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)|
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|
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 Querétaro 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 |
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)|