Island Press, 2017

ISBN: 978-1610917957

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


The extent of environmental challenge that our world is facing today is unprecedented—but as the publishers of this book point out, it is at times like this that we need inspiration more than ever. With political leaders who deny climate change, species that are fighting for their very survival, and the planet’s last places of wilderness growing smaller and smaller, it is all too easy to succumb to despair and to give up because, after all, what can a single person do? Well, one person can do a surprising amount. In Nature’s Allies, Larry A. Nielsen uses the stories of eight people to show that through passion and perseverance, we can each be a positive force for change.

The eight men and women whose biographies are contained here could not have been more different from each other but the one thing they have in common is that they are all conservation pioneers. Some are well known, some less so. Yet, all of them have made a significant and lasting mark on our world, each in his or her unique way.

The eccentric John Muir who taught us all to value wilderness, lives again in these pages as we read of his devotion to Nature and to certain special places, such as Yosemite. We see how well Ding Darling’s cartoons brought the politics of environment home to people in ways that mere words could never have done and we read here of the experiences and influences that led Aldo Leopold to develop the land ethic that has guided the thinking of a whole generation of environmentalists. We feel gratitude, once more, to Rachel Carson, whose painstaking research and eloquent writing finally convinced the world of the danger of pesticides and learn how Chico Mendes devoted his entire life—and eventually, tragically lost it—in passionate defence of the Amazon, its ecosystems and its indigenous peoples. We meet Billy Frank Jr. whose single-minded determination eventually restored to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest their ancestral right to fish sustainably for salmon, aiding the entire ecosystem in the process. We are inspired anew by the example of Norwegian cabinet minister Gro Harlem Brundtland whom the book describes as the Godmother of Sustainable Development and hear again of how the indomitable Wangari Maathai oversaw the planting of several million trees in Africa—a life’s work that earned her the Nobel prize she so richly deserved.

The stated aim of Nature’s Allies is “to inspire students, conservationists, and Nature lovers to speak up for Nature and show the power of one person to make a difference.” And I am sure it will help to do just that. I found it an interesting, heart-warming book.