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March 8, 2018

Q & A with Adam Regn Arvidson, author of Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest

Filed under: Authors, Interview, MHS press, Nature/Enviroment — Alison Aten @ 11:30 am

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Join us next Wednesday, March 14, at 7:00 pm at Magers & Quinn Bookstore to celebrate the publication of Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest by Adam Regn Arvidson. Here he tells us what inspired him to write the book and the adventures he went on and the interesting people he met while researching it.

What is your connection to Minnesota and its landscapes?

I’m originally from the Chicago area, but I’ve lived here now for twenty years. What I loved right away when I moved here—and what I still love about Minnesota—is the incredible variety of landscapes. We are the only state in the US that has three major biomes (prairie, deciduous forest, and mixed conifer forest) without significant elevation change. Those three biomes are as different from each other as jungles, deserts, and coral reefs are. And they all exist right here, within a couple hours’ drive of the Twin Cities.

As someone who grew up ranging far afield from suburban Chicago for outdoor adventures, that landscape diversity is exciting. As a landscape architect who has worked on and written about projects all over the country, I find the Minnesota landscape to be an ever-stimulating source of ideas and inspiration. Edward Abbey writes about how everyone has their ideal home landscape, even if it wasn’t the one they were born into. I feel that way about Minnesota and the upper Midwest. I feel equally at home in the grasslands, the oak woods, and the northern forests. I also love being able to move freely—and quickly—between them.

Wild and Rare is both very focused on our region and also wide-ranging in terms of the species you cover. What made you want to tackle your subject this way?

I am a great lover of lists. I am most definitely a National Parks and State Parks Passport holder. The origin of the book goes way back to around nine years ago, when I visited the International Wolf Center and heard wolves howl for the first time. That moment—which appears in the introduction to the book—was followed by a trip to an Ely food-and-drink establishment, where I wrote the first draft of the description of the howling. But more importantly, I got curious about what other plants and animals might be on the endangered species list. With smartphone in one hand and Minnesota brew in the other, I learned of the (then) twelve listed species. I saw one I recognized and had a deep affinity for—the dwarf trout lily—and many I didn’t. I realized right away that, put together, that list described every landscape in Minnesota, almost every type of living thing, and covered the entire geography of the state.

My goal has always been to describe the beauty and complexity of this state and its neighbors. The species are a gateway to that. The endangered species list, seen item by item, shows off the whole. And along the way I learned more about my adopted home place than I ever thought possible.

You have been out in the field a lot with scientists in researching this book. What are some of your favorite stories from those trips?

Perhaps the most unexpected trip was when I joined Joel Olfelt and his Leedy’s roseroot research team. I met them in a farm field in southeastern Minnesota, and Joel unpacked an aluminum extension ladder. A ladder to catalog plants? We descended steeply (carrying the ladder) into a river gorge with sheer cliffs on both sides and propped the ladder against the rock. Climbing the ladder was a surreal and memorable experience. It was hard to imagine this was a Minnesota landscape. The cliff was dripping with moisture and the river rushed below me. And there on the cliffside were these little plants, each with a metal tag. Joel has spent around two decades following the life stories of these plants—and I was wondering how anyone ever found them in the first place.

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Another memorable story is when I tracked lynx with Dan Ryan of the US Forest Service. I really didn’t know what I was in for, and I spent a lot of time foundering in the deep snow. I sometimes fancy myself a rugged outdoorsman, but Dan is the real deal. He let me follow tracks, but I had to keep asking him to verify what I was seeing. He cruised through the thickets, while I repeatedly fell in the snow and got tangled in the brush. I can’t imagine doing this work in twenty-below weather or even deeper snow—both of which Dan regularly experiences. He, like pretty much every scientist I worked with on this book, was patient and generous. He may have been chuckling at this city kid under his breath, but he didn’t show it.


How do you turn all that research into chapters that both educate and entertain?

One of my former teachers called me a “binge writer.” I can’t start writing a chapter until all my research is done. By the time I sit down to write, I have already been in the field multiple times, scoured the online Federal Register documents, read books, and done phone interviews. Then I sit down and write a chapter, usually in about two days of solid, nose-to-the-grindstone hunting-and-pecking, most often in coffee shops (I suppose I should have credited my regular haunts in the book’s acknowledgments).

Once the draft is done, I print it out, cut it apart, and start rearranging the sections to make them flow better. I’ve most often done this while holed up for a weekend in a Minnesota State Park camper cabin, papers strewn across the floor, three chapters a day: morning, afternoon, evening. Once I have an order I like, I go back to my tablet and re-arrange the digital version, polishing transitions as I go. This task often reveals where I have research gaps, so I do another round of calls, searches, and readings.

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The great writer Barry Lopez, in a writing class I was once lucky enough to take, talked about the “genius of the first draft.” He is extremely careful about the editing he does, and will often work on an essay for months or years without changing much. In my case, the re-arrangement significantly changes how the chapter flows, but the base text doesn’t change much from that first binge-writing session.

Lopez also talked about the positions of the writer and the reader relative to the story. He feels many writers put themselves up front, potentially in the way of the reader. He prefers to begin beside the reader, and then gradually move the writer into the background behind the reader. This way, the reader has a full view of the story, with the writer sort of whispering in the reader’s ear. I can’t guarantee my book does this, but it’s what I strive for.

What are the main threats facing endangered species in the Midwest?

Of course it varies by species. But if I had to boil it down, I think there is a very simple big three: water quality, habitat loss, and climate change. Poor water quality and increased storm runoff has significantly hurt freshwater mussels, and is likely affecting the dwarf trout lily and the Topeka shiner. Habitat loss is a major one. Without prairie—of which we have lost more than 99 percent in this country—there will be no prairie fringed orchids, no bush clover, likely no Topekas, and definitely no prairie butterflies. Loss of forest habitat affects the wolf and lynx. Beachfront development gets the plover.

Climate change is a little more esoteric. It’s definitely happening, and in some cases the effects are becoming well known. But exactly how it will affect different landscapes is still an open question. And it could be argued that species like the lynx will simply migrate north and be perfectly happy in Canada. But even if plants could gradually migrate north, they likely can’t do it quickly enough and there might not be suitable soils and moisture in their new temperature range.

One message in all this is hopeful. The Clean Water Act of 1972 fundamentally changed the way we treat urban and rural waterways. There is still work to do (especially with agricultural runoff and road salt), but rivers and lakes, overall, are cleaner than they were before that act. That’s why Mike Davis is reintroducing mussels to the Mississippi.

How has the writing of this book, over the course of nine years, changed you?

For starters it made me into a birder. I didn’t know the difference between a red-tailed hawk and a Cooper’s hawk. But then I went to Texas and started trying to identify shorebirds and it opened a whole new world for me. And my kids got all wrapped up in it, too (sorry, boys). We all have eBird accounts and carry binoculars when we hike. I also started cross-country skiing, after trying it in the amazing snow when I was up north tracking lynx with Dan Ryan. Now it’s one of my favorite things.

I suppose the main change has been that I enjoy this state even more. I itch to get outside, no matter the weather. I look at maps and pick out the parks I want to visit (a list-maker’s hobby).

I also find myself plagued or blessed (depending on my perspective that day) with a constant mix of fear and hope over the fate of our fellow travelers on this globe. Every species I tracked in this book has a rather horrible story of either deliberate or collateral persecution by we humans. Every one also has an uplifting story of resilience and potential—often because of the care and passion of humans. Sometimes both stories exist at the same moment in time.

For instance, I have come to believe (regardless of what the “settled science” says) that pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, are killing bees and butterflies. Right now. Every day. But at the same time, scientists at the Minnesota Zoo are raising and releasing endangered butterflies into the wild. Will they meet the same fate as their forebears? Will they thrive and repopulate the prairies? I don’t know. And I both worry about that and get excited about that. I love this upper midwestern landscape deeply. I believe it will last forever, and I also fear it won’t.

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