In 1988, zoology professor John Alcock shocked his neighbors in
suburban Tempe, Arizona, by annihilating his water-guzzling lawn, churning up the soil,
and replanting with native desert flora. His account of this conversion from artificial to
authentic habitat is so poetic, funny, and environmentally edifying that it's even
possible to forgive his one-time use of Roundup.
An ensemble of desert milkweeds, aloes, chuparosa, and other plants
came buzzing and flying and squirming to life with insects, about which he writes an
intriguing, vigorous, and even reverent account: "How fortunate we are to live on a
planet where insects rule supreme. How wonderful to have such a diversity of
Patiently observing the symbiotic relations of insect and plant, Alcock
renders even the slimier transactions with verve, like the caterpillar of the giant
swallowtail butterfly fooling predatory birds by camouflaging itself as the birds' own
unappetizing dung in an "interplay of size, shape, color pattern, the illusion of
moistness" that "quite took my breath away."
And then there's the staggering variety of courtship strategies and
sexual antics sometimes described well enough to rival the racy accounts of entomological
trysts in Harold Ensign Evans' classic Life on a Little Known Planet. Of the
milkweed bugs Alcock says, "the couple often stay together in copula for hours and
hours . . . but as soon as the couple have completed their time together and separated,
male and female almost immediately pair off again with someone else. As a result of their
enthusiasm for copulation, most of the bugs I find on my tomatoes are literally engaged .
. . tied at the tips of their abdomens via their elaborately interlocked genitalia."
Modern environmentalism is teaching us--or reminding us what Thoreau
taught--that if we only learn to look, the small wonders of nature in our own backyards
can be as dramatic as sublime vistas. Alcock has the rare gift of evoking these little
by Jane Holtz Kay
As this review was being written, Ford announced the auto industry's
latest crime against humanity, its three-ton, 19-foot-long sport utility vehicle.
This was a "response to consumer demand"--itself a response
to auto advertisingwhich totals $40 billion a year, according to Jane Holtz Kay, in one
of the best contributions yet to the growing volume of testimony for the
de-automobilization of America. Kay, architecture critic for The Nation, lays it all out
in ripest absurdity: road kill, people kill, oil spill, the destruction of neighborhoods
and the dissolution of community, the horns and motors and wheezing lungs and other
afflictions of automania are cleverly situated in the history of greed, gullibility,
planners' arrogance, and suburbanized culture that brought us to this sorry overpass. She
protests not only the assault on nature, "a blanket of concrete as big as
Rwanda," but the social inequity resulting when billions of dollars pay for highways
instead of mass transit: "In the end poor transport does not issue from poverty, but
lies at its very roots and sustains and perpetuates it."
In chapters like "Depaving America," she advocates city
planning reform, greenways, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, shifting $25 billion in
annual federal subsidies from auto to mass transit, and facing hidden car costs like the
billions of dollars' worth of space dedicated to the dubious benefit of employee parking.
These solutions are not novel, especially to readers of this magazine (see, for example,
"Twelve Gates to the City" and "Pedestrian Paradise," May/June). But
Kay gives us further inspiration to demand a change, and the facts we need to make that
demand credible. --Bob Schildgen
At a Glance
Bay Area Wild
by Galen Rowell with Michael Sewell
Sierra Club Books $35
Watching the fog roll in at twilight over San Francisco Bay toward the
Berkeley Hills is one of the joys of a region blessed with more wild greenbelts than any
other in the United States. This collection of essays and 170 photos celebrates the Bay
Area's incomparable natural variety.
New from Sierra Club Books
The Plundered Seas: Can the World's Fish Be Saved?
by Michael Berrill. A look at the world's threatened fisheries and what
can be done to restore them.
The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of California
by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry. An updated edition that
describes 200 natural areas in California, including all newly designated wilderness.
The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of Oregon & Washington
by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry. This new edition covers 20
million acres of public lands.
The World of the Fox
by Rebecca L. Grambo. A popular collection of fox photos and lore. Now
The War Against the Greens
by David Helvarg. A startling report on right-wing violence against
environmentalists. Now in paper.
Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (800) 935-1056, online at www.sierraclub.org/books, or by writing 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San
Francisco, CA 94105.
Cadillac Desert: An American Nile
Home Vision Select, $29.95;
Watching the hypnotic opening sequence of the churning
Colorado River, it's hard to imagine that such a force could be contained.
In this engaging account of the effort to "conquer the fatal dryness
of the desert," the domestication of the Colorado is chronicled, from
the halcyon days of the construction of Hoover Dam to the protracted battles
over damming the Grand Canyon.
In the second segment of this four-part PBS series based
largely on Marc Reisner's epic book Cadillac Desert, Jon Else's
elegiac views of the Colorado underscore the enormity of the loss of this
once free-flowing river. The spirit of mindless dam-building is captured
by the skillful use of old newsreels, such as one that shows Native Americans
catching salmon at a traditional site on the Columbia River for the last
time: "Vanishing salmon for the vanishing Red Man."
While some backers still speak of man's triumph over nature
in near-mystical terms, others have relented. Former senator Barry Goldwater,
an early supporter of Glen Canyon Dam, contritely says he'd vote against
As for the consequences of imposing these "magnificent
concrete structures" on millions of years of evolution, Else concludes
that the prosperity garnered from the natural order is short-lived: it's
only a matter of time before we discover the heavy toll we've expected
nature to pay. --Liza Gross
The Video Project, $45;
The drama played out in Camino, a small town in the Sierra
foothills of El Dorado National Forest, has been echoed across the country:
once-friendly neighbors embroiled in hostile confrontations as workers
fight to save their jobs and environmentalists fight to protect the national
With 280 employees, Michigan-California Lumber was the
lifeblood of the town. But in early 1993 a grassroots group, Friends Aware
of Wildlife Needs (FAWN), challenged a series of U.S. Forest Service timber
sales, charging that the agency had violated environmental regulations
by selling trees to the mill. FAWN won its appeals, and the sales were
stopped. The owners shut down the mill soon after.
It would have been hard to create a more compelling script
for what followed. Workers blamed FAWN for the plant closure, even hanging
one member in effigy. Mill owners and workers both fail to recognize that
they too stand to benefit from sustainable forestry practices. After all,
as director Frank Green points out, their challenge--and ours--lies in
creating solutions that don't see protecting livelihood and protecting
natural resources as mutually exclusive goals. --L.G.
Here's a word of warning: there's a lot of mediocre video
material out there. Take, for example, Watching Wildlife. Despite
engaging footage and practical advice here and there, even the novice will
find some of wildlife biologist Dave Case's tips painfully obvious. "Binoculars
are great for two reasons. First, you see things that you probably couldn't
see with the naked eye. Second, you get close to wildlife without getting
so close physically that you disturb the animals." Thanks.
Though Case does mention that some species are endangered,
he fails to explain why. Once he even blames the victim, saying that Kirtland's
warblers are in trouble "in part because they're very picky about
the habitats in which they nest and raise their young." Observing
wildlife does teach us to protect it, but we need more sophisticated insights
than this to make a very convincing case for its survival. --L.G.
WORLD ON THE WEB
by Sierra Club Webmaster John Kealy
For a group so often accused of chasing preindustrial fantasies,
environmentalists have taken to the Internet, especially the interactive World Wide Web,
like die-hard computer geeks. It's no surprise. The Web is the mimeograph machine of the
1990s, enabling activists to get their message out to a broad audience instantly and at
low cost. (If you're too young to remember mimeograph machines, trust me, the Web is much
cooler.) The Sierra Club's website, for example, includes
"action alerts" that keep activists up to date on a daily basis and give
background information on clean air, ancient forests, global warming, and other key Club
There are hundreds of environmentally related Web sites out there. I'll
sort through them and point out a few that can help you understand and protect your town,
region, country, and planet. First up are a pair of "omnibus" sites that try to
create order out of the Internet cacophony. One of my favorites, run by the Environmental
Working Group at www.ewg.org, sets out "to provide the public with new,
locally relevant information on environmental issues in their own states, hometowns, and
neighborhoods." The site offers comprehensive reports on pesticides, drinking water,
wetlands, farm subsidies, and campaign finance. A standing feature, "Where You
Live," lets you tap into a database to see who's polluting your rivers, filling
wetlands, how often tap-water contaminants exceed federal standards in your water
district, and which anti-environmental "wise-use" groups are active in your
Another comprehensive site is Envirolink at www.envirolink.org,
which is an online clearinghouse for green organizations and projects, and offers a place
to post messages or "chat." The site offers a "low speed" option for
those of us who don't surf the Internet on a Pentium connected to a T-1 line (and don't
even care what that means). Envirolink is a pleasure to browse, but if you want to cut to
the chase you can search several hundred issue areas in the Envirolink Library, the entire
Web site, or the sites of 14 nonprofit environmental organizations, including the Sierra
If your brain is full of environmental crises, take a break by turning
to GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) at www.gorp.com, a site devoted to all
things recreational. You can search outdoor information by geographic location, activity,
and "attraction" (parks, forests, wilderness areas). GORP links you to a
comprehensive and eclectic bunch of sites: most useful are the public-lands agencies'
sites; potentially useful are the opinionated but thorough sites posted by recreation
freaks; and sometimes useful are the many commercial sites that tease you with offers of
gear, books, and outdoor expeditions.