December 16, 2012

How natural world is reclaiming civilization

“Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds” by Jim Sterba, (Crown, $26)

“Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds” by Jim Sterba, (Crown, $26)

The nature-challenged reader will discover many new and startling facts in Jim Sterba’s new book. Among them all one stands out: Not only are America’s Eastern forests roaring back to life, they’ve been doing so for more than a century.

Sterba literally stumbles onto this truth one day in Maine’s Acadia National Park. He sees feral grapevines strangling a birch tree. When he gets out of his car to rip the vines out, he finds a rusting 1927 license plate.

After talking to the locals, Sterba realizes he’s walking on the ruins of a farm that’s been swallowed up by a new forest. The grapes were there before the trees, “a remnant of a very different civilization that had existed not long ago.”

Sterba’s book is a much more thoughtful work than its title would suggest. At its best, “Nature Wars” isn’t really a book about the conflict between man and nature. Instead, it’s best read as a history of Americans’ widespread and enduring ignorance of the natural world and how that ignorance has created new and strange ecosystems.

In Sterba’s often amusing narrative, species such as the wild turkey are cast in the role of victims in one era, only to reappear as pests in another.

Like human history, bird history repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

In “Nature Wars,” Canada geese disappear across the U.S. as their habitat perishes thanks to human development. But they come back thanks to human restoration efforts and to hunters who breed them as live decoys to shoot other birds. Soon much of America from the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard is filled with geese.

One lesson Sterba draws from all this fraught history is that Americans have forgotten how to be stewards of the natural world around them. We Americans don’t understand nature in the same way that Sterba did when he was a boy growing up on a Michigan farm in the 1950s; Americans today have become so immersed in “virtual reality,” he writes, that they prefer to have “the natural world delivered to them on a digital screen.”

Not only are these facile points, they conveniently ignore that Sterba grew up during a time when rural people continued to radically alter their environment. Among other things, they sprayed their fields with pesticides that wiped out songbirds.

There’s a lot in “Nature Wars” for the reasoned and concerned human to learn about the changing natural landscape.

He paints a vivid and memorable portrait of these new eco systems, where only one, plentiful species is capable of bringing balance and harmony among living things: homo sapiens.

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