Our book today is 1994’s gorgeous, harrowing Witness by photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, in which they take high-resolution, background-free pictures of 100 of the living American species listed as ‘endangered’ according to the guidelines laid down by the Endangered Species Act. Every single page of this beautiful oversized book is a glimpse of another nation, another world, and Middleton & Liittschwager unerringly capture the carefree uniqueness of those worlds, the offhand millennial perfection of everything from a pearly mussel to a jaguarundi to a Chinook salmon. The big show-stopping animals are here – the grizzly bear, the American crocodile, the swamp cougar, the bald eagle – but there are snails and weeds and beetles too, all lovingly photographed and given a quick but comprehensive description in the book’s back pages.
We learn the details of the shrunken habitats that now support these life-forms, and we learn when each was listed under the Endangered Species Act (we also learn a good deal about the Act itself), and we learn the (then) current state of conservation efforts made on behalf of those life-forms. The news is seldom encouraging, although our authors make a point of always striking a hopeful note, and the legendary E. O. Wilson, who provides an Introduction, strikes something of the same note, at least when it comes to the inherent resilience of so many of the species humans have come to think of as ‘fragile.’ He reminds us that no species dies of old age:
Every species that disappears is killed and it dies young, at least in a physiological sense. We still occasionally hear someone call the California condor a senescent species whose time has come. Don’t hold on too tight, the prescription follows, let it go! That opinion is based on a false analogy with organisms, which compares an endangered species to a terminal patient in intensive care too expensive for society to prolong. The truth is that the great majority of such species are composed largely of young, healthy individuals, just like other, more fortunate species that are still widespread. The condor disappeared from the wild not because its heredity declined but because people destroyed most of its natural habitat and shot or poisoned the dwindling remnant. When only a dozen individuals remained in the wild, they were captured and placed with a confined breeding colony near San Diego. Given protection and food, they and their offspring are now flourishing. If the condor habitat were somehow restored across the prehistoric breeding range and the species left alone within it for a few decades, Gymnogyps californianus would return as an abundant bird across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the American landscape.
As need hardly be pointed out, the nearly two decades since the book’s publication were not kind ones to non-human forms of life on Earth. In the U.S., the lackluster environmental record of the Clinton administration was followed by the active cataclysm of the George W. Bush administration – a 21st Century version of Witness would likely be a very different, even sadder book. These life-forms – the ones with faces and the ones without – are, in the long, long history of life on this planet, the crucial losers: when the immense wheel of chance stopped spinning, they (and their many thousands of since-vanished coevals) were the ones who ended up sharing the globe with humans and so faced a fight they couldn’t hope to win. The survival of these alien nations now depends entirely on worst bet in the known universe: the goodwill of mankind. Books like Witness are slender, flickering things, gestures of hope in that goodwill. They nudge charity into motion by showing the faces and wriggling forms of their siblings. Maybe books like this are the only real hope – to show with perfect clarity the cost of indifference.
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