Naturalist Weidensaul (The Ghost with Trembling Wings, 2002, etc.) assesses where Americans stand as stewards of their natural environment’s amazing diversity.
The author got a significant career steer as a boy from reading Wild America (1955), a chronicle by birding-world icon Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher of their 100-day trek in 1953 covering 30,000 miles of the North American continent from Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula to the Pribilof Islands off Alaska. Weidensaul reckoned that following in the duo’s tracks and comparing the state of today’s environment with what they recorded in 1953 would provide a yardstick for judging our performance as keepers of our natural heritage. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the author’s findings do not trend downhill all the way. The quadrupling of the seabird population in the rookeries on Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland, since the Peterson/Fisher visit, for instance, brings an initial reassurance. (Because Fisher was a world-renowned expert on seabirds, the original Wild America route was somewhat “coastally biased,” Weidensaul writes, but the team did venture inland to Southern forests, for example, in search of the recently resurfaced Ivory Billed Woodpecker.) And in ticking off environmental legislation that simply didn’t exist in 1953 but now covers everything from whales to minnows, Weidensaul documents a strong record of securing wildlife resources. Yet the inexorable sprawl of human development continues to annihilate natural habitat at an alarming rate in nearly every region of the U.S., he adds, citing as a worst case Pennsylvania’s 47 percent growth in “urban footprint” during 15 years when the state’s population increased by only 2.5 percent. Even that could pale as a threat, the author warns, compared to what global warming may have in store.
A carefully documented, well-informed conclusion that the jury’s still out.