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Book Review: Our Better Nature

Our Better Nature (cover)

Curt Lindberg and Eric Hagen, eds. Our Better Nature: Hopeful Excursions in Saving Biodiversity. Published by Vermont Alliance for Half-Earth, Northeast Wilderness Trust, Vermont Natural Resources Council, and the Lintilhac Foundation, 2022.

Reviewed by John Miles, Rewilding Earth Book Review Editor

Written for Vermonters by Vermonters this is a book for people everywhere concerned about the loss of biodiversity. It offers the example of how, in the small state of Vermont, inspired by E. O. Wilson and his advocacy, protection of half the Earth from human degradation and for the flourishing of the rich biota with which humans share the planet, is happening. The goal of this book is to help the people of Vermont rethink their “relationship with the-other-lives-of-the-world” as businessman and conservationist George Schenk states it. The approach is primarily storytelling. In his excellent contribution to this book, Tom Butler asks the key question: “If the world humanity is making is based largely on the tales we tell ourselves, do we have the right ones?” We do not, he asserts, because among other stories governing us today is one that places humans apart from nature and contends that growth in human numbers and consumption is infinite. (Note: read Tom Butler’s essay excepted from the book here.)

The editors and contributors to this small book set out to tell stories of what people in Vermont are doing for biodiversity, and Tom also asks, “What story is inclusive and attractive enough to inspire millions or even billions of people to put themselves into it?” He writes, “I vote for this one: the story of rewilding, of resurgent wildness enveloping the Earth. Of expanding beauty and diversity. Of wilderness recovery writ large. Of people from all backgrounds and every corner of the globe lending their energies toward helping nature heal, at all scales, to the benefit of all life.” The key phrase here is “at all scales,” for the stories in this volume range from efforts involving thousands of acres to some confined to back yards. A core message is that everyone can do something to protect and restore wild nature.

The book opens with a tribute to E. O. Wilson, describing his career as scientist and activist, and a group of healthcare workers that took inspiration from his remarks at a conference, especially his contention that “To strive against the odds on behalf of all life would be humanity at its most noble.” Contributors to the sixteen essays in Our Better Nature contend repeatedly that the odds today against the goal of protecting Half Earth may be great, but many Vermonters are not daunted by these odds and are contributing to the effort one woodlot, stream, and backyard at a time. Editors Lindberg and Hagen have organized the book into three parts. The first seven essays are contributed by members and friends of the Vermont Alliance for Half Earth and describe models for educating students and professional naturalists, and the guiding principles of the Alliance. This part also includes a primer on the role of the carbon cycle in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation.

Elizabeth Thompson briefly describes the history of conservation in Vermont, how forest cover declined drastically when the area was colonized and has returned as conservationists worked to protect the “leftovers.” She credits Bob Jenkins and Hub Vogelmann, respectively first Science Director and founder of the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy, with leading documentation of Vermont’s natural legacy and launching efforts to protect it. Their work, along with others, has resulted in Vermont Conservation Design, a three-tiered system of analysis and planning, the tiers being landscape scale, natural community scale, and species scale. This is a design that must warm Tom Butler’s heart, for it provides a path to rewilding, as Tom describes it at all scales.

After a discussion of how forests contribute to carbon capture by Annie Faulkner, two essays describe educational approaches that contribute to Vermonter’s understanding of biodiversity and its importance. In “High Flyers,” writers Prucia Buscell and Joe Roman describe the work of master teacher Sandra Fary who teaches at Camel’s Hump Middle School in Richmond, Vermont. A science teacher, Fary is an advocate and practitioner of teaching in the outdoors, and the authors describe some of her methods, one of which involves studying birds in the field. “Learning about birds, and their nesting, feeding, and flight,” they point out, “offers a glimpse of a region’s distinctive environment and biological diversity.” Fary’s students experience “both hard science and nature beyond the classroom.” Buscell and Roman describe the work of several other educators, making a strong case for the role of education in tackling the biodiversity crisis, and describing the good work being done.

In her essay titled “Saving the Forest by Learning the Trees,” founder of the Vermont Master Naturalist Program Alicia Daniel describes her journey to becoming a naturalist including what she learned in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program and what she aspires to teach through Vermont Master Naturalists. These programs set out to teach the pieces of the natural world, “but more importantly they teach participants to learn to see patterns and understand the processes that shape a landscape.” She describes her “layer cake” approach, and the importance of story in teaching natural history, sharing a story of how she was able, using her naturalist skills and insights and powers of explanation and persuasion to serendipitously help save a rare Cold Air Talus in northern Vermont. She concludes the story with the comment that “Sending naturalists out into the world prepared to tell compelling stories – on the spot, ready or not – is key to conserving biodiversity.”

It is rare to see in writings about rewilding and conserving biodiversity stories and discussions of the role education can and must play in campaigns for this goal. I am encouraged to see education described as an emphasis of the Vermont Alliance for Half Earth’s and its allies’ approach to conservation. As the Alliance seeks to rewild and conserve at all scales, so too do they embrace conservation education at all scales and levels. Sandra Fary was doing this educational work long before the Alliance was formed, as was the UVM Field Naturalist Program, and the Alliance wisely has chosen to credit and highlight the importance of their approach.

The second section presents six stories about Vermonters who enjoy a connection with their land. Eric Hagen collected these stories as he followed them on walks and listened to their accounts of how they are being stewards. The editors write that one theme they want to convey through these stories “is that meaningful relationships with nature can contribute to the well-being of people and nature alike, as well as sustain the action and attitudes needed to live sustainably with the rest of life.” George Schenk, owner of Lareau Farm and founder of American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont, explains how he as an entrepreneur and businessman, contributes to habitat creation on his farm by focusing on soil invertebrates and microorganisms. Vermont State Representative Jim McCullough and his wife Lucy created the Catamount Outdoor Family Center on their 400 acres, which they have long managed for timber and wildlife but also for people and their growth. Jim says people come from the city who have lost their connection to the land and find it at Catamount. “The trees and plants all have roots, and so do we, but we as a people have moved on and forgotten our roots, and then people get them reattached when they get here. They don’t even know it, but that’s why they feel so good.” As they have aged, the McCulloughs have protected part of their land through a conservation easement.

The story of Andlea Brett, told in a walk with Hagen and an essay she contributes, is especially powerful. She describes a difficult childhood when she was subjected to discrimination because of her Abenaki heritage even as she was learning of that heritage from her family. Her family did their best to value and pass on that heritage, but at the same time to conceal it, her dad “aspiring to keep up with the Joneses, and also trying to ignore his Abnaki heritage and fit in with the white world, which was impossible.” Andlea embraces her heritage, and her life experience not only as Abnaki but also as a social worker has given her insight into why people treat the natural world as they do, and she shares her insights into this. In her essay she writes, “Like the forests of Vermont, we have been here since the glaciers retreated. Because we are all connected and all a community, I ask that in all your efforts to conserve biodiversity – at home and abroad – you ask yourself how Indigenous peoples are affected, and support us even when conservation is not the issue that brings us to the table.” Conservation of culture as well as nature is key to diversity, especially culture like that of the Abnaki that have lived on the land for thousands of years.

The stories of forester Ethan Tapper, wildlife ecologist Sue Morse, and wetland ecologist Charlie Hohn describe their efforts to protect and restore biodiversity at several scales. Charlie, for example, is slowly restoring much of his lawn to wetland. That might not seem all that important, but Hagen notes that there are currently 40.5 million acres of lawn in the United States, “and studies have shown that lawns are much less biologically diverse than natural ecosystems,” which seems obvious but must be documented to make the case for change. Charlie says he is trying to bring his yard back “such that it looks like a functioning, biodiverse ecosystem, so that it can be positive for biodiversity, for my kids, and for other community members.” Ethan Tapper and Sue Morse are working on larger projects, but all these stories convey the same theme – care for the land because you need a healthy landscape and because it deserves your care.

After explaining what some people are doing, the third part of the book is a call to action, listing resources specific to Vermont that might help anyone interested in getting started. Among them are suggestions for how to find and source native plants. One website called Vermont Invasives helps identify invasives and suggests ways to remove them. Other actions include reducing lawns, avoiding pesticides, leaving dead wood, and managing for structural diversity. In a section titled “Scaling it up: half-town, half-state,” Hagen writes, in italics for emphasis, “We have the knowledge and the tools to protect biodiversity across the state. What we need is people to participate in municipal planning in order to create robust policy.” Vermont Landscape Design is described in more detail, including Landscape Components, Community and Species Components, and Vermont Conservation Design Targets which summarize policy and action goals. The section closes with an essay about movement building because it will be necessary to grow the movement for saving biodiversity if the Vermont Landscape Design is to be achieved.

Our Better Nature closes with an “Afterword” by Doug Tallamy, entomologist and native plant advocate who summarizes much of what this book presents. He contends that changing current landscape designs will require changing our cultural relationship with nature. The stories in this book testify that such change is possible. He challenges those who would define rewilding as “wildness, full of charismatic megafauna, including the apex predators so necessary to self-sustaining ecosystems,” suggesting that this is the only or dominant meaning of this term “rewilding.” He writes, “I propose a different definition of nature that is more inclusive and will enable us to achieve much of Wilson’s dream [of Half Earth], not only on half of Planet Earth but on most of it. What if we define ‘saving nature’ as ‘saving ecosystem function,’” which is certainly a good idea and part of the broad conception of rewilding.  He overlooks, in his critique, Tom Butler’s emphasis on “all scales.” Tallamy is an advocate of what he calls a “Homegrown National Park.” At the end of the book the editors add a little food for thought, including what might seem a wild idea of converting 20 million acres of lawn into a “national park.” This might be achieved if everyone including scientists, landowners, land managers – the very people whose stories are presented here – got to work, in Vermont and everywhere else to do their part, be it large or small. I hope Tallamy is not rejecting the idea that wilderness be protected where possible, and “charismatic megafauna” restored to their function in ecosystems where possible. Restoring lawns alone won’t get the job done.

As I read this book it occurred to me that it might be a model for every state in the United States as part of the current campaigns of 30X30 and a tool in Half Earth toolboxes. It might bring the urgency of the situation and ways to address it beyond the communities of scientists and environmental activists to all members of the community. “Our Better Nature” is easy to read, presents some basic facts, and humanizes the work to protect biodiversity. The future of biodiversity cannot be left only to the scientists and activists. As this book makes clear, it will require efforts from many who can make their small contributions to the cause, which may aggregate into an outcome that seems to many today beyond the realm of possibility. Our Better Nature testifies to where there is hope there can be action and that action may lead to success. As recently stated by writer William DeBuys, we need to focus on care, not cure, and here in this small, focused book, is a contribution to thinking about how we might care for the many living beings with which we share the earth. While the outcome may be uncertain, we cannot stand by and do nothing.

Order your own copy of the book here.

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