I adore elephant seals. They are among the most interesting creatures on the planet to watch (and we’ve traveled to a lot of continents to watch a lot of creatures).
For one, they really know how to enjoy life, as you can see in the video I took of this happy girl on a beach on South Georgia Island.
They are also hilariously disgusting, and visiting elephant seals during their molt is an extremely good time to see them at their most appalling. They lie on the beach — fat, lazy, grunting beasts who are tumbling all over each other, sometimes fighting and always bellowing —and you can smell them long before you catch sight of them. Here’s a video of a male calling out to all those near and far…
And perhaps my favorite image from our visit to Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island was this one — a skinny, post-molt gentoo penguin who is appearing to flee the wrath of this elephant seal. (The gentoo was in reality doing no such thing — he was only making his way to the beach — but when it comes to wildlife photography, timing is everything.)
For all those who are now convinced you must meet these incredible creatures yourself, join us and Adventures by the Book on our Penguins & Patagonia journey this October! We will be meeting the Magellanic penguins featured in My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail (and there’s an optional excursion to Antarctica), but we will also have a chance to spend quality time with elephant seals during their mating season. (You can imagine how entertaining that will be.) Click here to learn more about this upcoming adventure.
Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?
A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.
Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?
A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.
Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?
A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.
Q: What kind of pressure?
A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.
Q: How are they in the way?
A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.
Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?
A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.
Q: How is this being combatted?
A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.
Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.
Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.
We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!
Many congratulations to the winner of the 2017 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Diana Hartel, for her essay collection Watershed Redemption: Journey in Time on Five U.S. Watersheds.
Judge Jonathan Balcombe writes of Diana’s book: “In Watershed Redemption, Diana Hartel’s sweeping, richly researched account conjures up a Bierstadt landscape. With elegant, crystal-clear prose, she weaves a dire yet hopeful tapestry of ecological ignorance, genocide, and tenacious activism. There is something for everyone—environmentalist, policy-maker, ethnologist, historian, biologist, epidemiologist, artist—in this powerful piece of advocacy.”
Diana Hartel writes on public health and ecosystem health issues. She graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in epidemiology and concentrations in environment-related chronic diseases and infectious diseases. She has held faculty positions at Columbia University and Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and has published widely for biomedical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. Additionally, she served at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, for three years, chairing inter-agency projects with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She created two non-profit organizations, Bronx Community Works in New York in 1993 and Madrona Arts in Oregon in 2006. Both organizations addressed issues of social and environmental issues. The Oregon-based Madrona Arts primarily employed visual and written arts to raise awareness of ecosystems and efforts to restore them to vibrant health.
[Photo by David Winston]
Diana will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.
We are also delighted to announce the prize finalists and semi-finalists:
Crusoe, Can You Hear Me?: A novel by Deborah Tomkins
Lost Coast: A young-adult novel by Geneen Marie Haugen
Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture by Robert Grillo
Xylotheque: Essays by Yelizaveta Renfro
Junk Raft: An ocean voyage and rising tide of activism to fight plastic pollution by Marcus Eriksen
A very special thanks to all writers who entered the contest … your support makes this prize possible!
Reserve your spot before January 31, 2018, for a $300 discount — reservations are limited as this will be an intimate, exclusive tour.
The backstory: When John and I volunteered at the Punta Tombo penguin colony in Argentina, helping with a penguin census of the largest Magellanic colony in the world, our experiences with the land, penguins, and dedicated scientists inspired our novels, The Tourist Trail and My Last Continent. We can’t wait to take readers and adventurers to see this spectacular colony firsthand, learn about its incredible history, and find out how to help conservation efforts in this extraordinary part of the world.
You’ll also have the opportunity to see and experience wildlife in ways you never imagined as we travel from Buenos Aires to Punta Tombo to the UNESCO World Heritage site Peninsula Valdes, where penguins, rheas, guanacos, foxes, sea lions, elephant seals, orcas, and many more stunning creatures reside. We’ll have a uniquely intimate experience with nature based at the private estancia Rincon Chico, accompanied all the way by a team of experienced local guides. (Note: While we’ll experience a lot of wildlife, we won’t be “roughing it” — the activity level will be light to moderate, and the accommodations will be lovely!)