Tuesday, December 30, 2014

William Stolzenburg, Rat Island

On the other hand….

My most recent review here was of Ken Thompson's debunking Where Do Camels Belong?, which among other things attacks the foundations of invasion biology as well as all practices related to the suppression and elimination of invasive species. In that review, I said that I came away anxious that our collective imaginary about invasive species is getting things wrong: I was persuaded, in other words, even though I'm going to keep up my own miniature campaign against ivy, holly, daphne, and Scotch broom (all of which I tend to pull while hiking in parks, or while walking around my neighbourhood), that we need to get a different and broader perspective collectively on the issue of "invasive" and "native" species.

Was I wrong to find Thompson's account persuasive? No, because indeed the outside analysis of invasive species and invasion biology, in particular from the fields of biology and economics, suggests quite clearly that there are good reasons to be anxious. Mind you, his argumentation about how scientists need grants, and hence plump up the risks of species invasion, deserves a little bit of contempt, and I didn't say that in my review, but that's a separate question: invasion biologists are NOT a bunch of opportunistic and funding-crazed nerds who couldn't cut it in an existing discipline, and Thompson is both wrong and petty to suggest otherwise.

But island ecology is a different thing altogether, and so when in Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue William Stolzenburg looks closely at species extinction and invasion on islands, mostly in the Pacific Ocean, then Thompson's objections need to be set aside. Continent-scale biological evolution is different from island-scale, and Pacific islands have seen new species arrive and dominate in extraordinarily short periods of time. When we're thinking about species that differ in any significant way from one that evolved with continental influence, then human-oriented species of any kind spell absolute doom: pigs, cats and dogs (especially those which run free or go feral), stoats and ferrets, and above all rats.

Rat Island is a popularly written book that's not unsatisfying even for as nerdy a reader as I am, much like Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It savours quite a lot of what Richard Preston achieved in The Wild Trees, which was a swashbuckling nonfiction book about tree canopy biology, in that you come away interested in the topic, impressed by the characters involved, and yet not bogged down with all that pesky knowledge. Clearly this is only in part a good thing, though I think it's a very large part.

In brief (since I've wasted almost of a normal person's attention span already -- sorry about that), Stolzenburg offers both a lengthy narrative about the rolling waves of human-powered species extinctions across the Pacific Islands, almost always from rats rather than from humans directly, as well as a series of interlinked portraits of the humans involved in resisting the ongoing effects of these overlapping waves of colonization by multiple species. Stolzenburg doesn't handle with enough nuance the worries about eradication campaigns, including some of the people involved, but (a) Ken Thompson had the same weakness in Where Do Camels Belong?, and (b) these debates tend to involve rather more rhetorical flourish than nuance anyway, so he's using the same language and approach that the depicted opponents would use, though with quite a lot more restraint. Stolzenburg's eradication experts and biologists come off, in general, as heroic and well-intentioned, and it all makes for a very good story.

Structurally, the narrative ends before it should, because the book was being written while the real showpiece of rat eradication was still being planned, and indeed Kiska Island, complete with active volcano, remains rat-infested today. (The island was occupied by Japanese forces for a time during WW2, but when the Americans came with strength against the Japanese in 1943, the Japanese had already left under cover of fog and darkness, with more than 300 American soldiers dying from friendly fire. Plenty of infrastructure remains, decaying impressively.) The book builds up to an assault on Kiska, introducing it early on and reaching back to it on occasion, and yet complications intervene, and both the science and the practice of rat eradication have yet to improve before Kiska can be taken back.

Rat Island is very much worth your time, and it'd work for an awful lot of readers. If your circle includes a fan of either Jared Diamond or Malcolm Gladwell, then it's time to expand this person's horizons, and you could do a whole lot worse than passing along Stolzenburg's book: if indeed a fan of either Diamond or Gladwell can be redeemed….

(For background: Yereth Rosen wrote a very clear story for the Alaska Dispatch News about rat eradication on the actual Rat Island, in the Aleutians. A good read!)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ken Thompson, Where Do Camels Belong?

What if we were wrong, completely and expensively wrong, about a crucial tenet of contemporary environmental anxiety and citizen environmentalism?

Ken Thompson, in other words, spends most of Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad a distressingly long way from talking about camels. (The hook is that camels evolved their greatest diversity in North America, only becoming extinct in North America about 8000 years ago, and so they're arguably more native to North America than to anywhere else, but who thinks about anything but the Sahara?) Invasion biology is a comparatively new academic sub discipline, possibly a sub-subdiscipline if you want to house it within conservation biology, and its media-friendly ways have in Thompson's view led it into a place of tenets and beliefs, rather than inquiry. In consequence, invasion biology finds itself used to support wildly expensive, doomed, and sometimes ecologically destructive exercises, when really it should just be buckling down to the slow, difficult work of establishing its own principles.

An example: throughout southern Europe, alpine plants are moving uphill on mountains, climbing toward summits where they've never been seen. This is generally taken to be a signal of climate change, anthropogenic climate change inextricably linked to increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and that's probably not incorrect. But the more closely you look at this uphill migration of slow-transmission alpine plants, the more it looks like a recolonization following the Little Ice Age from the 16th through 19th centuries in Europe (p.116). Until there's clarity about these two issues, then it's scientifically unwise, and possible scandalous, to describe it only in terms of anthropogenic climate change.

I was prepared to dislike this book pretty intensely, given my attachment to the Garry Oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, my antipathy to Scotch broom in the same region, and my general distrust of the corporate, the domineering, and the disengaged. Thompson's strategy was highly appealing, though, his mixture of trivia, scholarship, and economics, and I've come away impressed and troubled. Do I agree with him that a principle-based opposition to invasive species (or even to "invasive species") is wrong-headed? Well, no, but that's not the point. Instead, he wants his readers to come away concerned at the current state of invasion biology and at the uncritical application of practices very, very crudely derived from what he describes as either unpolished science or the inappropriate generalization from a scientific library consisting of far too few studies.

Mission accomplished, for this reader.

One of Thompson's main points (and he does have several) is that what we tend to think of as "invasive species" have their fates quite tightly bound up with our own, to the extent that their migration is facilitated in part or in sum by humans, and that their ongoing survival owes much to humans, either because of our impacts on previously established species or because of ongoing local ecological disruption. He doesn't quite coin the term, but he uses the concept of "anthropophiles" to describe the relationship between humans and the invasive species that we resist or fear most strongly: they follow us around, we drag them around with us and protect them without noticing it, and so we loathe them because they remind us that as a species, we really are great shambling idiots (p.48).

There are North American flatworms in Loch Ness, among other exemplars, because of sterilization protocol failures amongst the North American scientists -- sorry, I mean "scientists" -- pursuing the Loch Ness monster. As Thompson remarks in another context, "We have the plants (and animals) we deserve" (p.121).

Or in California, there's a problematical radish: the garden-variety radish (from Europe, so not a native) has in the wild hybridized with the European "wild" radish to generate a species not seen elsewhere. This new hybrid, which exists nowhere else outside California, has so strongly outcompeted its progenitors that the European wild radish has in essence been extirpated from California, after a relatively short tenure there. Should we think of these potent hybrid radishes as California native plants, now? (There's a similar situation in the UK with rhododendrons, if that helps….)

Or in North America more generally, the current proliferating health of vegetation (both alien and native) owes an incalculably large debt to two invasive European species: honeybees and earthworms. Critical to the fertilization and, um, fertilization of so many plants in North America, these two species were imported from Europe after Columbus. While some species of native earthworm remain in some parts of the continent, and many other kinds of bees have always existed here, the dominant species in each case is a deliberately imported invader.

Thompson is arguing, at length and with sometimes undue intensity, for common sense to be exerted in humanity's many long and expensive campaigns against invasive species. I'm with him on this, in part because I had no idea how little common sense there has sometimes been.

To be clear, though, I'm still going to be pulling broom every chance I get, and ivy and holly and all the rest. The small-scale war continues, around here!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Yup, we read it for book club, Chris Hadfield's memoir / humblebrag / self-help book Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. It's perfectly calibrated to appeal to well-meaning book clubs and to Christmas shoppers, being by an ACTUAL ASTRONAUT who's clearly a very nice guy on top of being very smart, passionate, talented, and all the rest.

I just wish I'd enjoyed the book. (Also, visit Amazon's review space a very funny and hate-filled, though possibly self-hatred-filled, and possibly self-ironizing, review.) I get bored easily when I'm not reading something that feeds my inner nerd, and this book didn't do anything at all for me. Great guy, amazing career, achievements to die/kill for: not my kind of author, and more pity him, I say.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga

You people with your graphic novels, you wouldn't know art if it … well, did something that only art can do. Who knows what that'd be, given the diversity and freedom of artistic production, but I bet that Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas would have some ideas about that.

Linked from West Coast Reader
Graphic novels are a legitimate art form, to be sure, but that's not quite what Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas has produced in Red: A Haida Manga. But it's also not manga as such, either, though Yahgulanaas has described it as such, nor folk tale nor history nor classical tragedy. I don't have much interest in questions of form generally, and less so for texts that clearly live in the borderlands, but it's worth setting Red deliberately apart. This book is like nothing you've seen before, and unless you've spent some time with stories of First Nations on the Pacific coast of North America, the story itself might not make sense to you.

Just don't let any of this get in the way of your picking up Red, because it's a very, very special book.

Does it mean anything to summarize the plot? To say that orphaned young Red comes to lead his people, that many years later he seeks revenge for the abduction of his sister, and that in stories, revenge  is inseparable from tragedy?

Does it achieve anything to describe the visuals? To comment on the sense of movement between panels, the continuous overflowing of panel boundaries, the connections between pages into a single giant image, the overwhelming colours, the intersections between represented places and worlds?

Not every reader gets this book, and that's as it should be. It's a simple story with a significant moral component, rendered elliptically through remarkable imagery, and there are lots of prickly details here that'll turn off some readers. None of this means that it isn't remarkable.

Or you could just listen to Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas talk about Red. That's what I'm going to do.

John McPhee, Oranges

John McPhee, everybody: just go read some John McPhee, because it'll be time better spent than almost any other way I can think of.

Nonfiction doesn't get much better than this, as long as your tastes don't run toward celebrity (horrors!) or self-help (lord no!). McPhee has published more than 30 books in his career, about subjects ranging from a kind of fish called the shad to the Swiss Army, from experimental aircraft to medical practitioners, and invariably these books are engaging, personable, and nerdy, in the very best sense. His third volume, 1967's Oranges, just has to be one of the best, or I'm never going to be able to find time for other authors.

A short account of the book is simply that in 1965, McPhee found himself wondering why orange juice in New York didn't always taste the same. The New Yorker agreed to an article on the subject, but in true McPhee fashion, he ended up collecting vast troves of material, and after two New Yorker articles only scratched the surface, a book was the only logical outcome.
Linked from the Tampa Bay Times

(I shudder to think at the vast bloggy ecosystem that McPhee would now be responsible for having generated, had be been born a half-century further on. Genuinely, I worry about such writers I'll never be able to enjoy in the same way, as I'll never encounter their work in a form that encourages climbing inside the material, the way a book does.)

Oranges is full of trivia, often arranged in catalogue form, and I found it kind of delightful to be swamped in context-free minutiae about citrus: "A pile of green oranges will turn orange if stored in a room with enough bananas" (p.113), for example, or "Sir Francis Drake levelled the orange trees of St. Augustine [Florida] when he sacked the town in 1586, but the stumps put out new shoots and eventually bore fruit again. Nearly all were Bitter Oranges" (p.89). At one point McPhee lists 23 different pests or infestations that orchardists need to guard against, ending drily with "to name a few" (p.41). I always find McPhee's fascination infectious, and never more so than I did here.

Really, this book offers a window onto the citrus-related human history, including the weird biology of taste; onto the mores of 1960s food production and consumption; and onto the idiosyncratic characters that McPhee has spent a career finding himself in the company of -- characters that most of us imagine, rather than meet. There's something here for everyone, if you don't mind a world full of oranges.

Highly recommended (and with Christmas coming, too!).

(Further testimony to my John McPhee addiction can be found here, here, and here, so far. A newspaper commentary on the book's genesis and development can be found at the Orlando Sentinel.)