American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land / Edition 1

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Sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, humans have transported plants and animals to new habitats around the world. Arriving in ever-increasing numbers to American soil, recent invaders have competed with, preyed on, hybridized with, and carried diseases to native species, transforming our ecosystems and creating anxiety among environmentalists and the general public. But is American anxiety over this crisis of ecological identity a recent phenomenon? Charting shifting attitudes to alien species since the 1850s, Peter Coates brings to light the rich cultural and historical aspects of this story by situating the history of immigrant flora and fauna within the wider context of human immigration. Through an illuminating series of particular invasions, including the English sparrow and the eucalyptus tree, what he finds is that we have always perceived plants and animals in relation to ourselves and the polities to which we belong. Setting the saga of human relations with the environment in the broad context of scientific, social, and cultural history, this thought-provoking book demonstrates how profoundly notions of nationality and debates over race and immigration have shaped American understandings of the natural world.

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Editorial Reviews

Oregon Historical Qtly
“A remarkably nuanced and richly researched overview of U.S. attitudes toward alien species, providing an eminently readable account about how Americans have come to view this foreign element in their forests, fields, waterways, and flyways.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520249301
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/9/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 266
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Coates is Reader in American and Environmental History in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol, UK. Among his books is Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times (UC Press).

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American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species

Strangers on the Land
By Peter A. Coates

University of California Press

Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24930-1

Chapter One

Strangers and Natives


"The United States is having a problem with aliens," announced the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center as the twentieth century drew to a close. "Not illegal immigrants or space invaders," elaborated the Center-a division of a parent organization more commonly associated with efforts to enforce seat belt laws, combat drunk driving, and promote the careful use of fire extinguishers-"but plants and animals that reach the shores and stay." A California journalist had adopted the same approach the previous year, opening his article about immigrants with the remark that "the strangers come from far and wide." "Then they make themselves so much at home, helping themselves to food and water while producing offspring," he went on to explain, with the result that "the original occupants are forced to move." Then, once more, comes the unexpected twist: "These strangers are plants, not people."

A host of similar pronouncements that play on words and subvert familiar notions indicate that discussions of undesirable immigrants in the United States are now just as likely to include flora and fauna as they are to involve the more conventional human variety. Organismsfrom elsewhere cause concern because they can be invasive species-which President Clinton's executive order of 1999 on the subject defined as "an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." Invasive aliens have affected individual native species through competition, predation, hybridization, and disease. Arriving in ever-increasing numbers, they may also initiate fundamental transformations in ecosystems, changing them almost beyond recognition. Thirty years ago, a biologist claimed that an international medley of overseas species had left Florida "biologically traumatized." Thanks to this multinational assault, a "south Floridian could conceivably watch a walking Siamese catfish crawl out of a canal choked with the Asian weed hydrilla, while Columbian iguanas scampered through Australian pines beneath a squadron of Amazonian parakeets."

In the trans-Mississippi West, fire-adapted cheatgrass from Eurasia encroaches on scrublands hitherto dominated by sagebrush. As a result, fire incidence has increased from once every 60-110 years to once every 3-5 years-a punishing rate that native flora cannot withstand. Expanding standard conceptions of natural disaster, Interior Secretary Babbitt announced in 1998 that the "invasion of noxious weeds has created a level of destruction to America's environment and economy that is matched only by the damage caused by floods, earthquakes, wildfire, hurricanes and mudslides." 6 In fact, many scientists increasingly believe that invasive "biological immigrants" are second only to habitat loss as the major cause of the depletion, endangerment, and extinction of indigenous species. Even George W. Bush is doing his bit to rein them in. One of the president's favorite activities at his 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, is clearing the "plague" of tamarisk, a tree from North Africa (also known as salt cedar) that desiccates the soil and elbows out native trees; meanwhile, the First Lady is planting buffalo grass-part of a wider plan to restore the ranch to its native splendor. And, as part of efforts to promote his environmentalist credentials during a pre-election trip to Florida in April 2004, the president took up an enormous pair of pruning shears and hacked away at earleaf acacia, a fast-growing evergreen from Australia that displaces native vegetation. Introduced as an urban shade tree in the early 1900s, the acacia is widely dispersed via its seeds by a variety of birds (prominent among them another foreign species, the European starling).

In some instances, nonnative plants and animals have become the primary threat to native biodiversity. The National Park Service ranks these "habitat snatchers" ahead of air pollution, off-road vehicles, excessive visitor pressure, and oil drilling on adjacent lands as threats to the integrity of certain parklands. After more conventional pressures on them are relieved, native species can rebound. The recovery of heavily denuded eastern deciduous forests since 1900 is one of the great success stories of spontaneous ecological restoration. Yet some ecologists would argue that the impact of a European insect such as the balsam woolly adelgid (which probably arrived with imported conifers) is far less reversible than agents of change such as logging or even acid rain. These tiny, sap-sucking, aphid-like insects are killing off massive quantities of old growth Fraser fir unique to southern Appalachia's woodlands. A "growing army" of invasive exotics is "overrunning" the country, jeopardizing the nation's "biological heritage," warn Don Schmitz and Daniel Simberloff. Highlighting a neglected facet of homeland security-biosecurity-some conservation biologists advocate a zero tolerance entry policy for nonhuman biota combined with a "shoot first, ask questions later" approach to any species that slips through the net.

Is American anxiety over what some see as a crisis of ecological identity essentially a recent phenomenon? In this book I seek to provide a longer and deeper perspective on this highly topical current environmental preoccupation by examining some earlier manifestations of unease over fauna and flora from other countries. Though the burgeoning nontechnical literature on invasive species sometimes alludes to examples from the past, contextualizing the problem historically is not the purpose of recent calls to arms that mix popular science with investigative reporting. Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, a wide-ranging study of the unexpected fallout from a broad spectrum of human activities, provides the most scholarly treatment to date from a historical perspective, with chapters on nonnative plants, insects, and other animals. Otherwise, there is a strong sense in much of the current literature that today's level of concern over invasive nonnative species is unprecedented.

The desire to throw current American attitudes to nonnative species into sharper relief by examining past perspectives on some earlier arrivals provides the general impetus for this study. A historical study that embraces the past century and a half indicates that claims for the novelty of the problem in recent times are often exaggerated. More particularly, though, this historical approach aims to heighten our appreciation of how ideas of nationality have influenced our understandings of the nonhuman world of nature. Recent historical study of American interactions with the natural world has emphasized how work and recreation shaped these relationships. (We also have a far keener awareness of how the variables of race, class, and gender molded the dialogue between people and the rest of nature.) We know less, though, about how notions of nationality structured understandings. "Knowing nature through labor" and "knowing nature through leisure" have become common phrases in the environmental historian's lexicon. "Knowing nature through nationality" has a less familiar ring.

How certain landforms, places, and creatures were appropriated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to help create a sense of national identity and became central ingredients of a naturalized form of patrimony is, of course, a classic area of American environmental history-and of growing interest to those studying expressions of cultural nationalism in other white "settler" colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Yet we know far less about an essential counterpoint to this valorization of native nature. As Americans were establishing national parks and embracing the redwood and the buffalo, they were distancing themselves from certain biotic forms not American in origin. These symbiotic processes of identification and rejection created a nature of inclusion and a nature of exclusion by distinguishing between native species and those that fell beyond the pale.

American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species breaks fresh ground by situating the history of immigrant flora and fauna and their relations with native species within the wider history of human immigration. Just as historians of immigration have neglected the parallel and sometimes intersecting tales of immigrant flora and fauna, commentators on exotic plants and animals-apart from a few passing references and superficial analogies-have largely overlooked the wider framework provided by the history of human immigration. By bringing the perspective of the environmental historian to bear, and asking when attitudes to plants and animals tell us about people and when attitudes to people tell us about plants and animals, this study supplies a larger, more natural context for human history and embeds the saga of human relations with the rest of nature more firmly within the broader social and cultural environment.

In terms of the quantity and intensity of responses to exotic species since the mid-nineteenth century-favorable and unfavorable-two periods stand out: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the era since 1945. These are the periods when the volume of arrivals was the heaviest; between 1790 and the 1840s, numbers were trivial. During the second half of the nineteenth century, intercontinental transplantation of species was all the rage, a passion shared by private individuals, acclimatization societies (whose ranks included the native-born and immigrant alike), and officials in the Department of Agriculture. Enthusiasm waned toward century's end as the unanticipated drawbacks of certain promising introductions-notably the English (house) sparrow-became increasingly apparent. Restrictive measures ensued and acclimatization societies and their promotional activities became discredited and defunct. Moreover, a fresh value was stamped on the native nature that became synonymous with what Thomas Dunlap calls "national nature," and which nonnative species were seen to menace.

As import bans and quarantines took effect and the desire to recreate old, recognizable biotic worlds dissipated, the introduction of terrestrial invertebrates, fishes, and mollusks slowed down for a while, as, to a lesser extent, did the influx of plants, plant pathogens, and insects (later, the six categories of entrant employed in a seminal congressional report [1993] on nonindigenous problem species). Deliberate imports eased off. Yet inadvertent arrivals soon replaced them as intercontinental contacts multiplied with burgeoning trade, tourism, and travel in ever bigger and quicker vessels facilitated by the shift from sail to steam; between 1970 and 1996, the world's merchant shipping trade virtually doubled. The arrival of commercial air transportation reinforced these trends.

The shrinking of physical distance, not least, enhanced the odds of survival for globe-trotting organisms. In all six categories, therefore, the total numbers of entering species during the twentieth century were greater than they had been in the nineteenth. In fact, the figures were the highest since the spate of planned and accidental exchanges during the epoch of European exploration and expansion between 1492 and the mid-1600s. The rate accelerated markedly after World War II with the exponential growth of global trade-not least in horticultural and aquarium products-and shows no signs of abating as we enter a new millennium dominated by the ethos of unfettered international trade.

Looking at these two eras of faunal and floral immigration, I am particularly interested in the connections between the representation and reception of foreign species of flora and fauna and attitudes to human immigrants. And my overriding purpose within this remit is to clarify the nature of the relationship between criticism of invasive nonnative species on the one hand and of human immigration on the other. The two periods I have identified as the most important for plant and animal arrivals over the past two centuries happen to coincide (more or less) with the high watermarks of human immigration to the United States-not that this overlap has anything directly to do with national immigration policy; open doors for people does not automatically mean open doors for floral and faunal immigrants, more of which have entered in packing crates, shipping containers, and ballast water than in suitcases or stuck to the soles of shoes. After the introduction of restrictive quotas in the early 1920s, the number of arrivals was relatively low for four decades. But they rose again after 1965, when the national origins system that had worked against immigrants from outside northwest Europe was eliminated. As with the tenor of responses to nonhuman immigrants, the pitch of public debate over immigration's merits rose and fell in line with these statistical fluctuations. And just like the disputes over their nonhuman counterparts, this more familiar controversy over human arrivals has been squarely framed in terms of immigrant promise and desirability and immigrant menace and undesirability.

My investigations of promise and menace with reference to floral and faunal immigrants in American history are informed by some big and basic questions. How do we weigh up what is good and bad in nature? Clean and dirty? Healthy and unhealthy? Beautiful and ugly? How do we determine what is natural (and native) in nature? How do we measure improvements and losses in nature? At the forefront, though, are several more specific questions. Why are some overseas species embraced while others struggle for acceptance, no matter how firmly established they become? Are the problems associated with nonnatives primarily of a material order-ecological and economic, in other words? Or are social and cultural factors-especially notions of nationality-uppermost in identifying troublesome species? And, insofar as considerations of national identity are operative in the characterization of dangerous intruders, how does this nature of fear intersect with a wider culture of fear engendered by human immigrants? In short, what do American attitudes to nonnative flora and fauna tell us about American attitudes to immigrant people at various points during the past century and a half?

Although I focus on the period between the 1890s and the 1920s and on the final three decades of the twentieth century, this study is not organized around these periods. Though by no means indifferent to chronological considerations, it is divided into three biotic categories: wild animals, agricultural plants (including associated insects), and trees. In his seminal works on international species transfer, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Alfred Crosby examined livestock transplantation in some depth. Yet the pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle in his books left little room for wild animals or much smaller creatures such as birds and insects. Crosby also discussed the colonizing role of crops (and plants known as weeds). But he covered a period mostly prior to American independence and generally dwelt on the initial centuries of European expansion when what are now staple American food crops and livestock were readily incorporated into the biotic polity. The story of agricultural plants brought to the United States since the Civil War is more obscure. Historians studying biotic interchange have also neglected trees, whether their period has been nineteenth century, twentieth century, or early modern.

By prioritizing the nonhuman protagonists, by allowing some telling animal and plant stories to drive the narrative forward, I maximize coverage of the nonhuman actors environmental history seeks to restore to the heart of the human experience. To preserve the physical integrity of my selected animals and plants, I disperse my coverage of the broader social and scientific landscape. Context and background are important. Yet content and foreground are more important.


Excerpted from American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species by Peter A. Coates Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


1. Strangers and Natives
Knowing Nature through Nationality
The Naming of Strangers
The Alien Menace: Humanizing Nature and Naturalizing Humans
Our Fellow Immigrants
Strangers on the Land
2. The Avian Conquest of a Continent
Transatlantic Flights
Flying Feathers
The Stranger Finch
There Goes the Neighborhood: Dispossessing the Rightful Tenants of Land and Sky
Standing up for Poor Jack
The Cockney Cousin
The Successful and Exemplary Sparrow
3. Plants,
Insects, and Other Strangers to the Soil
Floral Menace and Floral Promise
Strange Fruits: The Enrichment of Nature
Determining Desirability
Shutting the Door on Plant Plunderers
The Menace of Plant Quarantines
A Horticultural Ellis Island
The Rediscovery of Native Value
4. Arboreal Immigrants
Natural Beauty and Foreign Beauty
The Glamor of a Foreign Name
The Tree That Grew in Brooklyn (and Nearly Everywhere Else)
The Strange Career of the Universal Australian
The Tarnished Tree: California’s Raging Eucalyptus Controversy
Eucalyptus Eulogy: The Natural Value of Heritage
Getting Back to (Lost) Nature: Restoring Original California
Landscapes of Purity and
5. The Nature of Alien Nation
The Nature of Fear and the Greening of Hate
Wilted Metaphors and Calling Strangers Names
Flora and Fauna That Are Here to Stay
The Globalization of Nature and the Universal Sparrow
The Historian’s Contribution

Notes / 191

Index / 249

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