The wilderness finds eloquent new spokesmen in fact and in fiction on conservation problems

August 22, 1965

In the opening scene of James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers a party of travelers on a wilderness road saw a fine buck leap from the woods before them. Shots were fired. The buck "sprang to a great height in the air, and directly a second discharge, similar to the first, followed"—so wrote Cooper, in his characteristic sprung-rhythm prose—"when the animal came to the earth, falling headlong." And two hunters began arguing which had shot the deer.

The place where they quarreled, above the headwaters of the Susquehanna River and near where the Baseball Hall of Fame has been built in Cooperstown, N.Y., is so carefully described you can recognize it driving along Route 80. American fiction began with a story of conservation. There are two themes in The Pioneers: 1) the country is becoming too crowded and 2) the wilderness must be preserved. That was the way the situation seemed to Cooper back in 1793. And conservation has remained a durable subject in American literature ever since—not so much in fiction as in a distinctive sort of native conservation document, partly a nature essay, derived from Thoreau, partly a scientific study, but, in any case, containing an appeal to protect some threatened species or to defend some beloved region.

In The Destruction of California (Macmillan, $5.95) Dr. Raymond Dasmann says that unless the population growth of California is checked there can be only "stop-gap emergency measures for preserving the landscape and making life bearable in this once-golden state." People have simply moved in too fast. In Dasmann's childhood the population was about three million. It jumped to seven million by 1941, then skyrocketed to the present 19 million. A biologist, zoologist and professor of wildlife management, Dr. Dasmann says that the rate of increase makes effective conservation planning impossible.

The numbers involved make Deerslayer's problems seem minor, yet the conservation dilemma remains essentially the same. The most disturbing change involves water. The current California plan is "the most massive engineering undertaking attempted anywhere." Every river in the state is to be dammed. Yet waste is the factor largely responsible for water crises. After World War II, Las Vegas and Reno gamblers built casinos and skyscraper hotels on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. The raw sewage was dumped into the lake, and as buildings spread through land that had once been only high-mountain campground even the bright-blue lake water was changing color. The threat of federal action forced a last-minute sewage-disposal program in that case, but again the sudden population increase had made effective planning for recreation and conservation impossible.

Not that the destruction of California began with the mobs in the parks and on the beaches. Overgrazing began with the Spaniards. Most of California was once covered with tall oniongrass, wild rye, needlegrass and other nourishing graze. With mysterious thoroughness it was replaced by tar-weed, thistles, yellow mustard and the bare and dusty hills one sees along the roads—"elsewhere in North America nothing quite so striking has taken place." The redwood forests, too, have gone down with appalling speed, especially the big trees, upwards of 4,000 years old. The original redwood forest of two million acres is down to 750,000 acres. Some 16 billion board feet of old-growth redwood timber remains, but it is being cut at the rate of a billion feet a year, though good redwood lumber can be produced from young trees just as well.

Dr. Dasmann is haunted by a vision of what life might be like if the land were not despoiled. The recuperative power of nature is as impressive as man's ability to destroy. Deer were counted in California in 1923 because they were carrying hoof-and-mouth disease; 40,000 were found, and over 22,000 were killed. But by 1940 the California herds were estimated to be at least a million.

"Use, but don't waste," old Dcerslayer thundered to the settlers in The Pioneers, when he saw them slaughtering the passenger pigeons. "The Lord won't see the waste of His creatures for nothing. Ain't the woods His work? Wasn't the woods made for the beasts and birds to harbor in?" One of the troubles with conservation literature since Deerslayer's day, however, is that the battles seem to have been lost long ago; the trees have been cut down, the species exterminated. One bright exception among the current conservation books is Black Brant, Sea Goose of the Pacific Coast (University of Washington Press, $5), a report on an endangered bird that has made a comeback (to about 165,000, at the beginning of this year). A smallish bird (2½ to 3½ pounds), slate black and gray with a white collar, greatly relished by epicures, said to fly faster than any other goose (it has been clocked at 62 miles per hour), the black brant is a wary migrant, never numerous, that breeds in a maze of coastal lakes between the Yukon and the Kuskokwim rivers. They came into the news briefly in 1959. Depressed because the black brant would not breed in captivity (and the eggs usually did not hatch if they were moved), an Oregon farmer named James Elliott flew to the breeding grounds to conduct a sort of hen-house raid of epic proportions. He figured that if he could pick up eggs just before they hatched, the birds might live in Oregon. After a flight of nearly 2,000 miles he scooped up 27 eggs in 30 minutes on the ground, wrapped them in long winter underwear warmed with hand-warmers, and got back to Oregon just as they hatched. Their progeny made international news when they reproduced in Peter Scott's wildlife refuge in England, the first to breed in captivity.

Arthur Einarsen, a retired conservationist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has written the black brant's story in a monograph of such scientific exactitude that dramatic happenings like Elliott's trip appear only in passing. But if you are not intimidated by tables showing the protein level of the food the black brant eats (sea lettuce and eelgrass), it is an absorbing book. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall says in his foreword that the author shows "the need for preserving the naturalness of the rapidly changing Pacific coastline." There is a sort of scientific intensity to the prose, as if the author also wanted to escape some rigorous conditions: watching black brant and Canada geese flying in stormy weather, he noted: "In wingbeat, too, they excel: where the Canada geese usually make two beats per second, brant make between three and four beats in the same time.... The black brant will maintain an almost uniform and level flight above the water as they bore steadily against the wind. Their rapid wingbeats overcome wind resistance and they will pass a point in a fraction of the time necessary for the slower geese."

Hunters who go after them are considered the most dedicated of sportsmen, members of a clan, small but enthusiastic, driven by an elusive emotional urge "that makes one a brant hunter rather than a devotee of general waterfowl shooting." One famous Seattle hunter, Joshua Green, not long ago made a perfect kill in his 95th year. The weather was so rough it took his chauffeur half an hour to retrieve in a small boat. Shooting another, Mr. Green "elected to row out and retrieve his own bird. This took half an hour too." The brant faces hazards, but it is so tenacious, and its habitat so difficult to reach, that refuges and winter feeding grounds "offer the best conditions to perpetuate this fascinating maritime goose."

The Golden Eagle, by Robert Murphy (Dutton, $3.95), is a novel built on the model of his own The Peregrine Falcon a few years ago. Here we are in the mind of a golden eagle called Kira, and for the most part we are in a lonely world—the species is likewise threatened with extinction—somewhere above the Colorado mountains. Her story begins with her first flight, to escape a man trying to capture the young eagles in the eyrie. By way of wilderness happenings—catching her first rabbit, living through a long period on the ground when a wind-broken branch injures a wing—she makes her way to the high peaks west of the Arkansas River. There she chases a cat into a miner's cabin; the door blows shut behind her, and she becomes the prisoner of an old man somewhat awed by finding this unexpected visitor when he comes home that night. There are, however, no plebeian questions in this eagle's world; nobody says, "How in the world did that get in there?" or anything so humdrum. The reader may never quite believe that the bird thinks as Mr. Murphy says it does—"They stared at each other, the eagle held from the heights, tense as a strong coiled spring, watchful and arrogant"—and a false note would probably make the situation ludicrous. But there are no false notes, and the author's pro-found knowledge of wildlife in general gives an authority to his writing that lulls the reader into accepting what he says are his eagle's mental processes.

The worldwide character of the conservation problem is brought sharply into focus in a book published last month in London, Water & Life, by Lorus and Margery Milne (Deutsch, $3.50). This is a pioneering study of water in terms of world use, and gives an enlightening perspective on the way U.S. problems look compared with those of the rest of the world. The work of a husband and wife team of exploring scientists, Water & Life is also a study of water in relation to the needs of all species, rather than of man alone. The findings are memorable. Man is remarkably dependent on freshwater supplies. Gorillas seem to be able to survive without drinking any. Kangaroo rats, after weaning, may go a lifetime without taking a drink. Our first nine months, however, are almost as aquatic as any fish. Once born, three-tenths of our weight carries the seven-tenths of our physical structure that consists of water. A loss of more than one-tenth of that water is fatal.

What the Milnes call for is not a change in our needs, but a reappraisal of our habits. If the rest of the world used (and wasted) water the way the Americans do, mankind would face a global water shortage within 20 years. Archaic sewage systems are a scandal everywhere; they are the modern world's equivalent of the slaughter of the passenger pigeons. Perhaps cattle require too much water in a dry land for our good. A pound of beefsteak costs 30,000 pounds of water. In the dry lands of Rhodesia herds of antelopes and zebras are now being profitably raised for meat on land too dry for cattle, horses and sheep. Perhaps deer rather than cattle should be raised for food on semi-arid plains in Texas and the Southwest. Sometimes the authors' knowledge of water lore leads them afield—they suggest that an Arab wants two wives so he can keep one at home while the other goes for water—but in general their wide travels and fresh perspective give a distinctive flavor to an important conservation study.

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