Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

by Scott Weidensaul

See All Formats & Editions

In 1953, birding guru Roger Tory Peterson and noted British naturalist James Fisher set out on what became a legendary journey-a one hundred day trek over 30,000 miles around North America. They traveled from Newfoundland to Florida, deep into the heart of Mexico, through the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and into Alaska's Pribilof Islands. Two years later,


In 1953, birding guru Roger Tory Peterson and noted British naturalist James Fisher set out on what became a legendary journey-a one hundred day trek over 30,000 miles around North America. They traveled from Newfoundland to Florida, deep into the heart of Mexico, through the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and into Alaska's Pribilof Islands. Two years later, Wild America, their classic account of the trip, was published.

On the eve of that book's fiftieth anniversary, naturalist Scott Weidensaul retraces Peterson and Fisher's steps to tell the story of wild America today. How has the continent's natural landscape changed over the past fifty years? How have the wildlife, the rivers, and the rugged, untouched terrain fared? The journey takes Weidensaul to the coastal communities of Newfoundland, where he examines the devastating impact of the Atlantic cod fishery's collapse on the ecosystem; to Florida, where he charts the virtual extinction of the great wading bird colonies that Peterson and Fisher once documented; to the Mexican tropics of Xilitla, which have become a growing center of ecotourism since Fisher and Peterson's exposition. And perhaps most surprising of all, Weidensaul finds that much of what Peterson and Fisher discovered remains untouched by the industrial developments of the last fifty years. Poised to become a classic in its own right, Return to Wild America is a sweeping survey of the natural soul of North America today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the midst of environmental-policy gloom and global-warming doom, Weidensaul's poetic account of his travels to several scattered wilderness oases of North America is an unexpected tonic. The naturalist and author (Living on the Wind) certainly waxes caustic about the current administration's ecological evils; bemoans the impact of Earth's warming trend on northern ice packs and southern wetlands; decries the near (sometimes total) extinction of a multitude of fauna and flora; and laments the incursion of "invasive exotics"-foreign plants, insects, animals and fish that are crowding out native species. But in retracing the steps of American birding guru Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher's legendary 1953 trek-from Newfoundland's craggy coastline, down the East Coast, into Mexico and up the West Coast to Alaska-Weidensaul time and again celebrates pockets of species survival, optimistically hailing "the resiliency of wild America." His brief excerpts from and steady references to Wild America, the classic wilderness account penned by his predecessors, ought to renew deserved interest in the original book. But this engrossing state-of-nature memoir, making a vibrant case for preserving America's wild past for future Americans, promises to become a classic in its own right. 8 pages of illus., 6 maps not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1953, Houghton Mifflin published Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher's classic Wild America: The Record of a 30,000 Mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and His British Colleague. This reprise is by another distinguished naturalist, Pulitzer Prize finalist Weidensaul (The Ghost with Trembling Wings), who retraced Peterson and Fisher's route 50 years later. Vividly chronicled here are the changes or lack of change in wild North American areas like the Maritime Provinces, Florida, northern Mexico, Texas, Arizona, California, and the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska. Weidensaul gives readers an in-depth account of the bad news since 1953, including the spread of destructive and invasive species, chemical pollution, global warming, species decline, and the unnecessary logging of some old-growth forests. He also celebrates the good news: enlightened environmental legislation, new parks and refuges, the comebacks of some threatened species, and the birth of the environmental movement. All in all, an engaging and most informative sequel; highly recommended.-Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Naturalist Weidensaul (The Ghost with Trembling Wings, 2002, etc.) assesses where Americans stand as stewards of their natural environment's amazing diversity. The author got a significant career steer as a boy from reading Wild America (1955), a chronicle by birding-world icon Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher of their 100-day trek in 1953 covering 30,000 miles of the North American continent from Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula to the Pribilof Islands off Alaska. Weidensaul reckoned that following in the duo's tracks and comparing the state of today's environment with what they recorded in 1953 would provide a yardstick for judging our performance as keepers of our natural heritage. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the author's findings do not trend downhill all the way. The quadrupling of the seabird population in the rookeries on Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundland, since the Peterson/Fisher visit, for instance, brings an initial reassurance. (Because Fisher was a world-renowned expert on seabirds, the original Wild America route was somewhat "coastally biased," Weidensaul writes, but the team did venture inland to Southern forests, for example, in search of the recently resurfaced Ivory Billed Woodpecker.) And in ticking off environmental legislation that simply didn't exist in 1953 but now covers everything from whales to minnows, Weidensaul documents a strong record of securing wildlife resources. Yet the inexorable sprawl of human development continues to annihilate natural habitat at an alarming rate in nearly every region of the U.S., he adds, citing as a worst case Pennsylvania's 47 percent growth in "urban footprint" during 15 years when the state's populationincreased by only 2.5 percent. Even that could pale as a threat, the author warns, compared to what global warming may have in store. A carefully documented, well-informed conclusion that the jury's still out.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt


Atlantic Gateway

In the early 1950s, just getting to Cape St. Mary's was an adventure. The Avalon Peninsula is the easternmost prow of North America--a vaguely H-shaped chunk of land that is very nearly an island itself, attached to the rest of Newfoundland by the slenderest of threads. It is rimmed by sheer cliffs, by beaches of dark quartz-shot cobblestones and wave-smashed capes. Where there is forest, it is somber and mossy, spruce and balsam fir hung with long pale sheets of lichen dangling from the branches like rotting curtains. But much of the Avalon is tundra, known locally as barrens--an open, windswept land home to flocks of ptarmigan and the southernmost wild caribou herd in the world, where the trees, if they grow at all, cower in dense, waist-high thickets known as tuckamore.

When Fisher and Peterson met here to begin their journey, Newfoundland was very much a world apart, sparsely populated and isolated from the rest of the country not only geographically but also politically; it had confederated with Canada only four years earlier, ending its long history as a separate dominion of Great Britain. Most of the people lived in remote fishing villages called outports accessible only by sea, and beyond the handful of large towns like St. John's the few roads were largely dirt and gravel, and at times all but disappeared into the spruce bogs.

Accompanied by the local ornithologist Leslie Tuck, the two travelers spent a long day bouncing south from St. John's on awful roads. Fisher, keyed up to see new birds, found himself "seeking the differences and finding the similarities"; the first North American species he saw was a gannet, which was also the last British species he'd seen as his plane crossed the Scottish coast. This isn't surprising; few places in North America have as strong an Old World flavor, at least in terms of natural diversity, as Newfoundland. The landscape, Fisher thought, was strikingly similar to the spruce forests he'd known in Sweden, and of the forty-six species of birds they saw, almost two-thirds were ones he knew from Europe. He was stunned to find that the most common birdsong in the dark conifer woods was "a voice as familiar to me in my own English garden as on the cliffs of St. Kilda and the remote Shetland Islands"--that of the tiny winter wren. Though a common backyard bird in Great Britain, in North America it inhabits only the boreal forests of the North or high elevations.

They spent the night in the fishing hamlet of St. Bride's, where the navigable road ended, and the next day--with a local guide and a pony to carry Peterson's heavy camera gear--they set off for the great seabird colony near the Cape St. Mary's lighthouse, ten miles down the coast. The special attraction would be thousands of northern gannets, majestic seabirds with six-foot wingspans and an extraordinary means of fishing in which they plunge, like white lances, straight down from more than a hundred feet in the air, hitting the water like Olympic high divers to intercept fish far beneath the surface. Fisher was perhaps the world's leading authority on gannets, and he was anxious to see them on this side of the Atlantic.

"The most spectacular New World [gannet] colony, the one at Bonaventure Island off the Gaspé, is visited by scores of bird students every year," Peterson noted. "It has become a profitable thing for the innkeeper to cater to--and even advertise to--an unending succession of summer gannet watchers…On the other hand, the colony at Cape St. Mary['s] sometimes goes for several years unvisited by any of the field-glass fraternity." It was easy to see why. The exhausting hike, first along a muddy, rutted cart track, and then overland around treacherous bogs, took them until early afternoon, and they didn't make it back to St. Bride's until well after midnight, Peterson limping from a badly strained leg muscle.

It's a safe bet that Peterson and Fisher would find Cape St. Mary's today a strange, perhaps disquieting blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I flew into St. John's with my fiancée, Amy Bourque, who was taking some time off from the Audubon sanctuary she ran in Maryland to get me started on my way and would join me at a couple of other points in the year ahead. Our drive from St. John's to St. Bride's took a couple of easy hours in a rental car, with just one stretch of gravel track that skirted bogs bounded by stands of pink rhodora azaleas. It was a cold day in the middle of June; the sedges and irises made an emerald splash along the coffee-colored rivers, where a few blackish spruce grew, but higher up, the still-brown tundra rolled inland beyond the limit of vision, empty of any sign of humanity.

The reason for this little slice of the Arctic, at the same latitude as Montreal and Seattle, is the ocean. Pack ice surrounds much of the Avalon Peninsula until April or May, and throughout the summer icebergs that originated in Greenland are a common sight, floating south on the Labrador Current. Especially along the immediate coastline, summer fogs are an almost daily event, bathing the land in damp cold that counteracts the wan heat of the sun. This creates an ecosystem known as hyperoceanic barrens--a nearly horizontal plant community dominated by ground-hugging Arctic species like crowberry, several species of cranberries, hardy grasses, and pale reindeer lichen in spongy green-white mats, into which a hiker sinks ankle-deep. Dwarf Arctic willows, with trunks barely as thick as a finger, spread over rocks like a green cascade, raising maroon flowers five or six inches above the ground, their diminutive stature masking the fact that these trees are often three or four hundred years old, as deserving of awe as any craggy old-growth pine.

From the air, the center of the Avalon Peninsula, and its southern capes in particular, appear pale brown, edged with black; the brown is the tundra barrens, while the darker rim is the spruce woods, which cling to the lower elevations and deeper river valleys. We spent part of one day hiking along some of the rivers that cut across the barrens, providing a convenient pathway in the otherwise featureless landscape. The only green was down along the water, where thick grass and irises were sprouting, but when we looked closely, the tundra was coming into great flower as well.

To my eye it all looks like classic Arctic tundra, but there are enough floral differences that a botanist would immediately peg this as Newfoundland barrens: a spongy, wet mat of sphagnum moss and crowberry studded with pitcher plant, the diminutive white flowers of goldthread, and the pink of pale laurel, barely an inch high. Cloudberry, Newfoundland's famous "bake-apple," was just opening its single white flowers that would, by August, produce the delicious clear orange raspberries that are a provincial obsession. Much of the ground was covered in creeping juniper or, where there was a bit more shelter, patches of spruce tuckamore that were barely waist-high but might be four or five hundred years old.

We were watching for caribou, and there was plenty of sign--a lot of droppings, some quite fresh, and tracks in the mud, each print slightly wasp-waisted in the middle. We also found the remains of a calf that had died over the winter, down along the stream--a corona of white hair and the clean, bleached bones, along the stream--a corona of white hair and the clean, bleached bones, along with piles and piles of mammal scat, much of it fox, all of it containing great quantities of caribou fur. When we later saw a live caribou, a large bull, it was albescent, as white as the weathered bones; even its nose was pale gray, so that the only color was the dark eyes and the black hair that grew inside its ears.

The wind howled, and for five minutes a cold, heavy downpour soaked us before the sun peeked back out apologetically. We hiked an hour or so down the main river, then looped back and struck a smaller tributary, which had cut a confused series of low gorges in the rock--a creek maybe thirty feet wide, the water so stained with tannin it was nearly black. It was fed by a series of small pools and ponds on the higher ground to either side; some of these were jewel-like, surrounded by sedges and irises, set in little steep-sided dells where the wind couldn't reach and the dark water reflected the sky like glass. In one, a yellow-rumped warbler alit on a rocky shelf above the water, blue-gray against the yellow lichen, flew down to splash with its reflection, then whirled off with a single chip.

More than a thousand square kilometers of the central Avalon are protected as a wilderness reserve, but even the margins are largely wild, largely wild, largely empty land. The only paved road is a loop that skirts the edge of the sea, linking the small towns like St. Shott's and Trepassey, with a handful of dirt tracks like the one that runs down to the old lighthouse at Cape Race, where we were paced by swift-flying horned larks and found the remains of a freshly killed murre on a low bluff beside the sea, its feathers gently waving in a long plume to the leeward where a peregrine falcon had sat and plucked it. Its skeleton was still wet and bloody, the two black wings untouched, but the falcon was gone.

What People are Saying About This

Kenn Kaufman
"Peterson and Fisher's Wild America was one of the all-time great nature books. On the golden anniversary of its publication, Scott Weidensaul, one of the greatest living nature writers, proves himself a worthy successor to the original authors as he examines what has been lost and celebrates what remains of America's wild nature. Part investigative reporting, part lyrical celebration, this is one of the most important books of the decade, and it should be required reading for all who love the outdoors."
author of Kaufman Field Guides
William Souder
"News from the natural world is so rarely heartening these days that Scott Weidensaul's bracing inventory of America's wild places and all that still lives in them comes as a bit of a shock. With a keen eye for all that we've lost and all that yet remains, this book is a tale both cautionary and optimistic. Best of all is the presence on every page of Weidensaul himself, an enthusiastic observer who gives generously of his own sense of awe."
author of Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America
Bill McKibben
"With Living on the Wind Scott Weidensaul proved his ability as a reporter and a storyteller; this unsettling but also lovely account of the wildness left in our midst confirms his place in the first rank of the country's naturalist writers."
author The End of Nature and Wandering Home

Meet the Author

Scott Weidensaul is the author of The Ghost with Trembling Wings (NPP, 2002) and Living on the Wind (NPP, 1999). He lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians.

Scott Weidensaul is the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Return to Wild America, The Ghost with Trembling Wings and Mountains of the Heart. He lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews