When I found this book at Third Place Books in Seattle in the summer of 2002, I had never heard of it, but, from the authors' reputation as naturalists and ornithologists, it looked like a good read. I discovered the book at the end of my camping journey to three national parks in Washington state and a one-week cruise to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and the main points of interest in beautiful southeastern Alaska. My jaunt to the natural areas of the Pacific Northwest and the Alexander Archipelago would be lame compared to the 20,000+ miles that Roger Peterson and James Fisher logged in on their comprehensive foray to "Wild America".
The authors embarked on their journey following the coast of the US with intermittent forays to the interior and a brief excursion to Mexico a year before the publication of the molecular structure of DNA as double helix. Rapid developments in our understanding of the molecular basis of life ushered in the molecular era of biology, which has ultimately led to the restructuring and overhauling of the way we teach biology and the way we explain, understand, and appreciate the complexities of life. Just when most students in biology these days are honed to the molecular and cellular basis of life--a reductionist view, so to speak--and less to the holistic and more traditional view of biology, what a refreshing change to learn from and be engrossed by the keen observations of two naturalists on the road and be taken back to an era when biology as natural history was respected as an academic field and an engaging pastime as well!
There are tons of information on birds in this book, but the authors also pay attention to mammals and other fauna, and then there is the flora (peculiar landmark plant species of the West stand out, like the agave, saguaro, ocotillo, Joshua Tree, Monterey cypress, coastal redwood, sequoia, sugar pine, lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir). There are also accounts of long-term inhabitants and indigenous peoples, and their culture and history. The illustrations are superb. The most remarkable part of the book, however, are the wholehearted commentaries on the purpose and values of our national parks and monuments. Since 1953, many of the national monuments they visited are now national parks. Roads have been paved, widened, and increased, and so have concessions and amenities, converting park villages into virtual towns and confronting many visitors with the same urban and suburban evils (traffic, congestion, to name a few) from which they try to escape by visiting national park areas. You can try hard to hope that James Fisher criticizes the way national parks are run, but you don't find that in the book. Notwithstanding this, it is amusing that many facts about the national monuments and parks still apply today and that these places can make the same impressions today, mainly because we try hard to keep these natural treasures intact for future generations. The British naturalist's gratitude to Americans for the designation and preservation of national parks and optimism for their stewardship is a sharp contrast to Edward Abbey's cynical attitude towards the National Park Service and disdain for tourists.
The book concludes with a powerful statement that speaks of Fisher's gratitude to Americans and optimism for "Wild America": "And this is what I have tried to do--to tell of Wild America, and say that never have I seen such wonders or met landlords so worthy of their land. They have had, and still have, the power to ravage it; and instead have made it a garden". Certainly the power of his statement would not have been lost on people who deeply appreciate natural America and care to preserve our astounding natural heritage.