The Writer’s Life: Bait and Switch

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Nature writing has tended to sort itself into two camps.  On the one hand are the descendants of Thoreau and Muir, those who observe nature’s beauties intertwined with the development of the sensibility recording them.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one exemplar of the form.  On the other hand are clarion calls warning of nature’s demise; Silent Spring and The End of Nature track this end game. But there is another sort of nature writing emerging.

Suffice it to say that for many of us, nature is “out there,” maybe a piece of it in our backyards or on our decks, or even on our kitchen windowsills, but mostly outside the boundaries of town and city.  Many of us assume that the farther you go from concentrated human settlements, the more nature you get, and by degrees it gets wilder.  And that this wild nature takes up most of the Earth, in one form or another – mountain, ocean, prairie – and by reference to it we are small.  But this idea is wrong.

A few months ago, The Economist surmised that Homo sapiens have now impacted not just the atmosphere and biodiversity but also geological forces to such an extent that some scientists are calling for a new name to our era:  The Anthropocene.   It’s kind of horrifying to grapple with the idea that we are not just players in this unfolding drama of life on Earth, but we are in aggregate, the director.  I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling people are really not qualified for the job and aren’t likely to do it very well.  And what does it mean, anyway, that we are basically in control?

In his 2008 Where the Wild Things Were:  Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, William Stolzenberg outlined the history of what scientists call trophic cascades, or the effect on the food chain of losing the big teeth at the top of it.  Stolzenberg is such a very fine writer, he manages to make this woeful catalogue of human destruction of big predators a really good read.

But in his new book Stolzenberg steps into new terrain.  Rat Island:  Predators in Paradise – And the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue is on one level about the scourge of invasive species.  Invasives are, as Charles Elton, the dean of ecology wrote, “ecological explosives” that create “convulsions” in biotic communities.  Globalization has turbo-charged the speed of invasions, whereby aggressive species, introduced to new prey populations that didn’t evolve to resist them, quickly wipe them out.  Stolzenberg concentrates on the predations by mostly rats on mostly birds on mostly islands in this book, which is historically fascinating.  He chronicles massive extirpations of rats by trapping and poisoning, in order to save singular bird species from extinction.

Should we exterminate rats and other predators, even to “save” other species?  Should we interfere with what is, after all, one of nature’s dance moves?  Some of the birds in question are highly specialized to their island settings and without the help of the rats might be on their way to extinction anyway, just by a slower road.  Killing rats en masse especially by poison has the potential of creating “super rats” that develop resistance to the tools used against them.

If the Earth were still a big place, full of wild nature, the answer to all this would probably be:  leave it alone.  But the fact is, the Earth is small.  The fact is, humans have facilitated these invasions.  Yes, maybe some specially delicate bird species is expendable, but how many of them are?  If we don’t interfere with invasives, a significant dimension of biodiversity may soon be gone forever.

Stolzenberg looks upon this dilemma with a cool eye.  In his new brand of nature writing, there is not much time to worry over the inner life of the author.  He is also well past the freak-out stage that we are destroying the Earth; he’s onto the action plans for saving it.


Leave a Reply