Wood and biosolids from water treatment plants can be used to improve the soil—and keep remaining trees healthy.
When I tell bird-loving audiences what puffins mean to me, I start with the expected.
I show my photos of them either with fish in their orange, yellow, and blue-black beaks, gathered in kaleidoscopic multitude, or nuzzling in affection. I always get oohs, ahhs, and a choral, “sooooo cute.”Then I show images that are not so cute.
They are of mothers and children of southeast Chicago, with toxic industries at the end of their block. They live in what environmental justice advocates decry as “sacrifice zones.” In the last decade alone, this primarily brown and Black community has suffered choking clouds of dust from oil refining byproducts, lead in lawns, and neurotoxic manganese dust in the air. Just last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development blasted an attempt to relocate here a scrap metal recycling facility ousted from the predominately white north side. HUD said it was an example of “shifting polluting activities from white neighborhoods to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Activists march to stop an industrial metal shredder from relocating half a mile from two public schools in Southeast Chicago.
Credit: Chicago Teachers Union
I then give the audience a glimpse of the shift that should be happening. I show images from my coverage of offshore wind farms and facilities in Europe. I show them families of color from San Diego to Washington, D.C., who enjoy rooftop solar power through various programs. I show them Black and brown workers in the green economy, installing solar panels on roofs.
I then return to puffins. I say if you really care about the threats to them and whether they’ll be around for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, then you must care about those families in southeast Chicago. Like thousands of birdwatchers, my journey with puffins began with simple admiration of a beautiful bird. Today, I see that their destiny is directly bonded to dumped-on families. They are bonded to the speed we curb the fossil emissions that scorch the planet and sear the lungs.
A puffin takes flight
Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson
My first story on Atlantic puffins was 36 years ago for Newsday, where I reported from Eastern Egg Rock, a tiny 7-acre island 6.5 miles out from Pemaquid Point in Maine. The rock was the site of the world’s first restoration of a seabird to an island where humans killed it off.
It was almost a fairy tale. Puffins were slaughtered off the island in the 1880s for meat and eggs. Nearly a century later, Steve Kress, a young summer camp bird instructor for the National Audubon Society, got it in his head to bring them back.
Beginning in 1973, he and colleagues brought chicks from Newfoundland more than 800 miles away. They fed them until they fledged into the Atlantic. Kress hoped that years later, when puffins seek islands to breed, they would pick Eastern Egg Rock instead of Newfoundland. To make the birds feel at home, his team put up decoys and mirrors.
A pair of puffins at the Gulf of Maine
Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson
Kress succeeded. Puffins returned and began breeding in 1981. During my 1986 visit, I contributed to the cause by spotting a puffin zoom in off the ocean with herring in its mouth for a chick. The parent disappeared under a boulder to a nest not yet charted. Kress considered my discovery a big deal as the nest count in those days was still under 20.
Today, the bird is 1,300 pairs strong in the Gulf of Maine and an economic engine. Last year, 20,000 people circled Eastern Egg Rock on tour boats for a glimpse of the bird. But the fairy tale is now a drama. A symbol of what we can restore from 19th-century destruction, puffins are now a canary of 20th- and 21st-century self-destruction. Climate change is making these waters perhaps the fastest warming major body of ocean on the planet, as the Gulf Stream strengthens against weakening currents coming down from the Arctic.
Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson
Last year was a nightmare with the warmest waters on record and intense storms also associated with a warming planet. Warm water drove the fish puffins and other seabirds need to feed chicks too deep or too far out to catch. Relentless rain triggered hypothermia. Between starvation and shivering, seabird islands were a climate war zone, with bird carcasses everywhere and some of the lowest chick productivity recorded by researchers.
Conversely, this current summer brought calmer weather conditions and plentiful fish. It was a reminder that there is still a chance of a forever-ever-after. In a recent conference call, researchers in the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group reported record numbers of tern species across many islands and a rebounding of puffin nesting. In my visit to the islands, I held a symbol of resilience in my hands, a puffin chick being raised by a 33-year-old parent. The parent is one of the last-known puffins that was plucked off Newfoundland as a chick and hand reared by Kress’s team.
The question now is whether we assist such resilience with a resolve to cool their waters. It requires the same effort needed to preserve ourselves from deadly heat, storms, floods, desertification, and the daily soot shortening our lives. As one who covers many angles of the environment, formerly for the Globe’s editorial board and currently for the Union of Concerned Scientists, I no longer see a distinction between traditional notions of environmentalism and environmental justice.
Curbing carbon pollution for families in Chicago calms the climatic conditions that drive fish away from puffins. Every new wind turbine and solar panel installed is one less mountain of fossil fuel waste fouling city blocks and rural rivers and one less set of emissions inflaming the ocean. With the majority of the under-18 population now people of color, the conservation world by necessity must recruit new caretakers for puffins and threatened species from communities living with Superfund sites, lead poisoning, and asthma-causing particulates. That surely would spawn a new generation of environmentalists who cease to make distinctions between the climate threats to animals and us.
Just as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote nearly 60 years ago that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” stopping climate change for people on land saves puffins at sea. The puffin fairy tale can still have a happy ending, if we realize we’re all in the same sacrifice zone.
This story was originally published in the Boston Globe and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Derrick Z. Jackson is co-author and photographer of Project Puffin and The Puffin Plan. He is a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a frequent contributor to Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.
We’re seeing some big signs that electric vehicles (EV) may be ending their decades-long tease.
Here in Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp is on the verge of landing two blockbuster electric vehicle production plants. Yes, a Republican with a track record of indifference on climate and environment.
Kemp faces a tough reelection bid in November against Stacey Abrams, and EV’s might help win that race. He’s cut a deal with Hyundai to base the Korean automaker’s EV manufacturing near Savannah. Hyundai plans to drop $5.5 billion into a complex with 8,100 jobs. In late 2021, Kemp closed a deal with California-based Rivian to build a $5 billion electric truck plant 40 miles east of Atlanta, promising more than 7,000 jobs.
The accelerated push for EV’s is not a Georgia thing. It is happening across the country.
Last month, California announced it will outlaw the sale of new fossil-fuel-powered cars starting in 2035. As many as a dozen other states are expected to follow suit.
GM has announced a not-nearly-big-enough network of 5,000 fast-charging EV stations to be located at truck stops and along interstates.
And last month’s unprecedented federal climate-healthcare legislation is an unmistakable sign that, for now, Washington is taking climate action seriously.
The electronics revolution needed to support the EV revolution will create its own industries, many keying on the rare elements capable of powering advanced batteries.
There’s bit of a problem with this, though. Most of the fifteen elements that are considered to be rare earths – lanthanum, cerium and their 13 neighbors who reside in a rarely-visited neighborhood on the Periodic Table – can often be found in nodules on the sea floor or beneath the melting landscape of Greenland.
Marine scientists, and the environmentalists that have waged a 40-year fight to block or limit seabed mining for not-so-rare elements like manganese, cobalt and copper, are concerned that disruptive activity on the sea floor could harm sea life throughout the water column, and from top to bottom on the food chain.
Exploration firms assure that their activity will cause no harm. Since seabed mining is still just a concept, neither side can offer proof for their claims.
Yet, in August, a U.N. effort to establish standards for any seabed mining for rare earths failed.
The Pacific island nation of Nauru has served notice that they may start mining next year, setting off twin competitions for environmental damage and security tensions. China, with its huge electronics industry, currently leads in rare earth use, but the U.S. and others would love to catch up.Of course, I’m being more than a tad whiny. The potential risks of accessing rare elements are in no way a reason to shun EV’s.
The need to wean ourselves from our oil habit is a life-or-death thing. There are other ways that EV’s aren’t ideal. Juicing up your clean car on power that comes from a coal plant isn’t helping anyone.
But the news is overly good for those who seek an end to humanity’s fossil fuel era.
His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
Irony abounds as we close out a summer that brought the death of the climate truthteller, scientist James Lovelock, along with news that more countries in Africa and South America have decided to exploit, aggressively, their fossil fuel production – protected areas and former promises be damned.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, had, less than a year before at the annual climate negotiation in Glasgow, signed on to a 10-year agreement to protect its rainforest, part of the vast Congo Basin. In shifting to extraction, they seem to be saying, basically, everyone’s doing it; why not us?
Congo is not alone in this choice. In 2015, Guyana discovered off-shore oil reserves. More recently, it is sprinting to exploit at least 11 billion additional barrels of oil off its coast. Like Congo, Guyana’s leadership says it will use the proceeds to improve the lives of its people – in this case, infrastructure and health and education systems.
It’s hard to fault an impoverished country with no historical responsibility for the fast-accelerating climate crisis for wading in at this late date to exploit their fossil fuel resources. And it is clearly impertinent, at the minimum, for those of us who have led gilded privileged lives rooted in huge fossil fuel consumption to fault a country that has decided to try to leverage its natural resources to better the lives of its people.
And there lies the dilemma. Congo itself sets up the choice as between global interest and national-interest, between saving the planet and earning revenue to help an impoverished country finance programs to support economic growth.
Yes, revenues will increase and we can hope they will be spent wisely. At the same time, extraction feeds the beast that inevitably makes their own countries less livable. It lets the wealthy countries off the hook, supporting their continued extravagant energy consumption.
The missing factor in Congo’s calculation is that extraction itself is far from costless. It has profound, permanent domestic impacts. These are hard to manage in normal times and in affluent countries. In the increasingly challenging conditions of a changed climate, countries should be focused on how to sustain life in uncertain times, when they may be thrown on their own resources to survive.
Countries that host extraction must live with the detritus of extraction, which is by definition intrusive. Even responsible extraction of natural resources imposes environmental costs. Digging hydrocarbons disrupts the landscape in a variety of ways. Ground is broken and earth is moved. Roads and power transmission corridors are cut through pristine areas. Workers and often their families must be housed and provided attendant services. All of this produces waste which must be disposed of or trucked out.
The activity of building roads and then the use of those roads and equipment introduces fuels and exhaust fumes. Extraction operations often use hazardous chemicals. Sometimes companies cheat and use illegal chemicals rather than those considered appropriate and for which there are technologies to capture and clean or separate. Offshore drilling brings its own set of disruptions. On land and at sea, there are oil spills that contaminate soil and water and may cause devastating explosions and fires.
All of this wreaks havoc on natural systems, fracturing the complex web of ecological interactions and processes that strain to support local life and downstream communities and cities, especially agriculture. Water is unclean or more toxic or less available as natural flows and connections between water bodies are irreparably cut. It is these flows that are essential for sustaining life. When mining finally leaves, lost topsoil, vegetation and forest cover constitute a broken natural chain that is rarely restorable.
Some impacts are obvious and visual, for example table top removal to extract coal. Others are more difficult to track and comprehend. When pollution enters an ecosystem, it is often difficult to trace its source and attribute responsibility. This is true even in countries with vast resources, empowered citizens with the tools and legal recourse to play a watch-dog role and well-functioning systems of law.
Dr. Lovelock’s legacy is the knowledge that destroying the living organism that is Earth has huge costs. Extraction and the exploration that leads to it breaks communities, piece by piece. Deciding to engage in these activities now comes at a very bad time in the history of the Earth and of human kind's existence on it.
Of course, companies promise to clean up their mess. Experience tells us not to rely on such promises – not only because promises are broken but because much of this damage is irreparable. Reconciling extraction and protection of the environment is an ongoing challenge even in places with well-established regulatory systems. Look at West Virginia, albeit a different kind of extraction. Despite requirements that coal companies remediate, bankruptcies of coal giants like Peabody have thrown into doubt who is responsible for abandoned strip mines and denuded mountains. Impoverished countries will have even less leverage to manage the damage when the corporations leave.
As climate change fully hits vulnerable countries, heat will buckle roads and rail beds; erratic precipitation will make hydropower unreliable and make it harder to move product on water, much less to provide for domestic water needs. There comes a point where working in the heat is not just oppressive but fatal.
It would be a bold option for these countries to take control of their destinies. One way to do this is to reject extraction and adopt a self-protective plan shifting to more fundamental but sustainable endeavors. A tortoise rather than hare strategy better positioning them for the inevitable shift could range from diversifying into alternate energy sources to water harvesting, dry farming and building soil capacity to retain water. These are all techniques recommended for water-poor, stressed geographies such as Gaza. The inevitable changes on the horizon argue for making a virtue of what has been seen in the past as a liability — small scale survival.
In an ideal world, the wealthier countries would contribute to this strategy, but realistically, help at scale from abroad is unlikely. Countries at risk have pleaded for climate adaptation or compensation funds – some of which could in theory help with these kinds of transitions. In reality, what funds that exist are chronically underfunded and unreliable. Congo came out of Glasgow with such promises, which it clearly decided were not sufficient.
Is this advice realistic? Maybe not, but humanity is in uncharted waters, meanwhile trying to pretend that everything is manageable. The truth is: any big challenge requires political will. Sometimes survival is achieved by defying conventional wisdom.
These are not easy choices, but rejecting extraction would engage a very different vision of self-interest. And one that might be more appropriate for the disaster we find ourselves in.
Ruth Greenspan Bell is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, and affiliated with The Environmental Law Institute. Her views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
As bees continue to decline, scientists have found many contributors, including climate change and landscape transformation. Now they’ve added another one: glyphosate.
Over the past few years, glyphosate, an herbicide most known as the active ingredient in Roundup that’s used to regulate plant growth and kill off unwanted plant species, has become a subject of public concern as it is unclear whether or not it is harmful to the health of humans and other animal organisms.
A recent study found that exposure to glyphosate can impair a bumblebee’s ability to maintain hive temperature, which is critical for bees’ ability to forage and reproduce to increase colony size.
Anja Weidenmüller, who led the study, has been researching bumblebee thermoregulation behavior for more than a decade. For this study, Weidenmüller prioritized the long term effects that glyphosate has on bumblebee behavior rather than looking at the immediate 24-48 hour time frame, normally used to determine if glyphosate is immediately lethal for bumblebees.
Contrary to many lab studies, the bumblebees were studied in environments of resource limitation and environmental stressors as most organisms would experience in the natural world. In fact, as bumblebees have declined, scientists have found there are multiple factors that play into this decline including climate change, landscape transformation, and harmful chemicals used on agriculture, such as pesticides. As a result, bumble bees have experienced a severe decline in recent decades: a 2021 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report found that over the past 20 years populations have disappeared or become rare in 16 states, and observations of the bees have declined by about 90%.
“When those [things] come together, an effect of an insecticide or pesticide may be very different than what usually tests these organisms in laboratories,” Weidenmüller told EHN.
To imitate this complex environment, the researchers placed a brood of bees in the lab and exposed the bees to stressors such as glyphosate, and limited their sugar water to reproduce the resource limitations that they would be exposed to in agricultural landscapes.
This study found that when exposed to glyphosate for just four hours, a bumblebee’s ability to maintain brood temperature decreased by 25% when resources were limited, which could affect the health of bees and impair their ability to reproduce, leading to a decline in population.
“[The study] highlights the importance of these multiple stressors for bees, and for their health; those risk periods of resource limitation are often not accounted for in laboratory settings,” Emily May, Pollinator Conservation Specialist and Agricultural Lead at Xerces Society, told EHN.
Extensive research has found that the conservation of bumblebees, and bees in general, is crucial for the survival of crops and wild ecosystems. Bees are effective pollinators and have been found to pollinate 80% of the world’s flowering plants, including food crops.
“We really need them to be able to have these thriving systems, both for our food production and for wild ecosystems as well,” said May.
Food systems are largely pollinator dependent and the conservation of biodiversity can be more beneficial long term for human health and agriculture production than chemicals used in modern agriculture for food yield and pest control, researchers have found.
“Agrichemicals might not actually be all that important for increasing yields,” said James Crall, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researches bees and plant-pollinator interactions. Crop pollination has been found to improve produce yield more than increased fertilization.Although glyphosate is currently approved for use in the U.S., at least 43 countries have banned or restricted the use of products containing glyphosate. Although there is research focused on the effects of glyphosate on humans and other organisms, such as the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances acknowledgement of links between glyphosate and cancer, there are still potential long-term effects of which we may not yet be aware.
It's that time of year again, folks—our annual summer reading list!
Our staff has picked and reviewed some of their favorite books to help you find a good read for the summer. Some picks are environmental ... some not so much. Some are light, some are heavy. No matter your preference, you're sure to find something you like here.
Enjoy the list and, as always, we'd love to hear some of your suggestions.
I read "Indian Horse" in the throes of winter here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The book’s sparse prose, bleak landscapes, and hockey talk were an appropriate fit for short, dark days when temperatures were hovering around zero Fahrenheit. But this would be just as captivating a read on a sunny beach or in a camp chair fireside.
Wagamese is a master of brevity and paints a painful picture of an Indigenous youth, Saul Indian Horse, who briefly experiences the fulfilling intersection of family, tradition, and sustaining natural resources before it all goes to hell. The book gives the ugly details of boarding schools, and Wagamese doesn’t let the reader look away. Saul, however, excels at hockey, and it propels him out of the boarding school abuse into a life of bouncing around industrial and logging towns drawing cheers and jeers, depending on the race of the fans. But despite this short-lived redemption, the boarding school scars never fully leave him.
It’s not a lighthearted read, but it’s a realistic portrayal of an ugly period in North American history — one that is seldom taught or thought about. With a light touch, and no wasted words, Wagamese brings you to the cedars and freshwater lakes, concrete boarding schools, warm Indigenous living rooms smelling of home cooked meals, sweaty hockey locker rooms, and on a journey of personal discovery across Canada’s far North.
I follow lots of foraging accounts on TikTok, and one of my favorite foragers introduced me to this book while they were hunting for edible wildflowers.
“The Wildflowers of Tennessee” is the most comprehensive field guide to wildflowers published for the 16 states it covers. It’s heavy on color photos and has a handy, rainbow-hued guide at the beginning for quickly identifying flowers by color. Each flower’s entry includes detailed notes on edibility, medicine, Native American traditions, folklore, and the origin of flower names.
On a short walk around my Pittsburgh neighborhood this spring, I was able to identify several types of wildflowers I’d never before known the names of, like moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), small white flowers with magenta centers and sunny yellow anthers growing by the side of the road. The guidebook taught me that these flowers got their name because their hairy stems “resemble the insect’s antenna and tongue,” and that they’re cunning little blossoms: The long hairs and knobs on their stamens make insects think they’re flush with pollen, attracting lots of pollinators even though their pollen reserves are actually quite small.
I also spotted Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), bright orange-red, star-shaped blooms with a delightful list of nicknames including Bird’s Eye, Eyebright, Wink-a-Peep, and, in England, Poor-Man’s Weatherglass since the flowers close when bad weather approaches.
While it might not be your go-to beach read, delving into the wildflower guide for your region is sure to help you slow down and smell the roses this summer (literally and figuratively).
Chosen and the Beautiful
Credit: Tordotcom Publishing
I know: NOBODY wants to read (or reread) "Gatsby," that staple of high school English class, over summer.
But hear me out.
First, in this day of gross income inequality and insane CEO pay, Fitzgerald's masterclass on society and power has never felt more relevant.
And then there's the weather: With so many of us today suffering through suffocating, hot, smoky air from wildfires, or suffocating, unrelenting heat waves, the "Gatsby" scenes where stultifying Long Island summer heat drives characters into frenzy and madness come as a gut punch.
The "Gatsby" of your youth may have been all about love, power, and class. The "Gatsby" for our climate-changed world shows how oppressive, inescapable heat slowly drives us all insane.
But the real reason to read "Gatsby"? To enjoy dessert: Nghi Vo's "The Chosen and the Beautiful."
Vo's debut novel retells "The Great Gatsby" from the perspective of Jordan Baker, the golf star and girlfriend of "Gatsby" narrator Nick Carraway.
Except that, in Vo's hands, Baker is a queer, Vietnamese adoptee looking in at a world where so many doors remain closed. And the story is pure confection, filled with magic and mystery, fun, and spice.
You can enjoy "Chosen" without (re-)reading Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age classic. But with "Gatsby's" details fresh in mind, Vo's through-the-looking-glass twists become all the more entertaining, wry, and witty.
Plus, you'll have something to talk about this fall when your child comes home with "The Great Gatsby" on her AP English reading list.
It is said that climate change represents an existential threat to all life on Earth. Why, then, are we not thinking about this crisis on an existential note — the nature of time, change and water?
This is the guiding question of Andri Snær Magnason’s “On Time and Water.” Perhaps because he was born in a land that could exist in mythological tales – a magnificent planet's frozen island north, where hundreds of volcanoes erupt frequently – the writer gives poetic and spiritual weight to climate science without losing simplicity in its prose.
A meeting with the Dalai Lama is the catalyst for Magnason’s quest. As a grandma would tell her grandchildren the tales of Prometheus, Bachué, or any other mythological figure, Magnason tells us the story of time and water on Earth – and how humans are rewriting it. His narration intertwines the personal story of his family’s generations (his grandparents’ life-long fight to study and protect Iceland’s glaciers, his uncle’s quest to save crocodiles) with the discovery of fossil fuels and the ecological crisis of glaciers in the Himalayan plateau, home of the Dalai Lama and his political struggles. It sounds all over the place, I know! But as with poetry, this book really can’t be explained. Its impact can only be felt upon reading.
Towards the end, the author presents several possible solutions to the climate crisis. But, sadly, he omits the pivotal role that Indigenous peoples might have in our path towards a livable future. After all, they have long understood that the spiritual and the scientific might sit closer than western culture believes. As a result, they have conserved most of Earth’s remaining biodiversity (as a complimentary reading, I suggest "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants" by Potawatomi professor Robin Wall Kimmerer).
Despite this shortcoming, the book is worth a read, as it provides a complex look at our mythological era: an era when, as Magnason puts it, we need to turn away from the Black Sun and its fossilized deposits and reconnect “with the Earth and the glowing Sun above our heads.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s "The Warmth of Other Suns" captures the horror of Jim Crow and excavates both the hope and unfulfilled promises of the Great Migration, when some six million Black Americans migrated from the South to northern and western cities between World War I and 1970. More than a decade after its publication, her book remains instructive for anyone seeking greater context about the United States’ current moment of racial reckoning.
Wilkerson vividly retraces the journeys of three compelling characters from different states — Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana — in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, respectively. They are escaping dire situations, but Wilkerson also makes clear the extreme risks and sacrifices associated with leaving. Ultimately, her three protagonists face an America beyond the Jim Crow South that is far less welcoming than they imagined, from employment discrimination to redlining to straight-up terrorism perpetuated by white people intent on keeping Black families from integrating suburban neighborhoods at any cost.
Wilkerson documents the experiences of her protagonists with deep compassion — her own parents were part of this exodus — but also with great skill as a journalist who elevates individual stories into powerful vehicles for understanding the deep roots of America’s persistent racism and inequities today. Wilkerson has spoken about the incredible responsibility she felt to tell the sweeping story of the Great Migration through these characters in a way that would encompass the experiences of all who shared their tales of exclusion, trauma, and triumph. Ultimately, she presents stories of survival, of people who faced adversity and physical danger and persisted nonetheless to enrich their adopted communities in a multitude of ways.
Wilkerson compels her readers to step back and consider how the uniquely American system of segregation and oppression known as Jim Crow continues to taint our democracy. She also shows how less formal versions of Jim Crow flourished outside the South, casting a shadow over not just the economic prospects, but the basic safety and wellbeing, of millions. No journalistic account I’ve read about the Great Migration has felt as intimate or as powerful as Wilkerson’s beautiful, exhaustively-researched storytelling. Next on my list is Wilkerson’s 2020 book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent," a followup of sorts to "The Warmth of Other Suns" that places the United States’ systems of racial and class hierarchies in a more global context.
I’m a library patron 99% of the time: Not only do the librarians typically have excellent recommendations, but I also rarely read a book twice, so the library is a wonderfully economical, wallet-friendly resource.
However, last fall (really winter up here in Anchorage, AK) I purchased "Cloud Cuckoo Land" on a whim when I was very pregnant and needed something different to pass the time. I do not regret purchasing this book; it is one of the rare ones that I will read again.
But that doesn’t tell you much — so here’s my argument as to why this book needs to wind up on your lap this summer:
"Cloud Cuckoo Land" is a novel that spans past, present, and future. It follows the lives of individuals in Constantinople during the siege of 1409; a boy, Seymour, in present-day Idaho who through life circumstances is a burgeoning environmental terrorist; an elderly man who happens to be in the library where Seymour plants his bomb; and a girl on an extraordinary, sacrificial space station mission hundreds of years after the end of the Earth.
How on earth do these narratives connect? By way of a bygone myth interwoven in all five lives: Aegon, a shepherd who longs to find a better world, the fabled Eden.
The book is hard to put down. From ancient war to homegrown terrorists to disease plaguing an isolated experiment to save humankind, the stories are intriguing and heartbreaking at times. Together, they are a masterful depiction of individuals looking for ways to live on a better Earth.
I’ve read many a book with multiple storylines running synchronously, but never have I read one written with such deeply creative and seemingly random storylines that inexplicably fit together. You may have heard of Doerr for his Pulitzer Prize winner "All the Light We Cannot See," which is also an excellent novel. However, I cannot recommend his latest book, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," enough.
John McPhee needs no introduction as a writer. His bona fides and accolades are many and easy to find: a decade with Time, sixty years with The New Yorker (still contributing at age 90), thirty books, and a Pulitzer.
Sometime during the '70s, between the gonzo journalism espoused by Hunter S. Thompson and the metaphorical mashups of Tom Robbins, I discovered McPhee in a pile of used books outside the Student Union at Western Washington University.
That book was "Encounters with the Archdruid." It was at once engaging, insightful, and informative. Who was this guy? My immediate impressions of McPhee suggested a meticulous writer — a craftsman of considerable skill and powers of observation. The structure of the book — indeed, every McPhee I’ve read — suggests a man with a thoughtful plan, so it came as a surprise to me when I ran across a piece from 2011 in which McPhee reveals that "Encounters" began as a complete abstraction.
Weary of writing profile after profile, the form that was defining his career, and mindful of a rut he feared he might not escape, McPhee was moved to pin a piece of paper to his bulletin board that read simply, “ABC/D.” He professed that at the time and for sometime after, he had no idea what “ABC/D” might come to represent. He knew he wanted to up his literary game — put more balls in the air — but he had yet to define the variables.
As it happened, the “D”— the common denominator — would come to represent David Brower, the controversial first executive director of The Sierra Club. The “A” would denote Charles Park, a mining geologist sent to evaluate the feasibility of the Kennecott mining company's claim to a mile-wide copper deposit in Washington State’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. “B” would be personified by Charles Fraser, a real estate wunderkind, flush with cash and confidence and intent on leaving his mark on Cumberland Island. “C” would constitute the headliner, the Archdruid’s arch-nemesis Floyd Dominy, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and passionate impounder of water.
"Encounters with the Archdruid" was to become a narrative detailing three journeys, presented in sections aptly titled A Mountain, An Island, and A River, in which Brower went toe to toe (at times literally) with his ideological foes. Brower searched out the copper deposits in Glacier Peak Wilderness with Charles Park, toured Cumberland Island with Charles Fraser, and rafted the Colorado River with Floyd Dominy. McPhee bore witness. The results might surprise you.
Brower and Dominy had in the recent past clashed bitterly over dam proposals from Arizona to Alaska. Brower used the Sierra Club to wage expensive, high-profile, take-no-prisoner campaigns which kept proposed dams out of the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument, but failed to stop Glen Canyon Dam and its backwater, Lake Powell. Brower mourned the loss and took it to the grave as his biggest failure while Dominy counted Glen Canyon among his greatest achievements and celebrated Lake Powell as the crown jewel of Reclamation and his legacy.
That McPhee managed to get these sworn enemies in the same room together, let alone put them in a raft on a multi-day excursion through the Grand Canyon, speaks to his considerable powers as an honest broker and facilitator of discourse. He recalled later that while on the river, the two had settled into a routine of “tearing each other in half once a day and being pals the remainder of the time.”
"Encounters with the Archdruid" was published in 1971, before human-driven climate change had so perverted planetary systems and permeated the social fabric. Yet a half-century later, the three issues central to the book remain topical and contentious because as we’ve come to understand, climate change is a threat multiplier and multiply they have. Charles Park, the geologist, frets over a future without enough copper; today we face the uncomfortable truth that our electric future will require massive amounts of it. Charles Fraser, visionary coastal developer, decries the ugly smear of barrier islands packed with tiers of ticky-tacky beach houses, but cannot fathom sea level rise, land subsidence, and saltwater intrusion. Floyd Dominy wants to dam the Colorado River from Mexico to the Rockies, generating endless hydropower and recreation dollars while failing to imagine ever running out of water.
"Encounters with the Archdruid" urges us to confront the myth of inexhaustible resources and holds a mirror to our hypocrisy. We fly, we drive, we buy stuff. And then we buy more stuff. "Encounters" continues to inform and endure in the five decades since publication. If you’ve read it in the past, consider reading it again. If you’ve never read it, you just might have a hole in your cultural literacy that needs filling.
“He was feisty, heaven knew. And arrogant, possibly. And relentless, certainly. And above all, effective…” - John McPhee, “Farewell to the Archdruid,” Sierra magazine, 2000.
"The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature" by wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham is a great pleasure to read for summer. Lanham opens the book introducing himself as many things – including identifying as a Black man and drawing attention to the fact that while society might think he is out of place in nature, nature has never questioned him. He also identifies as a scientist and expresses that conservation scientists have failed to capture the hearts and minds of society. He hopes to do so by sharing his story.
The first memoir immerses the reader in nature and Lanham’s relationship with the natural world as he describes in intricate detail the landscape, plants, and wildlife where he grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina. In the following memoirs, Landhan takes the reader on a vivid journey through his life and family history, sharing personal stories and relating his life to his love for birds and nature. The way Landhan captures the natural world and uses it as a storytelling tool is so captivating that you can’t help but fall in love with nature reading it. "The Home Place" reminded me why I’m so passionate about storytelling and journalism as a way to champion environmental science and health.
Do you have summer reading suggestions for us? We'd love to hear from you, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.