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As the planet warms, a naturalist documents change

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we incorrectly refer to the book being discussed as “End of Eden”. The book’s title is “The End of Eden”.]


When naturalist Adam Welz was writing his new book about climate change called "End Of Eden," he struggled with how to stay hopeful at a time when scientists say the world is in serious trouble. Welz told NPR's Brian Mann that one part of his answer is to keep connecting more deeply with the natural world.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: On a chilly morning, Adam Welz wades through chest-high grass in New York state's vast Adirondack Park.

ADAM WELZ: That's a northern flicker - right? - that does the (imitating bird).

MANN: Welz, who lives in South Africa and spent a lot of years here in New York, describes himself as an old-school naturalist who likes to dive into places full of living things.

WELZ: Smelling them, hearing them, accessing them, and then figuring out maybe how they fit into a greater ecosystem.

MANN: We agreed to meet and talk about his book, "End Of Eden," here in one of the wildest places in the Eastern U.S. because Welz says places like this help him feel hopeful in a troubled time.

WELZ: You hear that?

MANN: But he says wildness like this also helps him think more clearly about climate and the risks we take pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere. One of the big threats to this northern forest - invasive insects able to spread in devastating waves because of milder, shorter winters.

WELZ: Insects that previously were confined to the more Southern reaches of the U.S. are now moving into these colder areas in the Northeast, just with a tiny increase in winter minimum temperatures. And they're having massive effects on these woodlands.

MANN: In his book, Welz lays out a portrait of climate change not as one big, abstract, scary thing, but as a growing network of sometimes surprising, sometimes hard to see fractures or breakdowns, like those invasive bugs or like the bird species in many deserts that are vanishing because it's too hot to forage for food or care for young. Welz says he struggles with how to observe what he calls the weirding of nature without feeling despair.

WELZ: Writing the book was extremely difficult at times.

MANN: How did you manage to go from that moment of feeling some of the despair to, OK, here - I'm going to write the next page, I'm going to go on to the next step?

WELZ: I'm desperately curious to see how this works out, basically. My curiosity is what's pulled me through a lot of dark times and cheap antidepressants (laughter).

MANN: Welz says his research convinced him many wild ecosystems around the world won't survive. But he also believes despair is mostly unfounded. He says there's lots people and politicians can do to quickly reduce the use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels. There are also ways to repair many of the growing fractures in the world.

He points to this place, the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park where we're walking. It's grown a lot wilder over the last century as locals and environmentalists and government scientists created policies that protected huge areas of forest and wetlands. The goal was to protect wilderness and habitat. But along the way, Welz says, they made the park far more resilient to climate change.

WELZ: This is a much more diverse, much more stable system than it was just a hundred years ago because of these efforts to protect certain areas and allow species - wild species, to reestablish themselves.

MANN: As we talk, a flock of tiny chickadees sweeps around us, so close we can feel the brush of wind from their wings.

WELZ: This is not effort that's been wasted. So there's a cumulative - an accumulation of good that comes from trying to put things back together again.

MANN: As we hike, Welz says he hopes more people will connect more deeply to wild places like this because they're beautiful and hopeful and because we need the natural world for our most basic needs, like food and water.

WELZ: Human society is completely reliant on the predictable functioning of ecosystems. We are pushing those ecosystems into unstable states, driving up uncertainty. We're pushing ourselves further and further into the unknown.

MANN: Welz believes it'll take lots of projects, big and small, all over the world to help ecosystems begin to heal. He says that could also ease climate breakdowns, like the big fires, droughts and heat waves that are already reshaping our human lives.

Brian Mann, NPR News, in New York's Adirondack Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.