May 11, 2013

They're Back, But For How Long?

Readers of this blog are aware of my contrarian attitude about focusing on theme months, specific holidays, etc. as a reason to feature quality titles, only to mentally (or even physically) stuff them away for the remainder of the year. Earth Day was several weeks ago, but the backstory on this event stretches through time into the past, the present, and our multi-generational futures.
The forces threatening Mother Nature's delicate balance have been at work since before the advent of humankind, but the footprint of civilization has crushed wide swaths of nature in its wake. Rachel Carson's paradigm-shifting SILENT SPRING celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year (2012), the same year that marked the death of another noble defender of nature, Jean Craighead George. No words of praise from me or others can do justice to the impact her writings have had in leading countless readers along a path of responsible conservation of Earth's resources, especially wildlife.

Dutton Juvenile, 2008
George's work on her writings and her cause continued until the end of her days, and beyond. (see below)  Her series focusing attention on the loss of species to particular habitats and their eventual restoration began with THE WOLVES ARE BACK. Each of the titles in this series paired her text with paintings by Wendell Minor. In this book the sad truth is told that wolves were intentionally eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in order to offer public viewing of only more docile creatures. That elimination involved shooting and tapping wolves until every last one was gone. Only after they were missed, truly mourned, were packs reinstated. Over time, their presence has enhanced the quality and balance of the entire ecosystem, including food chains, populations of other species,  and the natural growth patterns of grasses and woodlands.

Dutton Juvenile, 2010
Two years later THE BUFFALO ARE BACK was released, produced with the same pairing of George's words  and Minor's paintings. Once again the sad truth is that the buffalo were also eliminated intentionally as a means of controlling the survival of Native Americans and their reliance on prairie traditions. Removal of the buffalo led directly to dependence on reservation life.
Almost a decade before Silent Spring was published I recall standing  with my fourth grade classmates for a choral recitation of the eloquent short poem by Carl Sandburg, Buffalo Dusk.

The Buffaloes are gone.
And those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
Those who saw the buffaloes by the thousands and how they pawed the prairie sod
into dust with their hoofs, their great heads down pawing on in a great pageant of dusk,
Those who sawa the buffaloes are gone.
And the buffaloes are gone.

George's text is equally eloquent in its clear portrayal of the domino effects this interference with nature generated. A cascade of negative consequences followed: plowing, farming, and  predictable climate cycles of drought and flood resulted in the grasshopper plagues, erosion, and the dustbowl.

Dial Books, 2013
Last March, less than a year after her death, THE EAGLES ARE BACK was published posthumously. In this case the loss of our incomparable eagles was the inevitable but unintended consequence of the use of pesticides, developed in part to maximize crops from the depleted plains. In this portrayal a young boy begins his own lifetime commitment to nature when he experiences firsthand the dwindling population of eagles. In the course of the book legislation and conservation actions, promoted by the leaders who created Earth Day, help to restore health to the entire food chain, allowing eagles to once again breed successfully. 

I hope these books will find their way into the hands of young readers, initiating a domino effect of positive consequences. My life has spanned the years when extinction and loss were considered inevitable and irreversible, on to years of awareness and activism on behalf of nature. Now, though, the good news contained in these portrayals has produced the twin challenges penned by Dickens: ignorance and apathy. When populations have recovered enough that states now allow hunting and trapping of wolves, when the boundaries of national parks form an unfenced border beyond which these restored species are game, it's far to easy to assume that extinction is not a concern. Our vigilance must be greater than ever. The youth of today need to read these stories of species on the brink of disappearing in order to become tomorrow's defenders of the cause to which Caron and George devoted their lives.


  1. My husband Wendell Minor is the illustrator of the 3 books above, that you have so beautifully reviewed. Jean was our dear friend and colleague, and seeing your affinity for Jean and her inspiring work, I thought you'd like to know that yet another George/Minor collaboration is soon to be published. "Galapagos George" (HarperCollins) will be available in April.

    1. Wow, what magnificent news! I am seriously jazzed to know that, and my deepest compliments to your husband for his work. Creating images at a level comparable to Jean's text is a huge challenge, and he meets it beautifully. If he would be interested in an interview about the new release on this blog, please use the contact page to provide a way to reach him.
      And thank you for stopping by. I'm honored.


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