“Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System”
Author: Ben Raines
Foreword by E. O. Wilson
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $35.00 (Hardcover)
Ben Raines is on his way to becoming a household name in Alabama. Most lately, he is credited with the discovery of the “Clotilda,” the last slave ship. In the years previous he wrote a documentary, “The Underwater Forest,” about an ancient stand of cypress trees in the Gulf. For many years his environmental reporting appeared in the “Mobile Press-Register.”
This debut book, “Saving America’s Amazon,” is a stunner. The photography, images of birds, fish, orchids, snails, mussels, swamps and lotus blossoms, all by Raines, is beautiful and visually arresting, and the text, read with care, leads either to hope or despair, depending on your confidence in the Alabama legislature and general public.
Raines begins by reminding readers of what phenomenal natural wonders—water, flora and fauna—we have here, what wonders we have had and lost, and what fish, mollusks, birds, amphibians and plants we are losing every day to extinction and what we will continue to lose if we don’t do something about it.
We have in Alabama 77,000 miles of rivers and creeks, the most diverse river network in north America, with 450 species of fish, 97 species of crawfish, 18 species of turtles, just in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. New species of plants and animals are being found regularly.
These lists could go on and on, but the point is clearly made.
Also clearly stated is the state’s ignorance of or indifference to these indigenous wonders. Our state flower, the camellia, is native to Asia, while we in fact have 53 species of orchids in Alabama and a variety of azaleas.
For reasons unknown, the governor’s Conservation Award has on it a statue of a mountain goat, native to the Rockies and unseen in Alabama.
Alabama ranks last in the country in funding for environmental protection. The Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has seen its funding drop from $8 million in 2008 to one million, a decline of 87 percent.
Our environmental agency has been “zero-funded by the legislature for years.” So it is no wonder we stand at the top of all states in extinctions: double any other state, more than Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Florida combined.
Raines explains, in understandable terms, how this enormous biodiversity came to be. It is astonishing.
The bottom half of Alabama was not scoured by glaciers. That is important.
The bottom half has also been a sea bottom at various times which is why one can pick up shark’s teeth or entire zeuglodon skeletons.
(The zeuglodons were first thought to be dinosaurs, when in fact they were, 50 million years ago, among the earth’s first whales.)
And most important, the warm moist air from the Gulf makes Mobile the single rainiest city in the nation at 70 inches per year. I would have guessed Seattle but they get only 55 inches.
This rainfall keeps south Alabama from being a desert, as many other areas at the same latitude, the Sahara and the Mojave, for example, are.
South Alabama has more lightning strikes than anywhere else in north America: 800,000 per year. The profuse lightning strikes were instrumental in maintaining the long leaf pine forests, which required frequent ground level burning to thrive.
There is much to learn from this gorgeous and impassioned book, and some of it is jaw-dropping.
We have bogs, for example, wetlands full of carnivorous pitcher plants that catch and live on bugs, moths, spiders, and crickets, and we even have a floating bladderwort plant that can trap and eat baby fish and tadpoles.
Feed me Seymour!
One particular species, unknown to me, is the pocketbook mussel. Raines reminds the reader that mussels can neither walk nor swim much. And mussels live in flowing streams. So, if mussels “were to spawn like oysters--or like most fish species, for that matter--with males and females simply casting their milt into the current, the babies would always end up somewhere downstream. In just a few generations, the mussels sliding ever southward would run out of river.”
All the mussels would end up in salt water and be gone.
The pocketbook mussel through millions of years of evolution has developed a solution.
The female produces a larvae pocket, a bag of larvae, about two inches long, with a black stripe down the side and a dark spot on each side. The packet looks very much like a minnow. The mussel extends this packet on a filament as long as eight feet where it is taken into the mouth of a bass. The bass, with mussel spawn attached to its gills, swims around, sometimes upstream, dropping baby mussels as it goes.
The natural world took hundreds of millions of years of evolution to create these phenomena. We could, with thoughtless dam-building, careless construction, water and air pollution, kill and poison it all in a generation.
If we do, we will lose the beauty and, as scientists try to tell us, we will lose forever whatever medicines and miracles are in those plants and animals.
Moses Herzog in Bellow’s novel writes letters begging for nuclear sanity. “The point was that there were those who could destroy mankind, that they were foolish and arrogant, crazy, and must be begged not to do it. Let the enemies of life step down.”
So, it is with our natural, beautiful environment: read the book, write a letter.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.