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Mixed Media



Smart Agriculture
The Farm As Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems With Ecosystems, edited by Dana L. Jackson and Laura L. Jackson (Island Press, $25)

There is a place for both the wild and the willed in the agricultural landscape, say Dana Jackson, associate director of the Land Stewardship Project, and Laura Jackson, a biologist at the University of Northern Iowa. Massive, chemically managed, monocultural tracts—ecological sacrifice zones—do not have to be an inevitable part of food production.

Their collection of essays makes a grim and thorough case against industrialized agriculture, but unlike the many exposés that leave us overwhelmed, they show how it’s possible and profitable to manage diversified, small farms that also nurture wildlife.

But the authors do not pretend that a pastoral nostalgia trip can remediate the agricultural "progress" that has wrought a landscape bereft of biodiversity. Fostering ecological richness on farms requires more than the absence of synthetic pesticides and gigantic manure lagoons. As the essays reveal, sustainable and profitable farming is a sophisticated and fluid enterprise, part science and part art, requiring sweat and ingenuity for such innovations as management-intensive rotational grazing and use of biocontrols.

The Farm also makes clear why the time is ripe for a major overhaul of U.S. ag policy, which rewards big producers and punishes stewardship-minded farmers, at great environmental and taxpayer expense. It also emphasizes the need for better understanding between farmers and conservationists, who share some common goals and foes, and exhorts consumers to consider the hidden costs of the cheap food they take for granted.

The unusual range of contributors—including a journalist, nonprofit workers, extension agents, and academics—makes some essays less accessible than others, but that is also the book’s strength. There is something for everybody who cares about the growing revolution in food production: farmers, conservation biologists, agriculture policymakers, and environmentalists. And birdwatchers, hunters, anglers, and other wildlife enthusiasts. And everybody who eats.
—Susan Maas

Cetacean Talk
Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us, Alexandra Morton (Ballantine Books, $26.95)

For over 25 years, Alexandra Morton has watched orcas hunt, feed, mate, mourn, and play. She has witnessed their births and deaths. In all types of weather and water, she has closely observed the myriad ways that killer whales express intimacy. And, most intriguing, this leading orca biologist has attempted to discover how their squeals, clicks, and cries might translate into human understanding.

Morton’s interest in cetacean intelligence began with amateur studies of dolphins and orcas at a Marineland in California, where she helped pioneer the use of underwater microphones to monitor their communication. Soon realizing that these captive mammals had a stunted capacity for language, she relocated to Vancouver Island on the Inside Passage, where whales are plentiful.

Morton’s research has helped to reveal how orcas echolocate—"seeing" by bouncing sound waves off an object and interpreting the echo—to stay together in family pods because "more than mating, more than food, more than home territory, it’s family around which a killer whale’s world revolves."

While she intended simply to study orcas in their natural habitat, she has been forced to widen her scope to address threats to the orcas such as pesticides, irresponsible logging, and, especially, the decline of the wild Pacific salmon runs. A major concern is the fish-farming industry, which uses underwater "acoustic harassment devices" to keep marine mammals away from net pens teeming with hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon. The result is large stretches of water emptied of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. The farms also foul the ocean with antibiotics, toxic paint, concentrated fecal matter, and algae blooms, provoking Morton’s strong warning against wrecking marine ecosystems for mere profit. As she wisely points out, what the whales need to survive—clean water, clean air, forests, and salmon—happen to be what we need as well.
—Christian Martin

The Good Life
Epicurean Simplicity, by Stephanie Mills (Island Press/Shearwater Books, $22)

In an age obsessed with a time-is-money ethos, Epicurean Simplicity is a welcome antidote, an eloquent tale of one woman’s quest for a simple existence. Stephanie Mills, author of In Service of the Wild, writes evocatively

of setting up a vegetable garden, swimming in the nearby lake, listening to birdsong in spring. All of this is not simply recounted but explored for its meaning and relevance, its impact and return, and its value within a culture rapidly exhausting its own resources.

"By paying attention to the small things," writes Mills, "the wholesomeness of daily bread, the source and state of the water, the seemliness of one’s shelter, and the well-being of all the human and more-than-human lives around us—we may be led to practice simplicity and harmlessness in tangible ways."

The book’s strength is in its sheer pragmatism. Unlike some devotees of the simple life, Mills doesn’t propose an idealized primitivism. She recognizes the demands of the world we live in and that to relinquish attachment to technology is no easy matter. She does believe, however, that at some point a line has to be drawn. In this she acknowledges historians and critics of the myths of technological progress, such as Lewis Mumford. "However marginalized . . . this questioning won’t go away," writes Mills. She resists didacticism, instead forcing us to take nothing for granted. Question everything, she urges, live simply so that you may live deliberately and create a balance between modern habits and the need for sustainability.
—Piers Moore Ede

At A Glance

Mother Earth: Through the Eyes of Women Photographers and Writers edited by Judith Boice
Sierra Club Books, $24.95

Ornamenting an impala is the red-billed oxpecker in Robin Brandt’s picture. Scores of equally striking nature photographs in this collection accompany writing by such celebrants of nature as Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Alice Walker.

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