The Trump administration’s rapid dismantling of environmental protections in the name of economic growth has triggered an equally aggressive response from those committed to confronting the threat of climate change. But as environmental discourse grows increasingly politicized, what is often missing is simple expression of love for nature and a recognition of its transformative power.
Pleasure derived from nature—and how this pleasure can prompt stewardship—permeates Leslie T. Sharpe’s new book, The Quarry Fox: And Other Critters of the Wild Catskills. “There is nothing so sublime that is so readily accessible as the natural world,” Sharpe writes. “To experience it, one only has to look, to train oneself to truly see, and perhaps most important, to allow oneself to be amazed.” Sharpe, former vice president of the New York City Audubon Society and editor of The Urban Audubon, learned to open her eyes and heart to the splendor of nature as a child at the Jersey Shore, where she was taken with the mole crab “using its feathery antennae to catch minute organisms for food,” and became fascinated with “a world mostly unseen by humans and indifferent to them.”
In The Quarry Fox, Sharpe opens a window onto the world of critters—bluebirds, black bears, bobcats, woodcocks, foxes—recording, as she writes, “the drama of their everyday lives with objectivity.” No critter is too small or insignificant for the author’s admiration. At one point she rescues a luna moth from a spiderweb and painstakingly peels off the strands of web stuck to its wings. “I knew I should shoo it away,” she writes, “go back inside, turn off the light, and let the Luna do its urgent work this warm June evening. But for just a few minutes more, I wanted to sit there with the moth, to feel the lightness of the Luna’s being, its weight no more than a breath, to hold beauty in my hand.” Sharpe’s passion is heartwarming, but more importantly, it engenders a deep sense of regard for the future of these creatures and the often precarious wilderness they inhabit.
What earns this book its place alongside those of John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard are Sharpe’s elegant meditations on the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world. “To see him fly so high,” she writes of the male woodcock, “sky dancing in the dusk, executing his extraordinary twists and turns, is to be inspired and reminded that within each of us—as unassuming as we may seem, set in our daily routines, so that for the most part, we go unnoticed—is the potential for brilliance, for some moment of transcendence, when we rise above the everyday and become transfigured by our own specialness.”
Sharpe brings to life the subtle, so easily frayed relationships that link our ecosystems, lending the book a particular urgency in our current political moment. It is hard to dismiss the white-nose-syndrome epidemic affecting cave bats in the United States after learning of their significance in stemming mosquito-borne illnesses and providing pest control. Even the dandelion, “that cheerful scourge of suburban front yards,” has a place in the web of life as a favorite of honeybees—crucial pollinators whose decline poses real threats to agriculture.
I met Sharpe in a West Village café on a gloomy March afternoon in Manhattan. We spoke about responsible stewardship, nature writing as a “singular American genre,” and its importance at a time when environmental protections are under fire.
—Daniela Petrova for Guernica
Guernica: Where does your love for nature come from?
Leslie T. Sharpe: It really came from my family. My parents were huge animal lovers; we had dogs, cats, birds, and goldfish. I even had a baby alligator that my sister brought from Florida and gave to me as a pet when she was in college.
We went for nature walks in the fall. In the summer, we went to the Jersey Shore, where I discovered the crabs that I talk about in the introduction to the book. I find them the most fascinating creatures, especially for their courage. I don’t think they realize how small they are. There you are, a ten-story building, towering over them, and they are not intimidated. I think, as a child, a shy child, witnessing their ferocity—which is so out of proportion to their size—I was completely taken by them.
One of the great things you can do for a child is to expose him or her to the natural world. Because nature provides not only a way of connecting you to the outside world but it also connects you to yourself. We know that people feel better when they are in nature. Two recent British studies show that people are happier then. They experience awe, joy, and contentment. What’s so interesting to me is that one of these studies shows that not only direct exposure to nature but also just watching nature shows increases people’s happiness.
When you experience nature, you realize how everything is interconnected and that human beings are at the center of that connectedness, the web of life. I think the problem is that many of us are so removed from nature that we don’t understand that what’s going on in the natural world also impacts us. For example, if the honeybees continue to decline—the die-off has been linked to pesticides, for starters—we’ll have a problem with pollination. Bees can pollinate over 75 percent of flowering plants and crops, and without them, we would lose certain foods, including blueberries, strawberries, and some vegetables.
Guernica: What is a naturalist? How does that differ from an environmentalist?
Leslie T. Sharpe: They’re not mutually exclusive. A naturalist is someone who observes nature, simple as that—who watches critters daily or over the course of years and records their doings. Some of our most important information about birds and other critters is from amateurs simply observing wildlife. Certainly, naturalists are conservationists, those who look to conserve wildlife and their habitats, and by extension, they are environmentalists, though the latter may focus less on species and more on issues such as air and water, and other vital resources and the impacts of industry on such.
Guernica: Can you talk a bit about the history of nature writing as a genre?
Leslie T. Sharpe: Nature writing is a singular American genre. John Burroughs, writing in the middle to the second half of the nineteenth century, really invented the nature essay. To Europeans, America in the nineteenth century presented a world of still wild and untamed nature. Which is what the Hudson River School artists painted. The American land is so vast in its iconography and that landscape has in many ways defined who we are. So you have Thoreau and Emerson, the Romantics, looking at nature and seeing it almost as a way to find the divine within oneself, connecting to nature in a spiritual way.
Nature writing still remains a very powerful form—it’s a way of chronicling the American experience that not only shows the grandeur but also the degradation of our natural systems. At the same time it also offers hope for the vitality of this country’s spirit through conservation and the environmental movement. Nature has always been America’s moral compass. This landscape has defined us, and if we lose it, we risk losing our soul.
Guernica: How so? What are some examples of this?
Leslie T. Sharpe: The greed for short-term gain, which evinces itself everywhere these days, including in the seizing and exploitation of resources—even proposing drilling for oil and mining in national monuments—is indeed an example of potentially impacting the soul and the psyche of this country. Our national parks are America. Not only do many Americans find respite and solace and vacation in these places, but also, these landscapes, and their conservation, are what have set us apart in the world.
So many people responded to Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz’s suggestion to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land for development. People from Utah, his home state, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana, among others—an extraordinary coalition of conservationists, hunters, and concerned citizens—stood up and said, “No! We want our land to be preserved.” Because when people look at their landscapes, they see themselves as part of something grand and glorious; losing such landscapes diminishes our soul and impacts our identity.
Guernica: Why do you think environmental protections—and the EPA itself—are under fire to such an extent right now?
Leslie T. Sharpe: Part of the problem is that people take nature for granted. The water that you drink: you turn on the tap and there it is. Up in the Catskills, my water comes out of a spring in the mountain. I have lost water in times of drought, which is happening more now with global warming. And we’ve had three devastating floods in the past ten years. Luckily, I live on the side of the mountain, but two-thirds of my road was lost in 2006 and the nearby village was under eight feet of water. These are a result of climate change, pure and simple.
Many feel insulated from these dangers because much of the population is located in city centers. It’s those of us who are closer to the source of our most valued resources who get it. We see the loss of the bats, of the bees; there are fewer songbirds in the spring. People don’t have to care about the songbirds in the way I do, but the destruction of their habitat also affects the forests, the “lungs of the earth.” Everything is connected that way. And the animals, who share the planet with us, are usually the ones who tell us. Like the canary in the coal mine, which told miners, at the risk of its own life, whether the air was safe to breathe, birds, and animals in general, are still serving that purpose.
Guernica: You write, “In a sense, the eco-holocaust that the Catskills suffered was also a call to conscience that marked the beginning of the modern conservationist movement.” Can you describe how?
Leslie T. Sharpe: The Catskills were the first great American wilderness found by Europeans, but its integrity was soon lost to over-exploitation of resources, primarily by the tanning industry, in the nineteenth century. You clear-cut the woods, loosening the soil, and then the soil goes into the streams, the streams silt up, and the life in them dies. You take the trees away, there is nothing to cool the streams, then the fish disappear. The Catskills were so degraded that they influenced a seminal book, Man and Nature, by George Perkins March, in 1864. That book, revolutionary for its day, argued that heedless human acts could impact the environment negatively. The Adirondack Forest Preserve was founded as a result, not because people said, “Oh, we love the trees,” but because they wanted to protect the region’s waterways since New York State had a water-dependent commerce. That was the first example of sustainability—the preservation of natural resources—as sound economic policy.
Guernica: Do you see more examples of that today?
Leslie T. Sharpe: Numerous towns in upstate New York voted no to fracking, despite the fact that the area is so economically depressed. As one dairy farmer said to me, “I can’t drink gas and my cows can’t neither.” This decision affected both the watershed and the foodshed—the water New Yorkers drink and our upstate economy, which is heavily based on dairy and farming.
In New York City, one of our big focuses was preserving the integrity of the Hudson River estuary. The Clean Water Act of 1972 had done a lot to clear the waters. But development, unrestricted, was threatening aspects of the estuary. A big concern then was preserving old wooden pilings—what we call pile fields. It had been discovered that fish liked to hover near these structures. They were found to be important for spawning and for young fish to hide, and therefore to grow. Some of these fish are very important economically: sturgeon, striped bass, shad. These populations have been overfished. We knew that for them to recover, development would have to allow these structures to stay. And that happened. They exist in the Hudson today, often topped with art installations. Here is an example of preservation also being sound economic policy. These fish populations, now recovering, are potentially very valuable—giving people fishery jobs and food.
Guernica: When did you first learn the importance of preservation?
Leslie T. Sharpe: In second grade, when I was president of Junior Audubon, I had a little book with stamps with pictures of birds. But there was one bird, the passenger pigeon, that, as the story goes, used to blacken the sky, there were so many of them. But they’d been hunted into extinction. It really made an impression on me and still haunts me.
As I write in The Quarry Fox, extinction seems an intellectual concept, a distant—whether in the past or future—event. But I’ve been living in the Catskills since 2003, and I’m witnessing the extinction of the little brown bats in this part of the world because of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungus of unknown origin that is affecting cave bat species. The little brown bats have been reduced, in the Northeast, by 90 percent. One of these bats can eat six hundred mosquitoes in an hour. Consider that impact on the environment!
Guernica: What inspired you to write about your experiences living in the Catskills?
Leslie T. Sharpe: The first essay I wrote was called “A Passion for Bluebirds.” I was entirely consumed with these pretty little songbirds. I even rigged an umbrella over the bluebird box to shade them because it was so hot that summer. They are such beautiful birds and you fall in love with their devotion to their nestlings and to each other.
The next piece I wrote was “The Quarry Fox.” The reason I named the book after that essay was because it has such an important message: when people, even well-intentioned, intervene with wildlife, it usually ends badly for the wildlife. My quarry fox got too friendly, too close to people.
Interestingly, that first essay about the bluebirds didn’t make the book’s final cut. You have to consider the project as a whole first—in this case, my editor thought the book was “bird heavy,” so I did another chapter about wild cats. The lesson to writers here is that the good of the book comes before your own ego. If I do a sequel, the bluebirds will have a starring role.
Guernica: You rarely use the term “wild animals.” Instead, you refer to the animals you encounter as critters. Can you elaborate on that distinction?
Leslie T. Sharpe: “Critters” is, for me, affectionate, while”‘animals”—it’s not exactly pejorative, but that word somehow puts a dividing line between us and them. But we are animals too. We’re really not that much different. What we’re learning more and more is not what separates us from wildlife but what unites us in our behaviors.
Guernica: As we spend more time attached to our electronic devices, do you fear that we’re losing our connection to nature? Are our children less likely to experience it?
Leslie T. Sharpe: I think that if you give a child a chance to experience nature, he or she will put the device away. But it’s about giving children a chance. Technology can be a tool for enhancing our experience with nature. And besides, technology’s not going anywhere and I’m as captive to it as anybody else. The Internet is such an incredible information source, a research tool. It’s just too easy to say that technology is a bad thing. Now you can take your iPad outside with you and figure out what that bird call is.
Here’s a good example. The thrushes have slightly different songs, each sounding like a flute being played in the woods. Is that a wood thrush or a hermit thrush? I go right to a website and it tells me. I wouldn’t have been able to write this book without my iPad. Of course I used books for my research, but where did I find these books? In my bibliography there is a website section.
Guernica: As former vice president of the New York City Audubon Society and an editor of The Urban Audubon, can you talk a bit about being a naturalist in an urban environment?
Leslie T. Sharpe: What people don’t know is the amount of urban nature there is, not just in New York City, but in any urban environment. New York City Audubon is a big player in the New York environmental world, not only regarding general environmental issues but also as regards the natural world. We have a program called Harbor Herons that protects small islands in the Hudson and East Rivers, little spits of land that are largely unknown but that are crucial areas for migrating water and shore birds to nest.
Jamaica Bay Wild Refuge is extraordinary because it has the bay, uplands, and lowlands. There is a recent documentary narrated by Susan Sarandon, Saving Jamaica Bay, about local, grassroots efforts to preserve it. It’s important not only for the community of people who live on Broad Channel but also for the incredible wildlife that’s there. Wetlands are among the most valuable and productive natural areas for life, including spawning fish, which shelter there.
Guernica: You writing is incredibly lyrical—why is that important to the subject matter?
Leslie T. Sharpe: All I’m trying to do is write readable prose that serves the function of bringing people into a different world. And that’s the world of the mountain where I live. John Gardner said in his book The Art of Fiction that writing fiction should be like entering a dream. In creative nonfiction—and that includes autobiography, memoir, personal essay, narrative nonfiction—we use fictional devices such as dialogue, scene setting, vivid description, to tell a true story.
The way I write—with a lyricism people may associate with fiction or poetry—reflects my own style and sensibility, but its purpose is to bring people into a different world. It has been said about The Quarry Fox that it has clarity and simplicity but at the same time is a subtle, quiet work in a very unsubtle, noisy world. So it provides a respite for readers.
Guernica: There is also a tremendous amount of humor and playfulness in your experiences with the critters—a surprise to readers like me who might have expected a dry account of different species and their behavior.
Leslie T. Sharpe: When we see humor, in nature or anywhere, we experience affection. [As I write] in the introduction, when I encountered the crayfish, I was so startled. I had my gloves on, fortunately, when this tiny three-inch critter snagged me with its claw. I had to laugh out of appreciation for its courage.
Guernica: What do you hope readers will take from your book?
Leslie T. Sharpe: The ultimate purpose of this book is to connect people to the natural world, to introduce them to the interconnections between flora and fauna—interconnections that impact us, that we ourselves are part of. I wanted to share my wild critters’ world with people not only to encourage the conservation of habitat but also to illustrate the larger issue of how habitat and species loss can affect us. If the critters fail, we are all going to fail. If we don’t have bees we are not going to eat.
As I was writing the book, I was often on the local Catskills NPR affiliate, WIOX. One of the hosts called me “the ambassador of the critters of the Catskills.” And that’s how I started seeing myself. So many people have said to me that a whole new world—the world of the naturalist—has opened up to them, reading The Quarry Fox.
There is so much pleasure in nature, as the recent British studies show, inspiring in us feelings of awe, contentment, and joy. One of the components of awe is gratitude, and I have come out of the woods with tears in my eyes at the sheer beauty of this world.
Guernica: What scares you most as you look to the future?
Leslie T. Sharpe: Extinction. It’s happening, of so many critters in every ecosystem. And ecosystems, such as the coral reefs, are dying too. Ultimately, we can’t sustain life—and that includes human life—without these productive ecosystems. Our own survival, as a species, is at risk.
People always talk about the cruelty of nature, but they miss the point that what it is really about—whether you subscribe to everything Darwin said or not—is the survival of species. And that can be hard for us to grasp. Like when I watched two fawns grow up who made it through winter, and right before spring, I found one of them dead. Nature has no regard for our sentiments, does not play favorites, as we do.
As I write in the book, the doe and the sibling, that little fawn’s family, had moved on, and I have to, too. My only consolation was that the dead fawn would feed the mountain. The bobcat would come, the fox, the turkey vultures, the coyotes. . .