The conservation of American wildlife is not a happy story. Well, not one Jon Mooallem would read his 2-year-old daughter before bedtime.
His debut book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Penguin Press, 339 pages, $27.95), is a bleak account of species preservation in our country, one that poses far more philosophical questions than Mooallem could ever hope to answer within his lucid prose.
"After everything I'd seen, I had no solution for fixing a broken world," Mooallem writes toward the end. "But, then again, that's only one of the problems we're facing. Another is just figuring out how we are supposed to live in a broken world."
Although Wild Ones frames the book using the plight of three endangered animals—the polar bear, the Lange's metalmark butterfly and the whooping crane—it also plumbs the perplexities that arise when humans are faced with a problem of their own creation. Though structured around the bear, butterfly and crane, the book also features passages regarding sun-blocking flocks of passenger pigeons, whale-loving conservationists and the tale of how Theodore Roosevelt inspired the teddy bear by refusing to fire on a mangy black bear during a Mississippi hunt in 1902.
Mooallem's historical context and scientific research are significant, but it's the characters' personal accounts and the heart-wrenching anecdotes that drive the problems home, whether it's the stories of former construction workers who help whooping cranes migrate annually or the harrowing scene in which photographer Dan Cox films a polar bear cub convulse from starvation instead of taking action. There are uplifting species success stories, the American crocodile, for instance, but they're clearly outweighed by failed attempts and "shifting baselines."
As the long and specific title suggests, it's truly a story about our interactions with animals. The only part of the title missing, then, is whatever was supposed to be "weirdly reassuring."
GO: Jon Mooallem reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Tuesday, July 11. Black Prairie, featuring members of the Decemberists, will perform songs from Wild Ones, a soundtrack album created to accompany Mooallem's book. Noon. Free.