Americans continue to coexist with nature only warily, in spite of our vaunted environmental stewardship. Nowhere is this complex relationship more visible than in the Mississippi River delta in South Louisiana, the country's largest unpreserved wetland. Here, more than three million acres of marshes and swamps nurture more seafood and produce more oil and gas than any other region of the country except Alaska. Yet this expanse of raw natural beauty, almost unknown outside the region, is in danger of collapse. New Orleans is in particular danger as sea levels rise and the city sinks, leaving tens of thousands of inhabitants to face the consequences if a horrific storm should strike.
Holding Back the Sea intimately and eloquently exposes the vulnerability of this stark land that spreads along the Gulf Coast, as it literally vanishes -- at rate of twenty-five square miles per year, an area the size of Manhattan -- so starved for lack of nutrients, so eroded away by ever more severe storms, and so dredged for canals that it is on the verge of being swallowed by the rising Gulf of Mexico. Holding Back the Sea bears witness to an environmental crisis of staggering proportions that not only threatens this coast but has plunged the people who depend on it into a moral quagmire.
Christopher Hallowell uses this crisis as a window through which to clearly and comprehensively examine a cultural characteristic, or flaw, that Americans have historically exhibited: the reluctance to recognize the finiteness of nature -- as much a part of this country's history as is its people's independence -- while at the same time proclaiming their devotion to it. In Louisiana, this emotional split of using while abusing threatens the entire region's economic foundations and has profound implications for the rest of the country. Louisiana is not alone; its predicament stands beside an array of environmental case studies: clear-cutting in Virginia and Tennessee, exhausting water resources in the Southwest, polluting Chesapeake Bay, filling in wetlands around San Francisco Bay and Long Island Sound, and fouling the Great Lakes.
Through the varied use of narrative voice and rich description, Hallowell, a journalist, writer, and educator, brings into focus South Louisiana's dilemma through the people involved -- from engineers to politicians to scientists to fishermen -- to show both the marsh's and the people's fragility and vitality. There is no more important topic than the way we use nature and our natural resources and our willingness to defer to nature. Holding Back the Sea is at the heart of that conversation.
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Christopher Hallowell directs the undergraduate journalism and creative writing programs at Baruch College (CUNY) and has written for Audubon, Wildlife Conservation, New York Times Magazine, Natural History, American Scholar, and Time. He is the author of People of the Bayou; Growing Old, Staying Young; and Father of the Man, as well as coeditor of the anthology Green Perspectives: Thinking and Writing about Nature and the Environment. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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