Field notes from an age of extinction, tracking the ever-shifting meaning of America’s animals throughout history to understand the current moment.
Journalist Jon Mooallem has watched his little daughter’s world overflow with animals - butterfly pajamas, appliquéd owls - while the actual world she’s inheriting slides into a great storm of extinction. Half of all species could disappear by the end of the century, and scientists now concede that most of America’s endangered animals will survive only if conservationists keep rigging the world around them in their favor. So Mooallem ventures into the field, often taking his daughter with him, to move beyond childlike fascination and make those creatures feel more real.
Wild Ones is a tour through our environmental moment and the eccentric cultural history of people and wild animals in America that inflects it - from Thomas Jefferson’s celebrations of early abundance to the turn-of-the-last-century origins of the teddy bear to the whale-loving hippies of the 1970s. In America, Wild Ones discovers, wildlife has always inhabited the terrain of our imagination as much as the actual land.
The journey is framed by the stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote, northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes. The wilderness that Wild Ones navigates is a scrappy, disorderly place where amateur conservationists do grueling, sometimes preposterous looking work; where a marketer maneuvers to control the polar bear’s image; and Martha Stewart turns up to film those beasts for her show on the Hallmark Channel. Our most comforting ideas about nature unravel. In their place, Mooallem forges a new and affirming vision of the human animal and the wild ones as kindred creatures on an imperfect planet.
With propulsive curiosity and searing wit, and without the easy moralizing and nature worship of environmental journalism’s older guard, Wild Ones merges reportage, science, and history into a humane and endearing meditation on what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world.
©2013 Jon Mooallem (P)2013 Penguin Audiobooks
Mother, knitter, reader, lifelong learner, technical writer, former library assistant & hematologist.
Wild Ones is one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year. I know it's only April, but I have a feeling that this book will still be a top contender at the end of the year. Jon Mooallem takes a look at the connections (or disconnections as the case may be) between the anthropomorphic animals that populate his four year-old daughter's world and the animals in the real world. He writes about three species that are at different points along the endangered species arc – polar bears, Lange's metalmark butterfly, and whooping cranes. What is so extraordinary about Wild Ones is that Mooallem doesn't write to scare, preach, or belittle his readers, but rather to provide a balanced look from many different perspectives and let readers reach their own conclusions.
“Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. Scott and his colleagues gave those creatures’ condition a name: conservation-reliant. It means that, from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.”
What animals and plants are worth saving at all and who gets to decide? Wild Ones can be disturbing at times because it questions even our success stories, such as bald eagles, the California condor, and whooping cranes. Should we be bothered that extreme, expensive measures are required to keep many species from disappearing forever? Or should we be inspired that people are willing to do so much to keep the remaining few whooping cranes or condors around, even if the rescue of something in nature requires it to live out its days unnaturally? These are incredibly valuable questions to ask, and Mooallem does that brilliantly.
The dialogue surrounding conservation in America tends to be presented as a war between ideological camps on the left-right ends of the political spectrum, with left-minded greens insisting that we must do everything at all costs to save any species we can, and conservative climate-change deniers refusing to accept the premise that our world is changing due to the role of modern humans.
The Wild Ones offers a nuanced view of a complicated issue, delving into the history of environmentalism and conservation in America (and Canada) through a series of case studies. What the author finds is that conservation is all too often a symbolic pursuit caught up in the symbol itself; we are caught wondering how we can engage with these animals in new contexts and still retain a meaning in our interactions with them.
The book is ultimately interested in how we use animals to tell stories about the world and about ourselves - what does it mean to be wild? The book is funny at times, grave at others, and thought-provoking throughout. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to consider what our role as the human animal can be, and should be.
Beautiful stories about our relationship to animals and nature in North America. I actually couldn't stop listening. The book is set up in a really nice way with main arching stories, and shorten anecdotes and story vignettes in between. I absolutely loved it.
In my mind, it ranks among the best nonfiction on ecology, conservation and animal studies. I was astounded by the way the author presents the many different views and issues on climate change, species conservation and the way we conceptualize animals in our imagination - truly awe inspiring!
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