garage to look for tools. When I pushed the remote, and the garage door hummed open, I abruptly recognized my life: a wild tangle of bicycles and strollers and grilling utensils and patio furniture and wet cardboard boxes full of moldy books and kids’ clothes. Amid the clutter I found an old spade, two saw horses, a metal tool box, and a post hole digger, all of which I tossed into the back of our minivan. On the two-hour drive to Michigan that day I recited Thoreau’s mantra–– Simplify, Simplify––as a kind of prayer, thinking it might offer me some guidance.
It didn’t. We finished the cabin in two years, or at least stopped working on it. Cobbled together with the help of family and friends, and with more patience than expertise, we built it on a fifty acre plot of woods and meadow that we own and share with six other families, friends from our old church. They bought the land cheap thirty years ago––a farm abandoned after a fire. It has since been slowly restored: the stone farmhouse rebuilt, thousands of pines and oaks planted, a large garden dug. And we maintain a network of walking trails that wind throughout the property.
Were he alive today, Thoreau might have little interest in our experiment in Michigan. But he might be a bit curious. He did, after all, anticipate those readers who would naively aspire to his ideals. In the first chapter of Walden he addresses the relevance of his stint in the woods for the interested novice: “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living…but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursuehis own way.”[i]
Even when no one would buy his books, and long before there were Thoreau “wannabes,” he advised readers to listen for their own drummer, and find their own way through the forest. Walden’s continued appeal is partly due to a romantic longing to “get back to nature.” And while Henry himself is also deeply romanticized, his commitment to the environment, his material self-sufficiency, and his “less is more” economics could not be more relevant.
Such ideas resonate in a high tech, high speed culture, which excels at making waste and war. We have bi-focal contacts and laser eye surgery but still struggle to see in the way Thoreau imagined––to find the essential balance of the I and eye, of self and world. This is why despite the vast distances of time and culture, I can’t help but read Thoreau’s artful interrogation of his life at Walden Pond as both a critique of my own and as an invitation to a new kind of vision, to the joy of enough in a culture of more, to a deliberate life.
That’s what I’m seeking: a more deliberate life. But deliberate doesn’t just mean intentional or careful; it means balanced. The word is tied to libra––the two pan scale of justice—which is for weighing and balancing things—ideas, fears, love. Or maybe garlic: I saw such a scale once at a market in a tiny French village. The farmer put a 100 gram weight in one silver pan and a handful of garlic in the other. The standard, or known weight, was balanced against the unknown. In this case the garlic was too heavy so the pans didn’t level. But the vendor gave it to me anyway, balancing the scale with his generosity. Deliberation is a creative act, an art.
My 7-year-old son, Bennett, sometimes tries to balance himself on the creaky iron fulcrum of a wooden teeter totter at the playground. He jumps up on the heavy plank and puts one foot on each side of the center. Then he shifts his weight, pushing one end of the plank down, causing the other end to rise. He tries to stay balanced and level but can’t for more than a few seconds. One side always starts to teeter up or totter down. He doesn’t stay centered, but neither does he ever fall off. This struggle for balance, the rising and falling between the earth and sky, gives him great joy. And he gives that joy to me, if I’m paying attention.
To put it plainly, a deliberate life is a search for balance—in mind and body and spirit—amid our daily lives. And while some might like to do that searching all alone in the woods, few can. Other “natural” commitments conflict: children, a partner, a job or two. Most readers who admire Thoreau’s ideas don’t have the freedom or desire to live a solitary life in the woods. Still, what many of us do want, and what this book is about, is finding a deeper connection to Nature in our ordinary lives—by seeking relationship and refuge wherever we find ourselves––whether it be on a walk through a forest preserve, on a family camping trip, or catching grasshoppers in the backyard.
“I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau famously wrote. For him travel writing was nature writing, and it was local. His search for the Wild was on home ground: an outward physical journey and inward spiritual journey conducted not in pristine isolation, but on the humble Concord woodlot available to him.[ii]
This is vital for those who seek a more deliberate life today. Because since Thoreau’s invention of the nature memoir 150 years ago, much of the natural environment itself has been destroyed. So the task is no longer to discover and record the rare, but to recover and nurture the ravaged—to try to restore some balance where we live. This is particularly true here, amid the Midwest’s decimated woodlands and farms and sprawling suburbs, where developers and nature often collide.
Everyday I see these collisions––the imbalance––between humanity and the other animals who live here. Herons nest on our E.coli choked river. Coyotes hunt on the runways of O’Hare Internatonal airport while roaring jets are trying to land. A Canada goose gets trapped in the entryway of my office building. Rabbits nest in wood chips beneath a metal slide on a suburban playground. A wild cougar is gunned down in an alley by a Chicago policeman. Who belongs where? Who will take care of whom on this shrinking planet? How will we find the balance we seek?
These are the kinds of questions that Thoreau is still opening for me, and that I continue to live in.
[i] Henry David Thoreau. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. P.86
[ii] Ibid. p. 170. The land around Walden Pond was not “wilderness,” but a conventional woodlot when purchased by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau himself writes “The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale…”
A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, Michael Lanza knows our national parks like the back of his hand. As a father, he hopes to share these special places with his two young children. But he has seen firsthand the changes wrought by the warming climate and understands what lies ahead: a vastly changed landscape. So he and his wife take his nine-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex, on an ambitious journey to see as many climate-threatened wild places as they can fit into a year: backpacking in the Grand Canyon, Glacier, the North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and along the wild Olympic coast; sea kayaking in Alaska's Glacier Bay; hiking to Yosemite's waterfalls; rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park; cross-country skiing in Yellowstone; and canoeing in the Everglades.