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Nature Out of Place by Roy and Jason Van Driesche

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New books (see below) sometimes remind me of older books that may not have gotten enough attention from reviewers when they first came out. That is certainly the case for the excellent and readable Nature Out of Place by Roy and Jason Van Driesche.

It begins with good intention, innocently, unobtrusively. An attractive ornamental chestnut tree is imported from Asia in the early twentieth century carrying a fungus with which it has co-evolved but which devastates the chestnut’s North American cousins.

A boat arrives from Europe in the late 1980s and discharges its ballast, containing larvae of zebra mussels, into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Within a few years, water systems on the Great Lakes and nearby rivers are clogged with colonies of invaders that have overwhelmed and displaced native mussel species.

European explorers bring swine and other nonnative livestock to Hawaii. The animals transform the texture of the soil, creating niches for vegetative invaders. Centuries later, feral pigs continue to drive the transformation of the ecology and the loss of precious, unique habitats and species.

Leafy spurge, an Asian perennial, arrives in North America, probably for the first but certainly not the last time, in the 1820s as seed in ballast soil from European merchant ships. First noticed in Massachusetts in 1827, it slowly moves westward as a troublesome but minor weed. It finally takes hold in the Great Plains at about the time chestnut blight is doing the same in the Appalachians, probably arriving in crop seed carried from the Ukraine by Mennonite immigrants. Grazing cattle won’t touch it. This bit of Nature Out of Place has become a threatening alien invader.

Writing with scientific objectivity, rich detail, and quiet passion, the father-son team of Roy and Jason Van Driesche produce unique insights into the dramatic transformations that human culture and commerce have brought to ecosystems throughout the world. University of Wisconsin graduate student Jason acts as tour guide, giving readers intimate, first-person experiences in each venue, introducing them to the scientists on the front lines of investigation and action. University of Massachusetts professor Roy lays out the scientific background.

Most important, the Van Driesches resist the temptation to produce a doom-and-gloom expose. Rather, they move progressively from the most alarming settings to the most hopeful, where determined activist scientists, economists, and policy makers seek ways to reverse the ecological damage in the context of twenty-first century civilization and commerce.

In the end, they bring the issues “home” to the readers, closing with a chapter entitled “Going Local: Personal Actions for a Native Planet.” Whether a reader devours every word of this important volume or merely focuses on the chapters of personal interest, he or she will never view life in the Global Age in the same way again.

Ph.D. Physicist Fred Bortz has found his ecological niche in the world of science books, both as a frequent reviewer for adults and an author of several titles for young readers, including Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth.


coverOut of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion

coverThe Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World

Read the new Science Shelf review of The Botanist and the Vintner

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About Fred Bortz

  • In California, the hated invader is Scotch Broom, a flowering spiny shrub that spreads by root suckers and seed. You have to cut out the stems, then burn the ground, to get rid of it – and if you just mow it down, the seeds are scattered far and wide.

    So folks go out with clippers and plastic bags, but the broom keeps spreading. Most coastal drives are now made between solid hedges of Scotch Broom…

  • Thanks, Dr. Pat!

    California vineyards are vigilant about phylloxera vastatrix, the aphid that nearly devastated French wines 140 years ago. See my review of The Botanist and the Vintner. The author, Christy Campbell, is on a U.S. tour at the moment, and I wish he was coming to my town.