Hog Blog Book Review – Nature Wars
June 10, 2013
In the dusty recesses of my desk, I uncovered a veritable treasure trove of stuff that I need to review. OK, there were only a couple of things that had been stowed away while I’m remodeling my office, but I was glad to find them. Because I spent the better part of this past weekend in the air between NC and TX, the first item I chose to review was a book… Nature Wars by Jim Sterba.
Nature Wars is an attempt to describe how our efforts to manage wildlife turned out to be too successful. It’s an excellent illustration of the rule of unintended consequences… or how the road to hell is actually paved.
In the book, Sterba lays out his case in three key parts. First, there is the foundation of all wildlife… the forests. We read the tale of how the great forests were initially decimated as the country was settled. Most of us are familiar with this part of the story, but Sterba takes us a little deeper with facts (and factoids) so that, instead of reading like an indictment of evil, it’s easy to understand how it happened. For example, he explains how critical wood was to the early settlers as a building material and a source of power and heat. Then he shows us how the eastern forests have been in a fairly continuous state of regrowth. It is no longer “recovery”, but expansion. In some places the eastern forests cover even more ground than they did when the settlers first arrived.
Later, he goes into the history of wildlife and how close we came to completely wiping out entire species through uncontrolled hunting (especially market hunting), habitat loss, and disease. The way west was paved by the beaver, as the rodent’s skin practically drove the entire economy. As beavers were wiped out of one area, the trappers continued to push them further and further west. Their current comeback has created multiple conflicts as they must now share their habitat with humans. Beavers don’t really differentiate between landscape and wild trees. And once they begin to dam a watercourse, that water has to go somewhere… which often means it backs up over roadways, fields, and even homes.
Likewise, Sterba tells the story of the decimation and recovery of whitetail deer and turkeys… both of which have become nuisances, or even menaces to farmers, homeowners, and drivers. As with the other sections, Sterba uses a combination of historical data, statistics, and anecdotal information to make his case.
Throughout the book, Sterba manages to maintain something of a netural-but-interested perspective. While you can certainly sense occasional narrative bias, he leaves most of the judgment to the reader. “But,” he seems to say. “Before you judge, consider the whole story through the perspective of the people who were there.”
Did I “like” the book?
I found it very interesting, and it made me consider some things I hadn’t thought about before. It was sort of strange that, after reading the first half on the way into Wilmington, NC., I noticed how much bigger the trees in and around town seemed to be. The old highway corridor from the airport to my mom’s house was practically walled by enormous trees (liberally hung with kudzu). I don’t recall it ever looking that way. I think this is part of what he was talking about when he described the “reforestation” that’s happening before our eyes.
I also really appreciated his discussion of the complicated web of “solutions” for the current issues caused by the return of so many wildlife species. I know how some of those conversations can turn, and how logic is often overwhelmed by emotion. California is one perfect example of wildlife management through the ballot box, but as Sterba points out in the book, CA is hardly unique there.
Sterba’s writing is very good. The writing itself is clean, and he builds each paragraph carefully. I found little to complain about, except that much of the book is very dry. At times I did have to labor a bit to keep reading because even though the story was very interesting, the storytelling was sort of flat. I’ve certainly seen it done better… but I’ve also seen much, much worse.
You can find Nature Wars on Amazon or most other online booksellers.