Book Review: Astoria – John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire

astoriastarkAstoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, by Peter Stark, Harper Collins Publishers (www.harpercollins.com), 2014, 384 pages, $27.99

In 1810, less than five years after the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s westward push to the Pacific Coast, entrepreneur and visionary John Jacob Astor approached Thomas Jefferson with a proposition – to establish a trading emporium along the then-unexplored Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, and there build an empire. Recognizing in the fur trade America’s untapped tradable wealth, Astor conceived “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known,” a scheme bold enough to make a Bond villain blush: to (a) import blankets, pots, and beads from London and New York and convey them to the Pacific Coast, where he would (b) exchange the goods for furs from the coastal and inland Indians along established trading posts, so that he could then (c) resell the furs in Canton China and purchase porcelain, tea, and silk, which he would lastly (d) resell at markets in New York and London at an unimaginable markup. All Astor needed was to secure an overland route across the North American continent and seed a colony from which his empire would flourish.

To see his vision through, Astor – a pauper-cum-millionaire made in the fur trade and real estate for whom money was no object – assembled two parties. His Overland Party, led by the thoughtful Wilson Price Hunt, was to cross the Rockies and establish an interior network of trading posts. His Seagoing Party, lead by the mercurial US Naval Captain Jonathan Thorn, was to transport supplies and tradable goods around Cape Horn to join with the Overland Party at the Columbia River. There, along the (more-or-less) unexplored horizon of the Pacific Ocean, the two companies would meet up and break ground for Astor’s great empire. That, at least, was the plan.

What played out next across the North American continent as both parties forged westward reads like a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Fighting off starvation, abandonment, theft, betrayal, inclement weather, scurvy, insanity, paranoia, cannibalism, scalping, vengeful (and friendly) Indians, and the looming threat of war – oh, and death, plenty of death, the two parties struggled against towering waves, unforgiving mountains, and bone-chilling drafts of sea and snow. And those that made it found themselves no better off, stranded in Astoria and removed from the world, wondering whether reinforcements would arrive before their enemies. Replete with tales of derring-do and self-sacrifice, and those more shameful, including a vindictive ship captain leaping into a longboat to beat the daylights out of a sailor with a handful of sugarcane stalks for arriving after the ship’s departure, there is no shortage of white-knuckle moments.

In the years to follow, the paths Astor’s men forged across the Rockies would seed the United State’s westward expansion along the Oregon Trail. But for so great an achievement, Astoria’s history has been inexplicably eclipsed somewhere between the period of Native American occupation and the California Gold Rush. But not so in Astoria. From cover to cover, the labored birth of Astoria is woven together seamlessly and entertainingly by Peter Stark, whose craft as a storyteller makes Astoria a delight to read. Astor, Hunt, and Thorn leap from the pages in fairytale fashion, becoming larger than life as Stark dusts off a chapter of history much forgotten today. Well researched and well told, Astoria intermingles a nostalgia for our once-unexplored continent with an awe inspiring respect for the unforgiving lands and the men and women that braved them.

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Book Review: Aviary Wonders Inc.

Aviary9780547978994_lresAviary Wonders Inc., Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, by Kate Samworth, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (http://www.hmhco.com), 2014, 32 pages, $17.99

In Kate Samworth’s debut children’s book, the world has stumbled into a dark future fantasy where deforestation has brought birds to the edge of extinction, and Aviary Wonders Inc. visionary Alfred Wallis (surely no relation to Alfred Russel Wallace) has mass-manufactured a solution – a build-a-bird catalogue (and instruction manual). In the spirit of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogs from the days of old, Aviary Wonders Inc. encourages nostalgic nature lovers of the future to create their own birds from hand-crafted parts lovingly shaped and detailed by world-class artisans around the globe. From feathers fletched in 100% Indian silk to hand-tooled Italian leather legs, this spring catalogue is a veritable bird buffet of ready-to-assemble parts.

Told tongue in cheek through dark, exotic copy reminiscent of the J. Peterman Company, Samworth marshals the absurd to drive home how irreplaceable birds are. But in doing so, the dark comedy hits a little too close to home. Rightfully so, the screw-on legs, the gaudy-tacky feathers, the Celtic scrollwork-tooled beaks, and the buckle-and-strap crest and beak harnesses are all too alien to make peace with. Children who aren’t bedazzled by the playful presentation and silly premise may instead find it simply alienating (naked birds without beaks and feet). Hopefully, parents will take advantage of any discomfort and channel it into conversations about extinction and conservation, the hidden message in this post-cataclysmic catalogue.

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Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home

HummingbirdAppHummingbird enthusiasts will rejoice at the Audubon Society’s newest app, Hummingbirds at Home, a tool to crowdsource scientists’ understanding of hummingbird behavior in response to climate change. Like tiny, well oiled machines, these flying aces carefully sync their migration and foraging patterns in time with the bloom periods of their nectar sources. But as climate change increasingly gunks up the works, these incremental changes – slippages in bloom periods, anomalous weather patterns, drought – could trigger a tectonic slip in hummingbirds’ ability to forage and breed. By monitoring how and when hummingbirds nectar in gardens around the world, scientists hope to track these changes and how – or more importantly, if – hummingbirds are able to adapt. Too, by tapping into homeowner’s backyards, scientists get a glimpse into how hummingbirds interact with artificial nectar sources (feeders).

The app is free; download it, and you are ready to start logging time in the backyard. The app allows you to set up a patch in your backyard for repeat observations throughout the season, or simply log single observations if you do your birding through the kitchen window when you do dishes. The app’s website offers two great tutorial videos that walk you through how to get set up, and the easy interface includes a simple guide to identify and log hummingbird species and nectar sources, even your feeder.

True: your participation will give the scientists behind Hummingbirds at Home a window into hummingbird behavior. But on a more personal level, it will give you a window into the lives of your neighbors – the winged ones that careen through your yard like spastic fairies, of course.

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Jepson Herbarium Workshops – UC California Naturalist Training

The deadline to register for the UC Naturalist Program‘s UC California Naturalist Training Workshop through The Friends of the Jepson Herbarium’s 2014 Jepson Herbarium Workshop series is fast approaching. The goal of the California Naturalist Program – the first such statewide program in California – is to promote “environmental literacy and stewardship through discovery and action” by growing and training a pool of active volunteer naturalists and citizen scientists.  Many other states have similar naturalist programs; this is the first statewide program in California.

Workshop classes will meet at UC Berkeley on Thursday evenings from September 4 to November 6 and will include Saturday field trips and one overnight field trip. Upon completing certification requirements, participants are eligible for four academic credits through UC Davis Extension for an additional nominal fee.

Applications – available here – are due July 15th; the final registrants will be selected from the pool of applications received, and will be notified by August 1st.

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The Pond Turtle in the Pool

This thursday, connecting through the serendipitous six-degrees of separation afforded by the marvels of social media, I was alerted that a neighbor had discovered a pond turtle floating in their swimming pool. And as luck would have it, it was a western pond turtle. By the time I stopped by to help out that afternoon, the neighbors had already carefully removed her from the pool and placed her in a cooler in the shade with a finger of water.

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When I first picked the turtle up – a large, 7-inch long female, and to all appearances an old veteran – to inspect her for any injuries or signs of how she came to be in the pool, she withdrew into her shell. But within minutes, she became animated as I poked and probed her, checking to see if she was carrying eggs (she wasn’t). A visual inspection of the shell showed tooth marks, signs of past predatory attempts that had since-healed over. And the red markings evident in the photo above, which I at first mistook for discoloration in the photograph, proved to be faded red spray-paint, a likely sign she had once been someone’s pet. (Why people feel the need to paint turtles, I can’t say.)

Wandering into the neighbor’s swimming pool – its steep sides would have only thwarted any turtle’s attempts at hauling itself out – had merely added insult to her injuries. Each of her limbs showed signs of trauma: her forelimbs were each missing the ‘pinky’ digit’s claw, her hind limbs each had a raw spot on the sole of her pads where the scales had been rubbed off, one hind leg had a laceration above the knee joint, and the very tip of her tail was broken, dangling by a thread of skin.

 

After photo-documenting her injuries, I placed her in a bathtub lined with towels so she could move around without further aggravating her injuries. She explored the tub over the next hour before settling down, accepting my guest bathroom as her newest lot in life. When I drew back the shower curtain that evening, she had buried herself beneath the towels.

After coordinating with the veterinary staff at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum Friday morning, I transported her to their wildlife hospital for veterinary care. There, they’ll assess her injuries, develop a treatment plan, and ultimately determine whether she’s suitable for release back into the wild.

But as is so often the case with wild animals taken in as pets, release may not be an option for this turtle. Without knowing where she originated from or under what circumstances she was held in captivity, rehabilitation staff need to weigh the risks and benefits of returning a single individual into the wild against the likelihood she has been exposed to other pet turtles with diseases she could transmit to wild turtle populations, that she might not recognize predators or know how to forage for food, or that she has imprinted on humans and might approach people instead of fleeing from them.

Instances like this are a good reminder why wild animals make poor pets, and what you should do if you come across a western pond turtle on a trail or crossing the road. It’s everyday decisions like these – recognizing when a wild animal needs medical attention and when they should be left alone – that helps keep wild animals wild.

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