In the spring of 1953, American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson and his British friend, James Fisher, also a birder and professional naturalist, set...
“Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul”
by Scott Weidensaul
North Point Press, 375 pp., $25
In the spring of 1953, American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson and his British friend, James Fisher, also a birder and professional naturalist, set off on a 30,000-mile adventure. Their 100-day marathon began in Newfoundland, continued down America’s eastern seaboard to Florida, turned west, dipped briefly into Mexico, then coasted from California to the Yukon, ending in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, 3000 miles out into the Bering Sea.
Their resulting travelogue, “Wild America,” became a best seller in 1955. A classic today, it inspired Scott Weidensaul, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 1999 book, “Living on the Wind,” to commemorate the trip’s 50th anniversary by retracing their voyage of discovery.
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At times the journey was depressing, he admits. In “Return to Wild America,” Weidensaul reiterates frequent criticisms for the present Congress’ and administration’s “fire-sale mentality,” which seems “far more interested in rewarding their cronies than in safeguarding the country’s natural heritage.” But his good news is that despite development, invasive species, pollution, climate changes and other threats to local, national and global health, “enormous progress” has been made in five decades.
In 1953, Weidensaul notes, you could shoot hawks, clear-cut forests, build dams and spray any available pesticides. To support his premise of hope, he details many encouraging events, such as his vivid encounter with California condors returned to the wild, and with hunters gradually switching from lead ammunition to bullets that won’t poison birds or other animals.
Weidensaul writes with passion and skill, allowing his curiosity to roam thoroughly around each region he visits. In Newfoundland, for instance, “a wild and lovely place,” Cape St. Mary’s tundra “barrens” support caribou and ptarmigan, yet the area lies on the same latitude as Seattle. The peninsula’s harsh climate is a result of cold oceans and nearby ice. While summers can be foggy and the cod-fishing industry has collapsed, tourism — particularly visits from birders — flourishes, and fishers now target capelin, a smelt.
Any change causes other effects, however. The small fish are a “bedrock” of the marine food chain, nourishing everything from puffins to whales, yet the local run that used to last a month occurs for only a few hours today.
Peterson and Fisher provide a base line for Weidensaul, and it’s fascinating to learn how times have changed. In New York City, the famous red-tailed hawk Pale Male has found mates and raised young that fledged successfully from a Fifth Avenue apartment building. Meanwhile, the whole Northeast has seen an “odd collision of trends,” as urban sprawl has displaced animals and plants sensitive to habitat fragmentation; woodland songbirds have suffered, but raccoons and white-tailed deer thrive.
The issues Weidensaul discusses are complex: restoring wetlands; reforestation; dealing with acid rain; balancing water- and land-use needs; coping with the disastrous legacy of fire prevention; preserving natural attractions by restricting tourism; even ridding islands of introduced predators such as rats or foxes so seabirds can reproduce.
He does a masterful job of balancing history and science with personal experience, making the book interesting and informative not only to birders, but also to anyone who venerates North America’s vast, fragile beauty.