Wild Ones Live

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[background music]

Roman: We have one cardinal rule on 99% Invisible. No cardinals. Meaning, we don’t deal with the natural world. Only the built world. So, when I read Jon Mooallem’s brilliant book called Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. I didn’t think I’d ever do an episode of 99% Invisible about it. I just read it for fun. But then I saw Jon perform stories from the book live, with musical accompaniment and I thought, “I need to put this on the radio.” I still call this radio. Anyway, what you need to know about Wild Ones is that it isn’t a book about nature. It’s a book about how we fit nature into our modern lives. Wild Ones is about the cutesy stuffed animals, the eco-tours, and the byzantine methods of conservation that evolve when our experience with wildlife goes from something natural to something designed. Human/animal interaction has become a designed experience and the story of that transition, as the title of the book suggests, is sometimes dismaying and also, weirdly reassuring.

Jon Mooallem is friends with the band Black Prairie, and as he was writing the book, they concocted this idea of the band creating a soundtrack to the book and the result was an Extended EP called Wild Ones: A Musical Score For The Things You Might See In Your Head When You Reflect On Certain Characters And Incidents That You Read In The Book. The writer and the band then went on a short tour with the song and story extravaganza that I’m going to play for you today. When I saw them perform this live in San Francisco, I freaked out, it was so good. And I accosted them in the dressing room and said, “You have to let me share this with my audience.” So here it is. And here we go.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: It happens every summer. Small turtles called Diamondback Terrapins skitter out of the water around JFK Airport New York, and they start moving west. They’re heading for a patch of sand where they like to lay their eggs and they have to cross over one of the airport’s runways to get there. Runway 4L. Sometimes, there are so many turtles on the move at once that the control tower has to delay flights. Now, the press loves doing stories about how funny this is. How a fleet of giant airplanes can be held up by just a few tiny turtles but hold that picture in your mind and think about the Caribbean Sea in 1492. There were almost a billion sea turtles living in it back then. Columbus’ men anchored in the Caribbean wrote about being kept awake at night by the thwacking of so many turtle shells against the sides of their ship. Notice how that scene is the exact opposite of the scene at JFK. It’s not a fleet of giant airplanes being held up by a few tiny turtles. It’s a giant fleet of turtles bombarding just a few relatively tiny ships.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: So, I wrote this book about people and wild animals in America and they only really started because I wanted to show my daughter endangered species in the wild before they disappeared. Like a lot of people, I think, I felt this pang. I knew that all around us beautiful parts of the world are expiring and I also knew that people in the future, they might not even notice. For them, a world without whales or wilderness might feel normal. I wanted to counteract that forgetting that’s bound to take hold over overtime. This forgetting has a name. Scientists call it “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It means that all of us except the version of the world we inherit is normal. Over the years, we watch forests get logged or animals disappear but when the next generation comes along, they accept the depleted version of nature as their normal. It’s hard to zoom out, really feel the changes that are stacking up across the generations. I can’t even imagine what an ocean filled with a billion sea turtles must feel like. Last winter, I was in Hawaii and I saw three sea turtles and I flipped the [bleep] out. I felt like I was in Eden.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: It wasn’t so long ago though that America was a kinder view when people could be dwarfed and engulfed by wild animals in a way that it feels almost impossible now. In the late 1800s, trains would sometimes have to stop for four or five hours as streams of buffalo moved across the tracks. Occasionally, a stampede would batter into the side of a train, derailing it. A witness described one of these scenes in 1871 in Kansas.

William: Each individual buffalo went at it with the desperation of despair, plunging against or between locomotive and cars, just as its blind madness chanced to direct it. After having trains thrown off the track twice in one week, conductors learned to have a very decided respect for the idiosyncrasies of the buffalo.

Jon: This man’s name was William Temple Hornaday. He was a bombastic midwesterner with an elaborate mustache. Hornaday was head taxidermist at the Smithsonian and he traveled the globe, hunting exotic animals and stuffing them for the museum. In India, after he took down an elephant, he climbed atop the carcass and popped open a Bass Ale. Once, he trapped an orangutan, named it Little Man, and gave it to Andrew Carnegie as a pet. It sounds weird but for Hornaday, killing these animals was a kind of conservation. He believed by stuffing them, he was preserving endangered species for the future generations that might not know them after they were gone. Through taxidermy, he could make them immortal. In 1886, Hornaday looked west and saw that Americans were killing so many buffalo so rapidly that the prairie was almost empty. He figured there were maybe less than 300 buffalo left in the wild and so, he did what he thought was the most helpful and logical thing. He led out for Montana to kill several dozens of them.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: Hornaday shot 25 buffalo in Montana and he built the best looking ones into an exhibit at the museum. He gathered them around a fake watering hole looking forlorn. But from there, his thinking evolved. He realized he was basically just a funeral director embalming this species that America was exterminating. It occurred to him, “What if we actually tried to keep these animals alive?” And so, he became one of America’s first real wildlife conservationists and activists, lobbyist, and celebrity. America was killing every conceivable kind of animal in their way. Hornaday stood up for all of them, from (inaudible) like the grizzly, to the lowlier, less majestic things like the squirrel.

William: A live squirrel on a tree is poetry in motion. We ask every American to lend a hand to save the silver tail.

Jon: There is really only one animal on the continent that Hornaday wasn’t worried about. He seemed too mighty to be brought down by men with guns and it lived in the cold and brutal wilderness that men can’t possibly take over.

William: The polar bear is the king of the frozen north. It’s not very probable that the polar bear will ever be exterminated by men.

Jon: That’s Hornaday writing in 1914. Back then, no one could have imagined a problem as abstract as climate change. But think about how quickly climate change has changed the polar bear’s reputation in our minds. It has gone from bloodthirsty man-killer to delicate drowning victim. 200 years ago, Arctic explorers wrote about polar bears leaping into their boats and trying to eat them even if they lit the bear on fire. But recently, when I went to the tiny northern town that calls itself the polar bear capital of the world, Martha Stewart had just arrived to film the animals for her daytime show on The Hallmark Channel.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: The town is called Churchill Manitoba. It’s on the edge of Hudson Bay and every fall, right before the bay freezes over, Churchill gets overrun with about 900 polar bears and 10,000 polar bear tourists. Bears routinely wander into town. They like meeting out at the elementary school especially. Folks can call 675-BEAR and a squad of bear patrol officers will come to chase the animals back into the tundra in their trucks. Bears that won’t budge are tranquilized and shipped out to a Quonset hut near the airport. Once these so-called polar bear jail fills up, each animal is drugged again and airlifted one at a time to an area north of town. Crowds of tourists come out to watch these bear lifts and I went to one myself.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: It was something just a little ceremonial about the bear lift I went to. How the uniformed wildlife officers arranged the sleeping bear on a net at the center of the crowd, how they tucked its paws carefully across its chest like some drunken uncle after Thanksgiving dinner. It was so careful, beautiful, and confusing. A couple of people cried. It was like the opposite of animal sacrifice. A ritual to save the bear, to show how far out of our way we’d go not to kill it. I stood there and watched, and as I did, Martha Stewart stood next to me. Her crew was there filming everything.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: Honestly, it’s a breathtaking thing to watch, a polar bear flying away. All of a sudden, the helicopter started to churn, the edges of the net lifted. The furry shape inside contracting through you and then the entire package was off the ground. The helicopter climbed toward the cloud bank. The bear twirling slightly underneath it like a teabag. And then, finally, the polar bear was gone.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: Yeah, I know. Airlifting polar bears. Strange. No one could have imagined it would come to this but the way we help animals now has evolved into a surreal kind of performance art. We carry migrating salamanders across busy highways. We monitor pygmy rabbits with drones. At Cornell, scientists breeding endangered Peregrine Falcons wear specially made receptacle which they call the “Copulation Hat” coaxed a bird named Beer Can to ejaculate on their heads several times a day, every day for much of the 1970s. You see, this is another baseline that shifts over time. The lengths we’re willing to go. Each generation does what would have looked like fighting for a preposterous lost cause to the one before it and then each generation comes along anew and does a little bit more than that. And on it goes. Humanity strapping on the proverbial copulation hat again, and again, and again. Consider the story of George and Tex.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: In the late 1970s, there are only a handful of whooping cranes left in the wild and also a small number at a government lab in Maryland. Scientists there were doing their best to ring as many new offspring as they could from those captive birds. But the lab had one problem child; A female crane named Tex. As a newborn, Tex has been raised in a cardboard box in the zookeeper’s living room and have never seen another crane, she imprinted on the one animal that she did see, the zookeeper. Basically, she wounded up sexually attracted to people and not other cranes. The scientist kept training the pair with Tex off but Tex wasn’t interested. She wanted a man. And specifically, a man who looked like her old zookeeper with dark hair, a white man, of medium build. Now, there was a young crane conservationist named George Archibald and George happened to be dark-haired, white man of medium build. He took Tex to [inaudible] Wisconsin, put a mattress in her pen and moved in as Tex’s companion. They forged together, built a nest, and they danced. George doing deep-knee bends and springing up his arms out like wings. He’d whoop and holler, “C’mon Tex. C’mon Tex.” And soon, they’d be dancing together just like wild cranes do during courtship. This would get Tex aroused and at just the right moment, two assistants would rush out from their hiding place and artificially inseminate her with crane semen.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: George did all this for three years. Living with Tex for months at a time because the eggs she kept laying were infertile. The man and crane would start out after dawn. They’d go for a walk and they’d dance. They’d dance and they’d dance and they’d dance.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: George didn’t enjoy any of this. He was miserable actually. Miserable. But in the spring of 1983, Tex finally laid an egg that hatched and George was right there when it did. He was invited on the Tonight Show to celebrate. One headline read, “Man, Crane Proud Parents of Chick.” George named the chick Gee Whiz. By now, Gee Whiz has 44 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Today, there are more whooping cranes in the wild than there have been in almost a hundred years.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: William Temple Hornaday, the taxidermist, died in 1937. At his funeral, buglers from the local Boy Scouts troop surrounded the coffin and played Home on the Range. Twenty years later, workers at the Smithsonian were dismantling Hornaday’s buffalo exhibit, the one he built after the hunt in Montana, the one he thought would last forever. They found a rusty box buried in the fake ground. Inside was a letter. It was from Hornaday written to his future successor at the museum.

William: Dear Sir, When I am dust and ashes I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction. At last the game butchers of the great west have stopped killing the buffalo. All the buffalo are dead.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Female singer: [Singing] Hello, my name is William Temple. Please know I tried, I tried. Dear sir, I write this letter to you. Revile not, give the devil his due. Dear sir, I’m happy not to be alive. To see what you’ll have to see. Dear sir, I have prepared for the worst. Enjoy their beauty, killed by yours truly. Dear sir, I have protected them now. To the highest degree. Dear sir, I have now stopped the killing. They’re all gone, and here for you to see. [Instrumental] Oh, give them a home. Please keep them from harm. Home, give them a home. I am dust and bone. You can move faster than. Faster than the wild ones can. [Instrumental] Home, give them a home. Please keep them from harm. Home, give them a home. I am dust and bone. You can move faster than. Faster the wild ones can. [Instrumental]

Jon: Of course, Hornaday had written that pessimistic letter in 1887 when he was still just a young taxidermist. It turns out he was wrong. The buffalo were not all dead and in the years to come, he actually played a big role in helping to save them. Lots of other species too. But it was hard for him to focus on those successes. He lost so many more battles than he’d won. But at the end of his life, he turned bitter, disillusioned.

William: I tried to inject the courage into the hearts of men but today, I think that speaking generally, civilized man is an unmedicated ass.

Jon: Like all of us, his imagination was hopelessly trapped in its own moment, its own lifetime. He can only see the world through the tiny keyhole of the present.

Female singer: [Singing] Dear sir. Dear sir.

[Instrumental]

Jon: So, where does that leave us then, in our present? Maybe, all that any one of us can do is push against the baseline as it shifts. You can be a tiny counterweight. We weigh almost nothing but generation after generation, that weight adds up. Sometimes in some places, the baseline starts to shift in the other direction, in the direction of more beauty, not less. But that happens incrementally too, and it could be hard to notice.

So, picture that scene at JFK again. All those turtles. When Hornaday was born, they were close to extinction, being hunted because they tasted so good in soup. We’re like those turtles, a race of stubborn little things that barely notices as the wilderness it migrates through fills up with villages and lights and swells into an airport runway. Just keep migrating across it anyway, tucking the eggs of the next generation into the sand. But we’re like the airplanes too, because we have changed. We changed into something that Hornaday could never have imagined. Species that kind of at least tried to slow down, try to stop. I like to think about those airplanes powering down, the lines of them parting like a shiny metallic seed so these tiny tribe of turtles may pass through. I get it. It looks funny in the present that squints into the hazy panorama of history, and those airplanes idling in place, that little moment of not moving forward looks unmistakably to me like progress.

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Jon: Thank you, guys! Black Prairie! Black Prairie!

[Music by Black Prairie Band]

Host: That’s Jon Mooallem. Let’s take a break and be right back. Thanks so much! Thanks a lot.

[background music]

Roman: That’s Wild Ones Live. Text was written by Jon Mooallem. Music by Black Prairie. Black Prairie is Jenny Conlee-Drizos on accordion and vocals; Chris Funk on banjo, dobro, autoharp, and vocals; John Moen on drums and vocals; Jon Neufeld on guitar and vocals; Nate Query on bass; and Annalisa Tornfelt on fiddle and vocals. Their recording engineer is Rich Hipp. Special thanks to Jon Cohrs and Dirk Walker for audio help this week. Wild Ones: A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America is available in all the usual places. You should get it. I both read it with my eyes and listened to it on audible. It was really good on audible. I’m like the only podcast that doesn’t get paid by audible. That’s just straight up endorsement. Anyway, however you consume books, you should get Wild Ones.

That’s 99% Invisible for this week. The show with Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Comments (36)

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  1. Gilbert T

    I very much enjoyed this but a small warning to those of you using headphones, the music to voice is pretty loud so avoid pounding your eardrums.

  2. I’ve been listening to 99% for a few months now, having recently become enthralled and ensconced in podcasts. Today I had the very special joy of listening to this podcast and I was.. well, frankly, touched. It has a gravitas. It is emotional, beautiful, poignant and wonderful. Thank you for taking me out of my office environment, even if only for 30 minutes. Keep up the fantastic work!

  3. Rickie

    I just listened to Wild Ones. Wow. The presentation was captivating. I was totally involved with the animals, the speaker, the story, and the music. Jon and Black Prairie painted a picture with words and music that touched me. Thank you. And thank you Roman for sharing.

  4. Loved. This was fantastic. And although I am only writing now, the whole show is fantastic, I love the honesty in the show, I love the perspective.

  5. Kate

    This makes me so.damned.happy! Black Prairie is one of my favorites, and this is all just so brilliant. Just ordered the book. Thanks SO much for sharing this with the wider world.

  6. Loved this episode. It was a nice change from the more traditional format. The music was fabulous and I enjoyed the focus on nature.

  7. Thank you. This was spectacularly good. Beautiful prose, wonderful weaving of music and narrative and the most touching, plaintiff melody in ‘Dear Sir’…
    Curating this kind of material is a special skill. Take a bow – and thank you.

  8. This episode is amazing- but on a side note, I’d like to implore you to left-justify the links below the 99% invisible logo (on the left-hand side of this website, “home,” “episodes,” etc).

  9. Kelvin QL

    Thank you so much for sharing these lighthearted, yet emotional stories with us, Roman.

  10. Geoffrey Caven

    This was the most stunning podcast episode I’ve ever had the joy to listen to, the music was excellent. Expect some kickstarter money from me

  11. Roman I have been deeply touched by this. Thank you for bringing this into my life. I cried with joy. I can’t even remember when was the last time I cried with joy. Thank you Roman for this podcast.

  12. Jen S

    This was amazing… the only disappointing thing is that I went to purchase the audiobook of Wild ones… and its just read by the most monosyllabic voice ever…. it sounds like siri or something. I want to listen to the entire 10hrs of book like this, can we kickstarter to pay Jon and the band to record the entire book?

  13. I have been moved by this beyond words. I cried at the end of the episode. The amazing thing is that I cried for joy. Thank you for broadcasting this.

  14. Paul K.

    Excellent work. Touching, artful, entertaining, and educational. However while dismayed as advertised, I fail to be reassured. Weirdly or not.

  15. Sezshares

    Thank you Roman for showcasing such amazing artists. Listened through the podcast a few times, and have just bought all 3 albums available on the Black Prairie site, along with a couple of t-shirts for good measure. Now off buy Jon’s book…

    “Dear sir…..”

  16. Arianne

    I have been binge-listening to 99PI for a few weeks now and just got to this episode. It was, in a word, delightful. It had me grinning like a little kid as I walked to work this morning, attracting more than a few curious looks from my fellow commuters. This episode absolutely made my day. I can’t wait to get the book and the album for myself and to share it with several friends- people who popped into my mind as I listened because I just KNEW they would love this as much as I did! Thank you!

  17. Grace

    I really hope they make an audiobook out of this with the musical accompaniment. The music & story work so well together, better than either alone.

  18. Barbie

    I love this episode so much! Every time it comes on PRX we listen to it. So much so that my two year old has started singing along and sometimes sings it when we aren’t listing. Thank you for putting it on the air!

  19. shroppy

    One of my top 5 99pi eposides! Thanks Roman for not only being a great radio producer, but also for your master curating skills!

  20. kate

    I cannot listen to this without crying. It’s the good kind, but it’s a little irritating because I’ve probably listened to it about 10 times now… more than a few times at work. I absolutely love this, and I only wish it were longer.

  21. jww

    It’s been a year since this episode was first broadcast, and I’ve listened to it every couple of months since. I’ll get the itch, go and download this one episode, and play it though a couple of times. I’ve played it for my wife and for my kids; I’ve told my friends about it. Thank you, Roman and co.

  22. 1%er

    i think it is hilarious that most of the people protesting against the 1% are actually in that 1% when compared to the rest of the world. if you are making $40K US or more then you are part of the 1%. #dumbass

  23. Paulette

    I listened to this in my car today and as soon as I got home I tried to find a tour date. Sadly, they’re not touring this now.
    It was profound, poignant, sad and hopeful and beautifully captured by the moving music. I would love to see this live.
    Thank you, one of the best things I’ve heard/experienced.

  24. Drew

    This podcast was great! I felt the music was good, but at times took away from the message of the podcast. I think the music to voice sound ratio was off and made it difficult to hear what Joe was saying.

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