It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of big environmental challenges—but we need inspiration more than ever. With political leaders who deny climate change, species that are fighting for their very survival, and the planet’s last places of wilderness growing smaller and smaller, what can a single person do? In Nature’s Allies, Larry Nielsen uses the stories of conservation pioneers to show that through passion and perseverance, we can each be a positive force for change. In eight engaging and diverse biographies—John Muir, Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Chico Mendes, Billy Frank Jr., Wangari Maathai, and Gro Harlem Brundtland—we meet individuals who have little in common except that they all made a lasting mark on our world. Some famous and some little known to readers, they spoke out to protect wilderness, wildlife, fisheries, rainforests, and wetlands. They fought for social justice and exposed polluting practices. They marched, wrote books, testified before Congress, performed acts of civil disobedience, and, in one case, were martyred for their defense of nature. Nature’s Allies pays tribute to them all as it rallies a new generation of conservationists to follow in their footsteps. These vivid biographies are essential reading for anyone who wants to fight for the environment against today’s political opposition. Nature’s Allies will inspire students, conservationists, and nature lovers to speak up for nature and show the power of one person to make a difference.
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About the Author
Larry Nielsen is a fisheries biologist and Professor of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.
Read an Excerpt
Eight Conservationists Who Changed Our World
By Larry A. Nielsen
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2017 Larry A. Nielsen
All rights reserved.
The winds began to freshen, a warning that the balmy California day was about to change. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, experienced locals were retreating inside to wait out the windstorm about to roar down the Yuba River valley.
One man chose the opposite reaction. Instead of running for cover, he ran for the woods. "For on such occasions nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof." Trees were breaking all around him, some torn out from the soil by their roots. Branches and leaves flew past as clouds of pollen and bits of moss choked the air. This would be a storm to remember.
Just being out in the storm was not enough, however, so he sought a more authentic spot for observing it: "It occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles. ... Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. ... I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed." He stayed lashed to the trunk for hours, living the pitch and sway of the tree. He closed his eyes at times to focus instead on the sounds of the storm — creaking limbs and scratching branches, the thrashing of leaves. Then he concentrated on the fragrance in the air, released as the plants were shredded by the wind.
Perhaps no one in the history of conservation has been as comfortable in raw nature as this man — John Muir.
As he always did, Muir learned something new in this encounter with wind in the tops of trees. "It never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings — many of them not so much."
John Muir took many journeys with nature in his life, and through his writings he took the American public with him. Eventually he convinced us that keeping some of this nature around, uncorrupted by the utilitarian drive of humanity, was not only a good idea, but maybe the best idea: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
Destined to Wander
John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, a thriving harbor town on Scotland's eastern coast. His father, Daniel Muir, was a successful merchant and respected townsman, but he was haunted by two demons. First, he was fiercely independent, bristling under the yoke of convention. He cared little for wealth or reputation, but dreamed of becoming a landowner and farmer, accountable to no one for his livelihood or his lifestyle.
Daniel Muir's second demon was religious extremism. The harsher one's life, he reasoned, the closer one came to God. Hard work and strict discipline were needed to triumph over sin and keep temptation out of reach. Therefore, the Muir home had simple, even miserly meals, no decoration, singing, or laughter, and the bookshelf held little more than the Bible. Daniel Muir disciplined his eight children — and especially Johnnie, the eldest son — with the back of his hand and the crack of the strap.
Johnnie Muir, however, presented his father a formidable challenge. He was all boy, proficient at shooting, eloquent at cussing, and always ready for a boxing match. He was witty, loved to sing and play practical jokes — activities that secretly delighted his mother and siblings when his father was away from home. To escape his father's harshness, Johnnie disappeared regularly, venturing down to the forbidden docks and the seashore. He was always whipped for these and other transgressions, but the whippings never tamed him. His father thought he knew the problem: "The verra Deevil's in that boy."
Johnnie Muir also found relief in the care of his grandfather, who ran the butcher shop across the road and became his daily companion. They walked hand-in-hand through Dunbar, his grandfather teaching him his numbers and letters from the store windows and addresses. Their walks grew longer as Muir got older, extending into the cultivated fields and pastured hills surrounding the town. Every explorer encounters nature in a small way at first, and Muir was no exception. He remembered uncovering a nest occupied by a female field mouse and her young: "No hunter could have been more excited on discovering a bear and her cubs in a wilderness den."
Daniel Muir's dream of becoming a farmer turned real in March of 1849. He packed up Johnnie, now eleven, and two other siblings and boarded a ship bound for North America. The rest of the family stayed behind until these four had secured a farm and built a proper home. When the ship landed in New York, they headed to a new community of Scottish immigrants that was taking root in the rolling landscape of Portage, Wisconsin. Daniel used his life savings to purchase land for a farm bordering a lake that inspired its name: Fountain Lake Farm.
John Muir melted happily into this rural paradise. He experienced freedom that his father had never allowed in Scotland, and nature on the Wisconsin frontier, raw and unconstrained, was a textbook that Muir could appreciate. "Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons ... every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!"
The Muirs, however, had not come to Wisconsin to revel in nature. They had come to tame it. Although still a boy, John was expected to work like a man — perhaps like two men. In the spring, he was strapped to a mule and he directed a plow from sunup to sundown, Monday through Saturday. In the fall, he harvested crops and carried them to market. As winter came on, the tasks worsened. One of his brothers remembered "the quilts all frozen about our faces in the morning and how awful cold it was to get up in the morning and dress and go down to the kitchen barefooted. ... And going to Portage with loads of corn — running behind the wagon to keep warm and having to cut frozen bread for our lunch." The farm succeeded, and the family reunited in their new homeland.
While some might have grown weak or sullen under such a burden, John Muir did not. He grew stronger physically and mentally, a lanky bundle of sinew that could endure any hardship. He demanded more of himself than did others, including his father, and he refused any physical limits. Once, while swimming in the farm's lake, he became disoriented and, panicking, he nearly drowned. Outraged at his failing, the next day he rowed back to the center of the lake and dove in repeatedly, swimming to the bottom and back, just to prove he could. "Take that," he said, challenging the lake — and himself — each time he rose to the surface.
Farm life left no time for school, so John Muir educated himself. He learned the trades needed by a frontier farmer, and was soon able to craft tools or equipment and to mend what had broken. He became a proficient hunter and horseman. Reading voraciously from books smuggled into the house from friends and neighbors, he was especially engaged by the tales of explorers crisscrossing the globe in the mid-nineteenth century.
As Muir matured, he gradually became embroiled in an emotional and mental struggle that would mark his entire life. Raised in a religious household, he never questioned that a divine spirit had created the earth. But Muir could not reconcile his father's harsh theology with the concept of a loving and forgiving god. Nor could he accept that God existed in organizations of clerics, churches, and conformist policies. Muir found God in nature, not in cathedrals, as he later wrote about Yosemite: "Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company, full of God's thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain-building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity."
A Young Man on the Move
Muir's hands and mind were always busy. When the day's work ended, he turned to his avocation: inventor. Muir was always whittling or hammering something to make the farm more efficient or the labor less exhausting. He invented saws, hydrometers, clocks, and thermometers, often encased in wooden cabinets carved into elaborate and bizarre shapes. He even devised an alarm-clock bed that tilted up and threw him on the floor when it was time to start the day.
Neighbors began to pose a serious question: was there a genius or a madman living down the road? Some thought his handiworks were "freaks" and they predicted that he would "come to no good." A close friend of the family, however, was more insightful: "Mark my words, Johnnie Moor will mak' a name for himself some day."
Someday was on the near horizon. Muir's friends argued that the world needed to see his inventions, and they knew where to start — the Wisconsin State Fair. Muir was hesitant, but his friends were adamant, insisting that his inventions were "so out-and-out original. ..." So, in the summer of 1860 at the age of twenty-two, he packed up his creations and headed to Madison on the first independent journey of his life.
Today, we would say that John Muir "went viral" when the gates to the State Fair opened. Visitors were enthralled by his inventions and by the down-home and passionate way in which he described them. He was an instant success, featured repeatedly on the front pages of the Madison newspaper. The crowds grew daily, and public opinion answered the question that had preoccupied his neighbors: John Muir was a genius.
The notoriety was heady, but what captured Muir's imagination lay down the street a short distance — the University of Wisconsin. One walk through campus gave him a new goal: he decided to study science and become a doctor.
When he enrolled in the fall of 1861, he was classified as an "irregular gentleman" because he didn't follow a prescribed curriculum. He originally concentrated on chemistry and ancient languages, a compromise between his interests and his father's. But two specific disciplines attracted Muir most — geology and botany, fields that would be his lifelong passions.
He was irregular in other ways, too. He grew a long beard and long tangled hair, presenting the appearance and demeanor of a simple rural lad. "If I had a beard like yours," remarked one of his friends, "I would set it on fire." His room overflowed with inventions, by then including a mechanical desk that rotated textbooks at fifteen-minute intervals, moving his studies along at a brisk and regular pace. Dried and pressed botanical specimens occupied any remaining spaces.
Almost immediately, Muir fell under the nurturing influence of Mrs. Jeanne Carr, wife of Ezra Carr, professor of science. Mrs. Carr was like many other women who loomed large in Muir's life — educated in both the arts and sciences, a blend of Victorian romanticism and progressive efficiency, socially astute and determined to alter the affairs of both the drawing room and the board room. She guided his academic and intellectual progress at the university, but also influenced many of his personal decisions throughout his life.
Muir returned to the university for a second and a bit of a third year, but that's where his formal education ended. America was in the midst of the Civil War, and although he opposed slavery on moral grounds, he was a confirmed pacifist with no appetite for fighting. So, when President Lincoln began to conscript young men for the war, Muir "skedaddled" — Civil War slang for dodging the draft.
Muir lived in Canada for two years, waiting out the war. He walked wherever he went — one mile or one hundred — beginning the practice for which he became famous. He also began to demonstrate his deep connection to the earth by, for example, describing his discovery of a rare orchid, the Calypso borealis: "I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy."
In 1866, Muir walked back into the United States. This time he stopped at Indianapolis, where he found employment with a manufacturer of wooden wheels. Muir's wood-working ability and inventiveness impressed the company's owners, and they soon gave him free rein to automate the milling and assembly process and to reorganize the work flow. He was promoted several times and was finally earning a good living. He boarded with a well-regarded family, led local children on Sunday walks in the woods, and enjoyed the city's intellectual and cultural atmosphere. Several young women enjoyed his special attention. His future seemed secure — he would become a successful industrialist, marry well, and raise a family.
But fate intervened. One evening in the spring of 1867, Muir was working late, repairing a belt in the factory's sawmill. The lacing that joined the ends of the belt proved difficult to remove, so he grabbed a sharp, narrow file to pry the lacing loose. He pushed harder, and then harder still. The file slipped out of his hand and flew upward, puncturing his right eye. As he cupped his eye in pain, the vitreous humor — the mass of the eyeball — dropped into his palm, and the eye collapsed. His right eye was instantly sightless. In neurological sympathy, his left eye also shuttered, leaving Muir completely blind.
Muir lay in his darkened bedroom for days, sightless and despairing. He considered blindness the cruelest injury that could befall him: "My days were terrible beyond what I can tell, and my nights were if possible more terrible. Frightful dreams exhausted and terrified me. ... The sunshine and the winds are working in all the gardens of God, but I — I am lost! ... I would gladly have died where I stood."
Fortunately, the blindness was temporary. Over the next several months, his eye re-inflated and his eyesight gradually returned to normal. As he regained strength, he took increasingly longer walks around Indianapolis. "God has to nearly kill us sometimes," he wrote later, "to teach us lessons." Muir's lesson was that he should not squander his life chained to a factory when nature beckoned. "I might have become a millionaire," he said, "but I chose to become a tramp."
And tramp he would. He walked home to Wisconsin and back again to Indianapolis, anxious to move but uncertain of where to go. Finally, he settled on South America in order to retrace the journey of explorer Alexander von Humboldt. But rather than climb onto a steamboat or a train to head south, he walked. He was ready to quit society, unwilling to spend any more time in confined spaces with crowds of other humans. At the age of twenty-nine, without a career or any prospects, he set out "by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way" he could find. His pack was nearly empty, most space taken up by a thick botanical taxonomy guide and the notebook in which he would write the story of his journey. The inside front cover bore his name and his version of citizenship: "John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe."
His route took him across the Ohio River at Louisville, then through Kentucky, Tennessee, the far southwest corner of North Carolina, and then southeast through Georgia to Savannah. Each part of the journey was a wilderness revelation as he climbed mountains, descended the coastal plain, and finally stood on the Atlantic shore. His description of one day in the Appalachians reveals the joy of his journey:
September 12. Awoke drenched with mountain mist, which made a grand show, as it moved away before the hot sun. Passed Montgomery, a shabby village at the head of the east slope of the Cumberland Mountains. ... Crossed a wide cool stream [Emory River], a branch of the Clinch River. There is nothing more eloquent in nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places.
Muir enjoyed the journey, but he did not dally. His walk occupied September and October of 1867, averaging a stunning twenty miles per day. He slept wherever he could find shelter, sometimes in a friendly home, but more often in a barn or under a tree. He ate little, mostly bread and fruit where he could find it. His encounters with people were generally cordial, for he had nothing of value for anyone to steal. (Others, perhaps, feared him more, an unkempt tramp in ragged clothes walking past their doorstep.)
Excerpted from Nature's Allies by Larry A. Nielsen. Copyright © 2017 Larry A. Nielsen. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Foreword \ Curt Meine Introduction Chapter 1: John Muir, Earth-Citizen, Universe Chapter 2: Ding Darling, The Best Friend a Duck Ever Had Chapter 3: Aldo Leopold, “A Very Large and Important Sumpin” Chapter 4: Rachel Carson, “The Lady Who Started All This” Chapter 5: Chico Mendes, Gandhi of the Amazon Chapter 6: Billy Frank, Jr., The Getting-Arrested Guy Chapter 7: Wangari Maathai, The Green Crusader Chapter 8: Gro Harlem Brundtland, Godmother of Sustainable Development About the Author Index