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In Review

A for Effort

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
By Jon Mooallem
Penguin, 2013, 339 pages

Liam O’Brien isn’t a biologist by training or a professional conservationist. For much of his adult life he was an actor, appearing mostly in stage productions of Shakespeare. Then, one day in 1996, he spotted a western tiger swallowtail in the garden outside his bedroom window and fell deeply, hopelessly in love with butterflies. Fifteen years later, he has become, despite his lack of formal training, one of the top lepidopterists in the San Francisco Bay Area. He leads butterfly walks throughout the region. He paints butterflies for trail signs at local parks. He is closely involved with the efforts to preserve endangered butterfly species. Yet though his passion is unmatched, he wonders if the efforts to preserve butterflies and their habitats aren’t a bit foolish.

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“Is this just an exercise in futility?” O’Brien asks at one point in Jon Mooallem’s engrossing new book, Wild Ones, as he discusses the huge lengths to which people have gone to protect the endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly. “What is it going to take to put these pieces of a puzzle back together when the puzzle has changed?”

That question, in all of its concise astuteness, captures the conundrum of conservation in the twenty-first century. With each year we lose more of undisturbed nature, and so it becomes ever harder to define what we are protecting, or to what condition we are hoping to restore an ecosystem or a species. Biologists call this the “shifting baseline”: every generation bases its ideal of “original” nature on what it grew up with, and so our conception of what nature “should” look like becomes increasingly impoverished as we chew up more of the world. As Mooallem puts it: “What exactly are we preserving, and why?”

Mooallem never answers those questions, nor does he answer O’Brien’s. A contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Mooallem is a journalist who is more comfortable parsing questions than answering them. He is, above all, a storyteller, and in Wild Ones Mooallem tells the stories of the dreamers, the misfits, and, yes, the heroes, who have dedicated themselves to defending wildlife. O’Brien is representative of the type: an amateur who has become an obsessive.

The zany cast of characters makes for good copy. Mooallem finds himself chasing Martha Stewart across the Canadian tundra as she chases down a polar bear for just the right camera angle. He crawls through sand dunes located next to a giant gypsum plant, looking for a butterfly that’s close to extinct. He travels halfway across the US with Operation Migration – an outfit of amateur pilots who dress up in all-white costumes and fly their ultralight airplanes from Wisconsin to Florida, showing flocks of whooping cranes their ancient migration routes. “Already it’s come to this on Planet Earth,” Mooallem writes, “men dressed like birds, teaching birds to fly.”

Mooallem, as you might guess from that line, is an ironist, which makes him the perfect guy to explore the paradox of contemporary wildlife conservation. That is: Can you manage wildness? In the course of doing all it takes to save a wild creature – crafting artificial habitats, dressing up in white suits – do we lose what we loved about its wildness in the first place? Does the effort itself change the character of our object of affection?

That paradox, combined with the dispiriting awareness of the shifting baseline, at times leads Mooallem’s human protagonists to despair. Some become bitter and retreat to writing midnight screeds against industrial civilization. Some drop out. But many others dig in and focus their energies on one patch of the world, determined to save something, to build their own little Ark, even if it’s just a life raft for a single species.

In the end, Mooallem loses the reporter’s ironic detachment and succumbs to a hard-won sentimentality. The “weirdly reassuring” part of his subtitle is the hope he discovers as he watches people give everything they have to repair the busted world we inherited. “The beauty of humans trying to fix a larger beauty we broke,” he calls it. “Maybe what conservation tries is sometimes misguided or futile. But there’s something deep and blameless in the trying itself.”

Butterfly enthusiast Liam O’Brien thinks so. Driving home from a discouraging metalmark census, he tells Mooallem: “I just want to be part of the generation that tries.”


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