Braving the Italian Mafia to tell an incredible story: Roger Thompson and NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS

By Midge Raymond,

Braving the Italian Mafia to tell an incredible story 

Roger Thompson and No Word for Wilderness

By Elizabeth Raynal

Nearly a decade ago, Roger Thompson was on the border of the Banff National Park, hiking a remote section amidst towering peaks and endless wilderness, tracking bears. Although it may sound exotic to most, for Roger it was a simple excursion. But when he learned about the rarest bears on Earth, just fifty miles from Rome, it began a nine-year journey, one that led him to mafia scares, relentless research, sleepless nights — and finally, the publication of No Word for Wilderness: Italy’s Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth.

Currently a professor of rhetoric and the director of writing at Stony Brook University, Thompson is far from a bear expert, yet he found a passion for Italian grizzlies and is now on a national book tour promoting his new book, which released May 1. No Word for Wilderness tells the story of two populations of bears, both of which have been devastated from habitat destruction, illegal hunting, and poisoning. The book outlines the journey of their survival at the hands of park directors, environmentalists, scientists, angry farmers, and the Italian mafia. Now, there are fewer than fifty Abruzzo bears in existence — and yet this is largely unknown and rarely talked about. When Thompson heard about this that day in Banff from fellow hiker Vladmira Lackova, he said, “It was totally incredulous. I didn’t believe her.”

Not long after, he hopped on a flight to Italy and met up with Italian photographer Bruno D’Amicis. Although they had never met before, D’Amicis picked him up from the train station and took him to the park in Abruzzo to confirm what he couldn’t believe: There are grizzlies in Italy, and the mafia is under suspicion of eliminating them.

This fact alone urged Thompson to write the book. It’s not his first professional accomplishment, however: In addition to academic writing, his award-winning publications include a bestselling Iraq War memoir. He is also the senior editor of Don’t Take Pictures magazine, and his writing appears in many academic and non-academic journals. He taught English and fine arts at the Virginia Military Institute for fourteen years and directed an environmental research program in Banff, AB. He received his PhD in Rhetoric and American Literature from Texas Christian University, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in English from Baylor University. Additionally, he conducted cross-disciplinary research during a fellowship at Harvard University, and his teaching has been recognized with several awards and grants. His busy schedule didn’t sway him from continuing the book.

“It’s been a rough time balancing everything,” he said. In the process of writing the book, the university went through major drawbacks, forcing him to fire half of his staff. He also had his family to consider. “I always have a goal to turn everything in early,” he said, valuing time for revision while keeping publishers at ease. Although Thompson lives in Long Island, NY, he connected with Ashland Creek Press, a boutique publisher based out of Ashland, Oregon, that focuses on environmental literature. They were excited about Thompson’s book because it was a gripping story yet to be told. “But with Ashland Creek, they had to wait,” he continued, “I handed the manuscript in late which drove me crazy. I lost sleep over it.” Despite the late deadlines, both Thompson and Ashland Creek Press were pleased with the outcome.

Other obstacles included language barriers, a lack in scientific knowledge, and the mafia.  “As an American who doesn’t speak Italian, I felt hobbled,” said Thompson. While attempting to conduct interviews in Italy, he felt a level of discomfort between him and Italians who struggled with speaking English. Most Italians he spoke with, though, had enough English competency to have a productive conversation.

In regard to the sciences, he stated, “I’m aware that there’s a fair criticism there in terms of how much access I had. I’m not a biologist, but I think it’s important people talk across their areas of experience. We should try and understand different parts of the world.”


While stepping into a field in which he had no academic background, he also walked into dangerous mafia territory. The Italian mafia is an active force near Abruzzo National Park, and there’s reason to believe they are killing the bears. Former Nebrodi National Park Park Director Guisseppe Antoci of Sicily nearly escaped death once from an attempted assassination and is under high levels of security because of his environmental stance towards the park. While Thompson was on his way to Rome to speak with Antoci after he was run out of office, two Slovakian journalists were murdered in their hometown after an interview with Antoci. Just before that, two of Antoci’s bodyguards died under suspicious conditions. Thompson felt relieved when Antoci had to reschedule because of funerals he had to attend.

In the beginning stages, Thompson didn’t believe the mafia had anything to do with the bears. But after speaking with people in the park and creating a map of mafia arrests around the area, he had no other explanation. “I don’t know how anyone can contest it. If you look at this map and the nature of their involvement in the park, you can’t deny it.”

With that in mind, he took measures to protect himself. “I used a friend who works for the justice department as a resource and asked if anybody needs to know what I’m doing. I didn’t want to be an idiot writer who interviewed a mafia target.” After their conversation he followed through with his interview and the book carried on.

Tension between groups is as high as ever, and the number of bears is still declining. With the publication of No Word for Wilderness, Thompson hopes to motivate people to act. “I’m not the person who can get on the ground there and do the things that need to be done. There needs to be some sort of international face to this that can really bring pressure to it,” he said.

Already, word is spreading about No Word for Wilderness, and it’s gaining traction throughout the U.S. and Italy. The book is available for purchase at all major bookselling websites, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play and iTunes, and can be ordered through any independent bookstore.

Thompson’s work doesn’t stop here. After his book tour, he plans on get more involved with understanding the problematic side of the tar sands oil industry in Alberta, Canada, and start co-writing the book in the fall. He also has and endless list of novel ideas, and is never opposed to picking up a new story that he finds interesting.

Elizabeth Raynal graduated from Southern Oregon University with degrees in English and Outdoor Adventure Leadership. Her pursuit to be an environmental writer and editor reflects in her publication with the Mail Tribune and success in receiving a grant for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Her work also appears on Literary Ashland. When she is not writing or studying, she can be found on a mountain with her ice axe or working as a part-time mechanic for the University.

  Category: News from Ashland Creek Press
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Meet the king penguin

By Midge Raymond,

It was a big thrill to meet the majestic king penguins on a recent trip to South Georgia Island. The second-largest penguin in the world, kings are even more colorful and striking than the emperors, and they are social and curious. (None of these photos was taken with a zoom lens. If you sit on the beach, they will walk right past you, and sometimes even come up to check you out.)

The colonies we visited ranged from 7,000 breeding pairs to 50,000 — and due to horrific weather, we didn’t get a chance to see the biggest colony on South Georgia. But seeing thousands of penguins at sunrise was pretty spectacular. The chicks were huddled in the middle of the rookery, but many curious adults came over to visit.

As you’ll see in the video below, kings (who have no predators on land) are unafraid of humans. Visitors are not allowed to approach or touch them, of course, but if you sit quietly you’ll receive many visitors, one after another. (And hearing their trilling call is an amazing experience, as you’ll hear in this video.)


The total population of kings is 1.6 million, but as this article outlines, like all penguins, they are vulnerable to climate change and could lose as much as 70 percent or more of their current numbers in the years to come.

Despite this romantic photo below, king penguins actually don’t have high fidelity rates — which is likely due to their very long breeding cycles (nearly 15 months from courtship to when the chicks fledge) and the fact that while they return to the same colony, they don’t molt at the same time.

Like the emperors, the king penguins do not build nests but carry their eggs around in a little pouch above their feet. They are now in the IUCN category of “least concern,” which is a good thing … but climate change and the fishing industry are bound to change this status if both continue moving forward at the current rates.

Vegan dining in Ashland, Oregon

By Midge Raymond,

Many local restaurants are making great improvements in its vegan dining options. For one, the all-vegan food truck Two Peas is at the Growers Market in Ashland (as well as at other Rogue Valley locations), and Louie’s continues to add yummy additions to its vegetarian menu and its “vegan cheat sheet.”

One of our most fun discoveries in Ashland of late was seeing the Impossible Burger on the bistro menu at Alchemy. (Note that this entire meal is vegan, as it should be; the Impossible Burger is on another local Ashland menu, but the bun is not vegan, which rather defeats the purpose of ordering a burger.)

The Impossible Burger is known by vegans for, well, being vegan — and it’s known among non-vegans for being the closest thing to a “real” burger; it has all the flavor, all the texture, and none of the cholesterol, fat, hormones, toxins, and animal cruelty involved in producing meat. Best of all: It’s truly delicious.

We’ve had the Impossible Burger before, and it was terrific — but the way Alchemy serves up this plant-based burger is truly delectable. It comes with the pommes frites piled onto the burger itself, and the whole thing is smothered with vegan cheese and sauce that is creamy and spicy and delicious.

It’s thrilling to see this amazing dish at one of Ashland’s most popular restaurants, as it shows a commitment to the vegans who are both local and visiting, and it will also help show the omnivores out there just how good plant-based food really is. In fact, we returned within a week just to enjoy this meal again, and it was served up slightly differently (but was every bit as delicious).

Unfortunately, foie gras is still on Alchemy’s main dinner menu, which is a shame, as this is likely to keep a number of vegans from even walking through the door. We do hope, though, that those who visit Alchemy try this vegan burger and make it even more popular, so that perhaps one day Alchemy will see the interest in delicious food that is cruelty free — which is better for their customers, for the animals, and for the planet.

Vegan dining in Salt Lake City

By Midge Raymond,

We were thrilled with a recent visit to Salt Lake City, not only because we got to eat at the delicious Vertical Diner but because we learned that this all-vegan restaurant is one of many in Salt Lake. Check out the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, and keep an eye out in town for its Veg Dining Guide for more vegan options.

Of course, Vertical Diner should be a stop on your journey; it’s delicious comfort food. We began with Buffalo Tigers, fried tofu in a spicy buffalo sauce, served with celery and carrot sticks and vegan ranch sauce. (This appetizer was so good it disappeared before we could take photos.)

Breakfast is served all day, and among the delectable options is La Mesa, a gigantic meal of potatoes, black beans, rice, tofu scramble, and grilled peppers and onions. Everything is covered with vegan cheese, sprinkled with sour cream, and topped with guacamole.



Another breakfast plate, The Avalanche, comprises two pancakes with tofu scramble and fries, with a choice of breakfast sausage or tempeh bacon.

For those who love gravy, look no further than the American Diner, which is a bowl of hand-cut fries (or mashed potatoes) and fried tofu “tigers” smothered with gravy.

A meal at Vertical Diner will provide you with more food than you could possibly need, but (in the interest of research, of course), afterwards we went to the Monkey Wrench, a glorious all-vegan ice cream shop, which also serves coffee and tea.

All the bakery items, even the ice-cream cone, are vegan, and flavors range from rocky road to pecan to mint chip, which I finally settled on after tasting just about every other flavor. There are also a lot of vegan toppings available.

Of note: This ice-cream shop is right next to the Bolt Cutter, another all-vegan restaurant, best known for its giant nacho plates. It also serves gourmet street tacos and other Central American dishes and has a wide selection of tequilas, mezcals, beer, and craft cocktails. We didn’t have time to visit, but it’s at the top of our list for next time…

Again, check out UARC and the Veg Dining Guide for more places that are not only vegan but that are UARC partners.


Vegan dining in Melbourne: Madame K’s

By Midge Raymond,

In the vegan haven of Melbourne, the neighborhood of Fitzroy, we discovered Madame K’s Vegetarian (you’ll also find in Melbourne Smith & Deli and Smith & Daughters, Matcha Mylkbar, Lord of the Fries, and so many more vegan options).

This Asian restaurant is all vegetarian and there are a lot of fake meats on the menu, as well as veg dishes for those who don’t like faux meat dishes. Important note for wine drinkers: You need to bring your own wine! Fortunately, there are a number of bottle shops and wine shops nearby.

For an appetizer we had chive dumplings, which are pan fried and stuffed with chives. They were so amazing we could’ve had another couple of orders and called it a night. 

But we went on to order a main dish: tofu with red curry. This dish comprised stir-fried crispy tofu with red curry, red pepper (called capsicum in Australia), and chilis, and it comes with jasmine or brown rice.

This too was very good (but not quite as delicious as the dumplings!). There are many more vegan options on Madame K’s menu, and we look forward to visiting again to sample more of them.

  Category: On travel, Vegan
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