Sunday, January 8, 2012

Finding Our Way to the Wild by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

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Discussion topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

Welcome (or welcome back) to America's WILD READ. I was delighted when Anne Post at the National Conservation Training Center asked me to act as a moderator; I'm intrigued by the possibilities of generating a meaningful online conversation about the things that actually take us out of our virtual, 21st century bubble and into the real – the natural – world.

In 2004, I set out to retrace the path blazed 50 years earlier by two of the 20th century's greatest naturalists, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher – one a self-taught ornithologist whose only formal higher education was in art, the other an Eaton- and Oxford-trained scientist who abandoned plans for a medical career when he fell in love with the birds of the Arctic in the 1930s, and became a famous writer, broadcaster and biologist.

"So much had I seen of wild Europe, and especially wild Britain in the company of my colleague, and so much had I learned under his tutelage...that I had a growing desire to reciprocate, to show him my own continent," Peterson wrote. So he hatched plans for what he called their Grand Tour of Wild America, which Peterson planned with almost military precision.
They were very different personalities, from very different backgrounds, but when they met in 1950 at an ornithological conference in Sweden, they became immediate and fast friends. Peterson was, at the time, working on his field guide to the birds of Europe, and Fisher became his escort, consultant, champion and frequent hotelier, since Peterson and his wife Barbara often stayed at the Fishers' country home in Northamptonshire (or at James' club in London), when in the U.K.
It's also an obvious pleasure and a honor to follow in the footsteps of people like Robert Michael Pyle, Margaret Atwood, my colleague Will Stolzenburg and many others, including our most recent moderator, Bill Sherwonit.And finally, I'm happy to lead a discussion that uses, as its jumping-off point, one of the most enjoyable, interesting, exhausting, brain-stretching experiences I've had in my almost 35 years of writing about the natural world.

Gannets at Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundland (©Scott Weidensaul)
In April 1953, Fisher and Peterson met in Newfoundland, and commenced an odyssey by car that carried them down through New England and the Appalachians, around Florida and the Gulf, into the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, through the American Southwest to the Pacific, up the coast to the Olympic Peninsula, and finally by plane to some of the most remote parts of Alaska, then still an American territory - places like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and the Pribilof Islands.

I did not try to match that pace. The bulk of my travels took nine months – nine of the most challenging and rewarding months of my professional life. I didn't want to simply lap the circuit; I wanted to dig more deeply into the many landscapes through which those two men passed, and explore the conservation issues that haunt them. Where Peterson and Fisher spent about 36 hours along the lower Rio Grande, for instance, I spent two weeks there.
As the 50th anniversary of Wild America's publication drew closer, it struck me that the book provided a perfect opportunity to go back and reassess what we'd lost and gained in the half-century since Fisher and Peterson made their frenetic, 300-miles-a-day circumnavigation of the continent.
But as I grew up and began to travel around North America myself, the book took on a deeper resonance. Rereading it, at times it seemed impossibly quaint; Fisher was agog at his first views of a highway cloverleaf, and the two authors felt a need to explain motels and air-conditioning to their American readers. At other times – as the authors warned about development pressures, western water use and forest management – it seemed strangely prescient.
I first read Wild America when I was a kid, and the whole thing seemed like a terrific lark – two buddies chasing birds all over creation. (Among other things, the trip was the genesis of the idea of a "big year," a birding tradition that has taken on an extreme life of its own since then.)
Their book, Wild America, was published in the autumn of 1955, and proved to be both an immediate bestseller, and a iconic classic of American nature-writing – a bit of an irony, since most of the book was written by Fisher, the Brit.
It would be, Peterson promised his friend, "a more complete cross section of wild America than any other Englishman, and all but a few North Americans, have ever seen." It took them three and a half months, plotted almost to the minute thanks to Peterson's meticulous planning. (Arriving on the northern California coast one afternoon, they met conservationist Laidlaw Williams, who was to show them sea otters. "At four [o'clock], punctual," Williams noted as the men got out of their car. "What time did you leave?" "Sixty days ago," Peterson deadpanned.

Old Chevak field station, Yukon Delta NWR
 (©Scott Weidensaul) 
There were times when I was following precisely in their footsteps – chasing condors through the mountains of southern California 50 years to the day after their visit, or staying in the old, ramshackle field station at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska, the one-time Catholic church for an abandoned Cup'ik Eskimo village, the same building Fisher and Peterson stayed in, watching the descendants of the same western sandpipers and bar-tailed godwits they watched.

In some cases, though, I veered well off their original track – most memorably into the Sierra Madre of eastern Mexico, a region they just brushed when they made an incursion to the mountain town of Xilitla. Just another 15 or 20 miles deeper into the mountains, just over the line in QuerĂ©taro state, lay my destination, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve.Here I found the single most uplifting, optimistic story of my Return to Wild America travels – how a single committed family led by the mother, Pati Ruiz Corzo, had started a local environmental group in the 1980s. The Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda grew to one of the most effective NGOs in Latin America, and worked with residents in hundreds of small mountain villages throughout the region to successfully petition the federal government to create a 950,000-acre biosphere reserve covering a third of the state.

Fall wildflowers in the Sierra Gorda
(©Scott Weidensaul)
I fell in love with the Sierra Gorda on that trip, and have returned a number of times since, reveling in the wild landscapes, which range from high-elevation cloud forests where ancient oaks, gums and pines are draped in moss and epiphytic orchids, to hot evergreen jungles and semi-desert scrubland. The Sierra Gorda also holds every species save one that was there when the Spanish arrived, from tropical animals like jaguars, margays, military macaws and emerald toucanets to temperate creatures like black bears and American dippers.

Yet on that trip and my subsequent visits, even when I found myself far, far back in the deepest mountains, hours by foot from the end of the last jeep track, I was not in an untouched land. Mesoamericans inhabited the Sierra Gorda for thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of years before the conquistadors, and today there are perhaps 100,000 people living in the mountains – mostly in small villages like La Trinidad, a cluster of homes and pastures cradled in a high, chilly valley scented with wood smoke and the smells of traditional Huasteca cooking.
(The one animal that has disappeared, sadly, was a subspecies of the spider monkey, the northernmost primate – other than us – in the western hemisphere.)

The effects of their presence, however – in terms of hunting, logging and grazing, to choose a few examples – are almost universal; in fact, it was dismay over how they were degrading the Sierra Gorda that led the villagers themselves to call for its protection, and begin the process of zoning the new preserve into core protected areas, buffer zones, extractive zones and so forth.

The observation was – much to my own surprise – how good the news from the past half-century has been for conservation. When I set out on my trip, a lot of my friends and colleagues said, in effect, "That's going to be depressing." And it's true that we lost immeasurable treasures in the last 50 years – species vanished, landscapes paved, the climate warming, the artificial world's footprint growing ever-more inescapable. And yet I found that the perspective afforded by Peterson and Fisher's original trip allowed me to see what we often overlook – that we've made incredible progress for conservation in the past five decades. This is progress that no one could have predicted in 1955, when you could dump any chemical you wished in the local river, shoot migrating raptors along the ridges of the Appalachians, harpoon great whales, dam free-flowing rivers, claim a bounty for gunning down Alaskan bald eagles or clear cut old-growth forests inside national parks like Olympic.

The very idea of federal legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Wilderness Preservation System or the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, to name a few, would have seemed like the most foolish kind of pipe-dream in 1955. And yet we as a nation accomplished all of that, and much more, in just a few years. We're a long way from perfect, but the lesson of the last half-century is that we can do astonishing things if we put our minds, our hearts and our voices to it.

But now for the question, and this is what I'd like our initial conversation in the days ahead to explore. How much of "wild America" is truly wild, and how do you define that word? What makes it wild? Is "wild" only wilderness, free of all human touch (and if so, is there any wilderness left anywhere, pole to pole, in this day of pervasive climate change or chemical contamination)? By that measure, is the soggy tundra of Yukon Delta wild, where humans have lived and hunted since the days of the mammoths?
But the Sierra Gorda beautifully illustrates two of the central points I brought away from my Return to Wild America experience – one an observation, the other a question.

Least auklets, St. George, Pribilof Islands AK (©Scott Weidensaul)
Are there shadings of "wild," degrees of wildness? Can the wild be restored to places from which it had been banished? What role does, say, the presence of large predators play in a landscape's wildness (thanks to Will Stolzenburg for broaching that topic last year). And how much of wildness is in us, instead of a organic feature of the land?

It's a happy accident that this discussion comes on the heels of Bill Sherwonit's discussion of the Brooks Range in Alaska, one of the wildest landscapes by almost any measure left on the continent – but also a thread that draws a lot of relevance from the real and metaphorical "ditches" that Bob Pyle traces through our own lives, and which he discussed with WILD READ participants last autumn.

Enough from me – thanks for listening. Now let's hear from you.


Joe Z. said...

You have started us off with a great couple of questions. "How much of wild America is truly wild?" If we think in terms of vast landscapes, untrammeled by civilization, I would say not much. Even our largest wildernesses have been measured, mapped, studied, instrumented, and otherwise placed into some form of management. The skies over these areas are overflown by aircraft. Pollution and other byproducts of modern civilization are carried across the land. On the other hand, in many way we can find wild places at the tiniest scales. Small ecosystems exist under rocks and other nooks in my own backyard. They appear to function without regard for the wider world around them, completely oblivious to the swirling mankind that surround them. In defining the concept of wild, perhaps we can consider those places and natural processes that exist outside any human management, though that seems a bit limiting.

Scott Weidensaul said...

Thanks for the input, Joe. I asked that question not because I think I know the answer, but because it's something I wrestle with all the time.

I grew up in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, where I still live. As a kid, the edge of our backyard was the foot of the mountain, and it seemed a tremendously wild place to me – full of deer, turkeys, even a few black bears, which in the 1960s were still quite rare, but seen often enough for the thought of one to keep me awake at night when I was camping. I found great horned owl nests, rattlesnake basking sites and fox dens. When I was 10 or 12 I felt as though I lived on the edge of a vast wilderness.

Of course, your horizons change as you grow up, and that's especially true for naturalists; not only was I able to physically appreciate how circumscribed by roads, houses and farms those long ridges were, as I entered high school, but I had learned enough of the history of the Appalachians to realize what we'd lost.

My great-grandfather, who grew up in the late 1800s, would weep when he told me about the chestnut blight and how it robbed the mountains of the trees that once bloomed in such profusion every June that it looked as thought fresh snow had fallen. But it went deeper than that – the realization that those hills had once held cougars, wolves and elk. That the skies had once flooded with billions of passenger pigeons. That what seemed like old and limitless forests to me a few years earlier were really just scrubby second-growth, none of it much older than seventy or eighty years.

Yet as you say, naturalists also recognize the immensity of drama, diversity and struggle that takes place in even the most urbanized environment – in every suburban backyard, in every regenerating Appalachian forest. I agree that if "wild" means untouched, untrammeled and unmapped, there's not much left. But if "wild" means that which is beyond our control – well, then "wild" percolates through every square inch of this world, no matter how hard we try to rein it in, and whether we recognize it or not.

Colby said...

Joe and Scott, I appreciated both of your posts and agree with them.

I spent ten years guiding in the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho, and in Wrangell-St. Elias N.P. in Alaska. Despite the Frank's amazingly big size and Wrangell-St. Elias' unfathomable expanse, when I examine either place, I can easily create a lengthy list of the effects of man on the land. However, both places also offer absolutely incredible solitude, wildlife viewing, and opportunities for discovery.

More recently, I worked in the Brigantine Wilderness, within Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in coastal New Jersey. While multiple orders of magnitude smaller than the Frank and especially than Wrangell-St. Elias, it presents the exact same duality.

When viewed in one light, Brigantine's barrier island beaches and salt marsh have experienced much more trammeling by man than the crag and canyon country of the Frank Church, which has in turn been altered by man's hand far more than the rivers, mountains and glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias. However, when all three are looked at according to the rich experiences and connections they allow us, a common thread is realized.

This discussion brings up a relevent story. It occured two summers ago, while I was hiking with friends up a valley in the heart of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When we stopped to for a break, one of my friends commented on what amazingly remote country we were in, and asked what the chances were of someone having stood in that exact spot before us. Barely a moment passed before I looked down and saw a rusted yet unopened can of food amongst the tundra plants. Everyone got a good laugh, not only about how obvious the answer to his question was, but also how bummed out the person who dropped it must have been once they stopped for lunch!

Scott Weidensaul said...


I had to chuckle at the ANWR story, which reminded me of something similar.

A few years ago I was on a canoe float down the Colville River on the North Slope, and four or five days into the trip - with absolutely no trace of humans the whole time - someone spotted an odd shape on the horizon.

For hours, as the river twisted and meandered, it was always there, never seeming to get much closer. We couldn't imagine what it was, but agreed it must be enormous to be seen from such a distance.

Finally, we rounded a final bend and could make it out with binoculars - a rusted metal post only about 15 feet tall, planted there years earlier by some seismic exploration party prospecting the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, along the edge of which we were traveling.

It brought us back to reality, and was a reminder how, in that open and treeless land, even the smallest signs of humanity stand out. In an eastern wilderness area like Brigantine, where you're never out of sight or sound of human intrusions off on the horizon (or planes flying overhead), I wouldn't have thought twice about it. There, it was at once both absurdly funny and deeply disconcerting. Wilderness, as well as "wild," has a lot to do with the perceptions we bring to the land.

Sherry said...

I agree with you Scott that it is our perceptions that determine wildness. As an urban birder I spend most of my time within the city limits of Toledo, and today in just one morning I enjoyed the calls of a great horned owl which then flew over my head, the peek-a-boo antics of a raccoon climbing down a tree, the barks of a red fox frustrated that it was unable to reach Canada geese in the water, and the foraging behavior of a pair of white-winged crossbills. Our nearby parks and cemeteries are wild places with the great advantage of accessibility to the masses.

Scott Weidensaul said...

I think you've hit on something important - the role of wildlife in wild landscapes, and the way a wild creature can alter our perception of even the most urbanized, humanized landscape - the way, as Joe pointed out at the beginning this conversation, that they exist outside the human sphere, even within what we consider "our" world.

May be it's the dichotomy Aldo Leopold drew between "lean, poor land and rich country" - which was, he said, as often as not the presence of wildlife. Certainly that's the way I respond to a place, not so much by how it looks or how empty of people it is, but how rich in wildlife if proves to be.

Jason said...

Scott, All - I'd like to tangentially answer your question but also refer to a part early in your book that struck me. I'm not sure if I actually belive (unfortunately) that there is any "truly" wild America left. But that said - I do think there are many, amazing "mainly" or "mostly" wild areas throughout the nation. I'd like to mention Monomoy (I was lucky enough to work there off'n'on for 3 years). Early in chapter one along the Atlantic coast, you describe the junk on the shoreline. While Monomoy IS one of my favorite places ever - and beautiful and wild - I was always plunked back to reality when I would reach the shore and see the huge amount of junk and rack along the tide line. I have never quite understood how it can be SO much and never seems to change. Some garbage I can understand, but traps and nets and buoys and such. In my Orwellian mind - I always hoped that ANY piece of fishing/cruising hardware would need to have ID on it - so when found on shore, so someone could come get it or be charged for removal, etc. Probably not possible - but your book brought great memories of Monomoy back - but also that moment that I always realized civilization was right there even though I couldn't see or hear it.

Scott Weidensaul said...

Thanks for the post, Jason – Monomoy is one of my favorite places, too, although my experience with it has been much more sporadic over the years. My first visit, which I recounted in "Return to Wild America," was one of the more magical times I've had anywhere along the Atlantic coast – isolated in the fog so the outside world vanished, reveling in swarms of shorebirds and herds of gray seals that moved around our boat with fearlessness and curiosity.

I don't remember seeing much beach trash, but I'm sure it was there – the stuff is so ubiquitous it's almost impossible to find a shoreline anywhere in the world that isn't littered with it. An acquaintance of mine is currently reintroducing endangered millerbirds on Laysan Island, one of the most isolated places on the planet – and also one of the trashiest, thanks to the way Pacific Ocean currents flow. The Laysan albatrosses that nest there often die from trash ingestion.

I spend a lot of time on the Gulf of Maine, and often find myself wondering (since I'm not a diver) what a junk-heap the floor of the gulf must be, judging from the stuff that washes up on the outer islands.

Two years ago we organized a cleanup of Eastern Egg Rock, where National Audubon's Project Puffin manages a reintroduced seabird colony. Winter storms cast up huge quantities of plastic and foam junk, but mostly lobster traps, lines and floats – which can be death traps for birds, especially the mangled wire traps, which become ingrown with grass. Black guillemots, puffins, terns (including federally endangered roseates) burrow into the grass, get into the traps and can't get out.

All the traps are marked with plastic rings bearing serial ID numbers – and that's part of the problem, ironically. Under Maine law, no one except the owner of a lobster trap is allowed to handle or remove it, even if it's mangled junk cast up on shore. Project Puffin had to jump through all manner of regulatory hoops to get permission for us to do the cleanup, since otherwise we'd be breaking the law by cleaning up a nesting island.

In the end, about 30 Road Scholar volunteers removed almost two tons of lobster gear and other trash from the island over the course of several days...and we lost count of how many bird skeletons we found inside them. We would have had much the same results had we picked any other island or outer shoreline from Quoddy Head to Cape Cod, I suspect.

(We returned to Eastern Egg Rock last September, and while there was a lot of fresh mainland junk from Hurricane Irene, I was pleased to see that relatively few new traps had been washed up. What we had removed was obviously the accumulation of many years.)

In some areas fishing groups are stepping up to take responsibility for lost gear and "ghost nets," volunteering as divers to gather it up. And I don't fault the Maine lobstermen for lost gear, which can happen because of storms, careless boaters whose props cut the float lines, and simple bad luck. But also seems a rigid stupidity to prevent someone from cleaning up an evident wildlife hazard on land unless they obtain sheaves of legal permissions first.

And those rare times when you do come across a pristine shoreline, it always seems a bit of a shock. Last winter I traveled to the Falkland Islands on a magazine assignment, and despite a fairly active local bottom-fishing and squid industry, I saw virtually no trash on the beaches of the many islands we visited; whether that's an accident of local currents or something more meaningful, I can't say.


Scott Weidensaul said...

(continued from previous comment)

...But back to Monomoy for a second, and to continue the earlier thread about the difference wildlife makes in "wilding" a landscape. In the 1990s gray seals – which had been all but eliminated from New England in the mid-20th century – began returning to Monomoy and the waters around Cape Cod, and even began pupping there by the hundreds in midwinter, which is normal for this species.

That was an amazing development in its own right, but as many of you no doubt know, two years scientists realized that all those seals had begun attracting significant numbers of great white sharks, just as the concentration of northern elephant seals has done around the Farallon Islands in California. If anything can bring the "wild" back to a piece of coastline, it's the presence of one of the world's truly apex hunters – and so it is with the Cape.

Jason said...

Very true, Scott - and great comment about return of apex hunters. I just finished Christina Eisenberg's WOLF'S TOOTH, and early America's Wild Read book choice, which talks about effects/trophic cascades from missing top predators which was amazing. I was thrilled to hear reports of the Great Whites returning to the shores off Monomoy and Nantucket recently - from my friends out there, though the local beaching and surfing community were not near as excited as we were. This was another thought that came to mind about Monomoy and "wildness" that may be changing again... due to the ever changing currents, storms, and beach movement of barrier islands - South Monomoy is now connected again to the mainland. coyotes, skunk and humans have returned as access - tho long (11 mile walk) which it will be interesting to see what effects on plovers terns and tiger-beetles this may have. Also - an difficult situation has arisen there that I'm sure is not new...that threatens some of the wild areas elsewhere too, i'm sure. Development (especially wealthy landowners wanting large beachfront properties and privacy) have made it almost impossible to GET to Monomoy. I have found this getting to other parks/refuges as well. Our wild areas may be remaining wild and protected -but access (however limited already for the ecosystem's own protection) is now almost becoming impossible. Lawsuits over "private" roads and communities and such. I was wondering if you ran into this phenomena as well, on your travels? (ps. i'm up to the dry tortugas in your book and loving your findings - both the hopeful and the less so.)

Cristina said...


Thanks for your kind comments about my book, The Wolf's Tooth. You raise good points about Monomoy and the return of the great whites, juxtaposed against detritus on the beach of human origin. The return of the large carnivores—and of the natural processes their return embodies—gives me great hope. Yet in today's world we are having to redefine wildness and wilderness—and find it where we can. I agree that one can find miraculous wildness in places like downtown New York, in the red-tailed hawks that nest there, or in a puddle on a Portland, Oregon city street. Wildness is in the eye of the beholder. Being aware of it and honoring it is crucial first step toward creating a more sustainable future in which humans live more rightly with nature.

On the other hand, I just returned from Antarctica, where I became painfully aware of the harsh impacts of global human presence, even there—especially there—which are compromising the ecology of that continent enormously from a trophic cascades perspective. I was there as an ecologist to write about wildness in a place that is supposed to be the last bastion of untamable nature. It is undeniably that, given the storm in the Drake Passage I experienced, and also a situation during I was nearly stranded by rapidly forming sea ice during a field outing.

Antarctica provided an invaluable reference point for me. Coming back to America I realized that while we have a long way to go, we have come a long way, and there is much hope in events such as the great whites returning to places like Monomoy—or wolves returning to California. As long as there are people like you and Scott and others to bear witness, I have hope that the rewilding will continue and that top-down trophic cascades will be reinstated in more places, helping create more resilient (and wilder) ecosystems. But Antarctica reminded me that time is of the essence, and even there the impacts of our de-wilding activities are strongly felt.

Scott is right, rewilding begins within our hearts and minds, for wildness is wherever we look.

will stolzenburg said...

Amen to finding the wildness in our hearts, as well as at our feet. But here’s the trick: Balancing the child's reverence for the here and now, with a conservationist’s occasional duty to yell fire. For sure there’s still beauty in the forest devoid of wildflowers or wild lions, but it’s not the forest we should admire for too long. We need the occasional cold dip into history—as Scott did so well in Wild America—to remind ourselves not only of the glorious places we’ve been, but how far we have yet to go.

As the poet Blake wrote,
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower”

But also as the naturalist Leopold wrote,
“An ecologist .... must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Or, to be truly Zen about it,
“After ecstasy, the laundry.”

Scott Weidensaul said...

I really appreciate everyone's comments, especially having Christina and Will in the conversation. (I'm totally stealing the "After ecstasy, the laundry" quote from Will.)

I'm coming up for air after a huge deadline over the weekend - a new post tomorrow, I promise, taking some of what we've been talking about in a new direction.

This has been a real joy so far - thanks for all the input.

Bill Sherwonit said...

I'm coming to this conversation late, but greatly enjoyed Scott's initial posting and the "comment" dialogue that followed. Though I love my times in wilderness, I too have come to seek out and embrace the wildness that surrounds us, wherever we are, and which also we carry within us. It's incredibly important, I think, that we celebrate --and work to protect -- the nearby wild as well as more expansive and remote wildlands (and waters). And, of course, there is the even bigger picture of global proportions. Yes, ecstasy and laundry . . . I look forward to reading the more recent postings.

Anonymous said...

Please watch this speech on conservation. Spreading the word on what is at stake.

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