Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals
by Rosamond Purcell; Houghton Mifflin, $20
A number of unfortunate creatures never made it to this new millennium. Consider Incas,
the last Carolina parakeet, who, writes Rosamond Purcell, "died in his cage in the
Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918, only six months after the death of Lady Jane, his
companion of 32 years."
Purcell conducts a belated wake for the Carolina parakeet and some 60 other wildlife
species with brief accounts of their demise and color photographs of each one's mortal
remains - stuffed museum specimens, skeletal reconstructions, sometimes only bones. She
mourns the paradise parrot, the glaucous macaw, the pig-footed bandicoot, and the Jamaican
giant galliwisp, along with the better-known passenger pigeon and dodo, all laid low by
humans wrecking their habitats, introducing predators and diseases, or just hunting them
Viewing the animals frozen in mummylike poses evokes shame at the annihilation of a
menagerie so interesting, gorgeous, and, yes, friendly. Sheer hospitality doomed many,
like the Falkland dog. "When Darwin visited Falkland in 1833," Purcell writes,
"he feared that the Falkland dog's extreme tameness might lead to its extinction. He
was right. Encouraged by a booming market for dog fur, traders lured the trusting animals
by holding a piece of meat in one hand and a knife in the other."
Granted, some colonizers had a knack for appreciation, like the Frenchman Francois
Leguat, who celebrated the Indian Ocean's big flightless bird, the Rodriguez solitaire:
"They walk with such stately form and good grace that one cannot help admiring and
loving them." But utilitarian brutality usually prevailed. The great auks, Purcell
reports, were "hunted for their feathers . . . and to loosen their plumage the birds
were boiled in large cauldrons over fires fed by oil from auks killed before them."
Also included are photos of some of today's endangered species, like the Pacific
islands' birdwing butterfly, which so entranced the great naturalist Alfred Wallace that
he found himself "gazing, lost in admiration, at the velvet black and brilliant green
of its wings, seven inches across, its golden body and crimson breast." Purcell's
book vividly shows why we must choose such ecstasy over exploitation.
- Bob Schildgen
More Books: Water Wars
In the complicated debates on industrialized agriculture and genetically engineered
food, it's easy to overlook the simple question of whether there's going to be enough
water to grow the crops. As the following authors show, however, there is increasing
concern about how to keep water flowing while alleviating the huge environmental damage
caused by dams, irrigation, sewage, and industrial use of our most important natural
Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? by Sandra Postel
(W. W. Norton, $13.95) starts off with a dramatic history of the collapse of ancient
irrigation-dependent civilization. Moving into the present, Postel describes ecological
disasters wrought by irrigation, such as the drying up of the Aral Sea, where she finds
"a graveyard of ships rotting in the dried-up seabed" in a dusty coastline town
that now rests 25 miles from what remains of the once mighty inland sea. She also reminds
us that simply eating lower on the food chain would conserve billions of gallons, noting
that the meat-heavy American diet soaks up twice as much water as the more herbivorous
Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It
by Paul Simon (Welcome Rain, $22.95) draws on the former Illinois senator's
political experience to explain water issues both at home and globally. A zealous
proponent of desalinization to relieve water shortages, he also shows how water scarcity
has impaired international relations, especially in the Middle East and Africa. For
example, although 85 percent of the Nile originates in Ethiopia, the main consumers of its
water are the Sudan and Egypt. With Ethiopia poised to build dams to collect its share,
Simon warns, tensions could greatly increase.
The World's Water 1998-1999: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources
by Peter H. Gleick (Island Press, $29.95) is a comprehensive overview of all
aspects of the world's water situation, with a wealth of data presented in clear graphic
form. Gleick covers everything from the environmental impacts of huge dam projects such as
China's controversial Three Gorges Dam to descriptions of new ways to move water. Among
the worst unintended consequences of huge dams is an increase in earthquakes, even in
seismically inactive areas. And among the more exotic proposals for delivering water are
ambitious schemes to tow it across the seas in gigantic bags. Packed with technical detail
yet quite readable, this book is both an excellent reference work and an intriguing
These big-picture approaches are complemented by stories of local crises. An updated
version of John Opie's Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land(University of
Nebraska Press, $25) shows the immense environmental impact of irrigation on the
Great Plains and addresses new problems such as the polluting industrial-size hog farms on
the plains. Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by William
deBuys and Joan Myers (University of New Mexico Press, $35) unveils the utter
folly (and bizarre loveliness) of the waterworks on the lower Colorado River that created
the Salton Sea, a "witches' brew . . . lethal for a substantial portion of the wild
creatures unfortunate enough to depend upon it." DeBuys' powerful narrative is echoed
in Myers' stark photographs of the desert and the detritus of irrigation follies. Uphill
Against Water: The Great Dakota Water War by Peter Carrels (University of
Nebraska Press, $25) tells how tenacious South Dakota farmers defeated irrigation
boosters pushing to drown their fields under an immense water project.
Seeing how the planners tried to force Americans off their land, we are reminded that
forced migration to make way for dams remains a major environmental-justice tragedy.
World on the Web:
Summer's arriving, and that means it's time to hit the trail, or at least daydream
about it. The Web is a great place to browse for travel options, and particularly good for
people who want to travel lightly on the land. Sunscreen? Check. Phrase book? Check.
Modem? Check. Off we go!
Start with an all-purpose ecotravel site. Away.com's green travel page (http://away.com/channels/green) offers extensive
indexes of destinations, guidebooks, and outfitters, a question-and-answer session with a
panel of travel experts, a trip-finding feature, and discussion forums with other
travelers. Wondering where to find the best shrimp shack on Aruba? Look here. Another
useful "umbrella" site is Ecotourism Explorer (www.ecotourism.org), a service of the Ecotourism
Society, an organization of environmentally responsible tour operators.
If ecotravel means more to you than just twiddling your toes in tropical sand, check
out Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org).
With Earthwatch, you work with scientists and conservationists on their field projects. If
monitoring Kenyan rhinos or excavating Viking settlements is your ideal vacation, this
site's for you.
Of course, my favorite ecotravel site is our very own Sierra Club Outings (www.sierraclub.org/outings). Club founder
John Muir realized that the best way to persuade people to fight to save wild areas was to
take them to see and enjoy the places firsthand. From safaris to ski tours to revegetation
projects, Sierra Club Outings has a trip for you.
Finally, there's one no-frills Web site that's always worth a visit before you cast off
for exotic shores: the U.S. State Department's Travel Warnings and Consular Information
This frequently updated site offers a quick list of health conditions, political
disturbances, and unusual currency or entry regulations for every country in the world.
You'll be pleased to hear that crime in Vanuatu is listed as "rare."