What We’re Reading: Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America
Posted by on March 13, 2014

Wildlife in America is story about place.

A natural history.

A vivid narrative and re-imagining.

I can’t emphasize enough how the descriptions and narrative draw in the reader, but perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is when it was written (in 1959, before the environmental protection movement, at a time when many had not fully realized the full magnitude of habitats lost and species vanished).

The language is more simple and direct than readers encounter in Peter Matthiessen’s fiction and travel memoirs, but it is a simplicity and directness resonating in truth.

A warning: Wildlife in America is above all else a sad history, capturing the destruction that tore through the American wilderness, and portraying the species that once flourished before the destruction. Matthiessen writes about the time when the gray wolf and cougars lived freely in the east coast forests, when one poet called New England “a waste and howling wilderness.”

This is a story about a place changed. Matthiessen writes about Florida:

“The Spaniards who extended the explorations of Columbus to the mainland were greeted by a variety of wildlife which will not be seen on this continent again.”

In Charles Poore’s December, 1959 New York Times review, the critic concludes this classic natural history “is a superb history of the other inhabitants with which we share this continent and the seas around it.”

In Wildlife in America, Matthiessen describes how forests were harvested and fauna relentlessly hunted. In addition to the demise of the gray wolf and cougar, he writes of the hunting of the “Largest White-bill Woodpecker” (as the ivory-bill was called). He captures the last days of the final remnant of the heath hen population.

The book was first published in 1959, before the environmental protection movement. At the time, ecology was a scarcely understood specialty, and the hazards of industrial pollution had not yet been perceived or measured. “Yet the white man’s destruction of the variety, beauty, and richness of the North American wilderness and its creatures was well advanced,” reads the book jacket.

The strength of this book is in its beautiful descriptions and the keen sense of urgency — an urgency that renders this natural history even more tragic today fifty-five years later. But there is softness alongside the truthfully-depicted life of Matthiessen’s subjects that allows us to get close to that which he has written about and allows us to imagine a place before it was changed.

I was able to find an illustrated, updated 1987 printing of this book.

Wildlife in America is known for being the first book to call attention to climate change (then called global warming), by mentioning that polar ice cap formation caused the lowering of the seas, and that the isthmus over which Mongoloid people crossed from Asia to present-day Alaska (North America’s first human immigration) is now submerged by the Bering Strait.

 

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone