Along a tiny spring in a narrow canyon near Death Valley, seemingly against all odds, an Inyo Mountain slender salamander makes its home. "The desert," writes conservation biologist Christopher Norment, "is defined by the absence of water, and yet in the desert there is water enough, if you live properly." Relicts of a Beautiful Sea explores the existence of rare, unexpected, and sublime desert creatures such as the black toad and four pupfishes unique to the desert West. All are anomalies: amphibians and fish, dependent upon aquatic habitats, yet living in one of the driest places on earth, where precipitation averages less than four inches per year. In this climate of extremes, beset by conflicts over water rights, each species illustrates the work of natural selection and the importance of conservation. This is also a story of persistence – for as much as ten million years – amid the changing landscape of western North America. By telling the story of these creatures, Norment illustrates the beauty of evolution and explores ethical and practical issues of conservation: what is a four-inch-long salamander worth, hidden away in the heat-blasted canyons of the Inyo Mountains, and what would the cost of its extinction be? What is any lonely and besieged species worth, and why should we care?
Christopher Norment, professor of environmental science and biology at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, is the author of In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir and Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows.
"A moving meditation on nature [...] In examining small details in nature, Norment manages to effectively address larger existential issues."
– Publishers Weekly
"You don't typically find intelligent passion like that in treatises with this kind of scientific gravamen, but they glitter throughout the length of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea. This is natural history of the finest order."
– Open Letters
"For those who seek [...] a mélange of science, literature and passion, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea offers sanctuary as rare as the survivors it illuminates."
– Kansas Alumni Magazine
"Creates a poetic-ecological argument for conservation on a global scale [...] Highly recommended."
"An intriguing tapestry of scientific exploration and natural history that also takes turns as a eulogy, a love letter, a poem and ultimately a plea."
– High Country News
"The marvel of aquatic animal life in isolated, seemingly hostile desert surroundings of the Death Valley region is beautifully captured in this blend of natural history, the hard realities and occasional successes of conservation biology in the region, and personal reflections on nature and human foibles."
"This is a personal odyssey to gather deep understanding of a strange, beautiful, and fragile quarter of America's wilderness. It is a book that argues with passion for the immense worth of human feeling in motivating both the acute search for insight and the determination to value and safeguard the unique species and habitats of the Earth."
– Melanie Challenger, author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature
"This is a unique natural history story, authored by a working scientist who handily imparts facts and details while infusing the pages with a personal and emotional quality rarely seen in popular writings by scientists. Its playful contrast of hard realities, artistic impressions, and personal feelings sets it well apart from other books in the field."
– T. DeLene Beeland, author of The Secret World of Red Wolves