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Jul. 15 2009 - 9:13 am | 43 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Review: Waiting for the Macaws

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We’ve looked at salmon of the eastern Pacific (or the Pacific Northwest as we terrestrial North Americans call it), including the SalmoFan and the economics of fertilizing the forests—a service that Mother Nature provides for free–but we haven’t touched on the salmon action happening in the Western Pacific.

As I was searching for leads, I came across a book that uses the economics behind dwindling Russian salmon stocks as one of its many subjects in a tableau of life withering across the planet. Terry Glavin’s book Waiting for the Macaws and other stories from the age of extinctions explores the ties between dying species and dying cultures. With a handful of narrative threads, he weaves a pattern of simulacra of realities. He makes the case in the first chapter, detailing how zoos carefully reconstruct nature and parks carefully protect it, and how both efforts fail to save more than a few species. What we have now are the “living dead,” animals so rare and incapable of surviving in their fragmented habitat (and in the case of Bengal tigers, plagued by poachers) that it’s simply a matter of when, not whether, they will die out.

Of special relevance to HiveMind’s theme this month is the third chapter, “The Last Giants in the River of the Black Dragon,” where Glavin describes how Russia’s abrupt transition to post-Soviet capitalism spurred industrial-scale poaching of the Amur River’s salmon. The Amur, the world’s ninth longest river, meanders across eastern Russia and northern China. Its waters divide the two countries in places, and each accuses the other of poor behaviour: China pollutes the headwaters, and Russia poaches downstream. The Amur is home to the world’s biggest freshwater fish, the Amur kaluga, a sturgeon that grows to a metric ton. It’s also home to the taimen, the world’s biggest living salmon, which can top two metres and 100 kilograms. Both fish have nearly vanished since Perestroika. Glavin describes how, amid the economic upheaval, Russian mafia took over the country’s Pacific fish stocks. Despite the ban on fishing, pressures are so varied and intense that, outside of some guided catch-and-release, locals have little choice beyond poaching fish.

In another chapter, Glavin navigates the rough waters of the traditional whaling rights claimed by Norwegian villagers and the Makah people of Washington State without marking them as pitiable victims or obdurate villains. He also points out the whale hunt in the western Pacific, where the Chukotka people in Russia can take up to 140 grey whales every year under the International Whaling Commission’s allowance for aboriginal subsistence. The Chukotka have killed more than 100 grey whales each year between 1998 and 2006 from the same population that the Makah wish to hunt.

I’m biased toward Glavin on a few counts: I’m a hard-and-fast fan of the natural science columnist David Quammen, whom Glavin resembles in style and even refers to in this book. Glavin lives a ferry ride away from me on the west coast of British Columbia, and draws from species, cultivated plant varieties, and cultures up and down our coast for his pieces. Also, I happen to have been to Curú, the wildlife refuge on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and the location of the eponymous second chapter. I even found the wooden footbridge he mentions that’s flanked by “Beware of crocodiles” signs, and that sank into the river up to my hip as I ventured across, alone.

Glavin uses no shortage of surprising and sad facts to describe the crumbling ecosystems of the world. For all its bleakness, Waiting for the Macaws offers a beautiful series of stories about nature and human nature. I came away with examples of how biological quagmires are rarely as simple as they seem, compelling tales linking ecologies to societies, and a new call to dig deeper into issues before casting an opinion. He begins on a hopeful note and he ends on a rallying cry. And if you don’t shed a tear or a sigh over the painstakingly constructed portrait of a complex, tough, and vanishing culture so exquisitely delivered halfway down page 269, you fail my new litmus test of soulful human.

This joins the ranks of A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Flight of the Iguana as one of the books that reminds me of why I went into science writing.

By Krista Zala

Image: flickr


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