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  September/October 1997 Features:
Hold Nothing Back
Heat Wave
Pockets of Paradise
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Good Going
Way to Go
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Home Front
Natural Resources
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Natural Resources: Tools for the Planet


The Battle Over Earth's Climate | Love and Death Among Insects | Carsick Country | Videos | Web

Love and Death Among Insects

In a Desert Garden
by John Alcock
Norton $27.50

In 1988, zoology professor John Alcock shocked his neighbors in suburban Tempe, Arizona, by annihilating his water-guzzling lawn, churning up the soil, and replanting with native desert flora. His account of this conversion from artificial to authentic habitat is so poetic, funny, and environmentally edifying that it's even possible to forgive his one-time use of Roundup.

An ensemble of desert milkweeds, aloes, chuparosa, and other plants came buzzing and flying and squirming to life with insects, about which he writes an intriguing, vigorous, and even reverent account: "How fortunate we are to live on a planet where insects rule supreme. How wonderful to have such a diversity of neighbors."

Patiently observing the symbiotic relations of insect and plant, Alcock renders even the slimier transactions with verve, like the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly fooling predatory birds by camouflaging itself as the birds' own unappetizing dung in an "interplay of size, shape, color pattern, the illusion of moistness" that "quite took my breath away."

And then there's the staggering variety of courtship strategies and sexual antics sometimes described well enough to rival the racy accounts of entomological trysts in Harold Ensign Evans' classic Life on a Little Known Planet. Of the milkweed bugs Alcock says, "the couple often stay together in copula for hours and hours . . . but as soon as the couple have completed their time together and separated, male and female almost immediately pair off again with someone else. As a result of their enthusiasm for copulation, most of the bugs I find on my tomatoes are literally engaged . . . tied at the tips of their abdomens via their elaborately interlocked genitalia."

Modern environmentalism is teaching us--or reminding us what Thoreau taught--that if we only learn to look, the small wonders of nature in our own backyards can be as dramatic as sublime vistas. Alcock has the rare gift of evoking these little miracles. --B.S.

Carsick Country

Asphalt Nation
by Jane Holtz Kay
Crown $27.50

As this review was being written, Ford announced the auto industry's latest crime against humanity, its three-ton, 19-foot-long sport utility vehicle.

This was a "response to consumer demand"--itself a response to auto advertising­which totals $40 billion a year, according to Jane Holtz Kay, in one of the best contributions yet to the growing volume of testimony for the de-automobilization of America. Kay, architecture critic for The Nation, lays it all out in ripest absurdity: road kill, people kill, oil spill, the destruction of neighborhoods and the dissolution of community, the horns and motors and wheezing lungs and other afflictions of automania are cleverly situated in the history of greed, gullibility, planners' arrogance, and suburbanized culture that brought us to this sorry overpass. She protests not only the assault on nature, "a blanket of concrete as big as Rwanda," but the social inequity resulting when billions of dollars pay for highways instead of mass transit: "In the end poor transport does not issue from poverty, but lies at its very roots and sustains and perpetuates it."

In chapters like "Depaving America," she advocates city planning reform, greenways, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, shifting $25 billion in annual federal subsidies from auto to mass transit, and facing hidden car costs like the billions of dollars' worth of space dedicated to the dubious benefit of employee parking. These solutions are not novel, especially to readers of this magazine (see, for example, "Twelve Gates to the City" and "Pedestrian Paradise," May/June). But Kay gives us further inspiration to demand a change, and the facts we need to make that demand credible. --Bob Schildgen

At a Glance

Bay Area Wild
by Galen Rowell with Michael Sewell
Sierra Club Books $35

Watching the fog roll in at twilight over San Francisco Bay toward the Berkeley Hills is one of the joys of a region blessed with more wild greenbelts than any other in the United States. This collection of essays and 170 photos celebrates the Bay Area's incomparable natural variety.

New from Sierra Club Books

The Plundered Seas: Can the World's Fish Be Saved?
by Michael Berrill. A look at the world's threatened fisheries and what can be done to restore them.

The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of California
by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry. An updated edition that describes 200 natural areas in California, including all newly designated wilderness.

The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of Oregon & Washington
by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry. This new edition covers 20 million acres of public lands.

The World of the Fox
by Rebecca L. Grambo. A popular collection of fox photos and lore. Now in paper.

The War Against the Greens
by David Helvarg. A startling report on right-wing violence against environmentalists. Now in paper.

Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (800) 935-1056, online at, or by writing 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.


Cadillac Desert: An American Nile
Home Vision Select, $29.95;
(800) 826-3456

Watching the hypnotic opening sequence of the churning Colorado River, it's hard to imagine that such a force could be contained. In this engaging account of the effort to "conquer the fatal dryness of the desert," the domestication of the Colorado is chronicled, from the halcyon days of the construction of Hoover Dam to the protracted battles over damming the Grand Canyon.

In the second segment of this four-part PBS series based largely on Marc Reisner's epic book Cadillac Desert, Jon Else's elegiac views of the Colorado underscore the enormity of the loss of this once free-flowing river. The spirit of mindless dam-building is captured by the skillful use of old newsreels, such as one that shows Native Americans catching salmon at a traditional site on the Columbia River for the last time: "Vanishing salmon for the vanishing Red Man."

While some backers still speak of man's triumph over nature in near-mystical terms, others have relented. Former senator Barry Goldwater, an early supporter of Glen Canyon Dam, contritely says he'd vote against it today.

As for the consequences of imposing these "magnificent concrete structures" on millions of years of evolution, Else concludes that the prosperity garnered from the natural order is short-lived: it's only a matter of time before we discover the heavy toll we've expected nature to pay. --Liza Gross

El Dorado
The Video Project, $45;
(800) 475-2638

The drama played out in Camino, a small town in the Sierra foothills of El Dorado National Forest, has been echoed across the country: once-friendly neighbors embroiled in hostile confrontations as workers fight to save their jobs and environmentalists fight to protect the national forests.

With 280 employees, Michigan-California Lumber was the lifeblood of the town. But in early 1993 a grassroots group, Friends Aware of Wildlife Needs (FAWN), challenged a series of U.S. Forest Service timber sales, charging that the agency had violated environmental regulations by selling trees to the mill. FAWN won its appeals, and the sales were stopped. The owners shut down the mill soon after.

It would have been hard to create a more compelling script for what followed. Workers blamed FAWN for the plant closure, even hanging one member in effigy. Mill owners and workers both fail to recognize that they too stand to benefit from sustainable forestry practices. After all, as director Frank Green points out, their challenge--and ours--lies in creating solutions that don't see protecting livelihood and protecting natural resources as mutually exclusive goals. --L.G.

Watching Wildlife
Falcon Press, $19.95;
(800) 582-2665

Here's a word of warning: there's a lot of mediocre video material out there. Take, for example, Watching Wildlife. Despite engaging footage and practical advice here and there, even the novice will find some of wildlife biologist Dave Case's tips painfully obvious. "Binoculars are great for two reasons. First, you see things that you probably couldn't see with the naked eye. Second, you get close to wildlife without getting so close physically that you disturb the animals." Thanks.

Though Case does mention that some species are endangered, he fails to explain why. Once he even blames the victim, saying that Kirtland's warblers are in trouble "in part because they're very picky about the habitats in which they nest and raise their young." Observing wildlife does teach us to protect it, but we need more sophisticated insights than this to make a very convincing case for its survival. --L.G.


by Sierra Club Webmaster John Kealy

For a group so often accused of chasing preindustrial fantasies, environmentalists have taken to the Internet, especially the interactive World Wide Web, like die-hard computer geeks. It's no surprise. The Web is the mimeograph machine of the 1990s, enabling activists to get their message out to a broad audience instantly and at low cost. (If you're too young to remember mimeograph machines, trust me, the Web is much cooler.) The Sierra Club's website, for example, includes "action alerts" that keep activists up to date on a daily basis and give background information on clean air, ancient forests, global warming, and other key Club topics.

There are hundreds of environmentally related Web sites out there. I'll sort through them and point out a few that can help you understand and protect your town, region, country, and planet. First up are a pair of "omnibus" sites that try to create order out of the Internet cacophony. One of my favorites, run by the Environmental Working Group at, sets out "to provide the public with new, locally relevant information on environmental issues in their own states, hometowns, and neighborhoods." The site offers comprehensive reports on pesticides, drinking water, wetlands, farm subsidies, and campaign finance. A standing feature, "Where You Live," lets you tap into a database to see who's polluting your rivers, filling wetlands, how often tap-water contaminants exceed federal standards in your water district, and which anti-environmental "wise-use" groups are active in your area.

Another comprehensive site is Envirolink at, which is an online clearinghouse for green organizations and projects, and offers a place to post messages or "chat." The site offers a "low speed" option for those of us who don't surf the Internet on a Pentium connected to a T-1 line (and don't even care what that means). Envirolink is a pleasure to browse, but if you want to cut to the chase you can search several hundred issue areas in the Envirolink Library, the entire Web site, or the sites of 14 nonprofit environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club.

If your brain is full of environmental crises, take a break by turning to GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) at, a site devoted to all things recreational. You can search outdoor information by geographic location, activity, and "attraction" (parks, forests, wilderness areas). GORP links you to a comprehensive and eclectic bunch of sites: most useful are the public-lands agencies' sites; potentially useful are the opinionated but thorough sites posted by recreation freaks; and sometimes useful are the many commercial sites that tease you with offers of gear, books, and outdoor expeditions.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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