Conservationist to attend Celebration of Books

Tulsa World

By James D. Watts, Jr., World Scene Writer

Oklahoma was one of the places considered for the film "Hotspots." That the state failed to end up in the finished documentary, however, is a good thing in the eyes of Michael Tobias.

Tobias, the executive director of the Dancing Star Foundation, is a writer and filmmaker who has devoted himself to issues of conservation, wildlife preservation and bio-diversity.

Tobias, along with his wife and frequent collaborator Jane Gray Morrison, will be at the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers' Celebration of Books on Saturday. They will take part in panel discussions on wildlife and conservation in life and literature, and will host a screening of their latest film, "Hotspots," at 7 p.m. at the Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave.

"A hot spot refers to a place on Earth — specifically on land — that contains at least 1,500 flowering plants endemic to the region, 70 percent of which are threatened with extinction," Tobias said, speaking by phone from New Zealand, where he is observing the re-introduction of two rare species of birds to an ecological preserve there.

"We looked at Oklahoma, and it barely missed meeting that definition. To be honest, Oklahoma right now is one of the great success stories in
environmentalism. You have more than 10 distinct eco-regions — from tallgrass prairies to forests to cypress swamps — that are in pretty good shape, even with the oil and gas industry you have.

"But it wouldn't take much for Oklahoma to find itself in that unfortunate category of being a hot spot, along with California and Hawaii," he added.

While the film "Hotspots" is a warning about the things we might take for granted and ultimately lose forever — to the detriment of the planet and its inhabitants, some of the other projects Tobias and Morrison have completed show a more optimistic side of the ecological movement.

The most ambitious and physically striking of these is the book "Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence," which (like several other of Tobias' and Morrison's books) was published by the Tulsa-based firm Council Oak Books.

"Sanctuary" is a collection of photos and essays that describe the efforts of countries, communities and individuals around the world to establish areas that preserve some portion of the natural world, be it New York City's Central Park, Brigitte Bardot's animal sanctuary in France, Howard Buffett's efforts to preserve cheetahs in South Africa, or the entire country of Bhutan (whose queen supplies the introduction to the book).

While each section includes an essay about the work being done at a particular site, the book contains no captions for its photographs — a decision that Tobias said came about while the book was in production.

"We debated this idea quite a bit," he said. "But in the end, we decided we wanted to make the book more visually poetic, and not try to ID and tag everything in the world. We didn't want this book to be treated like a magazine, where you can flip through, read the captions to the photographs, and tell yourself you got all the information that's there. We wanted people to immerse themselves in what we call these oases of innocence."

Biodiversity is a subject that has obsessed Tobias since childhood.

"I supposed I've been an ecologist ever since my parents took me to a park in San Francisco where there was a caged wolf," he said. "The behavior of that animal, pacing back and forth, has haunted me to this day. I remember asking my father, 'Why is that wolf in jail?'"