Orion Blog, page 28

Young Readers Ask: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Young Readers Ask” is a new Orion web series where young readers interview authors about books. This is our second installment.


The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
David Wallace-Wells
Tim Duggan Books, 2019. $27, 320 pages.  

David Wallace-Wells is the deputy editor of New York magazine and author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. He has a daughter named Rocca, who at just one is probably too young to understand anything her father says about the climate crisis—not that the grown-up world is much better at understanding just how dramatically life could be transformed if we don’t, all of us, change course.

Geronimo LaValle, age seven, is a second grader at a public dual language elementary school in Washington Heights, New York City. He’s been practicing capoeira for three years. His favorite podcast is “Story Pirates,” and he’s currently reading the Percy Jackson series. A frequent participant in Writopia Lab, his first published short story, “Stay Out of the Attic!” was published last fall in The Parenthetical.

Geronimo LaValle: Will the Earth be destroyed when I’m a grown-up?

David Wallace-Wells: The short, happy answer is: no. The planet will still be here and will be for a very, very long time.

GL: Are you just saying that to make me feel better?

DWW: No—it’s true! But it also isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no,” a destroyed Earth or a happy one. The more important question is, what kind of planet will it be? We don’t yet know the answer to that question, because it is up to us all to answer it—in how we act, what we choose to do, and how we manage to respond to the crisis of climate change. If we don’t respond—very soon, and very aggressively—the planet will likely look very different fifty years from now than it does today. But not so different that you might confuse it for another planet—it will still be Earth, and it will be where many, many humans live, including you.

GL: In fifty years I will be fifty-seven. My kids will be grown-ups. How will whales be affected by global warming since the ocean is getting warmer?

DWW: Oceans are complicated systems—as complicated as cities, or jungles, or outer space. There are many millions of species living alongside one another and supporting one another. There is a lot we still don’t understand about oceans and how they will respond to global warming, but of the impacts we do know, it does not seem that whales in particular will be affected in an especially dramatic way. The warming of water may change where they live, what they eat, and where they travel. And there may be more profound impacts we don’t yet know about or understand. But given the understanding we know have, whales will not be among the most impacted species.

GL: Will we change from gas cars to electric cars?

DWW: Thankfully, we already are, especially in the richer parts of the world, where people can afford slightly more expensive toys and gadgets. But it’s not happening fast enough, and not in enough places—yet. Since the technology is getting a lot better (and a lot cheaper) very quickly, electric cars could spread even faster in the next decade or so, which is great. But cars are only one part of the problem; energy is another, though wind and solar power are making it much more “green,” too. Unfortunately, there are many parts of the problem that are more difficult to solve.

“If things get really bad, it will be because of what we all choose to do,
and what decisions we choose to make, over the next few decades.”

GL: Cow farts are a problem.

DWW: Actually, the burps are a much bigger problem, though farts are funnier. But there are some studies showing that, if we feed our cows just a little bit of seaweed, it could really help—the problem with those burps and farts are methane, and seaweed could cut the methane content by at least half, maybe more. Of course, beef is just one little part of our carbon crisis. Which is why I think it’s not going to be a problem solved in only one way, or only one technology; it’s going to take everything we have.

Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

GL: Why is Donald Trump so stupid about global warming?

DWW: There are a lot of reasons. To begin with, he’s not a very curious person, and when he looks out his window he doesn’t see any obvious reason to make big changes. Another important reason is that he is the leader of a political party that has, for a very long time, chosen not to take seriously the science of global warming—in part because the party is supported by some people and businesses that are responsible for that warming. A third reason is that he is really focused on his own self-interest, rather than the well-being of others, and he would rather have the rest of the world clean up the mess created in part by the United States.

It’s important to remember that we are not in the pickle we’re in now just because of Donald Trump, and we’re not in that pickle just because of the Republican party, either. The U.S. is responsible for only a slice of global emissions, and the future of the planet will be shaped by other nations. And while there are parts of the world that are much less stupid about warming—where leaders talk a lot more about climate change than Americans ever have—none of them are behaving much better than the U.S. That’s how big the problem is.

GL: Where is the safest place to live when I’m a grown-up?

DWW: I get asked this question a lot, and it’s a hard one to answer. Most of the world will be safe. The problem is that much of the world will be suffering more than it does now, more than it needs to, because of climate change. There are places to go to avoid that, generally speaking, by moving a little bit north from wherever you are, and a little off the coast. But I hope we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we are so focused on our own safety and health that we don’t pay attention to those elsewhere in the world, many of them suffering even more.

GL: Like my friend Aviva in Key West?

DWW: Unfortunately, Key West is likely to suffer quite a lot, yes. But Aviva will also have enough time to leave. There are parts of the world where leaving will be much harder.

GL: I don’t want to write any more questions. It’s scaring me.

DWW: It’s scary. I get scared. I also get depressed. But sometimes I’m optimistic and exhilarated, too. And this is why: everything remains in our power. If things get really bad, it will be because of what we all choose to do, and what decisions we make, over the next few decades. If we make the right choices, we can end up in a very different place, with a lot less suffering and a lot more happiness. How much suffering we get, and how much happiness, is entirely up to us. That’s empowering, right?

GL: Uh-huh.

A follow-up note from Geronimo’s mother, Emily Raboteau, who is also an Orion contributor:

My son and I have an agreement that we can play hooky three times a school year: once in the fall, once in the winter, and once in the spring, to go do something wonderful in New York City. A few weeks ago, we visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. In the midst of the artist’s Tehuana clothing and plaster corsets, Geronimo told me that he wished we could play hooky more often. In simple terms, I explained that a more legitimate reason for him to cut school would be to join the youth climate strike in disrupting the social order with the aim of changing the trajectory of global warming since marginalized, low-income communities of color like ours are impacted first and worst, and since our world leaders are failing to prioritize the crisis.

My son then burst into tears and asked if he was going to die. I realized that he knows more than I understood and is, justifiably, anxious, but also that I was using inappropriately mature language to educate and empower him about the climate crisis.

Because I was reading David Wallace-Wells’ TheUninhabitable Earth at the time—a book that has been criticized by some for its alarmist tone—I thought I could help empower and educate my son by putting some of his questions directly to Wells in the form of an interview. Toward that end, my son and I had a series of difficult conversations about the climate crisis incorporating some of Wallace-Wells’ book, the youth climate strike, our global addiction to fossil fuel, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal, and the reason we gave Geronimo his name.

These were the questions he wanted to ask Wallace-Wells. He has decided that if he joins the protest, his sign will say, MY SUPERPOWER IS TO STOP CLIMATE CHANGE. As his mother, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he doesn’t have that power.

Interview and series curated by Orion Reviews Editor Kerri Arsenault and Digital Strategist Nicholas Triolo.

Nine Questions for the Author: Leonardo Trasande, Author of Sicker, Fatter, Poorer

Here’s a terrifying fact: conservative estimates say that household hormone-disrupting chemicals are costing the US $340 billion annually in healthcare costs. This statistic received the attention of Leonardo Trasande, which led to his latest book, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Here, the internationally renowned leader in environmental health investigates the pervasiveness of dangerous hormone-disrupting chemicals in our everyday lives.

Leonardo Trasande MD, MPP is the Jim G. Hendrick MD Associate Professor, Director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine. He also serves on the faculty of the NYU Wagner School of Public Service and the NYU College of Global Public Health. Dr. Trasande is an internationally renowned leader in environmental health. His research focuses on the impacts of chemicals on hormones in our bodies.

Orion’s Reviews Editor Kerri Arsenault recently asked Trasande nine questions about the book’s central concerns, environmental health, and what to do about it all.

KA: The “Precautionary Principle” is the European Union’s approach to regulating chemicals, meaning companies have to prove a product safe before it’s distributed. In the US the burden falls on the consumer to prove a chemical unsafe. What can the average citizen do to combat this kind of regulation?

LT: Don’t underestimate the power of the pocketbook or wallet. BPA was banned in baby bottles and sippy cups a decade ago based on much less science than we have now. Consumer concern and media attention fueled industry change – and ultimately industry went to the FDA to insist on a ban. These types of consumer campaigns aren’t perfect – we know BPS and other bisphenols replacing BPA are as estrogenic, toxic to embryos, and persistent in the environment. But it does speak to the opportunity for progress when regulation is waning.

Think about the power of employers, schools, and companies as force multipliers. Two major supermarket chains insisted recently on their providers of food packaging to swap out all buffet containers because they were found to have the thyroid-disrupting perfluoroalkyl acids, the non-stick Teflon-like compounds. That was driven by a study finding these chemicals in five – yes, five – containers. A little data goes a long way.

KA: I read Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival, and she suggests that such catastrophic events like the Chernobyl disaster actually affect us all at some level and the consequences were whitewashed so that nobody really knew what was going on. This was similar to what happened at Love Canal. The long-term uncertainty of what was going on led to traumas like neurosis, hypervigilance, PTSD, non-empirical beliefs, distrust, fear. Did you address the social, cultural, and psychological consequences in your book?

LT: Our estimates of EDC (Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals) costs do not address the pain, suffering, and other consequences associated with diseases due to these chemicals. This again reinforces how conservative an estimate we got – and yet EDCs costs the US $340 billion (2.3% of US GDP) each year.

KA: Doesn’t it boil down to policy and transparency?

LT: Yes. Information about ingredients – from what’s in products to what we know about the effects of these chemicals – starts a discussion about tradeoffs. Without basic information about chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, researchers can’t even sort out the effects to guide consumers. It’s not as if the basic ingredient composition is so precious that it’s needed to maintain an advantage in the marketplace.

KA: How do you think this kind of injustice affects people from different socioeconomic groups?

LT: We know these exposures disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities. We just published a study in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology finding that African Americans bear nearly 17% of disease burden due to EDCs even though they only comprise just over 12% of the population. Similar disparities also exist for Mexican Americans.

KA: What was the most surprising thing you learned about how toxins affect the body?

LT: The science has accelerated most quickly to suggest chemicals as “obesogens.” The leader here has been Bruce Blumberg at the University of California at Irvine, who has written his own book The Obesogen Effect. There are fifty known obesogens – take BPA, which makes fat cells bigger and is a synthetic estrogen, which means it can have sex-specific effects on growth, especially in puberty. Perfluoroalkylacids have been associated with greater weight regain after weight loss, and it appears to be due to a slower burn rate, literally slowing metabolism down.

KA: A health official in Maine said once that contributing to the state’s high cancer rates are “lower levels of education, high rates of poverty, unemployment, and lack of health insurance.” What do you think of that statement?

LT: It’s an antiquated understanding at best. The World Health Organization conservatively suggests that 23% of deaths worldwide and 22% of lost lifespan are due to environmental factors. And that estimate came before we did our work on endocrine disruptors.

KA: What were your main goals in writing this book?

LT: Roughly 1% of the public knows about hormone disruptors, yet it affects 99% of the population. And the safe and simple steps we can take now to limit exposure aren’t that hard and don’t bust budgets. My goal, above all, is to start a broader dialogue about these issues. I won’t convince everyone, but everyone knows someone affected by one of these conditions that are influenced by chemicals that mess with the endocrine system – obesity, breast cancer, autism, and ADHD, to name a few.

KA: Has your own life changed because of the things you learned and if so, how?

LT: Our kitchen is small like most Manhattan residents, but has been completely transformed over the years. It has much less plastic, no more nonstick surfaces, and a lot more glass.

KA: While your prescriptions offer sage advice on how to reduce toxins in our body, will humans think that’s enough and not push to change policy?

LT: There’s always a place for regulation. That said, I’ve seen from my experience working in the Senate that change comes through opportunities that open and close based upon many factors. And these factors aren’t just political – these issues cut across Democrat and Republican lines. Evangelicals and atheists get these issues, perhaps for different reasons, but we can all get to the same place: lasting solutions for the health of everyone.  

For more, visit Dr. Leo Trasande’s website. 

At the News of Merwin’s Passing

Editor’s Note: All of us at Orion were saddened by the news of W.S. Merwin’s death. Merwin, who served as an advisor to Orion for many years, was a true friend to the magazine. His poetry and prose appeared in Orion many times, and in 2002 he received Orion’s John Hay Award, an award given annually to leading writers and educators. Orion’s Forgotten Language Tour, founded by poet Christopher Merrill but administered by Orion from 1992 to 2003, received its name from a line of Merwin’s poetry (“I want to tell what the forests / were like / I will have to speak / in a forgotten language”). The Forgotten Language Tour facilitated events in communities across the U.S. in which writers and poets offered readings, workshops, and discussions that attempted to strengthen the local community’s understanding of the natural world and human community as well as to promote nature literacy.

I pull out my favorite book of his, The Rain in the Trees. I read every poem from it to my middle-school students last year, one by one, morning by morning. Each morning a poem. They closed their eyes as I read. When it was over, they opened their eyes, slowly, to the brutal-beautiful world again, and we’d talk. They mulled thoughtfully over each word and meaning. Each sound. On spring mornings the rain pattered from the gutter outside the window, against the school building. A rain-soaked o’hia forest on Hawai’i Island darkens the cover of the book. I told them about the sound of the rain there on banana leaves, on the tin roof of the old sugarcane-processing barn my father lives in.

We learned about the ravaged former pineapple-plantation land in the Pe’ahi valley of Maui that Merwin bought in the ’70s and began to plant trees on. The planters had plowed the land for sugar wherever they could, far beyond the central isthmus, he wrote in his essay “The House and the Garden: The Emergence of a Dream.”

But the yield out along the coast proved not to pay for the growing, and the fields were abandoned. The plowing had accelerated the erosion begun by the cutting of the trees. Then the land reverted to poor pasture for some years, and in the early twentieth century, a group of hopeful speculators who had watched the introduction of large-scale pineapple growing, decided to go in for it themselves, and they pooled their resources and bought most of the valley, intending to grow pineapple on the slopes. For some reason hard to imagine, they plowed the slopes vertically — up and down — which of course greatly accelerated the erosion. In the winter rains the land lost what little topsoil had survived the earlier abuses, the speculators gave up the whole business, and the land stood idle for decades. Wasteland.

He and his wife Paula began to hand-plant palm seedlings on the land because they were the only tree that would grow in the depleted soil. Then they kept planting them for forty years. “I hope to be able to go on planting palms on this land for a long time,” he wrote in “The House and the Garden,” in 2010. He did, until his death, keep planting and tending. They grew the saplings of rare and endangered palms and began to envision a sort of palm-species refuge from all the world’s colonized and deforested tropics. Today, Merwin’s nineteen acres have nearly 3,000 individual palms, with more than 400 species, 125 genera, and 800 varieties. This tree collection is a world treasure-house. “This significant botanical and horticultural assemblage is now preserved forever through a deed of conservation easement held by the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust,” wrote the Merwin Conservancy on the occasion of Merwin’s death, announcing the permanent protection of his palm forest. His poems and his trees live on. They breathe life into the world, after he has taken his last breaths. I put hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns into my students’ open palms and told them that whole forests rested in their hands.

For the past three years, on a day in April, near my birthday, I invite every student in the school into my classroom to hear poems that my own students and I read aloud. When the kindergarteners and first-graders come in all jittery, I begin with Merwin’s “Place”:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

They fall hushed. Their eyes get wide.

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

When I pulled out the book this morning, the page was still marked from when I last read it to them, and I read it this morning, to no one. To myself. To everyone.

I planted more than a thousand trees with my mother, who had a forestry degree, in the first five years of my life. We planted them all over the rural but developing county where we lived, in Tennessee, where trees had been cut for roads and right-of-ways and cow pasture. We dug little holes and lowered the saplings in and filled the holes and patted the soil down around the trees. “No story, though, begins at the beginning,” writes Merwin. “The beginning does not belong to knowledge.”

In Hawai’i, I’ve heard the rain pattering gently in the koa and o’hia rainforest around the volcano and heard the honeycreepers singing there in the island’s last remnants of forest that preserve only 2 percent of the former honeycreeper populations. I’ve laid in bed in the morning at my father’s barn listening to the sound of rain on the roof and roosters crowing, and cried. Where are the trees?

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

I read the words aloud to my students. They close their eyes and listen to the pattery rhythms of the lines. As I read, I think of myself as planting seeds in them. I think of the wasted earth in which Merwin had hope. The tiny roots of saplings reaching down into it, the trees growing taller.


Nine Questions for the Author: Amy Irvine, Desert Cabal

Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her work has appeared in Orion, High Country News, High Desert Journal, Rock & Ice, and Red Rock Testimony—an anthology that was instrumental in Obama’s establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land (2008), received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the Colorado Book Award—while the Los Angeles Times wrote that it “might very well be Desert Solitaire’s literary heir.” Irvine teaches nonfiction in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes on a remote mesa in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

Her third book, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, is a conversation with Edward Abbey—fifty years after Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published. Desert Cabal was excerpted in the Winter 2018 issue of Orion. I caught up with Irvine to learn about the book and her process.

NT: Tell us about your very first encounter with Edward Abbey’s work?

AI: My senior year, after a bad breakup and too much partying to cope, my history teacher gave me a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang and a map to get to my first redrock slot canyon. He told me not to come back until I had found a bigger reason to live. Reading that book, I saw my Utah homeland anew: I could protest, resist! On behalf of wild places and creatures! How fortunate, I felt—to embrace this right, this responsibility. To stand with others as an active citizenry, a cabal.

NT: In Desert Cabal, you wonderfully navigate both your reverence for Abbey’s influence in your life, activism, and writing, while also calling out his blindspots. Structurally, how did you pull this off?

AI: In an age of extreme dualities we must be rigorous in holding more than one truth at once. It’s true that Abbey’s life and work have been (and still are) invaluable to our efforts to protect wild spaces. It’s also true that his life and work (especially now) are far too privileged and exclusive to help us garner widespread support for sweeping land conservation. So the writing came from doing my best to hold multiple truths while acknowledging my own privileges and excesses as an upper-middle class, able-bodied, white woman. My goal was not to take Abbey down, but rather to make space for other voices and relationships to the natural world.

NT: You are writing this book to Abbey’s ghost, in second person. Did you have an image or photo of him at your desk as you wrote?

AI: Hell, no. As a woman whose upbringing was far too steeped in Utah’s uber-patriarchy, I cannot afford any gesture or token that tips toward white male idolatry—which Abbey most certainly represents. To this end, I used second-person as a retort to his distant, third-person treatment of women. Where he objectified, I subjectified.

NT: You often reference relationships, eco-erotics, and fidelity. Connect the dots between lovers and land intimacy.

AI: Abbey invoked not only a sensual communion with the desert, but an outright carnality. I’m not opposed to this choice—to lean into the animal body is to be absorbed by the natural world. This is a place of arousal. And once we are this open, this awake, we fall in love—but not in some small romantic way. The land demands that we grow our hearts. The ecology of desire and devotion is panoramic.

NT: I’m drawn to the idea that by monkeywrenching, by standing up against extractive, penetrating forces, you are expressing a sort of fidelity to the land. Explain this more.

AI: At this point, monkeywrenching, as delicious as the thought is, lacks fidelity, as it deepens the divisions between the extractors and the protectors. It’s a swift, fleeting gesture. Fidelity is the backbone of marriage, and in our conjunction with a place, we must act in ways that endure. This means reducing our carbon contributions—every single one of us in a radical way. What if we each took a vow of environmental chastity? Could we be faithful enough to turn down the weekend fling with the wild—to put the survival of a place above satisfying our pleasures? Can we love it enough to…gulp…stay home? The very thought is heretical, isn’t it?

NT: In Desert Cabal you posit that the lone wolf, wilderness warrior archetype might be overdue. In an era of fractured experience—climate refugees, political division, species loss—what practices might bring us together?

AI: More than ever, we must refuse to point the finger. Every one of us is complicit in loving wild places to death, in adding to the climate crisis. Example: most desert defenders loathe cattle grazing on public lands—and yet so many of us adhere to the paleo diet! This, despite knowing that the consumption of animal products is one of the leading causes of climate collapse. The question should not be “how dare they?” but rather “what is my part?”

NT: “To love any more deeply is to love in a way that devastates.” You invite us not to be mere voyeurs of the wild but instead dive deep into the core of a landscape—exterior and interior. What does that look like in your daily life?

AI: I live off-the-grid in the very arid Southwest, where drought and fire are now constant. Every bit of dishwater is carried outside and poured over sagebrush, yucca, and pinion. We buy most of our food from our neighbors and most days I work at home in my pajamas. We shower twice a week and recycle and all that, too—but it’s not enough. Every day an inventory is taken—the search for places where our family can exercise more restraint—and where we can do it with joy, humor, and a sense of generosity. It’s tempting to turn away from the impotence one feels when staring down the barrel at a swiftly failing planet—knowing you are helping to pull the trigger. In order to do your part, you have to be willing to live with a troubled heart.

NT: White man goes into wilderness alone. Writes about it. Becomes legend. So much of this popular prescription excludes large portions of the country’s population, for which access is either unavailable, financially less feasible, or unsafe. Can you say more?

AI: Abbey’s take on wilderness was a useful construct at a time when the nation needed to lay the brakes on Manifest Destiny. But his views were just as colonialist. The way he wrote about wilderness normalized what was actually a narrative about white male privilege and dominion. He wanted “to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.” His view of the land is only one of many, and it’s a modern one. The earliest of our kind encountered the wild in groups—as hunters, migrants, and explorers. To go it alone was to dance with madness or death.

NT: Yes, solitude is important. But then we need to come back, to cultivate an intimacy with the needs of both place and people. After writing this book and exchanging such great dialogue with Abbey’s ghost, what’s your main takeaway for readers?

AI: If we truly want to develop broader constituencies to preserve the last wild places, to arrest the cascade of mass extinctions, and stem the howling tides of climatic and cultural refugees, we’ll have to make room for other stories and experiences and learn to understand how they intersect with ecological concerns. No longer can we speak of wild places as if they exist in a vacuum—as if they are mere surfaces for recreation, or projected aesthetics, or even temples of spiritual sustenance. We are now talking about the need for large, intact ecosystems for survival. Whether you disagree with Abbey or stand firmly with his disciples, the end game is here. There’s no time to quibble. Let this be our moment to shine more brilliantly, more humanely, more wildly, than we ever have before.


Read Amy Irvine’s piece in the Autumn 2018 issue.
Learn more about Irvine’s Desert Cabal.  
Subscribe to Orion today. 

Young Readers Ask: The Book of Snakes

“Young Readers Ask” is a new Orion web series where
young readers interview authors about books.

The Book of Snakes: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World

Mark O’Shea
University of Chicago Press, 2018. $55.
656 pages, 2,400 color plates

From the University of Chicago Press:

“For millennia, humans have regarded snakes with an exceptional combination of fascination and revulsion. Some people recoil in fear at the very suggestion of these creatures, while others happily keep them as pets. Snakes can convey both beauty and menace in a single tongue flick and so these creatures have held a special place in our cultures. Yet, for as many meanings that we attribute to snakes—from fertility and birth to sin and death—the real-life species represent an even wider array of wonders.

The Book of Snakes presents 600 species of snakes from around the world, covering nearly one in six of all snake species. It will bring greater understanding of a group of reptiles that have existed for more than 160 million years, and that now inhabit every continent except Antarctica, as well as two of the great oceans.”

Mark O’Shea is a herpetologist, zoologist, author, lecturer, and television presenter. He is professor of herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton (UK) and consultant curator of reptiles at West Midland Safari Park. O’Shea has hosted numerous television series focused on snakes for the Discovery Channel, the BBC, and ITV, including four seasons as host of the Animal Planet/Discovery Channel show O’Shea’s Big Adventure. He has also run a variety of herpetological field projects for the Royal Geographical Society, Operation Raleigh, Raleigh Executive, and Discovery Expeditions. O’Shea is the author of five books, including A Guide to the Snakes of Papua New Guinea. He lives in Shropshire, England.

Jasper Wood lives in Vermont with his parents and sister (don’t judge, I’m only twelve, he says). His hobbies include—but are not limited to—skiing, snowboarding, hanging out with friends, playing video games, and playing trumpet. He has been interested in the sciences and wildlife from a young age.

JW: What sparked your interest in snakes and reptiles?

MOS: I first got interested in snakes because other people didn’t seem to like them much, so I read about them, and the more I read, the more I learned, and the more questions I wanted answering. I met my first live snake when I was about eight. It was a boa constrictor at the Dublin Zoo in Ireland and the keeper took it out so I could hold it. I thought it was twice as long as I was tall, but sadly no photograph exists of this career-determining moment.

A year later I saw a live adder, our country’s only venomous snake, on a beautiful spot called Kinver Edge near my home in England. This was a wild snake and I asked my aunt to help me catch it. Fortunately, we failed and it got away. But now I wanted my own snake, so I bought an Italian grass snake from a pet shop and called her Escapist, because she did, often, all over the house.

By the late 1970s I had two hundred snakes at home and was breeding them from all over the world. I became Curator of Reptiles at West Midland Safari Park in the UK and moved my collection into theirs, and I have not kept any reptiles at home for over twenty years. I need the freedom to travel that my research demands and now I am more interested in snakes in the wild than snakes in captivity.

JW: How would this information about snakes and reptiles benefit military doctors and medical professionals?

MOS: Firstly, may I correct a little terminology? We don’t say “snakes and reptiles” because snakes are reptiles and that would be like listing snakes twice. It is kind of like saying “animals and birds,” because birds are animals. It is fine to say “snakes and other reptiles.”

The main benefit a military doctor would gain from a book such as The Book of Snakes is being able to identify different species found within a particular part of the world, whether it is venomous, and discover what kind of venom it may possess. But this is a big book including six hundred species of snakes from around the world. Given that there are over 3,750 species of snakes in the world, it does not include all the species in any particular region. For that, a field guide to that country or region would be more useful.

I have presented lectures on snake identification and snakebite first aid to the RAMC, to civilian medics, and to non-medical groups, and I hope those helped narrow down which species are dangerous in different parts of the world. Around the world every year up to 138,000 people die of snakebites, a further 400,000 are permanently disabled by the effects of the venom, and 1,000 people are killed by crocodiles, so reptiles can be very dangerous.

JW: What is the most life-threatening situation you’ve been in related to snakes?

MOS: I’ve had several non-snake life-threatening events, mostly when I was filming O’Shea’s Big Adventure for Animal Planet, such as being swept out to sea by a large wave off South Africa, or running out of air eighty feet down diving for seasnakes off Western Australia. I’ve had a number of serious snakebites from rattlesnakes, cobras, and other species. My worst bite was in 1993 when a large canebrake rattlesnake bit me in the wrist at the Safari Park and injected a lot of venom. I nearly died in the ambulance.

My first rattlesnake bite was in 1987 working for the Royal Geographical Society on a research station in the northern Amazon and back then we did not have cell phones, sat-phones, or the internet. We relied on old-fashioned radios which were turned on for ten minutes at six a.m. and six p.m. to do “radio checks” with our base in the nearest town a five-hour drive away. I was bitten at six-thirty p.m. in the late afternoon and had to survive the night in the jungle before we could even tell anybody outside the research station and request medivac. We had a small supply of antivenom but the fridge was not working so it was a bit cloudy and when I received it I went blind. Fortunately that was a small snake. Had it been one of the large ones, I might not have survived.

On expeditions in tropical countries I’ve had to contend with dangerous humans, and have dealt with roadblocks set up by bandits, so snakes are not necessarily the most dangerous animals in the jungle. Two legs can be more dangerous than no legs!

JW: How long did it take you to write The Book of Snakes?

MOS: The Book of Snakes took about two-and-a-half years from start to finish. The first stage was deciding which six hundred species to include. I wanted to represent the diversity of snakes worldwide so I made a list of the 3,700+ species of snakes of the world and divided them by family and subfamily so I would achieve roughly the same proportions per family/subfamily in the book. Then, I selected representative species for each family/subfamily to illustrate diversity of distribution, prey, reproduction etc. I wanted mainland and island species, widely distributed and locally endemic species, rare and common species etc. One important factor was we must be able to illustrate the snake with a high quality full-body photograph, and if we couldn’t, I had to replace that species.

The writing was fun. I’m busy even now writing the second edition of my field guide to the snakes of New Guinea—the largest tropical island in the world—and I am working on scientific papers describing new snake species, lectures for my students and to deliver in Europe and Australia over the next two months.

JW: Wait, so how many times have you been bitten by a snake?

MOS: I assume you mean by venomous snakes, and it is a few but I never disclose the number because it sounds like bragging. Snakebites are an occupational hazard that you try to keep to an absolute minimum and avoid completely if possible, but sometimes they do happen and you have to be ready to deal with them. People are always so interested in snakebites, so I try and talk about them from an educational standpoint. Not all snakebites are dangerous. Some are defensive, dry bites which inject no venom, or they may inject only a small amount of venom. You just don’t know so you treat them all as serious medical emergencies. The canebrake rattlesnake bite I mentioned earlier was while I was feeding a group of rattlesnakes at the safari park, so the snake intended it as a killing bite and injected a lot of venom, so it was a very serious accident. Non-venomous snakes can bite too and bites from large pythons or anacondas hurt and bleed a lot.

Learn More: