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Earth Day Reflections on the Potomac

I spent last week in Washington, DC, talking about wolves. I visited the Island Press office and gave seminars about the ecological value of keystone predators to the World Wildlife Federation, and to US government agency directors and leaders. I had come at the invitation of Anne Post, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) librarian, and Mark Madison, USFWS historian and archivist, to visit the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. They wanted me to create a televised training seminar for all USFWS offices about predators and how they touch all members of a food web and thus create healthier ecosystems, termed “trophic cascades.” I was also there to give a public talk about my book, The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity. Over the years, other NCTC conservation lecturers had included many Island Press authors, such as Aldo Leopold biographer Curt Meine, and founding father of the science of conservation biology, Michael Soulé. It was humbling to be included among them. Nestled along the Potomac River in West Virginia, the NCTC is a beautiful, wooded enclave where people of all disciplines—government, academic, corporate, and nonprofit—come together to learn about conservation. Its ecologically-sound buildings, open-air classrooms, hundreds of acres of hiking paths, conservation library, and historical archives, make this a fertile place to explore the revolutionary ideas about managing our natural resources (e.g., predator restoration) first put forth by conservation elders such as Olaus Murie and Aldo Leopold. During a break in my talks, I spent an afternoon rambling through the lush hardwood forest in which the NCTC is ensconced. I wandered through undulating meadows and thick sycamore stands to the banks of the Potomac River, near its convergence with the Shenandoah River. Tender blue violets were just beginning to open. The pale green leaf buds on trees and shrubs seemed to unfurl before my eyes. Dozens of bird species—too many to count easily—streaked by, clad in bright breeding plumage, filling the forest canopy with their sweet, rising warbles. High atop a sycamore, a pair of bald eagles assiduously tended their nest. The river coursed fast, full, and deep, and the earth burgeoned with life. As I sat on a stump next to the riverbank, I reflected on Earth Days past. There was the Earth Day four years ago, at the Leopold Shack, when I had sat where Leopold had sat, next to the Wisconsin River at flood stage, and pondered the future of conservation. I was writing my book then, and wondering if I ever would be able to find the right words. Then there was the Earth Day two years later, when my book was published, and I was overwhelmed by the realization of what it embodied—the possibility of creating change by opening minds and hearts about the ecological value of predators. And now this year, the vivid evidence that thanks to my editor and staff at Island Press, my book is indeed functioning as an agent of education and change, as so many Island Press books do. I was invited to Washington, the nexus of conservation and policy, to discuss wolves and trophic cascades with the persons who make decisions about our natural resources. That these policy-makers are thinking big, deep thoughts about how all things are connected fills me with hope. Leopold called this “Thinking Like a Mountain.” And as on those Earth Days past, this year I was filled with the clear awareness that we are learning as a species to live more rightly on this Earth. Nearly one hundred years ago, Murie and Leopold envisioned and initiated this philosophical shift in how humans relate to the Earth. But further, Island Press, in existence for over twenty-five years, embodies and carries forward this legacy of conservation, by nurturing and developing writers like me. So on this Earth Day, as on others, Island Press continues to inspire each of us, in our own unique way, to be agents of change. While we have much work ahead of us yet, experiences like those I had last week give me hope.