Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Review: Return to Wild America

Posted by Kirk
Revisiting the landmark 1955 book, Wild America, written by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher would seem to be at once an exhilarating journey across both the continent and time but it is also a daunting task. Author Scott Weidensaul proves it to be both but also shows that he is up to the challenge in Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul.

I’d personally love to take the challenge of following in their footsteps and take on the task of revisiting the sites they saw but I’d not do it lightly. Fisher and Peterson took on an epic 30,000 mile journey and wrote about it in details that have made generations of naturalists drool and turn into fiendish page turners into the wee hours of the night, eventually dreaming of far away places. Weidensaul has accomplished the same task. I spent many evenings tucked into a warm bed with dry arctic air cascading down from the north as I read with rapt attention about the changes that have occurred to the wild lands of our country.

Weidensaul doesn’t attempt to follow the exact course of the original book. Some of the locations no longer exist and time has shown that while they visited some spectacular locations, had they traveled a few miles away from their mapped locations, even greater treasures awaited. By following Peterson and Fishers general course but straying a bit from the path, Weidensaul is able to visit a few places unknown to Peterson and Fisher and he is able take a barometer reading on the true state of today’s Wild America.

The book is written beautifully with the same attention to detail that draws fellow naturalists into a rich landscape. When Weidensaul sits atop a rock outcropping on the Olympic peninsula listening to marmots whistle as they watch the same adult golden eagle he watches, his descriptive writing style makes us feel like we are right beside him taking part in both his experience and a discussion about the landscape.

Some nature writers record only the journey, some discuss only the land, some merely tally flora and fauna and some discuss only the philosophical meaning of what they see. Too often, natural history travelogue books focus on just one of these and they become tiring lists of species or read like a dry itinerary. Weidensaul has avoided all of these traps and seamlessly weaves together the history of the land, observations from the original Wild America book, descriptions of species and their habits as well as the stunning landscapes he explores along the journey. He also spices up his writing with a dry wit that brings together a tight package of writing that is sure to please.

While I enjoyed the book immensely, I do still find myself wondering about those places that Weidensaul didn’t visit on his re-created tour. That’s part of the magic of reading about all there is for a naturalist to see on our enormous continent. Like the naturalists before me, I’ll have to hop in the car, hope the gasoline holds out a few more miles and explore our wild America.