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  January/February 1998 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Natural Resources

Books | Video | Web

BOOKS: Deer Tales

Heart and Blood
By Richard Nelson
Alfred A. Knopf $27.50

Deer in the United States were hunted down to a few hundred thousand by the 1880s, but thanks to restoration efforts, strict game laws, and forest regrowth they have rebounded to more than 25 million, possibly as high as before European settlement.

While these changes have renewed deer habitat in the East and Midwest, it has been ravaged by massive clearcutting in the West and Alaska, warns Richard Nelson, heralded author of The Island Within. And ironically, deer face the prospect of being loved to death by Bambi-hugging opponents of hunting. The animals have done so well, he contends, that hunting is often necessary to prevent overpopulation, which could force millions to endure disease and starvation.

Tracing the complex and contradictory relationship between deer and society, Nelson engagingly blends science, history, and lyrical tributes with sturdy tales of thousands of hours with deer in the wild. He serves up intriguing details-such as the fact that if a buck has a damaged leg, his antlers grow larger on the opposite side-and then goes poetic to celebrate "lithesome bodies, and incredibly gracile legs . . . . great, suspended, arcing leaps, as the deer flung themselves like dark moons over the earth's far edge."

Nelson's stories follow deer from Angel Island in San Francisco Bay to Fire Island off the Atlantic Coast, and far north, where he learned the ways of deer while living with the I˝upiaq Eskimo people. He communes with whitetails on a Texas ranch and tramps the hills of southern Wisconsin, where deer thrive in a mix of open space and dense woodland similar to habitat created by the Indians who burned patches of forest to create sunny areas rich in plants for browsing.

Nelson's wanderings culminate with an event very few of the most seasoned deer biologists have ever witnessed, the birth of a fawn in the wild. With the respect and sense of gratitude that suffuse his work, he concludes: "I remember what the Koyukon elders teach: that everything we receive from nature comes as a gift. —Bob Schildgen


Margaret Murie, a Life for Nature

Two in the Far North
By Margaret Murie
Alaska Northwest Books $14.95

Margaret Murie, a Life for Nature Margaret E. Murie and her biologist husband, Olaus, spent their honeymoon mushing huskies up a frozen Alaskan creek in sub-zero snow squalls. As she tells it, no better time could be had. In 1924 the exuberant newlyweds were among the first whites to settle in the Brooks Range, he as a U.S. Biological Survey scientist studying caribou and she as a passionate nature-lover who would become one of the grande dames of American environmentalism.

This re-released classic, originally published in 1962, is based on journals Murie wrote while building a marriage and starting a family among the miners, trappers, and Native Americans who coexisted in the raw Alaskan wilderness. Intensely aware of the novelty of being a woman in an unusual historical situation, she brings to life the generosity, self-reliance, and camaraderie of her colorful and far-flung community. "On the frontier," she writes, "anyone lacking a sense of humor is inevitably weeded out, and only those who can laugh at it all are able to remain."

Murie's writing is akin to John Muir's: she conveys not only the physical presence of the wilderness, but also the sublime awareness wilderness can evoke in us. Once, trapped by a snowstorm, Murie and her husband built a lean-to and kindled a fire between it and their sled. Unperturbed by her situation, she awakens in the night to find the skies have cleared: "I felt somehow privileged, humble yet triumphant, waking so in the night hours, as though I had found omnipotence at work undisturbed."

The couple later settled in the Grand Tetons, and over the decades many a notable environmentalist and wildlife biologist traversed their cabin's rough-hewn porch. Murie's ability to inspire the likes of David Brower and Howard Zahniser, who cofounded The Wilderness Society with Olaus, is legendary. But it was her decades of hands-on advocacy that helped create the Wilderness Act of 1968 and the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, whose Rose Garden-signing included commendations from former President Jimmy Carter. Tireless, Murie now works to protect the Arctic.

Murie's homespun activism earned her the Sierra Club's John Muir Award in 1983-though she maintains today, at 95, that all she did was "make cookies and serve tea." While her baking may be excellent, it is her words that invite her guests-and her readers-to keep nature's "omnipotence at work" undisturbed. —Tom Lombardo


New from Sierra Club Books

Songbirds: Celebrating Nature's Voicesby Ronald Orenstein. Sierra Club Books, $35. Singing his heart out is the young northern mockingbird, accompanied by a chorus of 130 other species photographed in color, with a naturalist's insight into their life and music.

Vulture: Nature's Ghastly Gourmet by Wayne Grady. Sierra Club Books, $22.50. When you eat death for a living, it's hard to get respect. But this book gives the austere scavenger its due with 60 dramatic photos and a richly detailed, entertaining text.

Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (800) 935-1056, through our Web site, www.sierraclub.org/books, or by writing 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.


Video

Rachel's Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer
Women Make Movies, $30;
(212) 925-0606

This ambitious documentary picks up where pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson left off, investigating the connection between breast cancer and the synthetic chemicals that Carson warned us about 35 years ago.

Academy Award-winning filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf were compelled to learn all they could about breast cancer after their 39-year-old daughter was diagnosed with it in 1994. Working with producer and breast cancer activist Nancy Evans, they recruited seven women battling the disease to act as detectives searching for clues to its etiology. After all, who would be more motivated?

This powerful, at times harrowing film opens with a hearse-led procession-it's the funeral of one of the detectives, we later learn. "We are the generation of women who . . . came of age during the most toxic and environmentally unregulated decade ever known," ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber tells us as the cars pass by. "We didn't know that so many of our mothers would bury us." Archival footage then trumpets the postwar conversion of a fighter plane to civilian use: "Today's target for this B-25 is Rockford, Illinois, a peacetime mission to spread 500 gallons of DDT, the Army's miracle insecticide, over the city."

While scientific ignorance explains some toxic exposures, current federal statutes approve the production of known poisons, regulating them as if "safe" levels exist. Of the 70,000 synthetic chemicals in use today, only 1,000 have been studied in any detail. Given the impossibility of compiling complete data on the interactive effects of a constantly changing toxic stew, how do we act? Common sense, the filmmakers say, dictates a precautionary approach: identify known carcinogens, eliminate them, and develop safer substitutes. "Where should the burden of proof lie?" asks Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation. "The chemical dumpers get to dump whatever they want, and you and I have to line up the dead bodies and prove that harm has occurred."

Meanwhile, the bodies are piling up: one in eight women are at risk for breast cancer, and "we still have no idea what causes it [or] how to prevent it," says Dr. Susan Love. Yet hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars are poured into detection and treatment, and recently genetics-"the one piece of the puzzle we can do absolutely nothing about," says Steingraber-instead of finding ways to prevent the disease.

The detectives did not solve their cases. It's likely that a wide variety of environmental agents interact with other factors to produce the DNA damage that eventually leads to cancer cells. Carson, who was dying of metastatic breast cancer while writing Silent Spring, warned, "We should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals." Rachel's Daughters echoes her message. For more information on the issue, call Breast Cancer Action at (415) 243-9301. —Liza Gross

River Runners of the Grand Canyon
Don Briggs Productions, $29.95
(415) 331-4513

"I saw the mad, wild water hurled against the curving wall. Jagged rocks like the bared fangs of some dream monster appeared now and then in the leaping, tumbling waves." So wrote Ellsworth Kolb in 1911 of his trip down the Colorado River to make the first adventure film. His words might not inspire the average soul to grab an oar, but then this two-hour-plus history of people "messing about in boats" isn't about average souls.

Filmmaker Don Briggs combines rare archival stills and film clips, you-are-there footage of bone-shattering rapids, and writer Charlie Pearson's folksy narration to tell the story of people testing their limits on the free-flowing river in the days before Glen Canyon Dam. His account has all the elements of a good Western-liquor, guns, greed, even love-and a diverse cast of characters, from scientists and entrepreneurs to charlatans and madmen. Among the standouts are Bus Hatch, whose only provisions were whiskey and bullets; Norman Nevills, who ferried his new bride downriver in a boat made from his mother's horse trough; and Martin Litton, whose impassioned speeches spurred the Sierra Club to launch a national campaign to save the Colorado.

The boaters' struggles down (and in some cases up) the river echo the monumental battles over harnessing its flow. Litton hoped when he took reporters, photographers, and politicians down the canyon in the 1960s that once people heard what was at stake, they would fight to protect it. Briggs' film is made in that spirit. Twenty percent of sales are donated to river-preservation groups around the world.—Liza Gross


World on the Web

by Sierra Club Webmaster John Kealy

Consider the World Wide Web a giant electronic encyclopedia, only it's randomly organized and lacks a table of contents. Buried among sites devoted to has-been pop stars and conspiracy theories are some excellent sites on environmental-science issues. They may not always be glitzy, but they're loaded with facts and data that can help turn an armchair environmentalist into a well-informed activist.

For the latest on the weather event of the century, click on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's huge El Niño site (www.pmel.noaa.gov/toga-tao/el-nino/home.html). It provides animated weather maps, in-depth analysis of previous El Niño events, a FAQ (frequently asked questions) file, and up-to-date advisories with links to related reports.


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