Category Archives: Environment
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
I read this book many years ago during a militant pro-environment, animal rights phase of my life. Much older now I decided to pick it up again and see if I feel the same way about now as I did back then. I can’t say that I do in exactly the same way, but I admit it did stir the desire I think everyone has, to get a hold of some cause and devote to it so totally that almost any action taken on its behalf is seems justified.
The “Money Wrench Gang,” was written by Edward Abbey, a noted militant environmentalist with anarchical leanings, in 1975, and is credited by some as the inspiration for the Earth First movement which gained a foothold in the 1980s. It follows the adventures of four restless, environmentally minded eccentrics; a mildly Libertarian surgeon and his nurse/girlfriend/companion, a Jack Mormon river guide with three wives, and a slovenly, profane former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran with the all time great character name of George Washington Hayduke.
Brought together on a guided river tour, the four bemoan a system that is increasingly destroying the remaining untouched open spaces in the American West. They decide the only way to halt its degradation is by hitting those who profit from it where they hurt – their pocket books.
Dubbing themselves the Monkey Wrench Gang, they embark on a campaign of direct action, destroying the implements used by the system to effect environmental destruction – road construction equipment, power lines, railways etc. All the while they manage to stay a step ahead of some of the cartoonishly funny law enforcement personnel looking to catch them. They eventually escalate their attacks in a way that has profound effects for their future and for their ability to keep up their campaign.
And that is as far as I go so as not to spoil it for folks who have not read it.
Abbey’s writing style is by turns straight forward and insistent, allegorical, and at times, particularly when describing the environment the Monkey Wrench Gang is trying to save, quite lyrical. The book is often humorous and ribald, even as it tries to make a serious point. The characters are colorful, bigger than life ,and boldly drawn by Abbey, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Still, the overall effect is really inspiring. And, it is never boring.
I am older now, and no longer see things as black and white (though the Age of Trump is sorely testing me there), so I don’t think tactics such as these are useful in real life. But damn, sometimes I really wish they were.
A really pleasant account of Charles Darwin’s academic life and the process by which he eventually published one of the most impactful books in human history – The Origin of Species, in which he postulated the theory of natural selection, or as it is known today, evolution. He later expanded his theories to include homo sapiens in The Descent of Man. What is really terrific about this book is that it presents a Charles Darwin completely devoid of the stereotypes of him we are familiar with today. Among those who continue to adhere to a biblical version of creation Darwin is a villainous anti-Christ, sent here to destroy people’s faith in God. Among those who revere his work he has become an untouchably great man, devoid of flaws, and who epitomizes the triumph of reason over superstition. Though I have always leaned towards the latter view of him, and believe it to be closer to the truth, neither stereotype really fully captures the man. In this book however, the author has done exactly that.
The basics of how Darwin arrived at the theory of evolution are fairly well known. Shortly after graduating from Oxford in 1831 Darwin signed on as an informal member of the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle, about to depart on an extended voyage of discovery. As a naturalist in training Darwin did not hold an official position other than as observer and collector. The voyage took over five years, visiting places as varied as Chile, Patagonia, the Galapagos and Falkland Islands, South Africa, and Singapore. Observing the variation and geographic distribution of species during this voyage eventually led Darwin to postulate natural selection (known as transmutation of species then, evolution now). In particular, fossils of birds collected primarily in the Galapagos and Chile showed not just variation in a particular species, but the development of new species adapted to the environment they inhabited. Finding one species abundant on one island, and completely absent on another nearby led him to consider how species developed over vast periods of time. After returning to England Darwin formulated his theory which he published in his two earth shattering volumes, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life later shortened to Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex shortened to The Descent of Man. This “theory” which has been reconfirmed over the ensuing years has become one of the most controversial scientific conclusions in world history. Hardly the result one would have expected from this unprepossessing man who generally shunned controversy, and for whom any kind of stress or conflict would induce bouts of debilitating illness.
What most don’t realize about the well accepted version of Darwin’s evolution on evolution, was how long it took between the time he initially began formulating his theory until it was actually published – thirty-one years. He spent much of that time publishing on other topics including a well received account of his time aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and a ten year study he conducted on barnacles…yes…barnacles. During that time he kept refining his thoughts on transmutation that he recorded in a series of journals. He felt no rush to publish. While others had postulated variants on transmutation, most famously Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who proposed a kind of directed evolution in which organisms could pass on acquired or learned traits to their offspring, no one had proposed anything as radical as what Darwin was contemplating…until June of 1858 that is.
On June 18, 1858 Darwin received from Alfred Russel Wallace, an amateur naturalist and collector, a manuscript he had written based on his observations during several overseas trips. Disturbingly close to the theories Darwin had been refining for nearly 30 years he realized he was about to be overtaken. Unwilling to discard honor in order to usurp Wallace, Darwin turned to friends who arranged to have both papers read jointly at a session of the Linnean society. Honor satisfied Darwin turned to writing a longer abstract of his theories. Abandoning the multi-volume, minutely cited work he had intended Darwin produce a 500 page book that he referred to as an abstract of his theory. This of course was Origin of Species. He had intended a more sedate release of his work, allowing his theories to percolate out rather than exploding all at once. Wallace’s challenge sped up that timetable. Darwin seemed to realize once the implications of what he proposed sunk in, that he would be the focus of unwanted attention, both good and bad. This was something his delicate constitution had trouble adjusting too.
For most of his adult life Darwin was subject to periods of debility that manifested as headaches, heart palpitations, foggy headedness, nausea and most annoyingly, excessive vomiting. It got so bad he had a special alcove constructed in his office to allow him a place to get sick while working. He saw a number of doctors who failed to arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis. He tried a number of quack cures that seemed to offer relief at various times. That he lived so long with this condition indicates it was very likely a psychosomatic illness brought on by stress and conflict. Luckily he had the support of a devoted wife, his first cousin Emma Wedgewood, who helped support his work, cared for him during illness, bore him nine children, and who made sure his legacy was preserved. Ironically, for Darwin was a confirmed agnostic, his wife was a devout Christian who feared for the immortality of her husbands soul.
So, far from being the single minded zealot who set out to destroy faith, or the mythical demi-god who brought the light of truth to the masses, conventional views of Darwin today, he was rather a shy, introverted family man, married to a devout Christian, who shunned controversy and conflict. The irony of his life then was that his work was not only controversial but that to this day it induces the most heated conflict, and, that he was devoted to a woman who espoused a view of life his theory directly contradicted! The author illuminates this side of Darwin brilliantly. Most historical biographies attempt to bring life to their subjects. This is an example of a success. I think it was a great choice not including extensive detail on his voyage aboard the Beagle, concentrating instead on the intellectual and emotional journey Darwin made to the eventual publication of his theories.
Even more impressive than the theory itself, is the fact that he came up with the idea for natural selection without the benefit of the kind of biological proof that would confirm them over the next century. The science of genetics had not yet been born when Darwin published Origin of Species, yet all genetic work since then has confirmed the accuracy of his conclusions, to the point where it is no longer considered a theory in the common sense of the word, but as it is used in science, to indicate to a near certitude its veracity – as in the theory of gravity. Yet many, not wishing to abandon the faith they were raised with continue to deny its truth. I can only hope more books like this will be included in school curricula so we can get to a point where knowledge is no longer a slave to faith.
Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President, this book really grabs you from the outset.
Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.
Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.
It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.
Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.
Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. However, it also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.
In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.
I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!
Bucket Source (Francis Parkman Prize for American History and Biography)
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This was one of those books that made me wish I had taken a much earlier interest in literature and creative writing. I am absolutely sure I would have gotten more enjoyment from this book than I did had that been the case. Commentary I’ve read about it compares Annie Dillard’s work to Thoreau and the other transcendentalists. Of course, I had precious little exposure to them in school so the comparison is largely lost on me. I did not pursue creative writing beyond the minimum requirements imposed on me as part of my course of study, so the style, rhythm and cadence of this work didn’t resonate with me at anything but a superficial level. So, my opinion of it will necessarily be based on my experiences and education.
I kind of view this book the way I would look at an abstract painting; like an artist trying to portray their feeling about a physical place or object through their art, the author here is trying to do the same with words. The book I think employs a narrative form and consists of several reflections and internal monologues on nature, existence, life, death and religion. It all revolves around the environment near the authors home adjacent to Tinker Creek in Virginia. The book is divided into four sections representing the seasons, and within each section chapters that enhance and amplify the larger theme.
I really enjoyed much of this, particularly sections in which Dillard would focus her observations on a particular animal or event. Monologues describing her efforts to get close to the muskrats living in the creek, her fleeting attempts to observe fish and insects were very enjoyable. She also did a wonderful, almost mystical, job of incorporating the latest (at the time) discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy and chemistry into the narrative as though those aspects of the physical world were as much a part of her immediate surroundings as were the insects, birds and reptiles she was observing.
Some parts I didn’t buy, particularly the overall theological theme. Dillard describes her work as a theodicy – the study of why a benevolent God would allow manifestations of evil in the world. The cut throat existence most living beings endure in nature are used as examples. The often cruel and gruesome ways many of “Gods” creatures meet their ends is used as the anchor point for this exploration. Being an atheist I don’t believe there is any deeper meaning other than that evolution provides for. Creatures exist and evolve as a consequence of the environment they live it, not because some benevolent God has allowed it. So these themes had no resonance with me.
She uses the concepts of via positiva and the via negativa, with the first half of the book being the former and the last half the latter. The first refers to the notion that God is present in nature and is in some way knowable. The second refers to a God which cannot be comprehended and therefore what happens in the world are only attributes of God’s will and not a knowable truth. Dillard finds the latter more attractive based on her observations of the natural world as represented at Tinker Creek. Of course from my perspective there is no will at work here as there is no supreme being to work that will. I understand things as part of a quantifiable and understandable process that doesn’t contain the mystery Dillard see around her.
Nevertheless I came away from reading this feeling closer to the nature Dillard describes than a dry recitation of fact could ever convey. I think there is something in all of us that wants the world around us and our place in it to have a higher meaning. I think that desire is a result of an evolutionary impulse. Yet, it is within me and works such as this satisfy some of that need.
Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction)
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My review of this book won’t be long, not only because it took me a full two months to finish it, which would have required me to go back to review what I read waaay back then, but also because my mind is not well adapted to the minutiae of scientific discourse. I would have a very difficult time recounting what I read in any coherent way.
Having said that however, I really did enjoy this book. I love science in the only way a historian can, by exploring its effects on people, society and culture. It was with that mindset that I began reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
This work is essentially a geological travelogue, an amalgam of five books that describes the history of the formation of the earth. But rather than trying to present it in a dry, linear way that most assuredly would have induced me to put it down within the first dozen pages or so, McPhee chose to structure the book in a unique and effective way; using trips he took across America along Interstate 80 – the only highway that traverses the entire country – as the anchor point to which the narrative always returns. Accompanied by noted geologists along the way, he uses their observations to illuminate how the earth was initially formed and how it evolved.
Much of the book is steeped in geological jargon – rock types, formations, faults, tectonics etc. I learned very quickly that I was not going to be able to stop and look up every one of these terms if I ever wanted to finish the book. So, rather than attempt that, I simply let them flow by me as I tried to grasp the overall story that was being told. And you know what? It kind of worked. Occasionally I found myself getting lost, but McPhee is such an excellent writer that he always pulled me back just in time. So while I could not begin to explain to you much of what I read, in my minds eye I understand what he was trying to get across.
My favorite parts of the book however, were those sections that deviated from the science of geology and moved into how the geology he was describing affected people,society and culture. In academic terms geology is as much a humanity as it is a science. It is so complex, and has so many interlocking parts that interpretation of data is often as much intuition as it is analysis. Geology is also more than just the science of rocks; it also has very important implications for how life formed and evolved on Earth, and how societies rose, fell, and rose again. Particularly effective are his narratives describing some of this. His recounting of the gold rush in the mid 19th century, and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California made its effects felt, stand out here. Lastly he includes some old fashioned biography, including sketches of some of the early pioneers in the field of geology including a very moving one of one of his travel partners – Dr. David Love of Wyoming.
I cannot say this book was easy to read; long stretches were almost incomprehensible to me. It required me to internalize and come to grips with descriptions of vast periods of time. But McPhee is such an outstanding writer that he always brought me back into the narrative in such a way that by the end of every set piece I had a grasp of what he was trying to convey. And at the end I felt I had acquired a real appreciation for the stunning complexity of the history of earth’s formation and evolution; and more importantly how that history is intimately entwined, with the creation and evolution of the life forms living on it. It really is two parts of the same story.
If you have the time and have any interest in science, or feel like getting out of your comfort zone for a while, I highly recommend this book!
Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction)
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A wonderfully written book on a topic that is probably not well known to most people. With the life of George Bird Grinnell as the vehicle, this book explores the death of the old west, the rise of the conservation movement, and the campaign to save the last herds of wild Buffalo.
At its peak the population of wild Buffalo in America ranged as high as 30 million individuals. In the course of 40 years that population had dwindled to little over 1,000. For Native Americans the Buffalo was the primary source of sustenance. For the United States Army, killing the Buffalo was a way to resolve the “Indian problem.” Add to that unchecked hunting of Buffalo for hides, robes and as decorative accouterments for Gilded Age homes, and there was no way it could survive the onslaught. It was only through the efforts of a handful of men that the last remaining individuals were saved.
George Bird Grinnell is probably someone who should be more well known. A central figure of the early conservation movement, he played a pivotal role as owner and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, lobbying for and finally achieving protections for Yellowstone National park and the remaining wild Buffalo that lived within its borders. That herd, which had dwindled to only 23 by the early 20th century, now numbers about 4000 thanks to Grinnell and those he was able to enlist in his cause, including Theodore Roosevelt.
A scion of an elite family, his father became wealthy providing financial services to some of the great barons of the Gilded Age. Escaping that life through the influence of one of his college professors, Grinnell made several trips west on various expeditions were he interacted with many of the west’s most famous figures, including George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was through these experiences, along with the tutelage of Lucy Audubon, (John J. Audubon’s widow), that Grinnell developed a love of the west, and an ethic of self sacrifice.
The author made an excellent choice focusing on Grinnell because he represents in one man the transition from the conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth that characterized the Gilded Age, to an ethic that demanded America’s natural and cultural heritage be preserved even if it meant the sacrifice of profit – something we should be paying attention to today.
Though perhaps not intended by the author, this work should be regarded as a cautionary tale, as in many ways we are witnessing a return to the Gilded Age ethic that nearly destroyed our natural heritage and completed the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As we witness rollbacks in protection for the environment, denial of the effects of man made climate change, and a return to the mindset that the earth and its resources are here only to enrich us monetarily, we are forgetting the lessens learned by such short sighted behavior only 100 years ago.
I’m not all that familiar with the history surrounding the birth of the conservation movement or of the rise of the new west, so I cannot comment with any authority on the accuracy of everything in this book. I have seen comments that point to some inaccuracies. However, I have not seen any criticism of its value as a popular work of history, or that these few inaccuracies detract from the power of its message.
Richard Dawkins pulls no punches. This book advocates strongly, and persuasively, for an atheistic world view. Some may think this type of in your face atheism is unseemly, but as Dawkins points out, he is no more strident than religious groups are at advocating for their point of view.
His arguments take two basic tracks:
1. Evidence is overwhelming that God does not exist, and that the work many ascribe to God is more simply explained by natural processes (Darwinism etc). He looks at many of the ways people try to reconcile religion and science and comes away arguing they are not reconcilable. Religion is simply not a reliable source for evidence of the creation or of evolution. If God created the universe, he argues, then who created God? A question there is no answer to.
2. He argues religion, rather than being a benign institution is actually dangerous, is responsible for holding back progress and as a whole, has caused far more harm than good.
Both are very persuasive. His arguments against the existence of God are sometimes hard to understand as it gets into a fairly technical (at least for me) discussion of biology.
The section of the book in which he argues religion is a harmful institution are very compelling. Not that I agree with every one of them. In my personal life I know many religious people who do not fit into the parameters of that argument. However, taken at a macro level his argument is hard to refute.
He ends the book with a very beautiful, affirmative argument for the transformational power of science. He agrees with Carl Sagan that religion actually limits the wonder one can experience when contemplating the natural world.
I personally enjoyed this book very much.
If you are an atheist it will give you more than enough ammo to engage in discussions of atheism vs. theism you may have with others.
If you are wavering this may give you the information you have been looking for to help you decide.
If you are secure in your faith this book is nothing to be afraid of.