Bowman on Books



Each month, writer and journalist Chris Bowman offers up his unique take on the latest books about environment and energy issues in California and beyond.

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APRIL 2013

After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California
by Peter Alagona

Reviewed by guest reviewer, Edward Ortiz

grizzlyIt's pure irony that California, long considered a leader in conservation and wildlife management, has a grizzly bear as the main symbol on its state flag.

On the eve of statehood California had roughly one grizzly for every 12 people. Today there are none in the wild, with the last such bear sighted in 1925.

In the authoritative book After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, author Peter Alagona sees the bear as a cautionary symbol.

It's one that Alagona contends set California on a path to becoming a political hotbed for endangered species protections. Today the state hosts the largest diversity of plant and animal species in the nation, and the largest number of endangered species (more than 300) than any other state outside of Hawaii.

Alagona weaves a chronological tale around the grizzly and four imperiled species - the California condor, the Mojave Desert tortoise, the San Joaquin kit fox and the now-infamous delta smelt.

Each species was, or is still, at the center of an endangered species effort or battle. And each battle led to the formation or further evolution of an environmental ethic or policy.

For the California condor, the threat was habitat degradation. For the desert tortoise, land use was the issue, with the federal Bureau of Land Management, in 1976, creating a 25,000-acre Desert Tortoise Natural Area for its protection in the Mojave Desert.

After the Grizzly explains how California became a national leader in species conservation and protection. The story begins in the early 20th century at UC Berkeley, where a circle of committed scientists led by a young zoologist named Joseph Grinnell promoted conservation ethics in wildlife management.

The book sometimes reads like an environmental history textbook. Nonetheless, Alagona takes care to tell a compelling story of each endangered species, what threatens its habitat and how humans changed their advocacy to protect it.

Alagona asserts that each of the species has served as a proxy to argue for larger societal issues. In short, the book is more about the human animal as it is about endangered species.

Edward Ortiz is a reporter with  The Sacramento Bee where he writes about the environment, agriculture and the arts. He has written for The Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and was 2004 Metcalf Fellow in Environment Reporting at The Providence Journal

Next month Chris Bowman reviews Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin, an exposé of childhood cancer cases in the industrial town of Toms River, New Jersey.

MARCH 2013

The Golden Shore
by David Helvarg

March2013California's 1,100-mile shoreline is just too big and diverse for any single, marketable book to cover with much depth. But you'll get more than your feet wet reading David Helvarg's new book, The Golden Shore.

That's because Helvarg has totally immersed himself in California's coast for decades. He's a marine conservationist, a documentary filmmaker and an environmental journalist who sails, surfs and dives for stories.

Helvarg explores seeming every major coastal enterprise, past and present: marine conservation, military training, nuclear power generation, real estate development, scientific exploration, shipping, coast guarding, redwood logging, whaling, diving, surfing, pot growing, filming, fishing, egging, poaching, pirating, smuggling and - on moonlit Southern California beaches - grunion running.

The book is a blend of history and travelogue. With cinematic writing and touches of dry wit, Helvarg tours coastal activities you won't find in a tour book. At the Port of Los Angeles, we see inside the nation's busiest shipping terminal - a "Lego City" of multicolored cargo containers stacked four to five stories high.

Offshore San Diego, we're aboard a Navy warship in the middle of a major combat exercise. In San Pedro, we're with 4,000 longshoremen and their supporters at a "Bloody Thursday" picnic commemorating the two "union brothers" shot and killed by the shipping industry's private guards on the L.A. waterfront in May 1934.

While The Golden Shore is not a tour guide, it would make a perfect downtime companion for traveling the Pacific Coast Highway. Helvarg treats you to the adventurous and spectacular - including accounts of shark-attack victims. But he doesn't gloss over the scars of California's past.

You read about the slaughtering of Native Americans and the extirpation of sea otters, sea lions, whales, abalones and sardines. The socio-economic and cultural history of coast presented in this book is more cosmopolitan and ethnically representative than the traditional European-centric versions. Helvarg notes that even the songs celebrating the mostly middle-class and white surfing community borrowed from black music.

You can't help but think of California as a nation of several Californias as Helvarg takes the whole state by shore, from aircraft carriers in San Diego Bay to the big wave surfers off Half Moon Bay to the misty mix of redwoods, crab fishermen and maximum security prisoners at Pelican Bay.

If there's anything in it that binds this crazy quilt-work of Californias it is perhaps a prevailing ethos of stewardship of the coast's natural resources and public access to their enjoyment.

Where else but California would you find the military scheduling missile launches around the pupping season for seals? Where else could the general public enjoy the surf and sand fronting homes of the rich and famous? And, to paraphrase California Congressman Sam Farr of Carmel, where else can you still get elected running against offshore oil and for protection of the coast?

It's uniquely Californian characteristics like these that make California's shore all the more golden.


Next month guest columnist Edward Ortiz reviews After the Grizzly:Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California by Peter Alagona.





Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis
by Cynthia Barnett

BOBJan2013Sacramento apparently loves to be seen as environmentally green. Its promotional nicknames keep getting greener. First it was "City of Trees," then "Sustainable Sacramento," followed by "Greenest Capital City in the U.S." Now, Mayor Kevin Johnson is pitching the metropolitan area as the next "Greenest Region of the Country."

Cynthia Barnett challenges Sacramento's greenhood in the opening chapter of Blue Revolution, an awareness-raising book about America's disrespect for water. The City of Trees may glitter in many things green - urban forestry, solar energy, clean technology and such. But when it comes to water efficiency, Barnett says, "Sustainable Sacramento" is all wet.

The metro region guzzles nearly 300 gallons of water per person every day - double the national average, federal data show. Granite Bay residents and others in the San Juan Water District are among the world's most extravagant water consumers, each tapping an average of 500 gallons daily. By comparison, residents of equally affluent Marin County get by just fine on 150 gallons.

Barnett's larger point is that water use is a gaping blind spot in today's green movement. Beyond Sacramento - her Exhibit A - she points to the Copenhagen climate accord of 2009, which catalogues many threats from a changing climate but fails to mention the most immediate one: a worldwide freshwater crisis. Then there's California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The state boasts the world's most aggressive curbs on climate-changing emissions. But it has implemented them with scant regard for the enormous amounts of water needed to make the required low-carbon fuels and to cool the large solar power plants planned for the California desert.

The book broadly surveys the latest technological innovations, policy reforms, and the pricing and recycling strategies to conserve water. But for water conservation in America to really stick, Barnett says, people need a shared "water ethic." Just as littering, landfilling aluminum cans and belching black smoke became taboo, so must water wasting.

To get there, she says, people need to feel a strong personal connection to water. The Dutch got the religion following the North Sea Flood of 1953, which killed nearly 2,000 people and destroyed 3,000 homes in the Netherlands. Similarly, Australia's catastrophic 10-year drought (2000-2010) redefined life in Perth. Residents now favor more expensive desalinization plants over mining new sources of groundwater.

Do Americans need a more brutal clobbering of floods and droughts to truly appreciate their vulnerability and start living within their water means? Perhaps. As Barnett points out, the alternative would be collective courage among individuals and their political representatives. Congress's record of supporting wasteful farm water subsidies is not encouraging.

Barnett, a Floridian and veteran journalist, wrote Blue Revolution for the general audience but didn't skimp on important nuances or eye-opening details.

Followers of California water politics and policy will appreciate the parallel issues Barnett draws between the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Everglades. She also provides enticing fodder for investigative reporters on the powerful water-engineering lobby and its conflicts of interests in public works projects. This book is also for anyone inclined to be the first on their block to replace their bright green lawn with water-wise landscaping. Blue Revolution will help muster the courage.



War Upon the Land
by Lisa M. Brady

WarUponTheLand_Dec2012It's quite a coup to find something really new to say about the much-studied American Civil War. Lisa Brady found it by holding an environmental lens to history.

In Brady's War Upon the Land, southern landscapes are main actors, not just backdrops, in the theater of the Civil War.

Water and mud - not rebel forces - Brady says, posed the greatest challenges to Union troops as they waded unfamiliar bayous and mosquito-infested swamps. The muck constantly bogged down the wheeled artillery and supply wagons in marches through Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Generals Grant and Sherman naively overestimated the ability of their engineering-trained officers to manipulate nature to their advantage. They twice tried and failed to divert the Mississippi River away from the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.

Much of the Civil War history focuses on the bloody battles - and rightly so. More than 620,000 soldiers and uncounted numbers of civilians died in the conflict, the deadliest in U.S history. Brady, an environmental historian at Boise State University, spotlights massive destruction of another kind.

The Union troops moved en masse - tens of thousands of soldiers. And they were under orders to consume or destroy as much cropland and livestock as they could along the way, like a plague of locusts.  Brady quotes a Savannah plantation owners saying, "Young pigs were hunted down as though they were the rebels themselves."

General Sheridan accounted for everything his men appropriated or destroyed in the Shenandoah Valley. They burned 1,200 barns, took or killed 4,000 horses or mules, 10,918 beef cattle, 12,000 sheep, 15,000 hogs - the list goes on.

War Upon the Land isn't a narrative page-turner. It's a well-written piece of scholarship. As the war dragged on, Brady argues, the Union increasingly aimed to topple the Confederacy by destroying its agricultural foundation.

She makes a strong case. In his memoirs, Sherman defended his scorched earth strategy in the Shenandoah Valley, saying, "The reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life."

The book also is a window on American attitudes toward nature at the time. Undeveloped landscapes were wastelands. Nature was to something to be conquered, not to behold.

Conservation became a vaunted idea after the Civil War. Some of the generals actually hand in the creation of the first national parks. Sherman and Grant are memorialized in Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks. They fought so hard to dominant the landscape. Perhaps it's fitting that their namesake trees are two of the largest living things on Earth.



The End of Country
by Seamus McGraw

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EndofCountry_Oct2012Seamus McGraw's new book, The End of Country, is a sobering account of today's intoxicating bonanza in domestic natural gas production.

The story unfolds in the Appalachian hills and hollows of northeastern Pennsylvania. It's 2007. Advances in drilling have opened up vast reserves of gas buried in deep shale rock, known as the Marcellus formation. Landmen in shiny new gas-company pickups start turning up in small neglected communities. They knock on residents' doors and ingratiate themselves to lease drilling sites on their property. "Beautiful place you have here!"

Struggling farmers and retirees of modest means aren't prepared for their luck to change. They have what McGraw calls "permanent desperation," formed by decades of economic disappointment.

The author says he didn't know the difference between Marcellus Shale and Cassius Clay when he set out to write the book. But he was raised in the area where the story takes place and knows its social formations. As drillers went about shattering shale more than a mile below ground, McGraw saw relationships fracture on the surface.

The community ties of shared hardship began to unravel at the first whiff of sudden wealth. The more energy companies offered, the more residents viewed each other with suspicion - wondering who was getting a better deal. Resentments grew.

The story is centered in the town of Dimock, population 1,500. There's a colorful cast of characters, but McGraw keeps them real.

The landowner who becomes a spokesman for residents' concerns over drilling-related water pollution and noise is no Sierra Club environmentalist. He's a hardscrabble logger and miner who stands to make millions from the drilling on his land.

Meanwhile, a gas company agent is ambivalent about his success in securing drilling leases from the locals. He's native to the area and knows the flood of money and industry will upend residents' values and change their way of life.

The saga is all the more real because McGraw's own mother has a lucrative gas company offer on the table. She wants her children to decide whether to open the family's 100-acre farm to drillers. McGraw battles with his sister over the question. He's an impoverished freelance writer with a family to feed. Yet he has qualms about unearned income and is uneasy about the drilling process -- an environmentally controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The End of Country is a cautionary tale, not an attack on gas drilling. Readers unfamiliar with the current debate over fracking will find an informative and apolitical account. And those who've been following the controversy will appreciate McGraw's fresh angle on the story.

So much has been written on the environmental, political and economic implications of America's natural gas boom. McGraw is breaking new ground in examining how the stampede affects a community's sense of place and self.



by Joe Roman

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Listed Sept 2012Try wrapping your political head around this one:

It's 1973. The nation is in a severe recession. Inflation and unemployment both are rising high. Gas prices are through the roof. And yet a bill that would deliberately constrain economic growth to protect rare animals and plants sails through Congress and is signed into law by a Republican President, Richard Nixon.

As Joe Roman says, the passage of the Endangered Species Act is "a feat just about unimaginable 40 years on."

Roman's new book, Listed, chronicles this four-decade history from his view as a conservation biologist. He travels to the frontlines of controversial protection efforts such as the re-introduction of grey wolves in the Rockies. He brings to life some of the high-profile animals that are listed for special protection and the people trying to save them.

Some of the rescue attempts stretch the imagination. To re-populate the few remaining whooping cranes, federal biologists recruited sandhill cranes to incubate the eggs. They wore crane costumes to retain the birds' fear of humans. Volunteers piloted ultralight planes and played whooping calls to guide those born in captivity to their wintering grounds.

Roman rises above the crowd of endangered species commentators in at least two ways.

First, he masters the difficult balance of detailing the science while staying conversational. He's not alarmist in a sea full of alarm. He shares the rare chuckle in the gloom of extinction. Europeans, he notes, initially balked at the naming of the International Union for Conservation of Nature because they associated the word "conservation" with making jams.

Roman also excels at busting some of the popular myths about the Endangered Species Act as a job killer and trampler of private property rights. Spotted owls didn't throw the lumberjacks out of work. The timber industry itself did by overcutting the remaining old-growth stands in the Pacific Northwest.

In truth, the law has become more flexible over time. Developers in many cases can plow over plants and trees important to vanishing species if they enter into a plan to reduce or offset the impacts.

Roman argues persuasively that the government protection has worked overall and can be a win for both species and local economies. But his chapters on the medicinal and ecological values of plants and animals run too long for a book about the Endangered Species Act as a whole. The 15 pages on the merits of whale poop should have been the first up on the editor's chopping block.

Those with only a casual interest in biology and conservation may not want to take the plunge into Listed. But the book will more than satisfy others looking to deepen their knowledge and understanding of this much misunderstood law.




By Edward Humes

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garbology Aug 2012Thursday at the Bowmans is take-out-the-trash night. Like any respectable Boy Scout, I save all our newspapers and empties for the blue recycling bin. I feel like I'm doing my good turn for Mother Earth.

But after reading Edward Humes' new book, Garbology, I've stopped with the self-applause. Recycling, Humes says, saves space in landfills but often ends up wasting more energy than it saves. My stacks of The Sacramento Bee end up at paper mills in China.

Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, shatters a number of illusions about America's trash - how much we produce, where it ends up and how it gets there.

The book is a journey through the much-hidden afterlife of our throwaways and a quest for a way out of our disposable abundance.

Along the way, we meet a cast of colorful characters who drive the story. There's Big Mike behind the wheel of a giant compactor on LA's Puente Hills landfill, a 500-foot-high mountain of trash. On the other extreme, we visit an East Bay family of four whose annual trash output fills a single mason jar.  

The most compelling finds come from researchers who track our trash. Landfills, it turns out, actually preserve our garbage rather than decompose it. Deep down, the 15-year-old yard clippings are still green.

Much of our plastic litter ends up in the ocean, and Humes rightly rubs our noses in it. The water bottles, toys and Bic pens break down into floating, confetti-like bits mistaken for fish food. "Plastic chowder," Humes calls it. In one recent investigation, scientists spooled out a fine-mesh trawl 100 times across 1,200 miles of the Pacific. They pulled up plastic every time.

The first step to reducing waste is to keep good track of it, which we don't. Humes says the U.S. EPA consistently underreports the volume of trash and way over-estimates the amount of materials that get recycled. He found that Americans on average generate 102 tons of trash in their lifetime - a statistic he repeats throughout the book.

Recycling certainly saves space in landfills. The author's point, however, is that we would save more resources by reducing our consumption than recycling what we consume.

Garbology is as much an exploration of the American culture as an environmental investigation. Our trash reveals all. There may be no better place to dig for the truth than the dump.




JULY 2012

Fire Season
by Philip Connors

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Fire Season July 2012Philip Connors' Fire Season gives you a good idea of what it's like to become a purely sensory being.

Every summer for nine years, Connors unplugged from the digital grid and worked as a lone fire lookout on a desolate 10,000-foot peak in southwestern New Mexico. He kept watch eight hours a day in one of the few hundred observation towers still staffed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Connors invites us into his tiny glass box. We watch for wisps of white smoke across a half-million acres of forested mountains and grassy mesas. He relishes being the first to break news of a forest fire over his two-way radio. It must be a respite from having worked so many years at the tail end of the news as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal.

Fire Season doesn't pack much fire drama. This is a reflective book, not an adventure story. We learn about the ecological role of fire and the Forest Service's historically misguided policy of total fire suppression. The Gila National Forest where Connors resides is America's original proving ground for the let-it-burn approach to fire management.

His post also is within the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area, which in 1924 became the world's first patch of public land to be placed off-limits to motor vehicles and chainsaws.

All this, though, serves only as a backdrop. The book is mainly about the power and joy of landscape worship. The euphoria doesn't come easily. Connors says he had to struggle through the swamp of monotony to reach it.

As for loneliness, Connors has the advantage of having grown up on an Iowa farm where he learned how to be self-reliant and entertain on his own. He also has his dog Alice, an AM radio, a fly-fishing rod, a cache of whiskey, a portable typewriter and an exceptionally understanding wife whom he visits every 10 days. It's a 5-mile hike to the nearest road.

It takes a good stretch of alone, Connors says, for the worship of the material to recede and kinship with the natural to become possible. The solitude sharpened his senses and lengthened his attention span. He translates birdsong, reads clouds and interprets the movements of mule deer, elk and black bear.

If you follow Connors' footsteps, be forewarned: The experience may render you unfit for office life or perhaps anything you'd consider a proper career.



JUNE 2012

The Nature Principle
by Richard Louv

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NaturePrinciple_June2012Ignore your video screen for a moment and imagine this:

What would your life be like if your days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?

In his latest book, The Nature Principle, Richard Louv helps you picture this hybrid world and make it a reality. He presents a compelling case for balancing nature with technology in our everyday lives. And he shows us the path to get there. Most of it is hidden in plain sight, starting with our own backyard.

Louv is a journalist and this is his eighth book exploring connections between family, community and nature. He wrote about nature-deprived children in his previous book, "Last Child in the Woods," in which he coined the term "nature-deficit disorder."

Louv revisits this theme in The Nature Principle, but focuses on adults. His main argument is that connection to the natural world is fundamental to our health, well-being, spirit and even our survival. This is what he calls "the nature principle." The concept isn't new. You'll find it throughout the writings of early American conservationists. John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold come to mind.  

Modern environmentalists talk much more about the human impact in nature than the influence of nature on humans. This is not surprising given how far Americans have distanced themselves from the natural world. Blackberries are now smartphones. The Sunday Drive is now an iPhone app for taking virtual road tours.

Louv argues that the more tech-centric we become, the more we need nature to act as a counterbalance. With scientific studies and a wealth of personal stories, he shows the many restorative powers of nature, or, as he calls it, "Vitamin N." Exposure to nature promotes health, boosts energy levels, enhances our intellect and sharpens our senses, including our sense of place.

Many of the book's prescriptions for bonding with nature are inexpensive and convenient. You don't have to haul the family up to the High Sierra. An urban park would do. Grow gardens for native birds, bees and butterflies. Get to know your local species by name. And find out when they bloom, spawn, migrate or hibernate. Exercise outdoors. Start a family nature club.

The Nature Principle inspires and teaches optimal living. There's an app for that. It's called Take a hike. For Capitol Public Radio, I'm Chris Bowman.


MAY 2012

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science
by Chris Mooney

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If Chris Mooney is right about the psychology of Republicans, few of them are going to be reading his new book, The Republican Brain.

That's because the science he relies on-like all scientific research-carries some degree of uncertainty. And one of the key personality traits of a conservative - according to political psychologists-is discomfort with uncertainty!

Mooney is a science journalist and a self-described liberal. He makes a persuasive-but not proof-positive-case that Republicans by nature are more inclined than Democrats to reject scientific facts that conflict with core personal values.

His previous book, The Republican War on Science, documents at length how conservatives are at odds with the science on climate change, evolution, stem-cell research, reproductive health and other ideological hot buttons.

The Republican Brain is a sequel that attempts to explain why growing numbers of Republicans reject mainstream science. The book's subtitle - The Science of Why They Deny Science - suggests that conservatives are intellectually dishonest. But the book is actually more of an indictment of liberals - for failing to understand people who are not like them.

For example, liberals commonly dismiss conservatives who resist climate science as uniformed or misinformed. But Mooney presents substantial polling data showing that conservatives who know more about the issue, or who are more educated, actually are more in denial and less likely to change their minds in the face of compelling evidence. For Democrats and Independents, precisely the opposite is the case.

Liberals' tactic of beating conservatives over the head with their best evidence simply hasn't worked.

This book is Mooney's attempt to help fellow liberals understand why this is so.

To get there, Mooney explored a large body of research on psychological and even neurological differences. Some researchers looked at brain scans, where they found conservatives generally outsizing the liberals in the region that processes fear, while liberals on average had a larger frontal lobe, which influences the high mental activities such as planning and judgment.

Other research shows that conservatives have a larger desire to manage fear and uncertainty - and have a greater need for closure. Liberals, on the other hand, are more curious and tolerant. But they also tend to avoid commitment and favor inclusiveness, which may explain their bias for disadvantaged groups.

The book is not a polemic. Mooney writes instructively. In each chapter, he outlines his points up front, backs them with solid research and closes with a succinct summary. In addition to writing books, he teaches science writing - and his conversational prose shows it.

Liberals wanting to bridge America's growing political divide should crack open The Republican Brain. The insights they gain may change their tunes to ones that better resonate with Republicans.

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APRIL 2012

The Illuminated Landscape: A Sierra Nevada Anthology
by Gary Noy and Rick Heide

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The popular literature of the Sierra Nevada seems so much about the exploits of rugged white men. They're extracting gold nuggets. They're felling behemoth Sequoias and blasting railroad tunnels through solid granite.

If you've had enough of this Marlboro-man narrative, you'll be pleased to read   a recently published Sierra anthology titled The Illuminated Landscape.

Editors Gary Noy and Rick Heide scanned the literature through a multicultural prism. Their compilation dates back to the 1840s. It tells a complex story of clashing cultures - Native American, European, Hispanic and Asian - rather than a mythical steady march of white men fulfilling manifest destiny.

You still get the tall tales from the Mother Lode. No collection of Sierra stories would be complete without Mark Twain's yarn on the Calaveras jumping frog. And you wouldn't want to miss Bret Harte's vignette of a child's birth in Roaring Camp. (The midwife is a volunteer named Stumpy.)

But for every ripsnorter there's a dark account of greed, bigotry or frontier justice. An excerpt from the memoir of one '49er - an Argentinian - recounts a mob execution of Chilean miners on the Calaveras River.

Higher up the Sierra, readers get a good dose of John Muir's worshipful prose. But an excerpt of Farewell to Manzanar tells us that thousands of Japanese-Americans also drew spiritual strength from the mountains. Their prison was right at the foot of the stunning Eastern Sierra.

The memoirs, essays and poems take   you to the peaks of exhilaration and valleys of despair. A young Muir describes the ecstatic evening he spent high up in a Douglas fir tree during a fierce Sierra windstorm. Meanwhile, down on the American River near Folsom, Mary Ballou loathes her life as a boardinghouse keeper for gold miners. She writes, "I'm scaring the hogs out of my kitchen and driving the mules out of my dining room." No romance there.

Missing from this anthology is the story of the Basque sheepherders who for 60 years summered in the aspen meadows of the eastern Sierra. Future editions might also include an account of the longstanding battles over development at Lake Tahoe.

Still, the scope of Sierra experiences in this book is as broad at the range itself. Anyone with an emotional attachment to this majestic mountain chain will appreciate The Illuminated Landscape. - Chris Bowman


March 2012

The View from Lazy Point
by Carl Safina

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LazyPointCarl Safina's latest book, The View from Lazy Point, is a masterpiece in the art of nature writing.

His mastery is in making creatures eminently relatable to us - even ones with both its eyes on one side of the head.

"A flounder," Safina writes, "would look at Picasso's cubist figures and say, 'Couldn't he come up with anything original?'

Safina's theme is not original. He stands on the shoulders of Aldo Leopold, the acclaimed early 20th century conservationist who preached harmony with nature.

The book takes places largely in Safina's own habitat on the east end of Long Island - in the small seaside town of Lazy Point. It's reminiscent of Leopold's 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac.

Safina relates his observations of shore birds, surf fish and crabs month-by-month through the year - and inserts finely detailed wildlife sketches here and there.

Safina expands the Leopold ethic to encompass climate change. He travels to the Caribbean to report on the mass die-off of corals from warming ocean temperatures. He visits a 400-year-old Eskimo village that faces evacuation because melting sea ice is slowly drowning their island.

The view isn't all gloom and doom.  Yes, Safina says, we're seriously altering the planet's life support systems. But the world still brims with vitality, and there's a lot left that's really worth saving for future generations.

We see that salmon and grizzly bears still thrive in Southeast Alaska. We tour the spectacular coral reefs in Palau, where they've made a remarkable recovery thanks to that island nation's wholesale ban on the export of fish.

Safina brings to this book the keen eyes and ears of a naturalist, the knowledge of a marine scientist, the passion of a lifelong fisherman and birder and an ecologist's perspective that connects everything to everything else.

He alternates between observation and commentary. Some may cringe at his attacks on the evils of corporations or his advocacy of population control. But his prescriptions for healing a wounded planet are profound.

This book is best read slowly from an Adirondack chair. You'll want to savor the writing and pause to engage with your natural surroundings.


February 2012

Shell Games
By Craig Welch

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ShellGamesSixty bucks is a lot of clams to pay for just one mollusk.

But that's what seafood lovers are shelling out these days for a giant burrowing bi-valve called geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). With that kind of clamor, it's no wonder big-time poachers are scouring seafloors for the tell-tale siphons.

Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch exposes the highly profitable clam scams in his new book, Shell Games.  

This isn't an environmentalist polemic. Welch doesn't pontificate on the scourge of wildlife smuggling. Instead, he delivers an engrossing detective story. There's a hit man, fire-bombings, undercover cops, shady informants and a boat named Clamdestine.

Who knew mollusks attract organized crime?

That's Welch's point. The depravity of poaching is all the more apparent when you move from the familiar trading of elephant tusks, shark fins and rhino horns to the pillaging of one the world's most hideous creatures.

The geoduck, some say, is living proof that God has a sense of humor. Its leathery siphon is ridiculously longer than its shell. The tip of the twin-nosed tube looks like a pig's snout. Most obviously, Welch says, the organism resembles "the reproductive organ of a Clydesdale stud."

Geoducks fetch a pretty price because they are considered a delicacy, particularly in China where most are shipped. They live only in the Pacific off the coast of the Northwest. Most weigh about 3 pounds and measure 2 feet long. Harvesting them is heavily restricted and expensive.

Welch artfully backfills the clam capers in and around Puget Sound with context and history on wildlife smuggling at large. You meet a flirtatious butterfly thief and pastor who poaches baby sharks from San Francisco Bay.

Shell Games reads like a spy novel. But Welch takes no literary license. He's interviewed dozens of players, combed through piles of court records and reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance video and audio tapes from the 1990s.

If you're interested in a real fly-on-the-wall look inside the clammy business of wildlife poaching, Shell Games is for you. - Chris Bowman



By Donovan Hohn

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Moby-DuckSome of the best investigative stories unfold when reporters just follow their natural curiosity - no tipsters or whistleblowers pointing the way.

In his first book, Moby-Duck, Donovan Hohn followed his reporter's curiosity to extreme ends. But he ultimately harpoons a whale of an environmental story.

Hohn's imagination caught fire when one of his journalism students mentioned a news story about 29,000 yellow ducks and other bath toys being lost at sea.

The toys ended up in the drink instead of the tub, in 1992, when a ship container headed from China to the U.S. tumbled into rough seas. The ducks were swept away. So where did the ocean currents take them?

The question became an obsession for Hohn, who quit his teaching job to track the plastic castaways from coast-to-coast.

The book is a three-year-long odyssey that takes Hohn from Alaska to Hawaii and to the Arctic. He combs beaches, trawls for floatables, retraces the route of the ill-fated shipment aboard a freighter and talks his way onto the crew of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

At points in the book Hohn himself goes adrift. He ruminates at length on the history of oceanography, the meaning of toys and the physics of cargo ships.

The book turns compelling when Hohn confronts the menace of plastic debris accumulating in the ocean.

Hohn discovers that plastic attracts and absorbs DDT and other long-lived pollutants. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the plastic particles and store the toxic hitchhikers in their fat. And when a larger fish or a person eats the fish that ate the plastic, they absorb even greater concentrations of contaminants in their fat. In other words, the plastic spoons and disposable cigarette lighters we tossed away decades ago may be coming back to haunt our seafood.

Hohn says he never imagined his whimsical duck hunt would become a cautionary environmental tale.  He just wanted to know where the bath toys drifted and why. That's what makes Moby-Duck a good read. His freewheeling curiosity about ocean currents made for an adventure with unpredictable finds.

Hohn never did find a bath toy from the 1992 spill. But others have. More sun-bleached survivors are bound to turn up. Because you just never know what the tide will bring in. - Chris Bowman



Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
by Emma Marris

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What strikes me most about Emma Marris' Rambunctious Garden is her message that - like it or not - climate change will force us to rethink how we go about "saving nature."

Marris is an independent journalist and a regular contributor to the world's foremost science journal, Nature. She argues that adapting to global warming calls for a seismic shift in the way we restore, preserve and manage our natural resources.

For decades, conservationists and ecologists have been caught up in an ethos of healing a wounded nature and returning it to some pristine state before European settlement. But, when you think about it, human-caused global warming undercuts any notion that pristine places still exist.

Once we admit that our fingerprints are everywhere - that our natural world is, in fact, intensely managed - we can move on, Marris says, and "make nature better," not just "less bad." We could design ecosystems that maximize certain benefits, such as purifying water or removing climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Marris introduces us to scientists who are experimenting with these new approaches around the world, from the ancient forests of Poland to the urban waterways in her hometown of Seattle.

Some are studying the feasibility of relocating plants and animals to safer ground as their habitat warms up. Foresters in British Columbia have already begun systematically planting seedlings of timber trees threatened by global warming to colder climes farther north.

This is an optimistic book. It gives readers a license to re-conceptualize nature as, quite literally, a "rambunctious garden" - a hybrid of wild and managed. What counts for nature is not just the spectacular Yosemite and the remote Yukon.  It's also the more humble urban, suburban and agricultural environments closer to home. This book will challenge the way you look at the world, right outside your own front door. -Chris Bowman

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Chris Bowman is one of the nation's most experienced environmental journalists, having worked all sides of the beat in his 24 years as a senior writer at The Sacramento Bee. Several of his investigative stories have led to state and federal environmental reforms. Read more about Chris Bowman


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