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Audubon: Life and Art | Enough Already | The Biotech Century | Congress for Sale | New Sierra Club Books

Birds on a Wire

Audubon: Life and Art
By Shirley Streshinsky
The University of Georgia Press, $17.95

As a child in France, John James Audubon watched helplessly as a pet monkey savagely attacked his mother's pet parrot. "He at once killed it, with unnatural composure...the monkey was forever afterward chained, and [the parrot] buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one," he wrote.

Shirley Streshinsky, a San Francisco-based novelist and travel writer, uses this experience as a metaphor in her inspired biography of Audubon, casting him as the hapless bird beset by dangerous journeys, sworn enemies, economic hardship, family tragedy, and, finally, time.

A failure at every business venture he tried, Audubon was transfixed by the wilderness of his adopted country: "No stranger could be expected to imagine the addictive allure of the American forests in all their pristine glory filled with unimaginable numbers and species of birds," he wrote.

Fortunately, his beloved wife, Lucy, found a live-in teaching job, freeing Audubon to tramp through the Mississippi Flyway pursuing unknown bird species. Audubon shot the birds, wired them into action poses, and drew them life-size. He then took the art to England, where his woodsman persona (he attended aristocrats' dinners in pioneer leathers) and his unprecedented pictures impressed those who would eventually publish his Birds of America.

His "great work" separated him from his family for years at a time while he hustled the book in Europe, then returned to America to fill the pages with still more species. In the process, Audubon educated both continents about the New World and its fauna, becoming an icon for naturalists.

Ironically, this was unwanted fame, as he saw himself primarily as an artist. In 1843, at age 58, he complained, "I have laboured...for 30 years on a Single Work...and now am thought a...Great Naturalist!!!" Transformed into a naturalist, he in turn transformed the way people perceived nature, and Streshinsky gives us a vivid, irresistibly readable account of his work and its effect on his contemporaries. —Rebecca Shotwell

Shorttakes: Congress for Sale

Seemingly odd election-time question: What's today's best investment? Pharmaceuticals, real estate, or bioengineered Roto-Rooter men with 50-foot arms? None of the above. The biggest returns flow from corporate investments in subverting democracy. A few hundred thousand dollars to key political campaigns can yield millions in tax breaks, while money tossed into right-wing think tanks shapes national opinion. The following books take a sharp look at how these corporate tactics affect environmental policy.

  • Tracking the Charlatans: An Environmental Columnist's Refutational Handbook for the Propaganda Wars by Edward Flattau (Global Horizons, $15.95). The outspoken Flattau exposes politicians, academics, and journalists who churn out anti-environmental propaganda and disinformation, generously sponsored by business and conservative foundations. He offers a compendium of concise, fact-packed, and invigoratingly sarcastic refutations of all the common arguments against environmentalism. For example, to rebut the old claim that environmental regulation costs too much, he quotes a study that "pegs the amount spent on pollution abatement equipment between 1970 and 1990 at $523 billion, and estimates a minimum of $6 trillion in reduced medical costs as a result," which is "not a shabby quid pro quo."

    For a scholarly study of perversity, there's

  • Dollars and Votes: How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy by Dan Clawson, Alan Newstadtl, and Mark Weller (Temple University Press, $19.95). The authors don't bother to troll for campaign-money scandals or secret payoffs, because they find that legal funding maneuvers are as effective as bribery anyhow, but without the risk.

    Money from corporate political action committees not only helps elect business-anointed candidates, but buys access to lawmakers by creating "networks of obligation." Comparing the symbiosis of PACs and politicians to that of gift-givers in "primitive" societies, where reciprocation is the rule, the study shows lawmakers responding to PACs with personal audiences, staff help, and intervention in the regulatory process. The authors interview dozens of corporate officials who candidly-and often amusingly-describe their dollars at work. The most exquisite example details how corporate-backed riders slipped into the 1996 minimum- wage law netted a staggering $16.2 billion in tax breaks and subsidies.

    They also bust many myths, like the one that makes Big Labor/Big Environment the mighty equal of Big Business merely by virtue of capital letters. In "soft money" contributions, the "balance is far more than 15 to 1 for business over labor," while environmentalists are "hardly a blip on the screen." Among their proposed solutions is public funding of campaigns, along the lines of Maine's Clean Elections Act.

  • Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism by Sharon Beder (Chelsea Green, $27.95) journeys deep into the realm of corporate- and conservative-sponsored think tanks, PR firms, "wise-use" organizations, mega-media, and industry-funded anti-enviro front groups with green names like National Wetlands Coalition or Council on Solid Waste Solutions. Beder details the growth of this huge propaganda machine since 1970, when business began a counterattack on social movements that challenged its hegemony. So pervasive is its influence that there's even a revolving door between think tanks and government, one that spun 39 Heritage Foundation staff members into federal posts in the Reagan years alone. To battle such corporate power, Beder calls for a new wave of environmentalism to "engage in the task of exposing corporate myths and methods of manipulation" and open up "new areas and ideas to public debate rather than following an old agenda set by corporations."—Bob Schildgen

New from Sierra Club Books

  • Women in the Material World by Faith D'Alusio and Peter Menzel.
    The lives of women in 20 countries shown in 375 photos and text from interviews. Now in paperback.

  • The World of the Caribou by H. John Russell.
    An exploration of caribou in their tundral world, with striking photos by a man who has dedicated a career to the study of this rugged creature.

  • The World of the Walrus by Peter Knudtson.
    A close look at the habits and biology of a beloved aquatic mammal and its future prospects, with 50 color photos.

  • Butterfly Gardening
    by The Xerxes Society/Smithsonian Institution
    Sierra Club Books, $24
    This chrysalis will soon yield an adult Mexican fritillary butterfly, fond of thistle and mint nectar. The new edition of a classic handbook not only tells which plants attract a given species, but offers tips on watching and even photographing the lovely lepidoptera, setting a standard with 130 color photos of its own.

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

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

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