ForeWord Reviews

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Countering Crisis with Action Voices for the Earth

Each writer of these books heard a personal call to act in defense of a particular natural landscape and offers a unique response to our tremendous environmental crisis. Through their actions, each offers hope—seeds to nourish the planet, as well as fodder for those searching for a response to the overwhelming problem of our time: that earth’s resources are finite and her atmosphere fragile; that the only beings who can articulate love for her natural wonders are also the ones destroying it.

In Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River (University of Georgia, 978-0-8203-3815-6), Janisse Ray returns to the landscape that spawned her best-selling Ecology of a Cracker Childhood but narrows her focus to the one waterway, “vehicle of mystery, keeper of lost stories, avenue of secrets, course of history.” Ray traces a personal connection with the river, and enumerates the redemptive qualities she and her husband find on an eight-day river trip on the Altamaha from its headwaters to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. This trip provides the backbone for a collective history of ecology, preservation, and loss encapsulated in the Altamaha. Ray channels John Wesley Powell when she claims, “this is just another camping-on-a-river-story,” but contradicts her claim quickly, revealing that the Altamaha is possessed of a unique free-flowing (undammed) quality for its entire 137 miles. This wildness has placed it in an elite 2 percent of American rivers and landed it a Nature Conservancy designation as one of the world’s last great places. Ray’s personal epiphany, that the Altamaha is a unique and precious American resource worth fighting for, brought her back to Southeast Georgia and to the Altamaha Riverkeepers, a non-profit conservation group that is now one thousand members strong. Appendices include lists of Altamaha River lands in conservation, Georgia conservation groups, and memebers of the Altamaha River Partners. The “Protect and Preserve our River” credo of the Riverkeepers, provides a framework for Altamaha conservation, while moving beyond the particular and charging the reader to “be the keeper of whatever place you live.”

The Native American concept of time as a lake surface where we see “ripples set in motion … meeting ripples from other events, each changing the other in their passing,” underlies Nelson Darby’s For Love of Lakes (Michigan State University Press, 978-1-61186-021-4). Professor Emeritus in Biology at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Darby identifies and explores the central paradox that, though “we say we ‘love’ our lakes,” water quality in many lakes of the northern US and Canada is deteriorating due to human activity. This activity threatens the aesthetic beauty and ecological health of lakes to the point where there are “fish consumption advisories in over thirty states.” Cross-referenced as limnology, Love of Lakes draws on a long tradition of ecological writings, from Agassiz to Thoreau, Buckland to Worster. Darby approaches the book with a biologist’s eye for detail (including illustrations of North American lake biota) in a journey he calls, “a reflecting and examining (of) the birthing chamber of perceptions” about how humans form an understanding of lake systems.

In Faith of Cranes (Mountaineers Books, 978-1-59485-639-6), Hank Lentfer spins a memoir of place and family, rooted in an Alaskan landscape but connected through his “affection for cranes … to places and people wherever those birds fly.” Lentfer’s deeply personal book—part memoir, part environmental testimony—traces his journey from his position as an NPS biologist and wilderness manager who received the Howling Wolf Award (for the person most likely to make a difference) and his conservation work on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to his decision to leave environmental bureaucracy and add his “voice to the chorus … of voices speaking for what they love.” Lentfer finds his voice in a narrative that pushes against despair, like that of his first ornithology professor who viewed “progress (as) the inevitable diminution of beauty over time.” For anyone who has grappled with a personal approach to environmental pressures that threaten our planet, including the decision to have a child, Lentfer’s voice is one of courage, a voice that tells of the adaptation of Sandhill cranes against a backdrop of American progress.

In a more academic approach to the theme of where the human world intersects with the natural world, SueEllen Campbell, Professor of English at Colorado State University and author of Bringing the Mountain Home and other books, leads us through the anthology The Face of the Earth: Natural Landscapes, Science, and Culture (University of California Press, 978-0-520-26927-9). This collection of essays seeks a meeting place where “we’re trying to stand face-to-face with the land so that we might read and understand its character.” The book is organized into five major chapters that feature particular landscapes examined through both “scientific and cultural lenses.” Within these chapters are interspersed twenty-six personal essays from Campbell’s contributors, inviting the reader to “compare these evocations of the personal meaning of particular places with your own feelings about treasured landscapes.” Less direct in her response to the environmental issues facing the earth than the authors of these other books, Campbell nonetheless drives to the core in her closing essay from an 11,500-foot-high meadow in the summer sunshine of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains: “If someone I loved became ill with a disease likely to be fatal, I’d want to spend time with her, less to mourn than to live with her—to absorb her particular vitality, the forms passion and beauty have taken in her body.”

Beautiful forms of the natural world also speak to the heart of the discipline of biomimicry, central to Élodie Ternaux’s Industry of Nature: Another Approach to Ecology (Frame Publishing, 978-90-77174-48-7). Ternaux is an industrial designer and engineer, and co-director of MateriO, a resource center providing materials for creative professionals such as architects and designers in Paris. The book is Ternaux’s response to an increase in requests from her company’s clients for sustainable materials in their designs. In her quest to satisfy a recurrent question, “Is this material natural?” Ternaux turns to American biologist Janine Benyus who championed the discipline of biomimetics—a science that studies natural phenomena for inspiration that can be practically applied in sustainable human design. Described by the author as “at the crossroads between science and creativity,” Industry of Nature weaves together an impressive kaleidoscope of interviews, graphics, and timelines, as well as a glossary of the most pragmatic tools for conservation presented in these books.

In each of these selections, readers will encounter nature writing that rivals Annie Dillard’s fiction, combined with personal responses to the environmental state of our earth’s natural landscapes and practical suggestions that offer hope in the face of overwhelming issues like climate change.