BookBrowse Reviews Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul

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Return to Wild America

A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

by Scott Weidensaul

Return to Wild America by Scott Weidensaul
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2005, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2006, 416 pages

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A sweeping survey of the natural soul of North America today. Environment

From the book jacket: In 1953, birding guru Roger Tory Peterson and noted British naturalist James Fisher set out on what became a legendary journey - a 30,000 mile trek around North America. They traveled from Newfoundland to Florida, deep into the heart of Mexico, through the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and into Alaska's Pribilof Islands. Two years later, Wild America, their classic account of the trip, was published.

On the eve of that book's fiftieth anniversary, naturalist Scott Weidensaul retraces Peterson and Fisher's steps to tell the story of wild America today. How has the continent's natural landscape changed over the past fifty years? How have the wildlife, the rivers, and the rugged, untouched terrain fared? The journey takes Weidensaul to the coastal communities of Newfoundland, where he examines the devastating impact of the Atlantic cod fishery's collapse on the ecosystem; to Florida, where he charts the virtual extinction of the great wading bird colonies that Peterson and Fisher once documented; to the Mexican tropics of Xilitla, which have become a growing center of ecotourism since Fisher and Peterson's exposition. And perhaps most surprising of all, Weidensaul finds that much of what Peterson and Fisher discovered remains untouched by the industrial developments of the last fifty years.

Comment: 
Pulitzer Prize finalist Weidensaul retraces Peterson and Fisher's journey and chronicles the changes, both good and bad, in this in depth account.  Amongst the bad news is the spread of invasive species, chemical pollution, global warming, species decline, over-logging and urban sprawl (for example in 15 years Pennsylvania has increased its "urban footprint" by 47% while its population has increased by only 2.5%).

However, there are some rays of sunshine: since 1953 there's been a rise in the environmental movement, new environmental legislation, new parks and refuges and the return of some threatened species.

In the words of Kirkus Reviews, this is "a carefully documented, well-informed conclusion that the jury's still out."

With starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, a "highly recommended" from Library Journal and a very positive review from Kirkus - this is a must-read for anyone interested in the North American landscape. 

'The Environmental Movement'
One or two of the reviews for Return to Wild America referred to the "birth" of the USA environmental movement in the 1950s - which got me thinking about what exactly the environmental movement is, and when it began, because it would seem to me that the likes of John Thoreau and John Muir were protesting things environmental long before the 1950s!

This is what I found....

First off, there seems to be considerable murky water surrounding the definitions of both the "environmental"' and "conservation" movements - so let's not get into that! Secondly, according to environmental historians, the first campaigns to conserve natural resources and save wilderness occurred in the late nineteenth century (such as John Muir's Sierra Club to protect Yosemite in 1892), and a few people were writing on the subject before that, such as Henry Thoreau ("in Wildness is the preservation of the world," - from Walden). Some point to Thomas Malthus as the first to raise the alert with his essay on population written in 1798.

However, whoever sowed the seeds, there's no doubt that a powerful environmental movement did not emerge in the USA until after World War II. Historians point to three key factors for this rise:

  1. The relative affluence of the post-war years allowed Americans to reject the old argument that pollution was the price of progress.
  2. There was a proliferation in the number of potential pollutants and hazards (atomic energy, chemical fertilizers and sprays, synthetic materials, increased demands for energy, etc.
  3. Increasing insight into ecological issues snowballed so that the general population had a new appreciation for what they were losing, no doubt helped by television that could broadcast visual images of the environmental treasures to homes around the country, giving a sense of ownership even to those who had not seen them first hand.

This review was originally published in January 2006, and has been updated for the November 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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