“Our domination of nature is a delusion.”

Books on Tap book club met Thursday, April 6 at Beer Run to discuss Untamed: the wildest woman in America and the fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan. Fans of Where the Crawdads Sing will enjoy this nonfiction read-alike; both books are science-heavy, include a quirky “not like other girls” lead protagonist, and feature a murderous plotline and a distinct, natural setting. Most of the group loved this nonfiction blend of biography and science writing. Even our less enthusiastic readers said, “I’ve never heard a story in which the National Park Service is the bad guy, so that was interesting!” 

Speaking of our less enthusiastic readers, one said, “I wanted more Cumberland Island and less Carol.” Carol, still alive today, is a largely self-taught biologist, ecologist, naturalist, and activist, willing to fight tooth and nail to research, collect data, and preserve the land and animals in a place she calls home. Therein lies the first thorn, well before the political machinations surrounding preservation: can a place be both “home” and “wilderness”? Can someone, even someone like Carol who lives in a ramshackle cabin built with found materials, suffocate the wilderness out of a place? Are there better reasonably attainable alternatives?

What does wilderness mean to you? How does knowing half of all species alive today will be gone by the end of the century make you feel (the sixth extinction was a sobering topic in this book)? We talked about conservation, falling into hypocrisy, and how power and status come into play, too – knowing Jimmy Carter and the Kennedys all felt they had a stake in this pie. 

We wanted answers regarding what Harlan’s relationship was with Carol, given the intimate nature of many of the stories presented. Sometimes, we knew he was there, other times, we were left guessing. In addition to wondering how/why he was present at certain moments, we also questioned his decision to, in the words of our readers, “misrepresent” Carol through language verging on hyperbole and “hero worship.” What relationship do we expect a biographer to have to his/her living subject? What boundaries are necessary? How might this story be different from Carol’s perspective, or if it had been written by someone who didn’t work with his subject for “more than a couple decades”? 

We also talked about gender roles and expectations: would she have been viewed differently if she’d been a man? Would she have been as successful if she’d been “nicer”? This conversation felt reminiscent of conversations the Brown Baggers book group had while discussing Tracks by Robyn Davidson. 

We ended the discussion with a reflection on this quote: “She [Carol] thinks in black and white but her life is a gauzy gray.” We noted different ways that Carol lives her life in seeming contradiction to her own values. Confronting our own tendencies, we also cause harm, in ways we don’t anticipate, and admittedly, in ways we do. Albeit, sometimes we knowingly cause harm to protect ourselves or others. One example from the book of this spiderweb of moral dilemma that tangles up harm and protection and interconnectedness of humans and other beings, is the shrimp crisis. We learned about the harm caused by the consumer market wanting to eat shrimp. What do we do? For what are we willing to question ourselves? Is there a way to come to terms with our collateral damage? As you can see, this book offers many opportunities to think deeply about “the ferocities of nature and humanity.” 

Join us next month, Thursday, May 4, to discuss Remarkably Bright Creatures: A Novel by Shelby Van Pelt. For more information, email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org

Upcoming titles: 

June 1 – Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

July 6 – The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth  Hogan

August 3 – The Gifted School by Bruce W. Holsinger

September 7 – Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

Other books/pieces of interest: 

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert 

Palindrome by Stuart Woods 

Endangered Species by Nevada Barr (request through ILL)

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren 

Cumberland: Island in Time- 2000 documentary film

People in the book: 

Gogo Ferguson, descended from the Carnegie family  

Bob Shoop photos

Bob Shoop’s obituary 

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