Larry Nielsen | Island Press

Larry Nielsen

Larry A. Nielsen is Professor of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. He has worked in land grant universities—including earlier tenures Virginia Tech and Penn State—for forty years, as a faculty member and administrator, eventually becoming provost of North Carolina State University before returning to teaching and writing in 2009. He is a Fellow and Past President of the American Fisheries Society. He is author, coauthor, or coeditor of six books, including Ecosystem Management, published by Island Press, and Provost, a memoir and an analysis of university administration. Among many professional service roles, he served on the board of directors of the National Council for Science and the Environment for more than a decade. With Sharon, his wife of forty-seven years, he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. 


On the 55th Anniversary of Silent Spring

On September 27, 1962, a highly-anticipated book hit the shelves. Reactions to it were immediate and strong. The author’s best friend called it “the poison book.” A spokesperson for the agricultural chemical industry called it “…gross distortions...

This post originally appeared on Larry Nielsen's Today in Conservation blog and is reposted here with permission. 

On September 27, 1962, a highly-anticipated book hit the shelves. Reactions to it were immediate and strong. The author’s best friend called it “the poison book.” A spokesperson for the agricultural chemical industry called it “…gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific, experimental evidence….” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it “…the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.” Today we call the book—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—the origin of the modern environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was an unlikely writer for a book that caused such commotion. Carson, born in 1907 in rural Pennsylvania, was a shy, reclusive woman, never interested in the spotlight. Taught by her mother to observe nature and find her own lessons from those observations, she grew to love both science and literature. Forgoing the usual educational path for young women at the time—go to college, become a teacher or nurse, get married—she studied biology. Not just biology, but marine biology. Once she found her way to the Atlantic coast, she was never again far from the shore.

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 Rachel Carson official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940, via Wikimedia Commons

She became the first scientist ever hired by the U.S. Biological Survey, precursor to today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she never gave up on being a writer. Her fellow scientists marveled at her ability to combine scientific ideas and beautiful prose to tell the story of marine ecosystems. She eventually wrote three books about the sea, which met with both critical and commercial success. The New York Times recognized that “Once or twice in a generation does the world get a physical scientist with literary genius….”

Her third book, The Edge of the Sea, is the one that hooked me. As a teenage “nature nerd” growing up in Chicago, I was fascinated by her stories of the seashore and by the book’s drawings of strange and beautiful creatures. When I wrote Nature’s Allies—Eight Conservationists Who Changed Our World, I knew from the beginning that Rachel Carson would be one of the environmental leaders I profiled. She hooked me, just as she hooked an entire generation with Silent Spring.

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Silent Spring, first edition, via Wikimedia Commons

She didn’t want to write Silent Spring. She wanted to keep writing about the beauty and wonder of nature. But friends kept telling her about the deaths of wildlife after airplanes sprayed their fields and forests with insecticides. Unable to find anyone else who would take up the challenge, Carson dug in. She spent years gathering information about pesticides and their impacts, doing the painstaking research to connect the dots. Her conclusion:  the wanton spraying of pesticides was poisoning the earth.

She told the story in Silent Spring. First published as a series of articles in The New Yorker, it became an instant best-seller in book form. Although agricultural interests worked hard to discredit Carson, their efforts were drowned by the overwhelming positive response to the book and the caution that it urged. The Modern Environmental Movement had been born.

Rachel Carson didn’t live long enough to witness her impact. She died 18 months after the book’s publication, consumed by breast cancer. Just as she always had, she sought understanding through nature, this final time through the monarch butterfly. “…For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same:  when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.”

This post originally appeared on Larry Nielsen's Today in Conservation blog and is reposted here with permission.

summer reading

Get Them While They're Hot: Island Press Summer Reading Picks

Summer is here! Whether that means slathering on the sunscreen or seeking refuge from the heat in an air conditioned room, this season means one thing for all bookworms: summer reading lists. To help get yours started, our staff have shared their...

Summer is here! Whether that means slathering on the sunscreen or seeking refuge from the heat in an air conditioned room, this season means one thing for all bookworms: summer reading lists. To help get yours started, our staff have shared their favorite Island Press books, past and present. Check out our recommendations, and share your favorite Island Press summer read in the comments below. 
 

1.) Nature's Allies by Larry A. Nielsen
 

In Nature's AlliesLarry Nielson shares eight riveting biographies of great conservationists. His profiles show how these diverse leaders—including a Native American who was arrested more than 50 times and the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize—brought about extraordinary change for the environment. These stories are powerful, engaging reads for anyone who wants to be inspired to make a difference. But you don't have to take Island Press' word for it...Nature's Allies was also recently recommended as a New York Public Library staff pick
 

2.) River Notes by Wade Davis
 

In this remarkable blend of history, science, and personal observation, acclaimed author Wade Davis tells the story of America’s Nile, how it once flowed freely and how human intervention has left it near exhaustion. A beautifully told story of historical adventue and natural beauty, River Notes is a fascinating journey down the river and through mankind's complicated and destructive relationship with one of its greatest natural resources. Kyler Geoffroy, Online Marketing Manager of the Urban Resilience Project, says this book is the perfect summer read because "we need to stop and appreciate America’s most iconic waterway now more than ever."
 

3.) Bike Boom by Carlton Reid
 

As Vice President and Executive Editor Heather Boyer says, "there's no better time than summer to think about how to maintain the increase in interest in urban biking (and try to retain any funding for it in infrastructure budget)." A follow-up to his "fascinating" Roads Were Not Built for CarsBike Boom picks up where that story left off: immersing readers in cycling advocacy from 1906 to the doldrums of the 1980s. It is an extensively researched, at times humorous journey through time, flush with optimism for what could be the next, greatest bike boom of all.
 

4.) Natural Defense by Emily Monosson
 

Bugs and germs are big problems—and they’re evolving. But in the fight to protect our food and health, bugs and germs may also be part of the solution. Natural Defense by Emily Monosson is the first book to bring readers into this exciting new world, highlighting cutting-edge solutions such as pheromones that send crop-destroying moths into a misguided sexual frenzy, and proteins that promise targed destruction of infectious bacteria. Brooke Borel, contributing editor at Popular Science had this to say about the book: "With deft prose and fascinating anecdotes, Monosson’s survey of the latest scientific research leaves us in awe of humankind’s ingenuity."
 

5.) Immersion by Abbie Gascho Landis
 

If summer is the time for exploring neighborhood creeks and streams, Immersion by Abbie Gascho Landis is the summer read for you. A breathtaking journey into the world of freshwater mussels, Immersion explores the hidden lives of mussels in our rivers and streams, and asks whether our capacity to love these alien creatures can power us to protect freshwater for humans and nature alike. Blending science with artful storytelling, Immersion takes readers from perilous river surveys and dry riverbeds to laboratories where endangered mussels are raised one precious life at a time. Production Assistant Elise Ricotta says this is the perfect book to read at the beach or lake.
 

 6.) Seeking the Sacred Raven by Mark Jerome Walters
 

Associate Editor and Rights Manager Rebecca Bright picked up Seeking the Sacred Raven while she was preparing for an interview to intern at Island Press (we won't say how many years ago). The book tells the story of Hawaii's 'Alla, a member of the raven family that once flourished on the islands and now survives only in captivity. Mark Jerome Walters chronicles the history of the birds' interactions with humans throughout the centuries, painting a picture of one species' decline that resonates today, as many others face the same fate. The first Island Press book she ever read, Rebecca found the book to be "both fascinating and heartbreaking."
 

7.) Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis
 

As you fire up the grill for summer barbeques and head to your local farmer's market, consider reading Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis, a sensory-rich journey through two hundred years of making dinner. From eighteenth-century gardens and historic cookbooks to calculated advertising campaigns and sleek supermarket aisles, Vileisis chronicles profound changes in how Americans have shopped, cooked, and thought about their food for five generations. Revealing how knowledge of our food has been lost and how it might now be regained, Kitchen Literacy promises to make us think differently about what we eat.
 

8.) Water is for Fighting Over by John Fleck
 

Water is for Fighting Over by John Fleck makes for perfect reading while sitting by the pool, river, or ocean. In it, he offers a unique, fresh perspective on the catastrophe narrative of the West, showcasing how this region is less of a battlefield and more of a place where individuals and communities find common ground amid a changing geography. This book shows that even in the depths of the worst droughts, positive solution stories can still be found. Vice President and Director of Marketing & Sales Julie Marshall likes "John’s thoughtful and balanced approach to the issue. I also really appreciate the fact he has such deep knowledge based on his many years covering the issues in the west. It gives him great credibility but also makes his explanations of the issues and solutions seem solid based on 'all the facts' and not just a superficial assessment." 
 

9.) Within Walking Distance by Philip Langdon 
 

While walking around and enjoying the summer sunshine, don't forget to pack Within Walking Distance by Philip Langdon. In it, he takes an in-depth look at six walkable communities—and the citizens, public officials, and planners who are making them satisfying places to live. Civil Engineering said "Within Walking Distance shines...a warm, personal, and heartening depiction of our power to shape our communities in a positive way when we set our minds to it." 
 

10.) Tibet Wild by George B. Schaller
 

Hungry for adventure? Tibet Wild is George B. Schaller's account of three decades of exploration in the most remote stretches of Tibet: the wide, sweeping rangelands of the Chang Tang and the hidden canyons and plunging ravines of the southeastern forests. Throughout, it is an intimate journey through the changing wilderness of Tibet, guided by the careful gaze and unwavering passion of a life-long naturalist. Editor Courtney Lix loves the book because "it transports you to the wildest regions in Tibet, from describing the daily challenges of being a field biologist, to admiring breathtaking landscapes, and encounters with rare and beautiful creatures." 

What are your top Island Press reads? Share them below, so others can add them to their summer reading lists. 

A Day for the Birds

We revel in the glory of the African elephant, giant panda or Galapagos tortoise—the charismatic megafauna that gets most of attention, whether on television or at the zoo. But I think the group that deserves the award as the world’s number one...

We revel in the glory of the African elephant, giant panda or Galapagos tortoise—the charismatic megafauna that gets most of attention, whether on television or at the zoo. But I think the group that deserves the award as the world’s number one animal group—perhaps we should call it the charismatic omnifauna—is the bird.

We all love birds. According to the 2011 Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Association Recreation, about 50 million Americans feed or observe birds at their homes, spending billions of dollars on sunflower seeds and the like. USA Today reports that eagles are the most common mascots of high school and college sports teams, virtually lapping the mascot in second place (tigers).  I won’t bore you with more statistics—suffice it to say that only a bird-brain wouldn’t agree that birds are the greatest.

One dedicated bird-lover was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On this day in 1784, Mozart went to the contemporary Viennese equivalent of a pet store. He was amazed by a bird that sang a variation on a work that he had just completed—Piano Concerto in G, K. 453—under the utmost secrecy. Bird behaviorists Meredith West and Andrew King have suggested that this particular bird probably had heard snatches of the folk tune on which Mozart’s concerto was patterned, but Mozart, known as a skillful and absent-minded whistler, probably might have stimulated the bird to respond. 

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Singing European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), via Wikimedia Commons

He bought the bird, a European Starling, and for the next three years, it was his companion and muse. When his pet died, Mozart mourned as if for a human—a funeral procession accompanied the grieving composer to the graveyard, sang hymns and listened to an elegy Mozart wrote for the occasion (“He was not naughty, quite, But gay and bright, And under all his brag A foolish wag…”).    

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Tune whistled by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's pet starling, 27 May 1784. This music is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This day marks the birthday of another important bird lover—Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1902. Carson started watching birds early and continued throughout her life, whether at the bird feeder in her backyard or on a Pennsylvania overlook as the annual hawk migration passed by.

As explored in Nature’s Allies, Carson’s love of nature expressed itself in her twin loves of science and writing.  For decades she nurtured the two loves simultaneously, becoming a leading scientific editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a nationally acclaimed nature writer. But when her third book, The Sea Around Us, hit the New York Times best-seller list and stayed for 86 weeks, her fate was decided—she would be a writer, full-time.

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 Rachel Carson official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940, via Wikimedia Commons

Her next book, and her last, is the classic for which we universally praise Carson, Silent Spring. She began the book with a fable that laments the loss of bird song:

“On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

The cause of this silence?  The wanton aerial spraying of pesticides, whose impact Carson detailed in the body of the book. Her perseverance to get to the bottom of this problem and share it with the world, even as she gradually succumbed to breast cancer, has made our world immeasurably healthier and more beautiful.

So, on this final day in late May, let us praise the sounds that fill our lives with beauty and joy, and thank Rachel Carson and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for bringing them to us.