What does the American East look like to a panther that seeks to paw its way from southern Florida up into Canada? How do wide-ranging quadrupeds like black bears find safe crossings where interstates and highways lace their habitat? What does the southeastern U.S. look like to a red wolf wishing to reclaim its former haunts?
In Big, Wild, and Connected adventurer and author John Davis sets out to answer these questions, and to see if there is still a chance to create a continuous wildlife corridor spanning the North American East. This e-book, a part of of the Island Press e-essentials series, transports readers along a human-powered 7,500 mile journey over ten months in 2011 of hiking, cycling and paddling from the southernmost tip of Florida to Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec in maritime Canada. Called TrekEast, Davis and his partner organization, The Wildlands Network, did a fabulous job promoting the adventure with social media; and you can still visit this online map to explore Davis’s journey and click on starred “trail stories” which link to blog posts that (as the name suggests) record anecdotes along the route.
Davis, a former board member of The Wildlands Network, wanted to draw awareness to the need for an Eastern Wildway — an eastern parallel to the more widely known Western Wildway, which seeks to connect a corridor for wildlife from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Rockies. An eastern continent-scaled wildlife corridor was first proposed by Dave Foreman in Rewilding North America (2004), and Davis wanted to find out if Foreman’s vision for such an ambitious wildway was still feasible — or if it was too late. Big, Wild and Connected is the three-part story of Davis’s awareness-raising campaign for this unrealized corridor vision. (Each of the three parts is sold as a separate e-book.)
Although Davis writes in the conservation tradition of John Muir and the travelogue tradition of William Bartram, readers should not expect transcendental or romanticized prose when they begin Big, Wild, and Connected. The strength of the book is that Davis’s journey is the story arc. He writes about the nature of different regional landscapes, their iconic animals, insects, plants and waterways, and he highlights people and organizations working in specific areas to create new parks and protected areas, to make connections between existing protected places, to educate others about conservation easements, and those who are studying plants and wildlife to better learn how to help them deal with climate change, cross roads to reach distant populations of their own kind, and have space to not just survive but to thrive and reclaim lost lands.
Davis’s honest recounting of his adventures, and short interviews with folks along the way make the reader feel like they too are walking, cycling, and paddling along with him. Thankfully, he doesn’t get bogged down in retelling day-to-day travel travails, and instead focuses on the animals, plants, insects, trees and wildlife he encounters. He manages to maintain a detailed sense of place without recounting each and every foot fall or flat tire. This gives the book a tidy pace that probably reflects his speedy hiking and cycling.
Davis mostly moved by his own power although he did have a support car assist with gear and supplies, and at times he used a vehicle to get from one spot to another. But this latter element was a reflection of the disconnectedness and fragmentation of the East. (I’ll hazard a guess that a car was simply the only way to get though certain areas without flagrantly trespassing across private property.) The idea was to reveal what it would be like to walk in the footsteps of a panther, or a wolf, as it attempted to travel from southern Florida northward up to Quebec.
I’ve only read Part I of the e-book, which covers from Key West, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky. I could easily write a 5,000 word review based on his travels, but I’m going to place the greater emphasis here on Florida because it’s my home state and first wild love.
While paddling around the southern tip of the Everglades, Davis encountered manatees, dolphins and even a smalltooth sawfish. Throughout the trek, he wrote of the types of protected areas he traveled through (National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, state lands and even privately conserved lands) and what threats lay outside their borders: roads, towns, industrial developments, agriculture (and its associated runoff) and a lack of conservation easements. Somehow I wasn’t too surprised when I read that Davis hooked up with Carlton Ward, who spearheaded a 100-day 1,000 mile Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, which held a similar goal in mind as Davis’s: to raise awareness for the potential of creating a state-wide wildlife corridor in Florida linking the Everglades National Park to Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. (As a former board member of LINC, a non-profit founded by Ward, I was invited to partake in the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition but I declined regretfully due to complications from pregnancy, e.g. extreme nausea and vomiting episodes, which made an outdoor adventure infeasible.) Davis also met up with another friend of mine, Tom Hoctor, who has spent many years modeling wildlife corridors and habitat linkages in Florida, especially ones that could benefit the imperiled Florida black bear, which is a genetically distinct subspecies.
Davis wrote of the hydrology issues threatening the Everglades, the relationship of fire and grasslands in central Florida (and efforts to restore natural fire regimes), and the surprising allure of fox squirrels and scrub jays. I was especially charmed to learn that my home county of Alachua boasts the densest population of predators in the state, in the form of hundreds of basking alligators which adorn the rim of Alachua Sink and create a prehistoric scene of primordial looking lizards.
When he reached the end of his trek through the Sunshine State, Davis offered a bulleted list of recommendations for what would need to change to realize the southernmost part of the Eastern Wildway. His list included broad statements about “stabilizing population,” fully funding “Florida Forever” (the state program for buying conservation lands), creating safe passages for panthers who attempt to cross the Caloosahatchee River (IF they manage to cross it, they face an increasingly dense web of interstates and urban development the further north they travel) , and enacting a “managed retreat” of developed areas and people away from the coastline to plan for climate change-driven sea level rise. In theory, I agree with all of this and would love to see it happen. But in practice, I recognize how outlandishly wild and far-fetched this seemingly simplified list of goals truly is. Florida’s economy relies in large part upon a sales tax because there is no income tax, and nothing could be more radical in a state driven by tourism and consumerism than to suggest moving urban areas and development away from the coast, which is where most tourists go unless they’re visiting Disney World. Davis offers these goals with no discussion of how to meet them, or even a concession that they would create serious political, economic, and social friction.
In Alabama and the Carolinas, Davis trekked through the southernmost Appalachians and Coastal Plain in South Carolina, and through the Piedmont, Uwharries and Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina. He sought out and walked through some of the last remnants of longleaf pine savannas. In the Sipsey Wilderness, Alabama, he found a sight I would love to see: stands of healthy eastern hemlock trees which had not yet been affected by the invasive wooly adelgid insect. This itty bitty bug has decimated eastern hemlocks further north in the East, including around my home in western North Carolina. Also in the Sipsey, he met a towering tulip poplar which stands more than 150 feet tall and is eight feet in diameter.
There were only two things I felt critical of when reading Big, Wild, and Connected. As you may have already guessed, first, Davis’s sweeping calls for what needs to change to connect fragmented habitats so that widely-roaming animals like panthers, wolves and bears can flourish in the East are so wildlife-focused as to be politically, economically, or socially intractable. It’s gut-wrenching for me to be in a position of recommending this book and yet be critical of its main thesis. While I want to see an Eastern Wildway realized, I feel a bit cynical about our scoiety (in its current form) being able to reach this lofty goal. How many among us can say they place the needs of wildlife on an equal level as those of people?
Nothing would make my heart sing more than to know that red wolves will one day roam throughout the southeast; but nowhere in Davis’s suggestion of reintroducing them to the Florida panhandle was there a mention of how citizens there might react—it’s worth noting that people there already defeated moving Florida panthers northward. He also didn’t mention that if red wolves were to be reintroduced there, every coyote already present would need to be removed (read: euthanized) for red wolves to thrive in an unhybridized form, because the two canids will interbreed under certain conditions. The obstacles are quite large, biologically and politically, especially given that the majority of society rarely places the welfare of animals above the welfare of people. I wish we lived in a nation that better cared for its wildlife, but we don’t. And this is, in part, why I hope people will read this e-book, because maybe it will help elevate the national conversation about what needs to be done to conserve wildlife in the East.
The second thing that bothered me is something rather nitpicky to the average reader, but of great importance to me personally. Davis embraced the hybrid-origin theory of red wolf evolution when he discussed this rare canid in his travel through the Carolinas. In fact, let this be an open invitation to him to read my book, The Secret World of Red Wolves. What further disappointed me was that he didn’t discuss the rival theory that red wolves may have evolved solely in North America, without interbreeding with gray wolves, as part of a New World evolved canid lineage which also includes the coyote. Despite disagreeing with him on this point, I was deeply glad to see him acknowledge the red wolf as a native southeastern predator and to give space to discussing what would need to happen to have it, and eastern panthers, return to their former southeastern realm. He also named specific protected places that red wolves might be introduced in the southeast (pg. 50).
Leaving my personal misgivings about his belief of red wolf orgins aside, this truly is a delightful hiking (and paddling and cycling) narrative that will bring readers deep into swamps, grasslands, riverine areas, old-growth forests, and the highest altitudes of the East. You’ll finish Part One in Lexington, Kentucky eager to download Part Two, which promises to carry readers from the central Appalachian Mountains to the Catskill Mountains. Never one to leave a trail unexplored, I’m sure I’ll continue the journey north and pick up Part Two very soon.
WHO SHOULD BUY: Big, Wild and Connected will appeal to hikers, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts as well as students, professors, or practicing conservationists who wish to know what needs to happen to foster a North American East which can once again sustain widely-roaming predators like panthers.