Books

Jane Alexander: It’s Time to Treat Scientists Like Heroes Again

In her first nature book, the Hollywood and Broadway star shares personal tales of exploration and conservation that urge and inspire.

“I’ve always been a nature girl,” Jane Alexander says.

Add it to a long list of pursuits and interests for the award-winning screen and stage actress, globetrotter, Audubon board member, conservationist, and now, author. Over the past three decades, Alexander’s love of nature has taken her to some far-off lands, from the sprawling Pantanal wetlands to the towering Himalayas and the volcanoes of Halakeal. But each adventure was more than just a stamp in her passport or a tick on her life list; they were studies on how humans are hurting nature—and how we're trying to make amends.

In her book Wild Things, Wild Places, which came out today, Alexander uses her journeys over the years to highlight 23 endangered ecosystems. Each chapter revolves around the efforts of a different scientist that she was able to embed with and learn from in the field. There’s Alan Rabinowitz, leader of Panthera and a loyal friend, whose life work is to protect jungle cats from the black market. There’s Patricia Wright, whose expertise on lemurs and anthropology allows her to connect villagers in Madagascar to ranger-training programs. And there’s Tom Morgan, a master birder from the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, who helped Alexander discover the migration phenomenon unfurling in her own backwoods.

By layering these victories and experiences over the different conservation dilemmas plaguing the world, Alexander creates a sense of hope to balance the book’s urgent reality. In a recent interview with Audubon, she reflects on how civilization can disrupt birds and shares what she's learned about compromising with nature.

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Audubon: In your book, you cover a wide range of problems: climate change, invasive wildlife, oil drilling, pesticides, and poaching, to name a few. As a birder, have you witnessed any of the ripple effects closer to home?

Jane Alexander: Here where I live in Southwest Nova Scotia, we’re having the worst drought since 1880. A thousand wells have gone dry and the people are suffering terribly, so just imagine what the animals are experiencing. I expected a whole wave of warblers to be going through my woods right now, but all I’ve been seeing are Common Yellowthroats and Yellow-rumped Warblers. That’s way down from what I see in ordinary years. All of our Piping Plovers were predated on the South Shore this summer. Also, usually from the end of July, I’ll have 15 Whimbrels (my favorite shorebird) scrounging for food around my house. But this year, 32 flew in during the second week of July! I thought, “Isn’t this amazing?” I mentioned it to my friend at Bird Studies Canada, who told me that this wasn’t good news. She said the birds were probably non-breeders that were up in the tundra and couldn’t find what they needed to eat. This wasn’t just a windfall.

Birds are always over us: They’re literally the umbrella species. And they’re showing us that climate change has already started. (Audubon’s Chief Scientist Gary Langham has done remarkable, timely work on this.) All you have to do is look around.

A: Why did you choose scientists as your protagonists?

JA: I truly am in awe of these men and women, being out in the field with them, seeing how they work with politicians and dirt-poor communities. They need to have more of a voice. We don’t celebrate science in the same way that we used to; Einstein, for instance, was such a hero figure. But quiz the general public now on who came up with the idea of taking the first shots of Pluto, and they won’t know. There’s a disconnect there, and I think the media is the problem. And what I hope to do, in my small way in the celebrity world, is to bridge that gap. 

A: In all of your stories, the scientists always relied on the community’s expertise to study and protect local species. Why is that important?

JA: This is something that’s changed over time in explorations of science: Today, there’s absolutely no conservation without community involvement. Why is that? These people take a certain pride in the world around them, and that’s essential to understanding and protecting the animals.

The best example of this may be Lisa Dabek [from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle] and her work with Matschie’s tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea. The villagers are allowed to kill them in season within certain areas; the meat is packed with protein and is very good for the people. But they also run a trapping program to put radio collars on the kangaroos for scientific endeavors. It’s just one of the good things that come out of scientists gaining the trust of a community. It’s the only way the animals can be saved in perpetuity. Without local buy-in, we just pop in like the conquering Westerners.

Use this map to explore a few of the conservation (and birding) highlights from Wild Things, Wild Places:

 

A: Some of the adventures take place in your old backyard in Putnam County, New York. Is this your way of reminding readers that they can do their own part closer to home? 

JA: Absolutely. The truth is, we’re all part of an ecosystem. We need to try to become aware of what’s living in the tree, outside the window, in the ground . . . what’s passing by in the sky. I end the book by saying that my favorite wild place is my own patch, and I think this is true of enormous numbers of people who define themselves as birders and Audubon members. And it can expand to almost anybody: If you make people aware, they perk up. I certainly feel like that’s happened in my own life.

Changes are happening everywhere; no one’s going to get away scot-free. It’s very important for everyone to protect their own spaces.

A: Do you think it’s possible for us to balance human needs with the wellbeing of nature?

JA: We do our best to coexist, but it’s not always possible because we can’t sacrifice human lives. We just need to keep the losses of our fellow creatures to a minimum. We need to understand wildlife is helping us. The ecosystem is very intricate: We don’t even know how valuable every creature is—even the tiniest ones.

What it takes is a little patience and ingenuity. Here’s an example: The village of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, had more white-tailed deer per capita than anywhere else in the country. The community is a humane one, and they didn’t want to see the animals killed, so they decided they wanted to give the does contraceptives. The town paid for this project, and in 18 months, the deer population was way down. 

In my own little garden in Nova Scotia, I haven’t used herbicides for 20 or 30 years. But I had a problem when someone spread compost for me, and I ended up getting cutworms. I couldn’t grow any lettuce because they would sever it. So I’d go out at night or at dawn—that’s when they come out—and painstakingly pick them off. And then, lo and behold, two years ago, I saw Song Sparrows were eating the cutworms. I was overjoyed. There they were, with these little orange cutworms in their mouths. Now I have plenty of lettuce and no worms! I’m very glad I didn’t poison my birds.

Patience and ingenuity . . . and then it will all come together.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: This is Alexander's first nature book, but not her first foray into the writing world. Her previous titles include Command PerformanceThe Master Builderand even a cookbook.

 

Wild Things, Wild Places: Adventurous Tales of Wildlife and Conservation on Planet Earth, by Jane Alexander, Penguin Random House, 352 pages, $28.95. Buy it at Penguin Random House.

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