Before They’re Gone is a singular book that embraces adventure, parenting and environmental awareness in equal measure. It charts American outdoors writer, editor and photographer Michael Lanza’s quest to take his two young children some of his favourite wild places.
His connection with each place is personal but the other unifying factor is that they are all threatened by climate change – he wants to share them with his children before, as the title suggests, they’re all gone. It’s a quest that is as inspiring and engaging as it is alarming.
He writes in the prologue:
How do I explain to a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old that humanity … has behaved in such a shortsighted way that these parks we’re visiting will look and feel very different by the time they are my age.
I devoured the book’s descriptions of hiking through National Parks such as Yosemite or paddling through Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park in no time, thanks to Lanza’s effortless weave of adventure writing and journalism.
Interspersed with his description of the park’s ecology and geology are the challenges of coaxing two children through North America’s diverse landscapes. He succeeds, despite noting that ‘hiking with kids is a bit like trying to predict the wind.’ You need to be tuned into both their imagination and also their physical response to the hardships of hiking (especially somewhere as remote and steep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon).
You also need to both understand and accept risk – such as when letting them scramble up a steep rock face in Joshua Tree National Park – so that they can ‘experiment with their own limits.’ Smartly, he does impose some rules, such as no talking or playing during a climb: ‘pay full attention to what you are doing.’
It’s a delicate balancing act that brings its own rewards, especially when you’re able to see how they respond to the manifestation of the massive winter melts that fuel Yosemite National Park’s iconic waterfalls. The flipside is that these magical places will also be part of their memories, and therefore, their identity.
And having these memories is important since each of the parks he visits is already suffering from the effects of climate change. A few examples include:
- Decline of the Joshua Tree (Yucca Brevifolia) in the eponymous Joshua Tree national park due to rising temperatures that will see its range cut by 90% over the next 60 to 90 years
- Disappearing snow pack and glaciers that could reduce Yosemite’s mighty waterfalls to trickles within a lifetime
- Ancient red cedars being slowly replaced by hotter- and drier-climate species like the lodgepole pine and an increase in wildfires in Montana’s Glacier National Park
He backs up these observations with meticulous research and interviews with climate scientists and national park rangers, all of which testify to the rapid rate of change in all the places he visits. It’s a compelling story and one told without any sense of evangelism – only the sadness that accompanies the presentation of bitter facts.
Anyone such as the Australian Prime Minister’s chief business adviser who make baseless assertions against the science of climate change would do well to read this book and understand both the science and also the distinctly human narrative that underpin the rapid mutation of the world’s wild places. Sadly, I suspect they won’t but any parent should.
Lanza’s great contribution is that he has written a book that will galvanise people into a reaction, and possible action, around climate change but not through lobbying or activism.
What I drew from the book is far more timeless: children flourish in the beauty and adversity of the natural world. Providing them with the opportunity to experience and integrate it into their identity will ensure that the natural world, and its protection, gains both extrinsic and intrinsic value. And what will you defend more strongly than something that is close to heart.