Return to Wild America
In the spring of 1953, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher set out on what would become a legendary three-month journey across North America. Peterson was the noted naturalist who had published his groundbreaking Field Guide to the Birds in 1934, and in the intervening twenty years, this and his subsequent field guides had sold more than ten million copies, as interest in the environment steadily grew. His friend James Fisher was well known in Britain, through his writings and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcasts on nature study. Wild America (1955), which was the result of their thirty-thousand-mile journey, became part of a growing environmental movement marked by works such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), books which reminded Americans of the beauty of the wilderness they so easily took for granted, warned of its fragility, and helped lay the groundwork for the conservation efforts and legislation that in the following half centuryas the word “ecology” became part of the national lexiconworked to protect this irreplaceable American resource. Peterson and Fisher saw North America and its inhabitants at a turning point, Weidensaul writes, and their book became part of the important force initiating change in public awareness of wild America.
It is this conservation movement which is responsible for so many of the environmental victories in the United States since the publication of Wild America at both local and national levels. The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress in 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1969, the Clean Air Act a year later (in time to celebrate the first Earth Day), followed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1974. The National Wildlife Refuge System has almost quintupled in size since Peterson and Fisher crisscrossed the country in 1953, and the federal wilderness system, which came into existence in 1964, now encompasses more than 106 million acres.
Scott Weidensaul first read Wild America as a child, and as a seasoned naturalist and writer himself, the author of more than two dozen books, decided to try to discover whether Peterson and Fisher’s diagnosis of America’s wilderness health is still accurate. He follows their route, but at a more leisurely pace, and not in their single, one hundred-day journey but in a series of trips to the major sites they visited, from Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland (“the easternmost prow of North America”), down the eastern seaboard to the Florida Keys, across the Rio Grande Valley into Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and back up along the West Coast, with stops in California, Oregon, Washington, and finally Alaska. In fifteen detailed chapters, he visits dozens of national parks and wilderness sites, from the Great Smoky Mountains through the Dry Tortugas and the Grand Canyon to the Olympic Peninsula and the Pribilof Islands, three hundred miles west of the Alaskan mainland out in the Bering Sea.
In Weidensaul’s journey he raises fundamental and pressing questions about the contemporary state of America’s waterways, forests, and wildlife populations. He reminds readers of how far North Americans have come, and of how far they have yet to go, in order to preserve the most valuable legacy they pass on to future generations. His story is beautifully written, balanced in its account, and as important as any other volume on current affairs. Part memoir, part jeremiad, Return to Wild America does for the environmental movement at the beginning of the twenty-first century what Wild America did for conservation in the second half of the twentieth.
The losses are easy enough to record. In Florida, Weidensaul explores the Everglades, “one of the most manipulated landscapes in America,” which, by the time Peterson and Fisher visited it, had already undergone half a century of dredging and draining. In his travels...
(The entire section is 1,790 words.)