From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North
America and Its Peoples
by Tim Flannery
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001)
by Robert T. Carroll
July 23, 2001
...if we are serious about restoring ecosystem health and ecological integrity, then we must first know what the land was like to begin with.
This is a book that makes the reader think big, in millions of years and acres, and billions of plants and animals. More importantly, Tim Flannery makes you think big thoughts about North America, its relations to the rest of the continents on earth, and where we're heading. He also reminds you of things you would probably like to forget, like the fact that humans seem to have survived in North America by killing any animal that moves, including other humans. Flannery does not think it was climate or coincidence that the three major human invasions of North America were followed by mass extinctions of large mammals. The European invasion may look more egregious than the others because the slaughters are more easily documented, there were many more European invaders than there were Asians in the earlier migrations into North America, and the Europeans brought an abundance of germs and guns. The first settlers only had spears but they wiped out the mastodons and mammoths. They wiped out the horse, too, but they killed these animals for food, thinks Flannery. Europeans killed buffalo for fun. They also shot and killed millions of carrier pigeons for fun. Proving they were not completely senseless savages, however, they shot Indians for land and sport.
I found it difficult not to connect a news story about some local young men who were arrested for shooting cattle for fun and the European settlers who pushed the U.S. frontier to the Pacific Ocean. I found myself wondering more than once as I read Flannery's account about the character that formed this nation and that is clearly still admired and imitated. Dick Cheney and Charlton Heston kept staring at me from the pages of Flannery's book as I pondered the extinction of species after species, flora and fauna after megaflora and megafauna. What has made possible the inexhaustible greed, destruction, annihilation and indifference towards plants and animals in North America is its very abundance of riches. The delusion that markets can keep expanding forever, that natural resources are inexhaustible, that there can be no end to the wealth we can create is fed by our vast resources and our ignorance of the ecological impact our actions will have on future resources.
What rivers we haven't dammed up, we've polluted. What land we haven't depleted, we've used to build shopping malls and parking lots. It is inconceivable to many in Dick Cheney's generation to think without thinking of exploiting some natural resource to increase wealth. Expanding and creating wealth is the end-all and be-all of existence. The future for such a people seems inevitable. America has existed for the blink of an eye in geological time. We think we can go on forever expanding our markets, producing more and more consumer goods, and depleting more and more of our plant and animal resources. We define ourselves and our children in terms of how much money we make. We never bother ourselves with how much had to be destroyed in order to create some new gadget or hi-tech device. The future for such a people will be one of scarcity and poverty. Once we've used everything up, there won't be anything left. At the rate we're going, this could happen within the next hundred years.
Flannery, I must say, is not so pessimistic. He thinks we will see the error of our ways and start making corrections. He even thinks we may re-introduce animals that have been long extinct but were native to North America, such as lions and elephants. If we do, in my opinion, it will be so some hunter can kill them for sport.
Actually, the bulk of Flannery's book is not about what Americans have done lately to North America, but rather is about the 65 million years or so between the time a great asteroid slammed into a submerged Mexico. At that time, a good part of the middle of Canada and the U.S., and most of Mexico was under water. The asteroid hit with the force of 100 million megatons of explosives. How this event changed the ecological history of North America is his starting point. He then takes us on a long journey towards the present, showing us here how our rivers were formed and there how the Grand Canyon came to be. We meet hundreds of extinct plants and animals, known from the fossil record. We also meet many theories as to what happened and how. For example, why did marsupials do so well in Australia but not in North America? Perhaps most fascinating is that we find both plants and animals migrating into North America from Eurasia and South America, but relatively little emigration in the other direction.
We find out what happened to North America's camels and oreodonts. We find out what happened to North America during periods of global warming and cooling. There may be a lesson in this.
Then, of course, there is the story of North America after humans arrived. The impact of hunter-gatherers and farmers, of cultures and civilizations, on the land's plants and animals is discussed in detail. Flannery also discusses the impact on humans that the North American flora and fauna had.
The book is rich in thought-provoking detail and anecdotes that make you realize the importance of not being completely ignorant of our ecological history. For example, he quotes a report that says: "The native desert bighorn sheep of both Death Valley and the Grand Canyon are doomed unless something is done to eliminate wild burros." Flannery notes that the burro has close relatives that were here 13,000 years ago; whereas, the bighorn is a relative newcomer. Yet, the sheep is called 'native' and the burro is 'wild'. Similar ignorance abounds in other areas, such as in the attempt to exterminate wolves and in the notion that the wildlife in Yellowstone Park represents North America in the beginning.
I can't remember the last time I finished reading a book and felt like recommending it to everybody I know. The Eternal Frontier should be required reading of everybody in North America. It won't be, of course, because it does not cater to the religious right, the fundamentalists and creationists who think the Bible is a science text that tells them to believe the earth is some 6,000 years old. Flannery notes that it is paradoxical that the United States "trains and employs more paleontologists than any other nation," yet the US is also "the global center of Creationism, whose dogmatic followers believe the Earth was formed just 6000 years ago (39)." Such sentiments are blasphemy to many "faith-based" institutions in America and I'm sure our politicians, especially local ones, will not allow such evil to replace the ignorance they hold sacred and seemingly wish our children to worship.
Tim Flannery is Director of the South Australian Museum and an Affiliate Professor of Adelaide University (Australia). He is the author of The Future Eaters : An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People and many other books.
His latest book will be out next fall. In A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals, Flannery collaborates with internationally acclaimed wildlife artist Peter Schouten.
review by Peter Kershaw March 27, 2001