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Book Review: Finding ‘Our Better Nature’

"Our Better Nature" in its natural environment. Photo by Sean Beckett.
Many people are beginning to think earnestly about what needs to be done to sustain life, including human life, on this planet. Several Vermonters and Montpelier residents, not to mention the University of Vermont, have contributed to the recently released essay collection “Our Better Nature: Hopeful Excursions in Saving Biodiversity” (published by Vermont Alliance for Half-Earth, May 28, 2022).

The useful, and in fact delightful, thing about the book is that it’s an informative read wherever you open a chapter. But it is also well structured, beginning with a pleasantly accessible dive into how biodiversity functions, the critical ways humans depend upon it, and what must be done to sustain biodiversity.

Sean Beckett, director of natural history programs at the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier contributed many of the book’s beautiful photographs, including the cover. 

An enchanting floodplain forest, with characteristic cathedral-like canopies of silver maple over a carpet of nettles and touch-me-not. Photo by Sean Beckett.
But another local name also caught my attention. The foreword to the book is by George Shenk, best known as the founder and current proprietor of American Flatbread at the Lareau Farm and Forest in Waitsfield. Some readers, disappointed by the too often soggy and only marginal relevance to the subject at hand in too many forewords, may be disinclined to start with Shenk’s brief, but much to-the-point introduction to the discussion that follows.

Shenk provides a personal and compelling platform for understanding how critical this project is to our collective future and the lives, not just of future generations of human beings, but of all the living things that provide the web that sustains life on this planet. Don’t skip it.

An elfin skimmer (Nannothemis bella), Vermont’s smallest dragonfly, perched on a wetland sedge. Photo by Sean Beckett.
The editors of the essay collection are Curt Lindberg, who moved to Vermont several years ago, and Eric Hagen, who earned his master’s degree in UVM’s Field Naturalist Program in 2020. Hagen is now studying the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest in British Columbia, Canada.

Lindberg is the co-founder of the Vermont Community for a Half-Earth Future and holds a doctorate degree in complex systems from the University of Hertfordshire. His interest in the almost unfathomable complexity of the natural world acquired focus through the writings of celebrated bio-scientist, Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021). In the introduction to their book, Lindberg and Hagen noted: “Wilson’s message is that in order to halt the decline of nature and the extinction of species, we need to dedicate half of the Earth’s surface to nature.”

While Wilson’s analysis in “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Survival” has defined the situation and proposed a goal for saving the planet, the purpose of the essays collected in “Our Better Future” is to define how to do it. And Vermont is seen as an ideal place to model how that can be done.

Main Street Middle School student Maddie Lindberg, Curt Lindberg’s granddaughter, is also a contributor to the book. A few years ago, when Maddie was eight, she announced she wanted to become a naturalist after participating in the banding and release of a young owl at the North Branch Nature Center.