Cool Green Review: John Waldman’s Running Silver

Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations. By John Waldman. Lyons Press, 2013. 284 pages.

Review by Matt Miller, senior science writer

John Waldman is kind of like that kid in The Sixth Sense.  Except instead of seeing dead people, he sees the ghosts of migratory fish.

And yes, they’re everywhere.

Waldman wants people to see rivers as they should be, filled with millions of migratory fish. He wants us to imagine the past, and not accept degraded rivers as “normal.”

To accomplish this, he looks to historical records, paleontology and the scientific literature in an exhaustively-researched work. He weaves in personal stories brimming with his passion for fish and moving water. He takes the reader through the natural cycles of migration and spawning of anadromous fish. The result is a beautiful and often heartbreaking book, one of the most important conservation works I’ve read in recent years.

The book brings alive the story of East Coast rivers that once supported commercial fisheries, that truly “ran silver” with migratory fish. Now gone.

And you think: how could we have let this happen?

Here, Waldman is just as comprehensive, telling the stories behind the loss of our great fish runs: the dams and overharvest and invasive species and climate change. The hubris. The apathy.

Depressing? Oh yes. There’s no shortage of loss here. “Dim visions of unimaginable plenitude are often all we are left with in today’s world. And sometimes not even that,” Waldman writes.

But he also offers hope. True, we are not going to return all the great runs of shad, eels, sturgeon and alewives. Still, dams have come down; restoration and research have returned fish to rivers where they haven’t been seen in years.

Many conservationists and conservation scientists fear that our movement is too focused on the past, and want to race into the future with hopeful solutions. That’s certainly admirable, but I’m frequently dismayed by how little many conservationists know about ecological or conservation history. And we ignore the past at our peril, as Running Silver makes abundantly clear.

Ecological history is vital in showing us the possibilities for restoration. It also can serve as a warning so that we don’t lose those precious places that still exist.

That’s why we need more books like this. It brings the past alive, and uses that past to chart a better course for the future. And more: like the best books, Running Silver helps us see our world in fresh, unexpected ways.

You’ll certainly never see your home waters the same. And that’s a good thing. Waldman argues that we can use this knowledge – and sense of loss – to better restore, protect and defend our rivers and migratory fish.

As he writes:

“The task today is to exorcise these ghosts, not through the supernatural but by filling the empty spaces in nature they represent through the hard work of applied restoration via all possible avenues. But to muster the wherewithal, their fates first need to matter; in our minds, they need to pass from poorly remembered specters to living creatures in need of a fair chance.”

Running Silver by John Waldman.

Running Silver by John Waldman.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: Book Review, Fish

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.

Comments: Cool Green Review: John Waldman’s Running Silver

  •  Comment from Don Holmes

    An excellent read! I bought this book based on a pre-publication announcement, believing that as an aquatic/marine ecologist it was a “should do” purchase. To my surprise, I found that John Waldman’s depth of research and literary style gave me the same degree of pleasure and increased knowledge of the subject at hand as the best writers of this genre (such as John McPhee). This book should be of considerable value to fisheries scientists, natural resource managers and policy makers, and interested lay-people. If there were a star rating, this would receive the maximum stars possible from me.

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