by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Ever since he was a boy growing up in Somers Point, Atlantic County, in the 1970s – fishing and crabbing in the bay, exploring the meadows and marshes – Allen Crawford has loved nature and all living things.
But nature struggled during his childhood years. Due to environmental contaminants, especially the pesticide DDT, many species had nearly disappeared from New Jersey.
“It was rare to see an osprey or a great blue heron, let alone a bald eagle,” he recalled.
Thanks in large part to protections in the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, those birds and many other species have slowly rebounded. Today, ospreys and herons are a common sight in this state we’re in, and bald eagles are becoming plentiful. Recently, Crawford spotted four eagles on a visit to the Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pine Barrens.
Now an illustrator whose artwork is centered around the natural world, Crawford this month is publishing A Wild Promise, an illustrated book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and its achievements.
“I shudder to think of where we might be, as a country, without the Endangered Species Act,” said Crawford, a Pine Barrens resident and dedicated outdoorsman.
The book contains over 100 colorful illustrations of endangered and threatened species in Crawford’s signature inventive style — images surrounded by illuminated text. Short essays accompany the illustrations.
Crawford said he chose the book’s featured animals and plants by going through the federal Fish & Wildlife database of endangered species and looking for a broad variety, both geographically and by rarity. Many are conservation success stories, while others are species on the brink of extinction.
The book includes everything from large, charismatic mammals to small reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants.
“We have snails, dragonflies, wolves, foxes, birds, and snakes of all descriptions,” he said.
Among the New Jersey species featured in “A Wild Promise” are the Pine Barrens treefrog (technically not listed as endangered, but a species to watch) and the timber rattlesnake.
Atlantic sturgeon, once abundant in the Delaware Bay and the keystone of a booming New Jersey caviar industry – but now extirpated from the state – is also included. So is the Plymouth red-bellied turtle, found in New Jersey but most closely associated with Massachusetts.
The book’s title page includes an illustration of Pickering’s morning-glory, a globally rare variety found on sandy dunes in the Pine Barrens. Two other rare Pine Barrens plants, American chaffseed and swamp-pink, are included in the book’s margin illustrations.
Crawford said he created “A Wild Promise” to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. For adults who are interested in wildlife, it makes a great “coffee table” book to flip through at leisure and read essays. The bold and colorful illustrations will engage children of all ages.
He hopes that the book will raise awareness of threatened and endangered species, as well as the ecosystems they need to survive and thrive.
“A Wild Promise” took Crawford about three years to complete. He began working on it in early 2020, just as COVID-19 was sweeping across the nation and lockdowns were ordered: “It was my Covid project. It kept me out of trouble and gave me something to focus on.”
Crawford considers “A Wild Promise” the most important work of his career. “This was probably the toughest book project I’ve ever taken on, but also the most rewarding. It was something I felt very strongly about — a tribute to the living world,” he said.
“Some books are just jobs, but this is like an epitaph,” he added. “If it’s all that’s remembered of me after I’m gone, I’m fine with that.”
The book is dedicated to the “lost meadows” that Crawford explored as a boy but have since been developed — and to the many people who have devoted their lives to protecting endangered species and their habitats. It includes an introductory essay by award-winning writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams.
When not working on nature-inspired illustrations, Crawford is an active member of the Outdoor Club of South Jersey, whose volunteers devote many hours to cleanup and trail improvement work on preserved land in the Pine Barrens and beyond.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance will hold a book launch party for “A Wild Promise” on Sunday, Aug. 13, from 1:30-3 p.m., at the organization’s headquarters at 17 Pemberton Rd, Southampton, NJ 08088.
To sign up, go to https://pinelandsalliance.org/explore-the-pinelands/pinelands-events-and-programs/booklaunch/. For more information on the book, go to Crawford’s website at https://www.allencrawford.net/.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including endangered species – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.