Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Interview with Matthew Sivils: Part 1

You have written a wonderfully informative and energizing essay to accompany this reprint of Paul Errington’s classic Of Men and Marshes. What drew you to his writing in the first place?
You can turn to almost any page in Of Men and Marshes and become instantly absorbed in the beauty of Errington’s ecological thinking, in his way of seeing the drama and grandeur of the wetland world. It’s remarkable, really. He has a way of conveying the spirit of the marshland ecosystem so that you feel you are right there with him, waders on, field glasses in hand, sharing his experience of the prairie wetlands. He’s never showy or flighty in his descriptions, but at the same time he conveys a reverence for the ecosystem and its creatures that makes you forget that this guy was not only a scientist by training but also one of the most renowned wildlife biologists of his day. Errington may have had a biologist’s field notebook, but he had a poet’s pen.

What can Of Men and Marshes teach today’s conservationists and policy makers?
One of the most important lessons Errington can still teach conservationists, policy makers, and the population in general is that our wetland ecosystems, all ecosystems, have value beyond their monetary worth. At one of my favorite points in the book Errington writes, “We need not feel over-critical of man for looking out for his own interests, including means of livelihood, but neither need we commend his heavy-handedness in dealing with the exploited earth and with the other living things that belong on the earth, too.” He’s reminding us that we are not the only organisms who belong on this planet. We have a tragic history of selfish and shortsighted exploitation, and Errington reminds us that if we continue to view the world as simply a resource for supplying economic interests we will awake one day to a land unfit for any species, ours included.

How does this book compare to other environmental classics of its time?
Errington had been a friend and colleague of Aldo Leopold, and he at times in letters to his publisher said he wanted Of Men and Marshes to reach the same general audience who so enjoyed Leopold’s 1948 Sand County Almanac. So, like virtually all of the works of nature writing that followed in the wake of Leopold’s classic, Of Men and Marshes seeks a middle ground between the sometimes less-than-accessible realm of environmental science and the more inviting genre of nature writing. It’s a powerful mixture when done well. If you like Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951), Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Desert Year (1954), Loren Eisely’s The Immense Journey (also published in 1957), and other similar books of that time, you will love Errington’s Of Men and Marshes. As with Carson’s sea books and Krutch’s Desert Year, Errington takes as his subject an ecosystem that until then had been largely overlooked, or even maligned, and invites us to reconsider its worth. It’s a gesture that places Of Men and Marshes within the best works of nature writing from that era. Errington also goes into untrodden territory, for instance when he concludes the book by juxtaposing an example of muskrat overcrowding in a marsh with the problem of human overpopulation and overconsumption. The ideas in that section are even more relevant today, and no less controversial. Errington, more so than some of his contemporaries, was not afraid to hold a mirror up to humanity and show us our blemishes.

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