Where the wild things are
Dan Flores takes thrilling deep dive into ecologic history of North American

Where the wild things are
Clint McKnight - 03/30/2023

Dan Flores’ beautifully written deep-dive into the conjoined histories of wildlife and humans in North America, “Wild New World,” is fascinating, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring. It is easily my favorite book of the year so far. 

Flores, a retired Professor Emeritus of Western History at the University of Montana and distinguished historian, presents his sweeping account of evolution and anthropology as a captivating read that’s surprisingly hard to put down. It’s a wildlife story for the ages, an epic account of the interaction between animals and humans reaching back 30,000 years. It was a time when this primeval continent teemed with an extraordinary variety of jaw-dropping Ice Age beasts such as woolly mammoths, sabertooth tigers, giant ground sloths and beavers the size of Volkswagens.

An engaging and passionate writer, at one point Flores, who now lives in Santa Fe, jogs down the steepening path of a Clovis-era buffalo jump, gaining speed and adrenaline as he imagines the experience of giant bison hurtling toward their doom. 

Revelations and fascinating theories occur on every page, such as the proposition that indigenous coexistence attitudes toward wildlife may have formed out of ancestral trauma of people who watched the disappearance of so many animals essential to their survival. Contrast that with the attitudes of European colonists, whose astonishment at the abundance of American wildlife leads to 300 years of thoughtless slaughter.

Here, readers must steel themselves as passenger pigeons are erased from the sky in a gluttony of gunfire, and the relentless poisoning of wolves takes out a host of other creatures as well. Such tragedies, however, give rise to visionaries such as John James Audubon, John Burroughs and George Bird Grinnell, who helped shift American perspectives on the limits of living public resources. In so doing, they also helped give birth to the bold concept of wildlife conservation.

I would suggest that the ultimate value of this exceptional book lies there, not just in the thrilling ecological history of North America’s original animal kingdom, but in its powerful motivation to appreciate and preserve what remains of that “Wild New World.”

When not being a legendary bookseller at Maria’s Bookshop, Clint McKnight writes book reviews on the side.