Perhaps the timing of my review on Wild Ones is perfect. The book came out nearly two years ago, but its message remains prescient.
There's a common story in which a human locks eyes with an animal in the wild, and feels a profound connection. The story's emotionality relies on a fleeting union. Without exception, the animals runs away. Our empathy with the animal keeps company with the knowledge that we (humans) are killing it. One often wonders what he can do to stop this pattern. This sort of self-searching is the matter at hand in Wild Ones, written by Jon Mooallem.
With a sharp wit, Mooallem documents our current bond with species on the brink of extinction, namely the polar bear, the butterfly, and the whooping crane. He explores humanity's mixed attitude towards them, and how our attitudes directly shape our actions.On page one he illuminates an idyllic picture of nature:
My daughter's world, like the world of most American four-year-olds, has overflowed with wild animals since it first came into focus: lionesses, puffins, hippos, bison, sparrows, rabbits, narwhals, and wolves. They are plush and whittled. Knitted, batik, and bean-stuffed. Appliquéd on onesies and embroidered into the ankles of her socks.
This obsession is made possible by our distance from those animals. This safe distance affords a heartening marketability, removed from the violent danger of a polar bear. It is with this ease that America began to publicly care for the polar bear after having learned of the melting ice caps that threatened its survival. To explore the human response, Mooallem visited Churchill, a settlement in Manitoba, Canada where the polar bear is a tourist attraction. Despite the good-intention of tourists, Churchill's natives are more grounded, less sappy.
Mooallem discusses the response of Churchill's natives to Polar Bears International, the head group providing visits to the settlement:
(Mooallem, pg. 41).
So many people in Churchill that I met were also not inclined to believe the climate change story because they resented the messenger. They saw Polar Bears International as carpetbaggers from down south, an elite NGO that set up shop every fall and flew in a pageant of scientists and overachieving American high-schoolers, and capitalized on Churchill's polar bears without meaningful interaction with Churchill itself.
He writes of how the natives don't believe in climate change because they dislike the tourism it attracts. He also acknowledges the common suspicion that the tourist drive is not sincere, but a platform for politics, and profiteering.
Every conservation site is fraught with baggage involving the species it protects. What happens to the conservation worker whose actions are selfless? One might imagine that he is well-balanced or else he would quit when his efforts fail. But this is not the case.
Mooallem hitches up with WCEP, a group whose planes guide whooping cranes along their migration route from Canada to Texas. Its members carry an emotional weight that equals their heavy workload. He writes of their frustration, coloring their benevolent projects with human drama. One of the pilots named Brooke laments his decision to help the whooping cranes. He had done so to enrich his son's life, but his son had grown to resent him for his undertaking. He speaks of how the whooping crane, which usually draws people together, had split he and his son apart:
"I'm just fucking stupid," he said. 'He was almost shouting now.' "Believe me! At the end of the day, I want to call up my son and beg forgiveness. Because it was all an accident. I wanted to get my son involved in birds, because it seemed like a good thing to do, and I didn't want to be a shitty father. And what did I do? I ran away to be a bird guy and wound up being a shitty father. Now he's in college and he doesn't even answer the phone half the time I call." (Mooallem, pg. 276).
Our connection with the wild is loaded with a fatalistic irony. As environmentalists work towards change, they face their own impotence. This reality points towards our quixotic habits. As one flies to Churchill to pay respect to the polar bear, his journey pollutes the air, quickens the shrinking of icecaps. As pilots and members of WCEP spend enormous amounts of time trying to help the whooping cranes, the bird defies them with more intuitive actions. As an example, Mooallem writes of how the whooping crane discovered manmade resources, such as dumpsters outside a Wal-Mart. Sadly funny, it has succumbed to convenience, no longer a battler, but a lazy feaster.
Also, Mooallem documents the one baby whooping crane that had survived without intervention. It had abandoned its parents and its migration route to instead rely on a woman's backyard bird-feeder. From a sentimental lens, the bird's image is corrupted as we can no longer observe it in the wild. But this disappointment is selfish, as we are wanting something that the creature does not want. My opinion is not the point. What matters is that there are people out there trying to help our planet. Sadly, the least we can do is relate to them, perhaps view them as a nearly extinct species as our future too hinges on their efforts.
This book is a great read in part because it does not attempt to romanticize the wild. Mooallem does not say so, but I believe he feels guilty of being a tourist. Mooallem cherishes the endangered species and the environmentalists alike and leaves no stone unturned.