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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Peace and war on Saturday at the Wisconsin Book Festival
Alan Weisman, James Cambell, and Peter Annin
Alan Weisman
Alan Weisman

One of the greatest attributes of the Wisconsin Book Festival is the way it excites the imagination. No book on this year's schedule was more inspiring in this regard than The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. The veteran journalist's nonfiction best-seller posits the sudden disappearance of our species due to possibilities ranging from instantaneous extinction to the rapture to mass evacuation by space aliens. Then he sets about investigating how the world, its landscapes and oceans, other species and our own infrastructures and cities and things we leave behind might respond if we vanished.

Weisman presented an overview of this feat of science writing in his engaging festival appearance Saturday morning at the Overture Center, talking about how he followed his curiosity around the world and into conversations with hundreds of experts. His investigation encompasses the ways in which houses are vulnerable to time and weather, the consequences of not maintaining electrical substations and other utilities, how native and invasive species might find equilibrium in habitats around the world, the fate of farms and of fauna with whom we have struck up symbiotic relationships, and the prospects for birds and wilderness and for plastics and many other things humans will leave behind.

The World Without Us is about how things work and how things fall apart, what endures and what does not, and why, and when, and what we might leave in the geological record, and how long all these legacies might take to play out. And it is packed with revelations about things you may never have heard about, such as nurdles and the North Pacific Gyre.

I suspect The World Without Us will prove the most memorable book I read this year, though it mind end up tied with The Ghost Mountain Boys, by James Campbell. I've already written about Campbell and his book at length in a recent Isthmus cover story, but his noon appearance Saturday at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum presented an opportunity for about 50 people to see him in person.

Attendees listened to Campbell talk about how he came to write the book, and watched a short clip from the more than 40 hours of film footage he is now working to shape into a feature documentary. This would visually tell the tale about the Ghost Mountain Boys' World War II traverse of New Guinea and their harrowing battle against the entrenched Japanese -- and about the documentary team's retracing of the soldiers' route in 2006. At the podium, Campbell appeared to be on the brink of tears at one point as he described the ordeal endured by the soldiers. Pausing to regain his composure, he explained that in talking to the surviving troops as part of the research he invested in the book, he had grown close enough to many of them that the bond had redoubled the extent to which he had been moved by their story.

Ducking out toward the end of Campbell's appearance, I dashed over to the Madison Public Library to catch the last parts of Peter Annin's appearance at the fest. Annin is the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars -- perhaps the most memorable book I read in 2006, and by far the most important.

A former Newsweek correspondent, Annin is now a Madison resident and the associate director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, which is how I came to know him. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of participating in one of Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources's intensive field courses for mid-career reporters, and in Annin encountered a dedicated master of the profession.

The Great Lakes Water Wars is an authoritative overview of the state of the lakes, focusing on efforts to protect and preserve the resource from interests that would extract their freshwater reserves. The authority derives from the tight grip Annin has kept on his ethics and obligations as a journalist devoted to objectivity and fairness. In researching and writing the book, he strived to include all the perspectives involved and to present a balanced assessment of prospects for the Great Lakes in the coming century.

Since the book's publication last year, Annin has continued to monitor and report on the Great Lakes, a resource in its own right for those who hope to educate themselves on the topic. The Great Lakes Water Wars is must reading for anyone with a stake in the lakes -- including the 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes Basin and anyone else who recognizes in its fresh waters a resource of intrinsic value that is worth more preserved and protected than squandered.

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