Andrew Nikiforuk, Empire of the Beetle

Now, you have to remember (or should know, if you don’t yet) that I’m a third-generation BC forestry nerd, a tree-hugging commie, and a pinko environmentalist, so maybe I’m a little biased. But even if I wasn’t as rabid as I am about BC environmental history and environmental politics, I’m confident that after having read Andrew Nikiforuk’s newest book, I’d still stand by the following claim:

Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is the most important book to have been published in BC so far this century.

That’s not to say it’s the best book, because that’s a very different question. Nikiforuk’s not aiming at literary excellence, though at his best he’s a rival for John Vaillant in the way he brings together disparate and complicated facts in the service of an energetic narrative. He’s also not giving us bullet-proof academic work, though I was sometimes reminded here of the brilliant Julie Cruikshank’s ability to nestle such careful research into the texture of wide-ranging, apparently effortless stories.

Nobody but Nikiforuk, though, has put this much time into understanding the question of beetles in the forests of this area (by which I mean not just BC but the whole Pacific Northwest), and I don't know who could communicate that complex understanding so smoothly. He contextualizes the contemporary beetle crisis against similar crises elsewhere at different times, and he links the BC mountain pine beetle crisis to crises among different tree species (here and elsewhere) caused by different species of beetles. Most amazingly to me, he’s even able to dwell lyrically and powerfully enough on beetle biology itself, especially beetles’ speciation and evolutionary history, that I came away feeling like I’m working in the wrong academic discipline.

Like beetles are where the cool kids are at. Or to put it less flippantly, where the only really important work is being done.

Nikiforuk brings together the history of forestry as a science; the vagaries of public policy related to forests and forestry; and the miraculous lives of beetles. At bottom, he moves toward the argument that humans are coming to the end of their run, and that beetles are taking the world back from us: “mammals[, not just humans but mammals altogether,] look like a quaint evolutionary experiment with limited prospects” (p.164). Beetles, he explains, can be understood to farm entire forests. We’re okay with the idea that an ant colony works together to build its complex structure and (for example) maintain small farms of fungus, but we can’t fathom that beetles kind of do that with entire forests, on an almost unimaginable landscape-wide scale. Maybe it’s a metaphor, “farming,” but maybe not: it’s the closest we’ve come so far to describing the world-changing collective practices of a million members of the same species.

So let me say it again. Empire of the Beetle is the most important book published in BC this century, not because its subject is so important to BC, but because its message about beetles’ past and future influence on human history is so troubling, so detailed, and so richly imagined. You need a copy of this book for yourself, and you need to buy it for anyone you know who won't get around to buying it for themselves.

Oh, and the book's really well written, too. I kind of hate this Nikiforuk guy. I wonder if I can convince him to attend our book club meeting in November when we talk about the book....

(Don’t trust my praise of Empire of the Beetle? Trust the Winnipeg Free Press: they get it.)


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