Last week, we celebrated Endangered Species Day. (Or you know what I mean: not
a whole lot of celebrating going on.) In its honor, I wrote about
a new book that is both important and a masterpiece of absurdism--an amazing
feat perhaps only attainable when confronting the subject of man's
relationship to the rest of creation.
Here's my review, which appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Beast.
Happy Endangered Species Day! Well, “happy” might not be the word, since there are currently over 1,200 species of fauna listed as endangered or threatened, and those are only the ones we know about. Some as yet undiscovered may well have disappeared between the time we lit the birthday candles and, appropriately, blew them out.
If you’re in the mood for a celebration anyway, the Endangered Species Coalition suggests you consider visiting a wildlife refuge, help prevent the deaths of millions of birds each year from colliding with windows by affixing decals to yours, slow down while driving to avoid turning the berm into any more of a wildlife cemetery than it already is, or stop dousing your lawn with chemicals. You could also depress the heck out of yourself by watching the 2010 documentary Call of Life, in which eminent scientists posit the probably inescapable mass extinction of over half of all plant and animal species before the end of the century. My recommendation, though, is to read Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon Mooallem’s stupefying account of our historic inability to stop meddling with everything under the sun—bringing masses of creatures to the brink of extinction, then expending perverse amounts of energy and ingenuity to haul them back, one by one. “Dismaying” is right, “reassuring” sounds like it came from the marketing department, while “brilliant in conception and execution” doesn’t fit on the cover but should.
The author, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, gives only a brief history of the act signed into law forty years ago (“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” opined President Nixon, pen poised), because his main subject is instead the bizarre gymnastics we have sometimes performed to uphold it. He uses three examples—the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark butterfly, whooping cranes—to explore our confounding and contradictory relationship to the brethren species with whom we share the planet, though apparently we share the way toddlers do with sandbox toys. All three of these endangered species are charismatic—awing us with the kind of aesthetic endowments lacking in the Helotes mold beetle, say, or atyid shrimp (“off-brand animals,” in the author’s sly term)—and so they call forth our most conflicted response, the better for Mooalem to display and dissect.
When first encountered the animals of the New World were so profuse we could not imagine them otherwise, although we wanted to; wolves, bears, and cougars were the massed enemy on the hill, and our stories were of their unbridled ferocity. Only when we had finally (ferociously) cracked some links in the Great Chain of Being that Thomas Jefferson, for one, had believed could never break—“no instance can be produced of [nature] having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct,” he declared—did the morals reverse. As soon as the grizzly bear “disappeared from the land, it found new prestige in our imaginations,” Mooalem writes, and his book is truly about the animals of our imaginations, because it is their status there that will lead us either to eradicate them or to save them (or both at the same time; since 2007, eleven whooping cranes—of a population of fewer than three hundred laboriously nursed into existence from the small handful left alive in the 1940s—have been found shot, and in 2011 a Minnesota farmer smashed thousands of eggs and young chicks of the federally protected American white pelican).
As a carnivore that naturally ranges over vast territory, the polar bear does poorly in captivity, developing stereotypies (think Gus “the Bipolar Bear” of the Central Park Zoo, ceaselessly swimming the same circuit of his small pool). Now they’re doing poorly in the wild too, dropping from starvation as the ice from which they hunt forms later and melts earlier due to climate change. This is why the town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay (which a conservationist estimates will stop freezing entirely by 2050, dooming one of only nineteen polar bear populations on the planet), has become a favorite stop on the “Last Chance Tourism” train. Mooalem visits at the same time Martha Stewart does, although she proves more elusive than any of the bears. It is one act in the theater of the absurd Wild Ones presents in all its prodigious eccentricity, but by no means the most outrageous. It is hard to say which of the increasingly nutty episodes in man’s tortured relationship to his own conception of wildness here is the most outlandish: page by page they mount. You can only stand back and gape. (Only rarely do the animals have the last laugh, as do three and a half million Canada geese today: in 1962 only a single flock could be found, which was prayerfully coddled and fed, raised and reintroduced. So they could later be shot, gassed, eggs scrambled in-shell, and chased away by eager border collies.)
Butterflies, the stuff of so many glitter stickers and ankle tattoos, are nature’s airborne art. They seem to capture a sense of ephemeral life at its most impossibly beautiful, so our sadness at the prospect of losing even one of the approximately 20,000 species of butterflies known to exist is understandable. What is not is the contortions a few governmentally supported conservationists (along with a host of concerned, or obsessed, volunteers) must execute to preserve a tiny remnant of Lange’s metalmarks in the small, grotesquely compromised habitat of the 67-acre (55, says the government website) Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. The sand dunes were relentlessly mined in the past century, and a gypsum plant and power lines split the park. In 2006, only 45 of the orange-and-black butterflies could be found, down from thousands a decade before. They lay their eggs only on naked stem buckwheat, which is being overrun by invasive hairy vetch that has to be pulled out by hand or herbicided to death (with predictable fallout, namely the harming of butterfly eggs). The attempts to maintain a viable habitat this isolated—attempts, dubbed conservation reliance, that are at once comedic and tragic, a strange opposition balletically explored here—illustrate the phenomenon of “island biogeography.” As David Quammen described in his elegiac Song of the Dodo, islands are “where species go to die.” But as Wild Ones shows, they’re not going down without a fight—even if it is a futile one, and involves lots of grad students with plastic cups and captive female butterflies.
When finally we read of whooping cranes reared by humans in costume, taught to migrate behind men in ultralights, and shoved away from food sources deemed insufficiently wild, the question can no longer be avoided: For whom do we do this? Probably not for the bird who has just been pepper-sprayed “to promote wildness.” Such efforts—“heroism in the Sisyphean sense”—seem to be made primarily for us, so we can write a bedtime story that contains man and animal intertwined, exchanging nobilities.
This book is dense with both thought and fact, but no one will mistake it for an article in the journal Biodiversity. It is written with a vernacularly light touch, shot through with compassion and wit, not to mention open amazement, the only apt response to the story of our monumental hubris.
Zoom out and what you see is one species—us—struggling to keep all others in their appropriate places, or at least in the places we’ve sometimes arbitrarily decided they ought to stay. In some places we want cows but not bison, or mule deer but not coyotes, or cars but not elk. Or sheep but not elk. Or bighorn sheep but not aoudad sheep. Or else we’d like wolves and cows in the same place. Or natural gas tankers swimming harmoniously with whales. We are everywhere in the wilderness with white gloves on, directing traffic.
At the end of this rich feast of irony, let there be cake. Make a big wish, America. Then blow.