Road re-do

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(HOST)Commentator Ted Levin recently spent a winter afternoon re-reading one of his favorite boyhood books.

(LEVIN) When I was in grade school my mother gave me a copy Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America, which chronicles their une hundred-day, 30,000-mile jaunt around the rim of the continent – from the gannets of Cape St. Mary, Newfoundland to the auklets of the Pribilof Islands. Fisher, a wellknown British ornithologist, and Peterson, whose field guides revolutionized nature study, sought mostly lonely landscapes filled with wild, beautiful things. Peterson’s encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals and Fisher’s fresh perspective, he hadn’t set foot on the continent before the trip began, made Wild America a classic.

The book is one of my all time favorites. Annoyed by the recent heavy rains, stymied by the prospect of continual global warming (an issue neither Peterson nor Fisher had to deal with), I recently reread Wild America. I was astonished at how much had changed in my lifetime. It was the decade of Elvis and I Love Lucy and the New York Yankees, one innocent of most environmental problems. Imagine, Peterson felt it necessary to explain to his readers what a “motel” was and how “air-conditioning” worked.

To think that all howling nature has been lost or is in retreat since then is not quite right either. Sure, we’ve squandored a lot of wild America to the synergism of greed and corruption, misconception and fear, but our home continent at its core is still wild and desolate. You just have to know where to look.

I’ve watched Cape St. Mary’s gannets appear and disappear in a shoud of fog, wandered through a heronry in the heart of the Everglades, and sat quietly on a South Dakota knoll while urgent male bison cracked heads like so many wooly football players.

Unequivocally, Vermont is wilder today than in 1956, the year the Yankees’ Don Larson pitched a perfect game in the World Series, proving a man can rise above his limitations, at least for one afternoon. In 1956, who would have dreamed that Vermont would one day support a huntable population of moose? Or that black bears would become a nuisance in some neighborhoods? Or that rattlesnakes would survive into the 21st century?

Scott Weidensaul’s latest book, Return To Wild America, retraces Peterson and Fisher’s cold trail (with a few deviations) and reminds me again there is much to fight for. Jaguars have returned to the Borderlands and ocelots still prowl south Texas brush country. Gray seals have re-colonized remote stretches of Cape Cod, and northern elephant seals on the coast of California number 160,000, up from the vanishing point less than a century ago.

After several days of exploring bird colonies in Alaska with Peterson and two other companions James Fisher wrote, “If I am a madman, I am not alone. There are four of us. The days – long subarctic days – are still not long enough for us.” Well, James Fisher, you’d be pleased to know there are still lots of madmen around.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing.

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