BookShelf: “Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System”
By Ben Raines
NewSouth Books, $35.00
Reviewed by Tom Henry
As journalists, we’re trained to look for conflict and controversy.
Far too often, we forget to do more simple storytelling about the ecosystems around us and show people outside of our individual spheres what makes them unique.
There are stories in practically everyone’s backyard that, when done right, can be compelling without trying to make a heavy-handed political statement.
That’s one of the thoughts that ran through my head as I was reading a fascinatingly taut and informative book written by Alabama’s Ben Raines, “Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System.”
‘A wild Alabama’
“Civil rights protests, steel mills, cotton fields, and football — that’s the Alabama living in the mind of the public,” wrote Raines. “But there is another Alabama, a wild Alabama, that ranks among our country’s rarest and most precious assets.”
Guilty as charged.
I’ve heard and read about Alabama’s civil rights protests, its steel mills, its cotton fields and its football. But I had no idea how amazing the Mobile River Basin is until I read this book, which is only 127 pages long, but woven throughout with innumerable graphics, maps, photographs (many ones that Raines took himself underwater), as well as historical narrative.
A few amazing tidbits I picked up about Alabama from this book:
- There are more species of oaks on a single hillside of the banks of the Alabama River than anywhere in the world.
- Alabama has more species of freshwater fish, mussels, snails, turtles and crawfish than any other state.
- Alabama has 97 crawfish species. Louisiana, known for its spicy and delicious boiled crawfish, has just 32.
- Alabama has 450 species of freshwater fish, about a third of all known species in the nation.
- The Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s 18 species of turtles are more than any other river delta in the world, including the Amazon and the Mekong.
- Mobile shares its latitude with Cairo and the vast Sahara desert. Montgomery and Birmingham share latitudes with Phoenix and Albuquerque, respectively, along with the Mojave Desert.
“By all rights, the entire state of Alabama ought to be a desert, and the incredible array of rivers and streams in the state ought to be as dry as a Death Valley gulch,” Raines writes.
Why isn’t it?
Because Alabama ranks as one of America’s three wettest states on average.
Seattle, with its average of 55 inches of rain a year, pales in comparison to Mobile and the area surrounding Mobile Bay, which get on average more than 70 inches of rain a year.
Mobile River Basin as ‘American’s Amazon’
Raines convincingly shows how Alabama has a lot of natural beauty that gets overlooked.
A filmmaker and photographer as well as a gifted writer and passionate naturalist, Raines also wrote and directed “The Underwater Forest,” an award-winning documentary about the exploration of a 70,000-year-old cypress forest found off the Alabama coast, as well as writing and producing the PBS documentary “America’s Amazon.”
And — no surprise here — he’s disheartened by the lack of support for the state he loves.
As Raines points out, you “won’t find armies of hippies chaining themselves to trees to protect this place, or national environmental groups using pictures of it to sign up new members, because almost no one even knows it exists.”
He makes a case for the Mobile River Basin being “America’s Amazon,” and — through his impassioned writing — whets the reader’s appetite to learn more.
By the way, famed Harvard University entomologist E.O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who hails from Alabama, wrote a three-paragraph foreword for this book. And he is quoted throughout by Raines, who himself has co-authored several scientific papers published in paleontology journals (and who in 2019 discovered the long-lost wreck of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States).
Development unchecked by watchdogs
This book is not a sentimental journey. Raines shows how Alabama has become a soft spot for industrial development now and how the opportunities for accountability have diminished as newspapers and other forms of media have been gutted.
“The demise of our once robust newspapers is especially worrisome in Alabama, where officials spend less to protect the environment than in any other state, despite having one of the richest assemblages of plants and animals seen on Earth,” Raines wrote.
Alabama has lost 90 species
to extinction. California, which is
three times as large, has lost 53.
Alabama has lost 90 species to extinction. California, which is three times as large, has lost 53.
Through his eloquent writing and amazing photographs, Raines takes readers into Alabama’s forests, its swamps, its bogs and along its shorelines. He writes about destruction caused by King Coal, dams and others.
Along the way, readers meet anything from tiny warblers to massive alligators and sturgeon.
Gators? Do people know Alabama — not just Florida, Georgia and Louisiana — has gators, too? Consider this: One of the largest alligators ever captured in Alabama was 15 feet long. Inside its gut was a 150-pound deer it had swallowed whole.
A reminder of the stories in our backyards
This book reminded me, in some ways, of “Richness and Rarity: The Natural History of Lucas County,” released by the University of Toledo Press, which explored, among other things, the globally rare phenomenon known as the Oak Openings.
A beautiful oak savanna, the Oak Openings is Ohio’s most biologically diverse area and extends into Michigan. It was formed when a retreating glacier created the Great Lakes about 20,000 years ago.
That book was written by Elliot Tramer, UT’s first ecology professor and one of two faculty advisers for the first Earth Day events on UT’s campus on April 22, 1970. And I remember Yarko Kuk, UT Press managing editor, telling me how that book was a good example of what can happen when writers think locally and stop trying to write the next blockbuster or political thriller.
As Kuk said, almost every part of the country has a university press that loves to publish those kinds of books.
Every state doesn’t have Alabama’s biological diversity. But the book Raines did reminded me there are often opportunities for great storytelling in our own backyards.
Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Editorial Advisory Board and a former SEJ board member. He has covered environmental and energy issues for The (Toledo) Blade since March of 1993.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.