Mooallem, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, seamlessly blends reportage from the front lines of wildlife conservation with a lively cultural history of animals in America, telling stories of people past and present whose concern for animals makes them act in ways that are sometimes unexpected, sometimes heroic, and occasionally absurd. Thomas Jefferson obsesses over finding an American mammoth; a “sharp-witted hippie” ignites a worldwide movement to save the whales; a man lives in a cage and learns to dance with a whooping crane. There is very little self-righteousness or sentimentalism here, just an intense desire to understand why we do what we do when it comes to wild animals in America. Mooallem, who observes conservationists at work from California to Manitoba, narrates his experience while questioning his own assumptions along the way. [...]
But this isn’t “Wild America.” There are no lingering close-ups or hushed moments of thrilling intimacy with wild animals. Which is part of the point. The art critic John Berger has argued that looking at animals gives us access to an unvarnished truth, whereas Mooallem suggests that looking at animals is hardly an act of pure observation. “From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they’ve inhabited the actual land.” He calls them “free-roaming Rorschachs” and points to the instability of the stories we weave around them to underscore their fiction. Pigeons were once considered lovely but are now seen as a filthy nuisance. Bears were once regarded as monsters, but when Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a wounded bear tied up for his sporting pleasure, the country seized on this moment of mercy and the beloved teddy bear was born. Children are surrounded by imaginary animals — butterflies on pajamas, animal-themed classrooms, books and movies full of fish and foxes that behave like people. As Mooallem digs through the layers of meaning that have “been draped over animals, and on top of each other like translucent silk scarves,” one starts to get the feeling that maybe we have never been able to really see wild animals at all.
PHOTO: Jon Mooallem via Jon Mooallem