By Charlie Booher, MUCC State Conservation Policy Fellow
In the last few weeks, I have found myself increasingly drawn to my bookshelf. With the end of the academic year, the start of summer and the blur of social distancing associated with COVID-19, I have found myself with extra time on my hands. So, I’ve been working my way back through my bookshelf. While avoiding the 3-foot high stack of fresh novels, unread nonfiction and dusty biographies on my desk, I have opted for some of my old favorites. While I have left aside more popular writings like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Dave Dempsey’s Ruin and Recovery, these are all worth a few hours of your time. Many of the texts listed here were required readings for classes or were found while conducting historical research, but each of the books below will be sure to get you thinking about how we look at and interact with the world around us.
Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Emma Marris
In this relatively recent book, Marris presents a new way of looking at nature — one that is often contradicted by traditional ecologists and natural resource managers. Marris takes a shot at traditional ecological restoration work and preservationism in favor of a novel approach.
As one review notes, “Rambunctious Garden is short on gloom and long on interesting theories and fascinating narratives, all of which bring home the idea that we must give up our romantic notions of pristine wilderness and replace them with the concept of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden planet, tended by us.” Marris provides a well-defined case for one possible future of wildlife and natural resource management, which readers might explore as they grow in their own thoughts about the natural world.
Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, E.O. Wilson
Renowned ecologist and Harvard professor E.O. Wilson presents an interesting solution to the loss of habitat on Earth: preserve half of it. Wilson claims that to maintain, or at least stop the hemorrhaging of, biodiversity on Earth, the level of land set aside for wildlife must increase drastically. Wilson radically proposes carefully setting aside half of the globe for the world’s wildlife, which presents clear ethical and practical conundrums. While Wilson grapples with these very real debates, readers have embraced a full spectrum of reactions from vehement disagreement to very large, philanthropic activities to fulfill this mission. Overall, it is an interesting argument in the field of conservation biology — and one that weighs heavily on the success of the discipline.
Wilderness in the American Mind (5th Edition, 2014), Roderick Frazier Nash
Roderick Frazier Nash wrote the first edition of Wilderness in the American Mind as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin and has kept it up to date with contemporary topics of debate since 1967. This is considered a large part of the foundation of the field of environmental history, but it doesn’t read like a textbook. Instead, Nash walks the reader through the history of American’s attitudes towards wilderness, wildlife and wild places since the founding of this country. He negotiates difficult topics and confronts some of the more contentious debates in the field of natural resource conservation. For those interested in the history of conservation in this country and those who aim to help play a role in its future, this is a must-read.
Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon
While I don’t live in New England, nor have I spent much time there, I certainly enjoy William Cronon’s first major book that focuses on this region. Cronon is a historian of nature and natural resource management and has been writing on these topics for nearly four decades. While some of his other writings like Nature’s Metropolis or Uncommon Ground are a little more dense, Changes in the Land smoothly describes some of the mechanisms that underlie land management today. While this book still represents some of the older ways of thinking about land and wildlife, it does an excellent job of tracing the history of the land, and land ownership, in 18th-century North America.
White Man’s Game: Saving Animals, Rebuilding Eden, and Other Myths of Conservation in Africa, Stephanie Haines
This book provides an interesting account of conservation outside of North America, especially in the context of Southeastern Africa. Stephanie Haines, a journalist by trade, journeys to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique — a place of incredible natural beauty and diverse wildlife. Outlining a history of western missionaries, explorers and imperialists, Haines shows her readers what conservation activities and philanthropy looks like in this part of the world. According to one review: “She examines the larger problems that arise when Westerners try to ‘fix’ complex, messy situations in the developing world, acting with best intentions yet potentially overlooking the wishes of the people who live there.” This book is meant to challenge the way that many of us think about how wildlife and people are treated in this part of the world, which I believe it is very capable of doing. For anyone who hopes to travel internationally, especially to enjoy wildlife or “wild places,” it is a must-read.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan
In the Life & Death of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan presents a nicely crafted history of the Great Lakes region, especially in the context of water rights and fisheries. Our Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and provide sustenance, work and recreation for tens of millions of Americans every year; however, many of us know tragically little about these bodies of water. Egan does a nice job walking the reader through the history of this region and the policies and politics that define it. With topics ranging from the sewage of Chicago and Mississippi riverboats to Asian carp and toxic algaes, Egan covers a great deal of ground in a relatively short number of pages. These issues and their deep and intertwining histories are especially relevant to Michiganders and will define this region in the coming decades.
I’d encourage you to pick up one or more of these books and take a read — entertain some of these thoughts that may run contrary to what you believe or how you believe it. While Wilson and Marris contradict each other at almost every point, there is almost always common ground between them in their broad proposals for the future of conservation. Conversely, Egan and Haines focus on specific, very different regions of the world and the unique contexts of those places. Meanwhile, Nash covers nearly 250 years of history and thought that intermingle with the writings of both new and old authors. While each of these books is distinct, they all focus on the things and places that we enjoy as conservationists. I certainly don’t agree with all of the sentiments expressed in these texts, but I do believe that they are well-written and will make their readers think a little more deeply about nature.
If these books are new to you, I would recommend trying to support your local bookstore or by placing an order benefitting Michigan United Conservation Clubs on Amazon Smile. By selecting MUCC as your beneficiary here, a portion of your purchase will be donated to uniting citizens to conserve, protect and enhance Michigan’s natural resources and outdoor heritage.
Since 1937, MUCC has united citizens to conserve, protect and enhance Michigan’s natural resources and outdoor heritage. Consider joining us today: https://mucc.org/about/