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Fall 2023: Biodiversity

Literary Resources

Frederick H Turner


  • Reviews the book Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs by Juli Berwald
  • Reviews the book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods by Lyndsie Bourgon
  • Reviews the book Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis by Annie Proulx.
Literary Resources
Maryna Terletska via Getty Images

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Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs

Juli Berwald
Riverhead Books, 2022

News headlines from this past summer underscored the dire situation facing coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Readers of the Washington Post saw the following headline: “As Florida Ocean Temperatures Soar, a Race to Salvage Imperiled Corals.” And the New York Times asked this question: “How Hot Is the Sea Off Florida Right Now?” The answer: “Think 90s Fahrenheit.” Those temperatures represent an existential threat to corals because they can cause bleaching, and in turn lead to their death.

To understand the phenomenon of coral bleaching, it is helpful to understand what Juli Berwald describes as “the powerful, and still quite mysterious, symbiosis between corals and the algae that live within their tissues.” Berwald explores this symbiosis in her book Life on the Rocks, and does so with a fluidity and clarity that makes complex scientific issues digestible. To wit, she analogizes the connection between coral and algae to an office merger, where the “coral posts a HELP WANTED sign by exuding nitrogen, the kind of chemical currency that attracts algal applications” and the “first thing the coral does is build a kind of work cubicle for the algae inside one of its own cells.”

But perhaps even more impressive is Berwald’s ability to navigate those areas of coral science that remain murky, including the concept of bleaching, which occurs when the merger between coral and algae ends. We learn from Berwald that for over a century, scientists have tried to determine whether the coral or the algae starts that separation process, but there is still no definitive answer. Berwald also discusses the concept with modern-day scientists, including Virginia Weis, who sees the coral’s immune system as key to understanding bleaching. Weis tells Berwald that when bleaching occurs, it “seems as if the algae takes off its invisibility cloak,” which in turn leads the coral to attack it.

The discussion of immune reactions is one of the places where Berwald dovetails science writing with memoir-like moments. Peppered throughout the book are references to her daughter’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, and the examination of unmasking immunity in corals prompts Berwald to ask: “As scientists suspect is the case with coral bleaching, were [my daughter’s] problems caused by her own immune system?” Another such connection occurs when Berwald discusses Force Blue, an organization that provides an opportunity for veterans who served as combat divers to find solace from depression and substance abuse by helping to repair coral. Berwald writes that when her daughter was on a dive, it seemed as if she too “found something underwater that she struggled to hold on to above.”

Berwald’s diving serves as a leitmotif in Life on the Rocks, and one dive in the fourth section of the book stands out. She writes:

I careened down a slope of reef and life teemed beneath me. I kicked slowly around an imposing coral that formed a boulder as big as I was tall. I had read of these ancient giants of the species Porites, and it was humbling to see her sitting here in the glory of this setting. How long had she watched over this piece of sea and what had she lived through in her long life?

Berwald is describing a dive in Bali with marine conservationists from the Mars candy company, whose president became fascinated with coral reefs as a child. The reef in Bali was one of the first that the team restored.

Coral restoration is the dominant theme of the book. Berwald notes that the coral reef community is “way past words like preservation and conservation” and she shows that the concept of restoration captures not only rebuilding, but other approaches ranging from breeding hardier coral to engineering the climate to debt-for-reef swaps under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act. She invokes the phrase “crazy ideas,” and one of the more memorable is the idea of cryobiology. Here, Berwald recounts the work of Mary Hagedorn, who figured out how to freeze coral sperm and eggs and is trying to freeze adult corals. For Berwald, this conjures images of science fiction: “Isn’t that what happened to Han Solo?”

Moments like this make the book refreshingly accessible. That accessibility is bolstered by the overall narrative arc, which follows Berwald’s global peregrination after she attends the 2018 Reefs Future conference. This approach results in some jumping back and forth in time because she refers to historical events at various points along her journey, but her style allows for a departure from the traditional studies of environmental science that track the progress of science over time.

The message of Life on the Rocks is captured in the bumpiness of the book’s title. Corals in Florida, Indonesia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere face grave threats. And yet the corals are fighting to survive and receiving some help from humans, the same species at the root of so many of those threats. Toward the end, Berwald comments that how long coral will remain “depends on us.” As we chart a path forward, perhaps we can draw inspiration from those reefs that remain, as Berwald did when she dove in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. On that dive, she “felt the same awe I’d felt in the presence of redwoods.”

Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods

Lyndsie Bourgon
Little, Brown Spark, 2022

Awe-inspiring redwoods take center stage in Lyndsie Bourgon’s intriguing Tree Thieves. As with coral, these majestic trees are under pressure in the 21st century. Much of that pressure stems from illegal poaching. One billion dollars’ worth of wood is illegally harvested each year in North America, and the assault on redwoods in Northern California’s Humboldt County has been particularly fervent. Indeed, while the Roman poet Horace wrote that the tallest pines are shaken frequently by the wind, it is redwoods—the tallest trees in the world—that are harvested regularly by poachers.

Bourgon’s book focuses on two poaching incidents from the 2010s to illustrate how the crime is performed and how it is prosecuted, but the book is as much about the people engaging in the illegal harvesting as it is about the trees. Although these “thieves” commit environmental crimes that jeopardize the future health of forests, she contends that they are also acting “to reclaim one’s place in a rapidly changing world, a deed of necessity.”

The first part of the book—“Roots”—shows that the tension around who controls woodlands is not new. She begins in 13th-century England, where the Charter of the Forest enshrined commoners’ access to woodlands; yet by the 17th century, those “commons had dwindled through continued enclosure by private land, primarily by wealthy landowners who removed access to communal use.” A similar dynamic occurred two centuries later in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where “[l]ogging became timber theft.” Bourgon brings the story forward to the Pacific Northwest in the 20th century. She discusses the 1918 creation of the Save the Redwoods League, an organization that “relied on privilege and access to power,” and the 1968 designation of Redwood National Park, which helped spur the region’s Timber Wars. In tracing this thread, Bourgon situates her book within a larger shift in the conservation genre, away from elitist views of wilderness and toward the perspective of those who live and work in the woods.

The reader meets some of the people who live and work in the woods around Orick, California, in the second part of the book—“Trunk”—which foregrounds the stories of Danny Garcia and Derek Hughes. Bourgon delves into the crimes they committed and the punishments they received. Both cut slabs from a redwood, but Garcia sawed a live tree, while Hughes sawed a dead one. Both men were fined and ordered to stay away from the National Park.

These examples inform Bourgon’s overarching points about prosecuting illegal timber harvesting. She writes that “punishments are often middling” and adds that the legal system in Humboldt County “has a high expectation of concrete evidence that will justify prosecuting a poacher.” That evidentiary bar is steep because of the challenges involved in proving these cases. For example, the evidence, such as sawdust, “is easily degraded or simply blown away.” But Bourgon describes efforts to overcome these challenges through the use of DNA technology and xylaria, or wood libraries. The poaching examples also inform her examination of the sociological context, including joblessness, poverty, and drug use. In one chapter, she quotes from a ranger who says that poverty, combined with “serious addiction here with meth[amphetamine],” is a primary motivation for illegal harvesting.

Rangers and other law enforcement officers that monitor public lands are also key characters in Tree Thieves. In particular, Bourgon focuses on the rangers who helped connect the dots with Garcia and Hughes and Natural Resource Officers in British Columbia, which is another part of the Pacific Northwest that she explores at various points. Interestingly, she discusses the dangers that rangers face on the job, and she juxtaposes their work with that of the police. Bourgon notes that “a ranger is not always an affable wilderness guide in a Smokey Bear hat, but not every ranger carries a gun—and Orick’s residents are governed right at this margin.”

Fleshing out the stories of specific poachers and rangers provides a fascinating lens, though the second part of the book moves between the stories of the poachers and related social issues without a roadmap. This minor concern might have been addressed by a longer book, but part of the beauty of Tree Thieves is that it reads almost like a gripping documentary.

The final part of the book—“Canopy”—zooms out to South America and looks at timber poaching in the Peruvian Amazon. Although the scale of illegal harvest is different here, Bourgon is struck by the similarity between encampments she visited in British Columbia and in Peru: “Locals had been left at the mercy of powerful economic tides in both forests, working in logging because they had the connections or because they couldn’t do anything else, taking single trees off protected land in order to get by.” This observation underscores the central tension in Bourgon’s book and the ecological effect of illegal harvesting.

Tree Thieves is a valuable contribution to how we think about our future interaction with these forest treasures that early Western explorers dubbed “red gold” and our future impact on the planet.

Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis

Annie Proulx
Scribner 2022

Annie Proulx’s essayistic Fen, Bog & Swamp begins with her thoughts on the havoc that humans have wreaked on the planet, including deforestation of the Amazon. To emphasize her point, she evokes an 1819 painting entitled Forêt vierge du Brésil. Proulx looks into the artwork and sees “immense two-hundred-foot-tall trees with great buttressed wings” and “ferns the size of apple trees.” She notes that two centuries later, none of that forest remains. This ecological toll also takes an emotional toll “as many people are aching with eco-grief.”

Yet Proulx’s engaging book encourages the reader to consider another part of nature with immense carbon-holding capability: peatlands. These areas are definitionally murky, but they are a subset of wetlands composed of rotted and compressed plant material. Notably, peatlands cover 3% of the Earth, which is more than all rain forests combined. Over the last several centuries, many of these areas have been drained, which damages local ecosystems and releases carbon dioxide.

Proulx’s shift to a peatland paradigm occurs in three main chapters, one on each of the peatlands captured in the title. Fens are wetlands that have some connection to mineral soils via rivers, and fen water tends to be deep. Bogs do not have contact with a mineral source and instead are supplied by rain; they are usually shallower. Swamps connect to a mineral source but are not as deep as fens and bogs, and they are predominated by trees and shrubs.

Proulx applies her novelistic verve to these chapters, and five themes emerge. First, she explores the effort to drain peatlands, which is driven by a view that peatland is unproductive and should be converted to agricultural land. In 17th-century England, for example, the Crown “laid its heavy weight on the the side of drainage projects” in the country’s fens. Despite fierce opposition from the fen people, “centuries of land enclosure and relentless drainage, combined with a steady move to industrial urbanization” ensued. Proulx writes: “It has to be the oldest story in the world—taking ‘worthless’ lands from people deemed defective and inferior.” Here, we see an example of environmental injustice.

Second, Proulx delves into death in peatlands. Bogs are home to sphagnum moss, a fascinating plant that, unlike dry land plants, retains carbon dioxide when it dies. But bogs also preserve artifacts better than dry land, and Proulx describes “bog bodies” that have been uncovered by archaeologists. It is believed that most were human sacrifices, and in a memorable passage, Proulx imagines a sacrificial ceremony. She acknowledges that we cannot know what happened and concludes: “What we can only be sure of is that the bog under the arch of sky was its own world and that each bog body came there in the company of others yet did not return.”

Third, she explores peatland restoration. The Great Dismal Swamp between North Carolina and Virginia is a good example. It has been drained and its cypress and juniper trees have been logged. But in 1973, the property owner sold 50,000 acres of the swamp to the Nature Conservancy, which in turn transferred the acreage to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, that area is a National Wildlife Refuge.

Fourth, Proulx touches on the role of the law. She indicates that the legal system has often been marshaled to facilitate peatland conversion. Guidance on wetlands from 1915 hinted at the reach of this “legal machinery”:

These laws apply to lands which can not be drained or protected from overflow by their owners without building ditches across the lands of others, so that it becomes necessary to provide a system of procedure that will enable the more enterprising proprietors to cooperate in draining their farms without being blocked in their efforts by a small minority. . .

That said, what was a “small minority” has recently developed into a larger movement aimed at utilizing the law to preserve peatlands. “Angry opposition” arose after 470,000 acres of the Scottish bog known as the Flow Country were drained and plowed in the 1980s, and a “series of complex laws, [European Union] Habitat Directives and greater knowledge of wetlands values opened a way to bog restoration.” Across the Atlantic, Proulx discusses a case relying on the “rights of nature” concept: “a consortium of lakes, streams and marshes filed suit in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida to halt a planned housing development that would eradicate wetlands and pollute streams.”

Fifth, Proulx devotes much of her book to literary encounters along her peatlands journey. For example, she references Graham Swift’s excellent novel Waterland. There are occasions where Proulx repeats a point, such as her twice referencing that King James I died of “marsh fever” in the span of three pages, and there are places where she explains a concept on the second mention rather than the first. But these are minor bumps along a road of thoughtful prose.

At the beginning of the book, Proulx notes that the “esoteric language” of science may be “an important part of the disconnect between science and ordinary readers.” Fen, Bog & Swamp is an extraordinary book that brings peatland destruction and restoration to the world’s attention.