"[THE POLAR BEAR] had become a symbol," writes Jon Mooallem in his new book Wild Ones, "for some otherwise inexpressible pang—of guilt, of panic—that can burble into the back of your mind, or the pit of your stomach, when you think about the future of life on Earth."
The polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, where Mooallem begins his brilliant new book, are one of the southernmost polar bear populations in the world. As global temperatures rise, Hudson Bay takes longer and longer to freeze into the ice that is the bears' primary habitat. Consequently, the polar bear population in the self-proclaimed "Polar Bear Capital of the World" has declined by more than 20 percent in the last 20 years. In Churchill, Mooallem finds a bizarre confluence of conservationists, tourists, locals, and Martha Stewart and her TV crew, all vying, in some way or another, for a piece of the bear.
Mooallem uses polar bears as a launching point for his investigation of our current and historical relationship to wild animals, with a particular interest in conservationists: How they fall for butterflies and whales, what they hope to preserve, why they lose hope. Mooallem visits a tiny insect preserve in Southern California, where "citizen scientists" assist in annual counts of an endangered butterfly. He visits Operation Migration, a ragtag group that's created a "Truman Show-esque existence" for whooping cranes, teaching captive-raised birds to migrate by coaxing them to fly along with tiny airplanes. He interviews a woman who kickstarted the Save the Whales movement. Through it all, he weaves both a history of America's ever-changing attitudes toward wildlife, and an ongoing investigation into what it even means to be a wild creature in a world so irrevocably shaped by humans.
If I could write this review entirely in smiley faces and majestic animal emojis, I would: Wild Ones is easily one of the best books I've come across this year. It's more readable than most novels, stuffed with more fascinating, offbeat trivia than the last three issues of The New Yorker combined. But most importantly, it's genuinely, deeply thought provoking. "Thought provoking" is a bullshit book-reviewer term that usually means "I ran out of adjectives to describe this boring novel about sad people." In this case, it means, "I sincerely can't stop thinking about this book." I thought about it on the bus this morning, when I saw a punked-out teenager holding a Starbucks cup. Shifting baselines syndrome! The coffee-shop ecosystem has changed! And I'll think about it every time I get bummed about polar bears or feed a pigeon: It's incredibly well-researched, relevant, challenging stuff.
Mooallem's Powell's reading is at noon on a Tuesday—inconvenient timing that's doubly disappointing given that local band Black Prairie will be performing songs from their excellent soundtrack to the book. But even if you can't make the reading, don't miss the book.