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Three new books

9/2/2010

I like to share new books for at least three reasons.

One, because I usually enjoy reading them. Two, because they may help you be better informed and more successful and ethical in the field. Three, because I believe that within reason authors should recognize a fellow author's work. (Incidentally, my next book, "War In The Woods," comes out in October -- see trailer here.

In that spirit, I've found three books for you to consider. The first is: "Hard Grass: Life On the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch" by Mary Zeiss Stange (University of New Mexico Press, 2010, $27.95 hardcover).

For those of you who do not know Mary, she wears two very different hats. During the academic year, she is Dr. Mary Stange, Professor of Woman's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College. A feminist and former Director of Women's Studies, she teaches, conducts research, and writes many articles and books, behaving as college professors do.

However, if you look at the titles of three recent books, you will find a surprise, as they are: "Woman: The Hunter," "Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America," and "Heart Shot: Women Write About Hunting."

New Jersey-born Mary Stange married into hunting, falling in love with her husband who guided her to fall in love with the spirit of the chase. Her writing style blends academia with down-to-earth folklore and story-telling, resulting in a narrative style that is engaging as well as educational -- truly an art. In short, she serves up the sort of material you'd love to hear around a campfire, seasoned with science and philosophy.

Mary's latest book, "Hard Grass," is an account of the past 20 years of her life and how she and her husband came to buy a ranch in the grasslands of eastern Montana, and a succession of experiments that ultimately led them to turn the place into a hunting ranch where people come and harvest a buffalo, guided by Mary and Doug.

The name of the ranch whets your appetite for the story -- Crazy Woman Bison Ranch. The fact that Mary commutes between Skidmore College in New York and Ekalaka, Mont., may seem a little crazy to some. The ranch name doesn't, however, come from Mary's long-distance commuter lifestyle, but rather the folk history of Ekalaka, which Mary recounts with accuracy and warmth.

Most folks who live in the eastern Montana grassland know the place where they live by daily life and its joys, worries and realities. What Mary's long-distance commuting, and her scholarly habits, enable her to do is reflect on the experience of planting roots in the soil and creating a self-sustaining existence on rough land.

This is a thoughtful story of modern America, the place of farming and ranching in modern times as a way to root oneself in nature, and how one can come to embrace hunting as an act of reconnecting with the land and the web of life to celebrate our place in the food chain as omnivorous predators. It also alerts you to a great place to bag a whole lot of healthy meat on the hoof.

The next book is "Shooting In The Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies In The Animal Kingdom" (Chris Palmer -- Sierra Club Books, 2010). Most of us have seen Chris Palmer's work on the big and small screen.

I was attracted to this book on two accounts. As a former professor of ecology, I believe that wildlife films and TV are the best medium to educate mainstream audiences about nature. I've been making films about nature and environment since 1970. (My latest documentary about California game wardens, "Endangered Species: CA Fish and Game Wardens," made it into the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival last year and I am now co-executive producer of a new TV series on game wardens, "Wild Justice," which will begin airing on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 28.)

Part of Chris Palmer's "Shooting In The Wild" describes the art and science of how one makes an engaging film about wildlife, something Palmer knows well. He has produced more than 300 hours of programming for the Disney Channel, TBS, Animal Planet and PBS, as well as IMAX, and along the way Chris has won two Emmies and an Oscar Nomination.

There are certainly plenty of such programs out there, some beautiful, some sensational, and some annoying because they spin romantic or overwrought lies about wildlife that ultimately are dishonest to the wild kingdom. These can mislead poor souls who live lives of what Thoreau called "quiet desperation," in big cities.

I submit that such programming is a major reason for so much controversy in conservation these days, for the court of public opinion is where many issues are ultimately solved, for better or for worse. It is this latter category that Palmer's book ultimately focuses on, and for me that is one good reason why this book is so important.

Palmer begins with a brief history of wildlife filmmaking, and then launches into the shadowy side of modern wildlife film-making, talking honestly about the cult of wildlife celebrities such as Timothy Treadwell, Steve Irwin, and others who have spun tales of wild critters that have led to romanticized fantasies about wildlife, as much as enchanting audiences about the wild kingdom.

A good wildlife film should be able to help people ask critical questions about the validity of what they are watching. "Shooting In The Wild" should be commended for calling a spade a spade and bringing up this subject and giving us a chance to see what really does happen on the set when wild animals are supposed to be the lead characters. Read this and you whole approach to watching TV may be changed.

I especially liked his eight suggestions on how to make wildlife filmmaking more ethically responsible, especially No. 2, which is "Work Closely with Reputable Scientists."

Last year I was a judge of writing in the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. I got to see some extraordinarily beautiful films that cost millions to make, but several skewed the facts so much as to verge on being what Teddy Roosevelt would have called "Nature Faking." As Palmer says, drama makes for good films, but if you trump up situations and distort stories to increase drama, you are not serving man nor beast.

More specifically to the outdoor sportsmen's audience, Palmer acknowledges that early wildlife filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson were hunters, and he notes that when Curt Gowdy was hosting the "American Sportsman" series on mainstream TV, people saw celebrities having good, clean fun enjoying hunting and fishing. Palmer does not, however, venture into the forest of outdoor TV, which is a form of wildlife filmography. I hope that someone else will take up criticism of outdoor TV sometime soon.

The recent story about Ted Nugent getting caught for illegally baiting and killing a deer in California opens a door that could yield some more dicey things done in the name of getting good ratings by other outdoor luminaries.

"Shooting In The Wild" is an engaging read, and hopefully will move the networks and the people who make programs take their work more seriously, for the average person today spends far too much time watching screens to determine what life is really like.

When I was sent information about "Coyote At The Kitchen Door, Living With Wildlife In Suburbia" by Stephen DeSefano (Harvard University Press, 2010, $24.95 hardback), I wanted to read this book about the growing number of coyotes homesteading in urban and suburban areas, in part because we have a problem with habituated coyotes where I live.

Until our neighborhood rallied and chased one bushy-tailed interloper away, the coyote was sleeping in the street in the mid-day, pets were disappearing, and the coyote came very close to attacking a child by walking through an open door and into a kitchen where a one year-old was sitting in a high chair eating breakfast. (The child's father drove the coyote away by throwing dishes at it.)

I also was interested in the book because as an environmental psychologist I have studied how people perceive nature and how people adjust their behavior to coexist -- or not coexist -- with wildlife; My psychology graduate students also study this area.

This problem of co-existence with wildlife is an especially important challenge for coyotes, which are found in all states except Hawaii. There are as many as 100 million coyotes in North America, and urbanized coyotes need more attention because they are seeking to settle in suburban and even urban areas with increasing frequency. They are not the same as squirrels. They do attack people and pets.

Stefano is a research professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a leader in the USGS, Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. I looked forward to hearing from a scientist, and not someone who is a "wildlife advocate" with an obviously biased view of life and wildlife related to having some species of the day to save to pay their salary.

As Stefano points out, wild dogs are intelligent animals, but that does not necessarily translate into them adopting behavioral strategies that are what we would like. These are wild animals that are looking for food. If they cannot find what they want, then they look elsewhere, which can cause problems as is currently happening with grizzly bears.

Reading this book will help you better understand coyotes and what may be going through the mind of Wile E. Coyote & Co. It also helps you understand the omnivorous and highly adaptive coyote, which are real survivors. Stefano ultimately calls for a new suburban wildlife ethic of coexistence, and people who habituate coyotes and other wildlife, should read what he has to say.

That said, the book was in publication on October 28, 2009 when Canadian folksinger Taylor Mitchell was attacked and killed by two coyote-wolf hybrids in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. Stefano's book also fails to cite the research on coyote attacks by Dr. Robert Timm, at the University of California at Davis, who has documented more than 200 attacks on people by coyotes in recent times.

Stefano also does not say much about coyotes breeding with wolves and dogs, creating hybrids. I recently interviewed wildlife geneticists in several parts of the U.S. about wild dog hybridization. All of them expressed concern about wolves, coyotes and dogs hybridizing, and what that might mean for our future relationships with these mongrels.

Frankly, no one knows what such interbreeding will yield, but many people I have spoken with agree that coy-dogs, coy-wolves, etc., in the wild seem to get into more trouble with people than purebred wild animals, perhaps because their domestic genes mute some of the wild instincts of coyotes and wolves, and they still gotta eat.

In short, the co-existence of people and wildlife that is taking place today is unprecedented in the U.S. We need to understand what is going on and what is possible.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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