Water, A Natural History by Alice Outwater
Basic Books 1996 186 pages
This is a story of the relationship between water and land. "Water is the blood of land."
Outwater's tone is at once affectionate and reverent. From prairie dog lifestyle to scientific stats, the book is readable and enlightening.
In many ways, it's a tragic story. The author takes us back to the 17th century fur trade, the beginning of the end for the plentiful beaver. Lost too are the ecological benefits from the beaver's lifestyle, which forms dams, ponds, and wetlands. "A land with hundreds of millions of beavers is a truly rich land, and the wetlands associated with beaver dams made the New World's water plentiful and clear as the dew."
After decimation of the beavers, that of buffalo, prairie dogs, and alligators followed, as did the way in which each species benefitted the land. Forests were cleared; by 1870 over 60% of the original forests were gone. (Those that have grown back are "shadows of what they once were.") So too the vast prairies. "The natural system was being dismantled piece by piece." As a result, "water is no longer able to clean itself naturally, and despite our best legislative efforts our waterways are still impaired."
In the 1930s came the dams, (there are 50,000 dams in this country), altering and simplifying river systems. Then in the 1940s came thousands of new chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers.
Outwater makes a passionate and convincing case for bringing back beavers and prairie dogs to public lands.
This thesis is original enough, but what makes her book really wonderful is the way her mind works. It spans four centuries with ease and constant interconnection, weaving the mesmerizing story much like an ecosystem. She thinks systemically, illuminating for us a whole new take on the disaster that's called progress.