By Johnny Armstrong
In this post, Johnny Armstrong answers questions about his new book, Rescuing Biodiversity: The Protection and Restoration of a North Louisiana Ecosystem.
What inspired you to write Rescuing Biodiversity?
Back around the time I was trying to get permanent protection for Wafer Creek Ranch (WCR), I began writing what I intended to be a small manual for my children. It was my effort to explain WCR’s ecological value and the importance of protecting its habitats, mainly consisting of mature and old-growth mixed hardwood-pine forests of its uplands and bottomland. It was easy to see the destruction of surrounding properties by short-rotation loblolly pine production, so it was a necessity to protect the WCR forest from a similar fate. That manual was the beginning of what would become Rescuing Biodiversity. Although none of the old original manual is recognizable in the book itself, I still think of Rescuing Biodiversity as a manual for my children and grandchildren. I also felt a strong need to inform other people—as many as I could—of the importance of the protection of habitats of high ecological value. That need pushed me to make the manual into a book. Its publication by LSU Press was truly a dream come true for me. A real privilege.
How did you tackle the task of blending your personal experiences with factual information about Louisiana ecology? How did you strike that balance in your writing?
I’ve been an avid birder with an interest in native plants for at least forty years, and this background has been helpful in leading me to the writing and publication of Rescuing Biodiversity. Birders and native plant enthusiasts often become effective conservationists. In 2005, I met Latimore Smith who was, at that time, a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana, and his concept of restoring the uplands with the native shortleaf pine-oak-hickory woodland and grassland became my goal. You can say Latimore’s vision infected me, and from there, little by little, I began to learn the ecological value of restoring our old north Louisiana hills to their native condition. I learned a lot about restoration ecology. Of course, books and magazines on the field sciences and personal communication with experts have been a great help in my learning process. As I say in Rescuing Biodiversity’s introduction, I like to think my approach to its writing as being a bit like that of a science writer. I’m a retired medical doctor who specialized in pathology, but I’m not a formally trained field scientist. So, I cannot present myself as an expert. But in one way or another I have leaned heavily on those who are.
What makes the Louisiana ecosystem described within your book so special?
Native forests and grasslands are uniformly special and should be protected as much as possible. We are losing them fast, and as that happens, so goes vital ecosystems and their amazing species, along with important sources of clean water protection and carbon sequestration. So little has been accomplished in the protection and restoration in north Louisiana. There’s been a lot of success in the protection and restoration of the native grasslands in south Louisiana and adjoining states, which is incredibly important. But the uplands of north Louisiana have hardly been addressed. That’s what’s unique about restoring the old shortleaf pine-oak-hickory grasslands of the uplands in my part of the state. Grasslands are rich in their diversity of plants and animals, even more so than forests.
Biologist and author Kelby Ouchley wrote the foreword for your book. Can you tell us how Rescuing Biodiversity is in conversation with Ouchley’s work?
Kelby and I are close friends and brothers in the cause of protecting ecosystems. We share a deep concern and sadness regarding the global destruction of biodiversity, including the devastation right here in north Louisiana. I focused on this subject in the first part of Rescuing Biodiversity, and it’s Kelby’s style to sprinkle in similar facts and concerns chapter by chapter. We think alike in this respect. He’s a real-deal writer, having been published by LSU Press previously. I love all his books, and I’m honored he wrote the foreword for mine.
What is the most important thing that you hope readers take away from your book?
Rescuing Biodiversity describes the historic ecology of the hill country of north Louisiana, and it contains a field guide of the region’s salient warm-season grasses and wildflowers. That’s cool stuff.
But truly the most important takeaway for readers is an understanding of the dire condition of our planet’s biosphere caused by the destruction of biodiversity and global warming. Many people understand an existential threat exists, but I believe most of them don’t have a real understanding of just what that existential threat is and how it affects them. But now, global warming has become the elephant in the room. Too many people and politicians don’t realize this—or don’t want to. Even the U.S. Department of Defense declared years ago that global warming is a threat to our national security, and still, many of our politicians just don’t get it. Our grandchildren and future generations will pay a heavy price for our sins of neglect. Factual knowledge is a force of its own and can cause some real changes in people’s actions. We have a dire emergency upon us, and it will take a stronger reaction from the public before our politicians begin to become leaders. Presently, they are not there, at least not in Louisiana. We need a big movement, an American groundswell to get their attention.
What resources would you recommend for readers who are inspired by the message of Rescuing Biodiversity?
I truly think Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book is the most important study to read at this time. It’s elegant, factual, frightening, and inspiring. I would have used it as a reference in Rescuing Biodiversity if it had been available when I wrote it. The Climate Book is literally hot off the press.
Other important books that have helped me, some of them referenced in Rescuing Biodiversity, are Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life and Half-Earth; Reed F. Noss’s Forgotten Grasslands of the South, which is strong on ecology; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Many of our conservation NGOs provide an abundance of educational value, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and many others.
Author, conservationist, and retired medical doctor Johnny Armstrong lives with his wife, Karen, in an old-growth forest and woodland protected by the Nature Conservancy outside of Ruston, Louisiana.
Johnny Armstrong’s Rescuing Biodiversity tells the story of one man’s attempts to preserve a vanishing Louisiana ecosystem and restore the animal and plant species that once lived there. Accessibly written, Rescuing Biodiversity acts as a field guide to the historic upland ecology of the region, with descriptions and photographs of its overstory, salient upland grasses, and brilliant wildflowers. Armstrong takes the reader on a journey through this fragile environment and demonstrates what science-based restoration looks like on what is now recognized as perhaps the best example of this native plant community type in Louisiana.