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IN SEARCH OF A WILD AMERICA
If true wilderness still exists, should it really be so hard for most of us to find it?

Return to Wild AmericaRETURN TO WILD AMERICA
A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul
by Scott Weidensaul
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 394 pp., $26

reviewed by Bruce Stutz

Scott Weidensaul and I have never crossed paths, although our travels have taken us to many of the same places and our separate journeys have had similar purposes, both inspired by books written more than half a century ago. Set in motion by the late nature writer Edwin Way Teale's 1950 journey North With the Spring, I followed the spring season across North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. For his new book Weidensaul revisited the Wild America written about in 1953 by two of the last century's most astute birders and naturalists, the late Roger Tory Peterson and James Maxwell McConnell Fisher. In 1934, Peterson had combined his skills as an ornithologist and wildlife artist to create his first field guide to the birds, beginning a franchise that would make birding and nature appreciation accessible to the novice out in the field. His three-month journey with Fisher quickly became a classic of natural history.

Fifty years later, in Return to Wild America, Weidensaul follows Peterson and Fisher's trail from Newfoundland down the eastern seaboard to Florida, from Florida to the Rio Grande, then up through the Sierra Madre in Mexico and the mountains of the Arizona desert, north to the Pacific Northwest, and finally to the Yukon and the Arctic. Although he finds much changed in the last half-century, Weidensaul always seems to rediscover something of the wild America about which Peterson and Fisher wrote. Diminished as these reserves might be, Weidensaul finds in them something he calls the "natural soul of the continent."

Every nature writer knows that once humans discover a place, nothing will ever again be as it was. The farthest reaches of this continent were finally explored and settled early in the last century. Since then the extent of the ensuing ecological entropy has been proportional to the number of people moving in and the extraction of resources by logging, mining, fishing, hunting, or farming. So every nature writer inevitably comes up with the same story: We head out to discover what wilderness remains, find it, extol its beauty, revel in its power, rue its decline, and hope, through our evocations, to convince readers of its value and the need to protect and defend it.

If we make it sound as if the battle is already lost, our readers and publishers will shy away -- "too depressing." No one wants to read a litany of ruin, an environmental necrology. Yet if we say that yes, some things have been lost, but wild America still exists, we may give readers a false sense of security. While they themselves may not ever see any actual wilderness, they can find consolation in the knowledge that if we nature writers have paddled and fished wild rivers and hiked untrammeled trails, wild America must still exist. For Weidensaul, the very existence of tucked-away places where nature remains mostly untouched and essentially wild means that "ours is still, at its core, a wild country." But is it?

Regarding the Florida Everglades, for instance, Weidensaul writes that "each generation finds the Everglades enchanting, even though each generation sees less and less of the raw abundance that originally made the place remarkable." Disappointed by what he encounters there, he heads for Corkscrew Swamp, the largest stand of virgin bald cypress left on the planet. He finds that it, too, has been encroached upon by south Florida development and that its wood stork population is down by 90 percent over the past 50 years. So he heads into the even more remote Fakahatchee Swamp and finally, with the guidance of a state park biologist, arrives at a bastion of tropical orchids and bromeliads that he can call wilderness. He writes: "[W]ith the cypress canopy bare for the season, light streamed here and there into the lower reaches of the forest, illuminating the dark water and old stumps, which were sprinkled across the slough like a green archipelago, bright with strap ferns and young palms."

Even when confronted with the possibility that the alien Mexican beetle might soon ravage the swamp's bromeliads, Weidensaul remains hopeful. Fakahatchee, he writes, is not yet as ruined as the Everglades: "Given little more than time and reasonable care, this piece of old Florida should reclaim much of its original splendor, at the heart of a wider matrix of other preserved lands that, with restoration, may also see their wilderness luster restored....In this deep and beautiful forest, the South's wild heart still beats." Is this faint heartbeat sufficient to declare the American wild alive when the body is on life support?

At the Grand Canyon, where Fisher, in his own notes on his journey with Peterson, found "a perfect park," Weidensaul is harassed by crowds, air pollution, and aircraft noise. In the Klamath Basin, Peterson and Fisher witnessed spectacular rafts of waterfowl; until the 1960s, about 3.5 million migrant birds gathered there each spring. Weidensaul finds the tally down to 300,000 and the basin beset by a water war between conflicting factions -- salmon need water for migration and farmers need water for irrigation. Neither can survive without.

Eventually even Weidensaul -- who, to his credit, appears always determined to see a half-full glass among all the half-empty ones -- finds himself confronted with an unforgivable loss of wilderness.

In the old-growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula, wrote Fisher and Peterson, "trees were an elemental thing like the waters of the ocean....Trees, trees, trees -- an endless green treescape seldom relieved by a house, a field, or a village." But Weidensaul finds that "fifty years on, the old growth has pretty much vanished from the private timber company property on the western Olympic Peninsula, as well as from a lot of the federal and state land, replaced almost completely by managed stands on a rapid rotation."

And he finally loses it: "Look, this isn't really complicated. For centuries, America's economic engine has bloated itself on the continent's old growth, chewing through forests that took millennia to grow, like a layabout kid burning through his inheritance money. We cut down giant sequoias to make kitchen matches, for God's sake. Today, all but a fraction of those forests are gone, and what's left is too precious -- biologically, ecologically, and, as outdoor recreation and tourism grow in importance, economically precious -- to cut."

Such glimpses of Weidensaul's own wild side are too infrequent. Too often, he works too hard to follow Peterson's and Fisher's footsteps and prove his own thesis that 50 years later, wild America still exists. He enthuses over the last half-century of environmental regulations that have protected land and cleaned up and preserved many rivers once near ruin. But this is old news. Based on the small glimmers of wilderness he found in the black hole of development, he asserts that "the rugged heart of natural America retains an essential timelessness," and that, despite his own evidence to the contrary, conservation is on the march.

"We will never have a pre-Columbian America," he writes, "complete in all its too-much splendor, but such is the resiliency of wild America that mostly what we need is the courage to dream big and to set goals that are equal with this majestic land. The key is hope, because hope, when paired with the ferocious love Americans feel for their land, becomes action."

Such jingoism belies the jammed highways and suburban sprawl that he described on his journey. In truth, Americans have been all too willing to accept small concessions of wilderness along the great midway of development. Our prized national parks and refuges are threatened by encroaching development, as Weidensaul himself ably puts it, "enveloped, amoeba-like, by a metastasizing world." In the Great Smokies, ozone levels are higher than in Atlanta. And outside of these large tracts of threatened wilderness lie ever diminishing fragments of forest. Our continuing freewheeling ways with fossil fuels show how little regard we have for our air. And only when our wells run dry do we begin to show some regard for water. We elect leaders based on their calls for tax relief despite their disregard for the environment.

Even Weidensaul admits that "we're seeing a fire-sale mentality at the federal level, a damn-the-environment attitude on a scale we haven't witnessed in generations."

Certainly those of us who seek it out, those of us willing to get out of the car and paddle or hike far can find pockets of wilderness and enjoy its beauty and solace. No question, there are wild places left in America. But that there exists a "wild America" is a myth, one that has its roots in the belief of the earliest settlers that somehow this was a land of unbounded, God-given resources. It's a myth that prompted us to deplete the cod stocks of the north Atlantic, a myth that spurred us to build big dams that killed off the salmon, a myth that keeps many believing that we can drill for oil in the Arctic without harm to the nature of the place, the wildlife, or the people who live there.

There's something wrong when even a keen naturalist such as Weidensaul has to travel so far to find untrammeled wilderness in which to sit and compose paeans to nature's beauty. Follow Weidensaul on his journey. It's a good one. You will see and learn a great deal. But I bet you'll come away with less hope than he.


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Reviewed in this Issue
Return to Wild America
Archipelago
Twilight of the Mammoths
Chasing Spring
The Future of the Wild
New and Selected Poems, Volume Two

Looking Good!


Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World's Most Remote Island Sanctuary

Only someone who has seen this fish as vividly as we see it here could have come up with the name leopard blenny. The photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton have captured this creature in such exquisite, almost comical detail that blenny (Exallias brevis, to be exact) seems more like a Benny -- an adorable pet, or some blundering cartoon character conceived by Pixar. How could a fish this ugly seem so lovable? Who knew blennies had eyebrows? And that jowl? Get Benny some Botox. Liittschwager and Middleton, who worked together in Richard Avedon's photo studio, traveled to the tiniest, least populated of the Hawaiian islands to create Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World's Most Remote Island Sanctuary (National Geographic Society, $65). This stunning book is their fourth collection of portraits of marvels from the sea, the land, and the air; many of their subjects are photographed in "on-site studios," then returned safely to their habitats. Think glamour shots: Only in real life could a horrid elbow crab, a scorpion fish, or a Hawaiian green sea turtle hatchling look more astonishing.






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Bruce Stutz, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, became a contributing editor to OnEarth in the fall of 2004. He is at work on his second book, Chasing Spring, to be published in 2006 by Scribner's.

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council