Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Book Review)
(I finally get a real political post up and am feeling motivated again just in time for internet to go out at my house for an extended period of time.)
The title of this book is as long as it is accurate. Written by Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones explores the stories surrounding three specific species and the stories surrounding the people who surround those species. The animal cast is the Polar Bear, the Lange’s Meadowlark Butterfly, and the Whooping Crane. The human cast largely centers on the author and his daughter. His goal is to help his daughter see each of these animals before they are potentially wiped out. In doing so he meets the conservationists working to protect these species and shares their stories.
Going piece by piece through the title, this book is often dismaying. It does not include long term happiness and independence in the forecasts of any of its species. Anyone familiar with how global climate change is affecting the status of the polar bear probably isn’t surprised by that. What did catch me off guard was the bleakness shown surrounding many of the conservationists. The hopelessness, the stress, the burn out, the failure, and more are all shown in each of the three sections of the book.
Some of the historical parts drag a bit, but this book shines during the interviews when the author is asking these people about what they think the future of the animal they’ve fought so hard for is. You can tell that they have spent many nights internally debating whether they’re doing any good or whether the fight is worth it.
If we save the polar bear, but we have to feed every single one of them for them to survive the summer is it worth it? At that point is it a wild animal anymore and what does that mean to be wild anyway, do we care or does it care? If we save the butterfly that only lives on one type of plant, what good have we really done? How much energy is too much energy to put into a niche species whose absence from the food web wouldn’t really be noted? If we save the whooping crane, but the ones we save end up congregating at corn waste piles outside of ethanol factories, what kind of future is that? Is it pointless to try to restore a species to a historical baseline, when we’re living in a modern world? Are we saving these animals because it’s the right thing to do, because the Earth needs these species, or this way we can make ourselves feel a little better about all the species we didn’t save?
These are hard questions the modern conservation movement faces. I was impressed by the author’s willingness to not try to answer them himself, but to give time for people working on the frontlines, from behind the scenes, and even those who have given up the fight to respond in their own personal way to many of the issues.
It does end up oddly reassuring because of how human everyone is. You see their doubts, their struggles, and their triumphs. You can’t help but empathize with them. Although it certainly centers on the wildlife conservation issue, this book is worth a look from anyone who has a personal or political issue they have fought long and hard for. Asking questions about the causes we’ve taken up is hard. We all want to believe we’re doing the right thing. Saving the polar bears sounds like the right thing doesn’t it?
Many of the questions the author asks are questions I’ve asked of myself. They aren’t questions that have answers, but they’re questions that those of us working for a greener planet need to ask, and anyone who has taken up a personal cause will recognize. What will victory look like, how do we achieve it, is what we’re doing now getting us closer, can we accept anything shy of our own version of victory, what are we willing to give up, how much energy can we give before we become resentful or hopeless, why have we chosen to get involved?
★★★★☆ – Come for the ecology, stay for the self reflection. A reminder of my rating system