book review

By synchronicity, I come across this news article as I am also reading The Western Paradox: A Bernard DeVoto Conservation Reader – a volume that combines Bernard DeVoto’s unfinished last work with many of his essays against the economic exploitation of public lands.

It’s interesting, because the subject of the article is clearly exactly the sort of person who DeVoto worked himself to death opposing – someone who is willing to do permanent damage to a public resource for short-term gain, and not even willing, but has constructed a world-view in which he is awesome to do so. Look at some of those quotes. He clearly thinks he’s some sort of a Trickster figure sticking it to Da Man, and everyone likes tricksters who stick it to Da Man. If you can convince yourself that some relatively weak opponent (the Forest Service, or the tree-huggers, or if you prefer working in a cozy east coast office you might use Ivory Tower professors, feminazis, PC liberals, there are lots of choices…) is Da Man, then you can be a cross between Bugs Bunny and Robin Hood practically every day. In your own head.

Outside your own head, of course, you’re being a spoiler and a gangster, a childish figure who causes destruction just to demonstrate power. “Nice park, shame if anything should happen to it.” DeVoto demolished the argument that the Forest Service was Da Man, coming from similar people for similar motives, back in my grandparents’ day.

Now, unfortunately, a perfect regard for the rule of law forces me to say that if this guy wins his case on a by-the-book basis, somebody is going to have to pay him some money, and he’ll walk away thinking he’s a big winner. Too much attention to him will probably just cause him to raise the price on his blackmail demands. But in a world where people still make fun of a woman who sued McDonald’s even though McDonald’s actually put her in need of skin grafts, the idea that anyone would valorize this guy for his expertise in system-playing makes me sick.

(As an aside, the whole idea of being able to “sell” mineral rights separately from the rights to the land on top of them has always struck me as a bit odd, and should probably be rethought. It seems set up mainly to privilege large corporations in extractive businesses, who can lock in future profits at low current prices, over individual humans who move around, die and pass property down, and might learn more about what their land is really worth as time goes on.)

It is really exhausting reading DeVoto’s work, and seeing how little has changed, but also inspiring.

Here’s a guy, little remembered today, who went time after time into the fray with people who would lie for profit, lie to stick it to the “socialists” (they didn’t have the phrase tree-huggers yet), and handily label anything that results in a smidgen of profit or a momentary sense of triumph for themselves as a great All-American good. And he didn’t lose. He didn’t win, exactly, but the opposition goal then as today was ultimately to get all public resources into private hands for exploitation (at the time, a few cattlemen and sheep growers were openly speaking of obtaining all the National Parks as potential grazing land) and that didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who was warning us before World War II that we needed to pay attention to watersheds and take it easier with irrigation, or the American West could find itself in a really bad fix. A guy who looked at the deserts and said that they couldn’t be what our triumphalist mythology demanded, so mythology, not the deserts, needed to yield.

The Western Paradox is the first thing I’ve read by DeVoto, but I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to him.

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Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection

Columba livia, better known as the Common Pigeon (or back in my day, the Rock Dove), occupies an odd niche where the world of biology meets the world of human psychology. Sort of domesticated and now sort of feral, it’s sort of invasive, turning up virtually everywhere that humans have built a city or town but not moving much beyond a world defined by manmade structures. It’s sort of a pest, pooping on things and what not, but then again it lives off of human profligacy with food and thus disposes of a lot of material that would otherwise rot in the streets (or else be consumed by our other major urban symbiotes, rats and cockroaches.)

There was a time when our symbiosis was a more straightforward thing. Humans built dovecotes, which the pigeons found pleasant to nest in, and humans provided concentrations of food (grains in those days) that were convenient for the pigeons, and so the pigeons were left with plenty of leisure to make more pigeons. The humans would then eat some of the pigeons. It was a fairly simple exchange as these things go, and both pigeons and humans became major global species. As we urbanized, pigeons adapted brilliantly; today, arguably, cities and towns are their natural habitat, and they belong in cities as truly as trout belong in mountain streams and bison belong on sweeping prairies.

Nowadays, though, our relationship has become more fraught, more neurotic, burdened with a perverse hatred – pigeons are practically our collective Jungian anima, filthy because of their contact with our trash, lowly because of our own self-doubt about the rightfulness of our vast success, scorned because they’re not hiding in a mythic wilderness but right here dropping our own discarded French fries back on our shoulders. And that’s where Andrew D. Blechman’s slender but action-packed book Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird comes in.

Chronicling a year of investigation into the world of all things Columba livia, Blechman comes face to face with the myriad ways that humans play out their most human impulses, for good and bad, on the bodies of these birds. Racing aficionados cater to their pigeons’ every health need – or dose them with steroids in search of the big win. Fanciers breed pigeons unable to eat on their own or fly without suffering from seizures, and then complain that street birds give their hobby a bad name. Pigeon-shooting clubs in economically depressed rural Pennsylvania torment live targets to express their futile, misguided contempt for big-city values and big-city people (often using pigeons captured from the very streets of those hated cities in the shadowy gray-market economy of pigeon poaching – and Blechman’s account of these activities cast a less sanguine light on the possibility of humane pigeon harvest that I wishfully proposed.) Lonely eccentrics take up pigeon feeding in order to feel needed and are drawn half-unwitting into realms of activism and even civil disobedience.

And, of course, some people still eat them.

By the end of the book, unsurprisingly, Blechman has been captured as well, taking up the flag of humane pigeon control after recognizing the futility of trying to poison off our own shadow side. Where pigeons are too much, he argues, it is because we need to curb waste and practice self-restraint. It seems we can look from pigeon to man, and from man to pigeon… and it is impossible to say which is which.

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I have a confession:

When I first moved to New York City, and up until this weekend, I had a merely passing interest in Pale Male and the other raptor superstars of the five burroughs. Sure, they’re birds. They’re big birds. I’m pleased when I see them; I’m irate when they’re threatened by human activity.

But at the Olde Homestead, there have always been Red-tails (my youngest brother is named after them, sort of.) And in Ithaca, there have always been Red-tails. As far as I’m concerned, there have always been Red-tails, and there will always be Red-tails. Red-tails without end, amen.

Nevertheless, Pale Male and his rotating cast of lady friends are about the only Manhattan celebrities I know anything about, and so a few years ago I gave the Inimitable MIL* a copy of Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. To my not particularly great surprise, when we came to visit I discovered that the book had migrated to the guest bedroom. So I read it.

At once, I saw that my historical perspective on the birdlife of Central Park was lacking. This country gal had no idea exactly how ground-breaking Pale Male’s early nesting attempts were. Marie Winn does a good job communicating the excitement, although the lack of strict chronology and a single attempt to forge into the disreputable realms of Salinger pastiche were distracting; she also balances her main storyline sure-handedly with vignettes of the other birds in the park, as well as insects, plants, and people. Given her infectious enthusiasm, it’s no surprise that Winn now has an excellent nature blog of her own.

Besides the fact that Red-tails, and Red-tail nests, and Red-tail triumphs and Red-tail tragedy are now old hat to jaded Manhattanites, much has changed in the park. Screech Owls were once not there, now they are; Gadwalls have gone beyond increasing to increased; and Mississippi Kites have been added to the park’s fly-over hawk list. Perhaps they might be the next city-nesting superstars?

*she is unto mother-in-laws like House Sparrows are to Sparrows – almost like one but not, in technical point of fact, actually one at all. Also, ubiquitous.

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Let’s be fair; this book is not a field guide in the standard parlance. It’s a bit too big to carry conveniently in the field, and it is not going to be much use as an identification tool for anyone but beginners – it goes for breadth rather than depth, covering wildflowers AND trees AND insects AND birds AND mammals AND herps, all very basically, and doesn’t even illustrate both plumages of the sexually dimorphic birds that it covers.

What Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City actually is is an excellent browsing book. It has beautiful watercolor illustrations and a wealth of interesting tidbits about the species it covers; I particularly appreciated that each entry includes an etymology of the species’ Latin name and, where it’s not obvious, the common name as well. It also includes detailed instructions for getting to various key nature-watching sites around the city by car and public transit.

This probably doesn’t need to be on the shelf of every hard-core birdwatcher, but it would make a nice gift for a friend who is interested in nature in a general sort of way, the one who is always vaguely describing something they saw and then asking you what it was.

“The piping plover is a pit bull of a bird…”

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either!

I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect when I picked up a copy of Curtis J. Badger’s Salt Tide: Currents of Nature and Life on the Virginia Coast; I knew it was about the coastal marshes of Virginia, and I knew that those were interesting, so I gave it a shot. I didn’t know that I was picking up a book of essays that in my opinion deserve to be ranked but slightly lower than those of Aldo Leopold in terms of perfectly balancing the specific and the sublime. Like Leopold, Badger is gifted at capturing the majesty of nature and the beauty of the human life connected to the land by dwelling on the individual. The essay “Plover Watch”, for instance, spirals out from its peculiar opening metaphor and the sandpiper-chasing critter that inspired it to embrace not only the whole of the endangered bird’s life cycle and the efforts of humans to protect it, but the relations of all sorts of native birds to the delicate seaside territory that humans covet so destructively. The biology of Spartina, the art of digging for clams, the peaceful joy of the small boat and the grand scope of history and the ultimate impermanence of all beaches and barrier islands in the face of the relentless sea, are all tiles in a mosaic of love for a place that is a home. It’s a mystery to me why this book isn’t considered a classic in nature writing.

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Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

As an object, this is a beautiful book. Sized to fit comfortably in the hand, it has an elegant dust jacket; it’s printed on thick, serious stock, meant to last; and best of all, it’s illustrated throughout with lush watercolors by Mary Woodin.

Unfortunately, and contrary to what the cover led me to expect, this is not a book about birds. It’s a book about how one man took his self – his anxious masculinity, his spiritual confusion, his fear of death, his absurdly overinflated sense of purpose – into the field and offloaded all those feelings on to some birds he saw. This has always been a popular school of nature writing, but I dislike it intensely. No one can avoid taking birds personally a little bit, or at least I can’t, but to me the neat thing about birds is that touch of the alien, the magnificent indifference. If I thought that birds were coming around with messages for me, that would be cheap. That would be cheating.

Keen’s sensibilities clashed with my own most in his essay about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Our author, now elderly, was a young boy and just a budding birdwatcher as the Ivory-bill was going extinct/”extinct”. A friend of the family takes him to Tennessee, where she claims to still see the “peckerwoods” regularly. Staying with a rural family, he spots a suspicious Picus – only to have a member of his host family obligingly shoot it out of the sky for him. Horrified, he buries it without identifying it, and then walks around as though somehow his eleven-year-old ass is bearing a direct load of original sin. Understandable for a pre-pubescent child; inexcusable in an essayist of mature years, especially when said essayist uses the alleged re-emergence of the Ivory-bill to pontificate about how he won’t even attempt to see it, not wanting to taint it with his all-destroying gaze or whateverthefuck. Not a shred of scientific spirit in the man, is what I’m saying. This comes to the fore even more strongly in his essay on bird intelligence, where he conflates the theory of a mechanistic universe with a Descartian disregard for the possibility of intelligences other than human, apparently based on nothing more than the fact that this must be true in order for him to believe that mystics make better naturalists than materialists.

Still, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Keen can describe a bunting, that’s for sure. And as I said, it’s really very pretty.

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Who Killed the Great Auk?

Everyone knows this, right? Those three dudes on Eldey Island in the summer of 1844.

Only maybe not.

This slender volume by writer/ornithologist Jeremy Gaskell does a brilliant job of delving into the question, weighing the relative impact of egging, sport hunting, market hunting, feather harvesting, collecting, a few key instances of habitat loss, and some notable examples of sheer assholery (including reports of sailors throwing live birds into fires for entertainment.) Since all these groups (except the sinking volcanic islands and, for the most part, the sadists) commenced to eagerly cast blame on each other in the wake of the Great Auk’s extinction (especially in Great Britain, when it became clear that declining seabird stocks were going to result in action on the part of Parliament) it’s not an easy matter to unravel.

Complicating matters, as the book documents, is the fact that during the time when the Great Auk was being driven out of existence pretty much nobody had a good idea of what the hell was going on. Peoples who lived near the auk colonies (including a few cultures who had managed to feed themselves with sustainably harvested seabirds and eggs for centuries before capitalism and colonialism came into the picture) noticed local extinctions, but lacked a global perspective. Even the experts who first raised the alarm about the overall dwindling mostly assumed that the Auk was at heart an Arctic species and that the colonies being lost represented the southern fringes, not the core, of the population.

The incredible paucity of accurate information collected about the Great Auk during its tenure in the world is a theme that Gaskell returns to over and over again, as when he poignantly notes that we have but two or three written descriptions of the sound the bird made and hardly any understanding of its transitional plumages. He also stresses the links between man’s inhumanity to man and man’s inhumanity to Auk – many of the most serious depredations resulted from conditions of ongoing desperation and a tragedy of the commons, where those who practiced restraint in leaving breeding birds and eggs for another day were simply scooped by those intent on making the most money fastest.

The text, though at times brutally depressing reading, is well-crafted, combining a lively, accessible style with meticulous and extensive footnotes and a number of fascinating black-and-white illustrations of the bird and the people who studied it. In fact, the only thing I can truly find to hold against this book is its price – being from Oxford University Press, it’s not cheap, particularly in our tiny American dollars. (I confess, I bought mine used.) Still, if you can come at a copy some way, it’s very much worth reading.

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