Sunday, February 12, 2017

Aliens in the Backyard (John Leland)

Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America
John Leland
The University of South Carolina Press
Nonfiction, Nature
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: What could be more American than the quintessential country image of a towheaded boy with a can of worms, using a bamboo pole to fish for trout in the local pond, while Ma's apple pie cools on the windowsill and starlings sing in the trees above the cow pasture? Actually, nothing in that image - the boy, the worm, the pond, the apples, the starlings, even the cattle or most of the grass in that pasture - technically qualifies as native. Humans have been mucking up North America since our species first set foot on the continent, each successive wave bring fresh invaders and alterations to the terrain, benefiting some species and harming or exterminating others. The author discusses many imports, some devastating and others benign, and how complicated matters of conservation and protection become when the line between native and import has been blurred almost to the point of meaninglessness.

REVIEW: Like most Americans, I knew that many familiar species, such as the starling and the rat, were invasive pests from the Old World, but I hadn't realized just how many plants and animals had "invaded," some deliberate (often well-intentioned) imports and others either hitchhikers or simply taking advantage of man-made conditions. That great symbol of the southwest, the nine-banded armadillo, didn't even cross the Rio Grande until ranching and farming created ideal habitats, and the much-maligned coyote has not only endured attempts at genocide but has actively expanded its range in recent decades to become a cosmopolitan carnivore from coast to coast. Along with these iconic animals, numerous lesser-known "invaders" have made their mark, for good or ill, on the landscape through the ages. The end result, after thousands of years, leaves America as much a culture clash as a melting pot, both naturally and politically, as various imports have been alternately lauded and reviled, encouraged and eliminated, with life managing to persist (and often thrive) despite massive opposition. It's easy to look at history and point the finger at European colonists as the greatest despoiler and distorter of the land. While there's no denying the extensive, often detrimental changes wrought since 1492, however, Leland points out that the idea of a pristine pre-European American wilderness is as much a myth as the patriotic origins of apple pie; for thousands of years, various cultures have been altering the landscape, sometimes quite extensively, to benefit themselves and their favored plants and animals, as our species has done around the world since prehistoric times. So, with such complex history, are all imports and escapees automatically evil? Many seem to be relatively benign as citizens, so interwoven in the landscape that eradication would likely cause far more problems than it resolved, but that doesn't stop the matter from being hotly debated and efforts at extermination (government sanctioned and otherwise) from moving forward.
It's an interesting overview, but at times it seemed Leland had bitten off much more than he could adequately chew; several entries feel underdeveloped, while others wandered. It also seemed there were some omissions in species covered. (Locally, for instance, trees like holly and mountain ash are imports, but both seem to have become important food sources to native animals. Then there was no mention of one of the great invasives I myself have seen taking over nearby woods, that insidious green tree-strangler known as English ivy - still, inexplicably, available as an ornamental groundcover in nurseries.) Leland also seemed unwilling to commit to the now-widely-accepted notion that the Bering land bridge migration wasn't the only way humans (and many of their accompanying species) reached the New World before Columbus. All in all, it's a decent introduction to the complicated topic of plant and animal migration, one with at least a great of an impact on the nation as human migration... and just as murky and thorny and politically (and ideologically) tainted.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Last of the Giants (Jeff Campbell) - My Review
Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne) - My Review

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