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Recommended Earth Day reading

When spring begins and Earth Day rolls around, I join my neighborhood cleanup efforts and catch up on books about our environment.

This year I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In this fascinating tour of our biosphere, I learned again how interdependent and vulnerable all species of flora and fauna are.

I haven’t studied science in many years, so the book helped me brush up on different aspects of geology, biology and zoology. It synthesizes in a very readable format the many crises posing an existential threat to life on our planet.

The introductory chapters show the way extinction events have been viewed historically, including theories about what caused the first five great extinction events on our planet. There is not one cause for all of them; some were gradual, and at least one was sudden and catastrophic.

Through discussions and observations with many scientists in the field, Kolbert argues that we may be starting to experience a sixth extinction due to human intrusion and global warming.

I found the testimony of the many scientists she spoke with compelling. They include herpetologists, botanists, marine biologists, paleontologists, ornithologists and more. All are conducting field studies whose findings point to rapid, alarming changes in plant and animal ecosystems.

The scientists reveal damage caused by invasive species and the collapse of tree populations and coral reefs. They document the loss of animal habitat due to over-hunting and over-fishing. They testify to the damaging impacts of warming waters and ocean acidification.

Kolbert reminds us that although humans have known since the late 19th century that burning fossil fuels warms the planet, we are failing to change our destructive habits.

Some people hate The Sixth Extinction and its thesis, because they either cannot or do not want to believe that people are responsible for any of this. Or they cling to their faith that their God will somehow resolve everything in the end.

There are also huge industries whose wealth is built on ecological destruction and whose riches support the campaign to deny global warming.

How we are going to reverse or ease the damage already done is the greatest moral and practical challenge we face. The science is pretty clear and Kolbert’s book is an excellent wake-up call.

I also read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s nature essays published in 1974. Dillard kept a diary of a year spent in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley observing and interacting with nature.

Dillard is not a scientist, so her approach is one of a lay observer writing with curiosity, wonder and sometimes horror about the beauty and cruelty of nature. She draws vivid pictures of insect mating habits, aquatic diversity, bird migration, animal predation and the rebirth of plant life in the spring. Her writing is expository but also poetic.

This is how she describes the falling leaves and coming of winter: “When the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open. … All that summer conceals, winter reveals.”

Ultimately, Dillard is a pilgrim on a journey of faith, searching for the Creator who built a world of such complexity. I don’t share her conclusion about a creator, but I respected and enjoyed her journey.

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