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Abbie Gascho Landis first fell for freshwater mussels while submerged in an Alabama creek, her pregnant belly squeezed into a wetsuit. After an hour of fruitless scanning, a mussel materialized from the rocks—a little spectaclecase, herself pregnant, filtering the river water through a delicate body while her gills bulged with offspring. In that moment of connection, Landis became a mussel groupie, obsessed with learning more about the creatures’ hidden lives. She isn’t the only fanatic; the shy mollusks, so vital to the health of rivers around the world, have a way of inspiring unusual devotion.
In Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels, Landis brings readers to a hotbed of mussel diversity, the American Southeast, to seek mussels where they eat, procreate, and, too often, perish. Accompanied often by her husband, a mussel scientist, and her young children, she learned to see mussels on the creekbed, to tell a spectaclecase from a pigtoe, and to worry what vanishing mussels—70 percent of North American species are imperiled—will mean for humans and wildlife alike. In Immersion, Landis shares this journey, traveling from perilous river surveys to dry streambeds and into laboratories where endangered mussels are raised one precious life at a time.
Mussels have much to teach us about the health of our watersheds if we step into the creek and take a closer look at their lives. In the tradition of writers like Terry Tempest Williams and Sy Montgomery, Landis gracefully chronicles these untold stories with a veterinarian’s careful eye and the curiosity of a naturalist. In turns joyful and sobering, Immersion is an invitation to see rivers from a mussel’s perspective, a celebration of the wild lives visible to those who learn to search.
"Eloquent treatise…Landis's book is as much call to action as paean to mesmerizing molluscs."
"A lyrical love letter to the imperiled freshwater mussel...Landis's writing is engaging and personal, demonstrating her bond with the natural world."
"Landis gets under the skin of not so much a single animal, but a whole ecosystem. Part scientist, part observer, and part campaigner against water pollution, she puts herself and her family at the centre of the story. This is neither cloying nor vain, and her growing fascination with her subject is infectious. Immersion is science writing at its best: rich, accurate, and moving."
"This is nature writing at its best."
Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
"This graceful, beautiful book is filled with almost unbelievable surprises. The biggest surprise is that it is not about mussels; they merely play a leading role. Immersion is actually about the wondrousness of life, and the invitation we’ve all received to simply be in awe."
Carl Safina, author of "Song for the Blue Ocean" and "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel"
"Kudos to this lyrical veterinarian for deftly carving space in our hearts and minds for freshwater bivalves that you’ll never forget."
Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us" and "Countdown"
Chapter 1: Breaking Water
Chapter 2: Rocks with Guts
Chapter 3: The Lure of Mussels
Chapter 4: Search Images
Chapter 5: Mussel Memory
Chapter 6: Life at River Bottom
Chapter 7: The Dead River
Chapter 8: When to Clam Up
Chapter 9: Holding Water
Chapter 10: Mussel Resuscitation
Abbie Gascho Landis at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies
Thursday, April 27, 2017
6:00pm to 8:00pm
Abbie Gascho Landis, winner of the 2015 CDS Documentary Essay Prize for Writing, will be reading from her newly published book Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels.
The CDS Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years: one year, photos; one year, writing. The focus is on current or recently completed work from a long-term project. The 2015 prize competition was awarded in writing. The winning essay, "Immersion: Our Native Mussels and Bodies of Freshwater," was submitted by Abbie Gascho Landis, a writer and veterinarian in Cobleskill, New York. For six years, Landis snorkeled in creeks, explored large rivers, visited laboratories, and interviewed biologists in order to document "these remarkable animals." In her essay, Landis weaves personal experience into her investigation of native mussels and their freshwater habitats as one way of looking at water issues in the Deep South and elsewhere in the United States.
Read more about Abbie Gascho Landis' prizewinning essay here: http://documentarystudies.duke.edu/projects/2015-documentary-essay-prize...
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Join us for a presentation by Abbie Gascho Landis, author of Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels.
"Abbie Gascho Landis first fell for freshwater mussels while submerged in an Alabama creek, her pregnant belly squeezed into a wetsuit. After an hour of fruitless scanning, a mussel materialized from the rocks—a little spectaclecase, herself pregnant, filtering the river water through a delicate body while her gills bulged with offspring. In that moment of connection, Landis became a mussel groupie, obsessed with learning more about the creatures’ hidden lives. She isn’t the only fanatic; the shy mollusks, so vital to the health of rivers around the world, have a way of inspiring unusual devotion.
In Immersion, Landis brings readers to a hotbed of mussel diversity, the American Southeast, to seek mussels where they eat, procreate, and, too often, perish. Accompanied often by her husband, a mussel scientist, and her young children, she learned to see mussels on the creekbed, to tell a spectaclecase from a pigtoe, and to worry what vanishing mussels—70 percent of North American species are imperiled—will mean for humans and wildlife alike. In Immersion, Landis shares this journey, traveling from perilous river surveys to dry streambeds and into laboratories where endangered mussels are raised one precious life at a time.
Mussels have much to teach us about the health of our watersheds if we step into the creek and take a closer look at their lives. In the tradition of writers like Terry Tempest Williams and Sy Montgomery, Landis gracefully chronicles these untold stories with a veterinarian’s careful eye and the curiosity of a naturalist. In turns joyful and sobering, Immersion is an invitation to see rivers from a mussel’s perspective, a celebration of the wild lives visible to those who learn to search."
Come meet the author of Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels. Find out why Abbie Gascho Landis is a "freshwater mussel groupie." Learn about these remarkable, endangered animals, and why Immersion is about more than mussels.
"Biting the snorkel mouthpiece, I submerged my head through a layer of crisp-edged leaves and into another world.” So begins Abbie Gascho Landis’ discovery of an Alabama creek—and the freshwater mussels who call it home. Ranging in size from thumbnail to dinner plate, freshwater mussels have been filtering our rivers, streams, and creek beds for millions of years, and, as Landis learns, have much to teach us about ecology, freshwater systems, and our relationship to the natural world.
Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels is a breathtaking journey into the world of these important creatures. In it, veterinarian and award-winning writer Landis 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. Check out an excerpt from the book below to learn why it's been praised as "nature writing at its best" (E.O. Wilson), an "eloquent treatise" (Nature), and a "lyrical love letter to the imperiled freshwater mussel" (Science).
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
From reviews in Science and Nature to high praise from Carl Safina, E.O. Wilson, and Alan Weisman, everyone is buzzing about Immersion. We caught up with author Abbie Gascho Landis to talk about the book, freshwater mussels, and our relationship to the natural world. Read our conversation below, and don't forget to read Chapter 1 of Immersion in last week's #ForewordFriday.
You’re a veterinarian, meaning your background is with vertebrates like cats and dogs. What first captivated you about freshwater mussels? Was it a single moment, or did it happen over time? Since then, what has sustained your interest?
Submerging my face in a creek for the first time stands out as a revelatory moment for me. I had no idea such beautiful animals lived inside this drab-looking creek that I had ignored while driving over the bridge. Although my first mussel encounter was memorable, I actually fell in love with mussels over time.
If I were to summarize my journey with freshwater mussels in one sentence, it would be, “Wait, what?” I have said this repeatedly while talking with my husband or exploring a creek or reading about mussel science. Mussels make me stop in my tracks and light up my curiosity and wonder. Studying mussels has been similar to practicing veterinary medicine in that my patients frequently amaze me in one way or another. Also, mussels attract great people and live in intriguing places, so spending time with mussel biologists and in the field always energizes my mussel fascination.
In the book you write: “I think of mussels as I watch the kitchen spigot run.” What do you mean by this? What can mussels tell us about our own water supply and consumption habits?
For me, learning about mussels coincided with learning precisely where our tap water came from in our Alabama town. This connection was not an extrapolation or a metaphor. A creek I snorkeled was the actual city water supply and received the treated municipal wastewater. When drought and over usage dry such a creek, both mussels and humans experience the shortage. When we contaminate the creek, we damage everyone using that water downstream. These lovely little animals sit in our drinking water and our wastewater, filtering it and suffering from it. The least I could do was think of them while I filled my glass with part of their home.
Most conversations around freshwater in the US revolve around the West, but your book brings readers to the creeks and streambeds of the American Southeast. Why is it important to pay attention to this region? What can it teach us about water throughout the rest of the country?
Having viewed the American Southeast as eternally lush and damp almost to a fault, I was floored to learn about its ongoing water shortage problems. One large river basin, draining the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint Rivers, sits at the junctions of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, and at the heart of decades-long legal battles known as the Tri-State Water Wars. Human water demand, especially agriculture, outpaces natural recharge, especially during droughts. Climate change is causing more frequent droughts, taking a heavier toll on groundwater resources. Freshwater mussels—more diverse in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world—die in drying creeks, invoking the Endangered Species Act to protect their habitat. Water issues in the Southeast pose challenges both similar to and unique from the American West, and they suggest that our freshwater conversations have more urgency than we think, even in areas that might seem impervious to struggles over water. Water security has more to do with how much water we use than with how much water is available.
Immersion is about mussels, but the book is also full of human characters, including scientists, landowners, police officers, and your own young children. What can freshwater mussels teach us about our relationships to other people? To the environment?
Studying mussels is excellent practice in understanding complex, overlapping relationships. Mussels live at the intersection of land and water, shaped by the character of the river bottom as much as the water flow and quality. We often divide our environment—land or water, urban or rural, mine or yours—but rivers cross what we view as boundaries. At river bottom, mussels can give us a unique angle on how the landscape and water flowing through it connect us.
As our daughter Stella has observed, “Mussels are breakable, so we have to be gentle.” Mussels, being sensitive, can draw our attention to river problems that affect everybody. They teach us to heed and protect the most vulnerable among us to keep the whole system healthy. When we learn to value a thriving, diverse mussel community as the sign of a healthy river, we are practicing a more gentle way of treating the environment, animals, and, perhaps, each other
Nearly seventy percent of freshwater mussel species are imperiled, but Immersion is not despondent. What gives you hope for freshwater mussels in the US?
Besides simply being an incorrigible optimist, I find hope in places like Alabama’s Paint Rock River, where improvements in land use along the river valley have revived mussel populations from nearly flat-lining to the heartbeat of a healthy river. I find hope in collaborative watershed groups, working across political or business interests to keep rivers flowing.
I also find hope in mussel biologists raising new populations of nearly extinct mussel species, then reintroducing hundreds or thousands of them to healthy rivers. I find hope in projects like the summer 2016 relocation of nearly half a million mussels prior to building a bridge over the Mississippi River. I get a little teary when I imagine such attention to so many small, valued lives. As the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote, “What is usual is not what is always.” Each exception to the trend of damaging mussels and their rivers nudges mussels—and our water supply—towards safety.
Is there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
So many things. Small facts about mussels surprised me. For example, many mussel species will actively burrow down or crawl towards water to try to survive drought. And a mussel closing their shell is an active process, which happens reflexively if they sense danger—a vibration, passing shadow, or noxious chemical. Also surprising to me was the breadth and depth of change humans have caused in streams of all sizes. Only two percent of streams in the United States are freely flowing, thanks to dams, and many carry contaminants, including pharmaceuticals or excessive nutrients.
The combination of these surprising things, though, is what truly astounded me. Given their exquisite sensitivity and our decimation of their homes, I am happily amazed that freshwater mussels continue to exist at all.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
It would be really neat for readers to carry with them some images and stories of mussels or rivers that they can’t help describing at picnics and cocktail parties. If some of those conversations fuel further curiosity about river animals or our water supply, I will be thrilled.
And while I’m hoping: Some experience of this book might overflow into larger discussions about how we can work together towards healthy rivers so that mussels and our kids will have clean, plentiful fresh water.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
Immersion is a breathtaking journey into the world of freshwater mussels. In it, veterinarian and award-winning writer Abbie Gascho Landis 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. Check out nine surprising words that describe freshwater mussels below, and ask any questions you may have about freshwater mussels in the comments.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
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.
In Nature's Allies, Larry 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.
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."
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 Cars, Bike 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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.