An adventure across our strange, beautiful and totally humanized planet

By Emma Marris
Bloomsbury, 210 pages, $25

Reviewed by Steve Weinberg

Given the intensely local orientation of the Columbia Heart Beat, it will come as no surprise to readers that an excellent book they perhaps know nothing about is the work of a Columbia author.  
Emma Marris, who grew up in Seattle, earned her science writing master’s degree across the continent from there, in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.   She relocated to Columbia because of her philosopher husband’s affiliation with the University of Missouri.

The author of numerous articles about ecology in the magazine Nature, Marris decided to try writing a book.  The successful nonfiction authors scattered throughout Columbia can attest that writing a book perhaps 20 times as long as a lengthy magazine article constitutes far more than 20 times the effort.  
A book takes on a life of its own for a writer, and the best books about serious topics frequently consume years and years of researching, conceptualizing, writing, and rewriting.

Marris’ first book, “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” comes from a major, prestigious publisher, Bloomsbury.  One reviewer, Jon Christensen from Stanford University, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, compared Marris to “the greatest environmental writers and thinkers of the past century, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.”

Yes, Marris’ first book is that strong.   She is obviously brainy, and the book as a result qualifies as an intellectual tour de force.  But it is also approachable for a non-specialist like myself.   That is because Marris is a first-rate reporter who knows how to gather information from a variety of sources and present it through compelling anecdotes, quotations and scenes.

Rambunctious Garden is a book about vanishing environments—not only in designated wilderness areas like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but also within cities and neighborhoods.  Climate change is for real, and that means no portion of land or water or sky can remain pristine, or be restored to a pristine state.  Get over that reality, Marris says, and devise new strategies for saving nature. 
She just happens to have calculated what some of those strategies should be.  Furthermore, she has spent time with hands-on ecologists who are making inroads.

On Marris’s website she says of her book that reading it can be fun.  I agree.  Marris is not exaggerating when she comments about her book:  “Dutch safaris with Nazi-bred cattle; treks deep into the totally non-native, totally wild jungles of Hawaii; close encounters with European bison; a kayak tour through the hidden river at the heart of Seattle—it is an adventure across our strange, beautiful and totally humanized planet.”

Steve Weinberg is a magazine writer and author of eight nonfiction books who also teaches magazine feature reporting and critical reviewing at the University of Missouri Journalism School.   He recently reviewed Alex George's The Good American for the Kansas City Star and Keija Parssinen's The Ruins of Us for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.