The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

by Tim Flannery

In The Eternal Frontier, world-renowned scientist and historian Tim Flannery tells the unforgettable story of the geological and biological evolution of the North American continent, from the time of the asteroid strike that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the present day. Flannery describes the development of North America's deciduous forests and… See more details below


In The Eternal Frontier, world-renowned scientist and historian Tim Flannery tells the unforgettable story of the geological and biological evolution of the North American continent, from the time of the asteroid strike that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the present day. Flannery describes the development of North America's deciduous forests and other flora, and tracks the immigration and emigration of various animals to and from Europe, Asia, and South America, showing how plant and animal species have either adapted or become extinct. The story takes in the massive changes wrought by the ice ages and the coming of the Indians, and continues right up to the present, covering the deforestation of the Northeast, the decimation of the buffalo, and other facets of the enormous impact of frontier settlement and the development of the industrial might of the United States. Natural history on a monumental scale, The Eternal Frontier contains an enormous wealth of fascinating scientific details, and Flannery's accessible and dynamic writing makes the book a delight to read. This is science writing at its very best — a riveting page-turner that is simultaneously an accessible and scholarly trove of incredible information that is already being hailed by critics as a classic.

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Editorial Reviews

The American frontier—To most, that phrase conjures up Hollywood images of far-reaching plains, covered wagons, and skittery tumbleweeds. But according to a new book by Tim Flannery, this is only one of the most recent incarnations of the North American frontier.

In fact, the "frontier" Flannery describes has been reinventing itself for millenniums, beginning with the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth more than 65 million years ago. It's given birth to lineages (horses, dogs, camels) that emigrated either to reappear thousands of years later, or to disappear altogether. More frequently, it has accepted newcomers and given them ample opportunity to flourish.

With a history that personifies the Statue of Liberty's "huddled masses," the North American continent is what Flannery calls, "a land of immigrants."

In The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, Flannery a paleontologist and the director of the South Australian Museum describes a continent that is continually recreating itself.

"As opposed to the situation on most continents," he writes, "the deep past seems to leave a limited legacy in North America. Change, in the form of climatic shifts and massive immigration, has reshaped the continent's ecology continuously. It is as if the continent knows no rest, no equilibrium, no consistent state to which we can point and say, 'Ah, see, that is North America."

The reasons behind its inconsistency, he says, are its geography, geological history, and climate, which have conspired to create a continent unequaled in its schizophrenia. Its funnel-like shape and its north-south mountain ranges create what the author calls a "climatic trumpet," which not only magnifies the smallest temperature changes to create exaggerated seasons, but over the longer term promotes a continental shift from greenhouse to icehouse modes.

Flannery argues that North America's inhabitants have also played an integral part in shaping the continent. The "megafauna" — large animals like mammoths, mastodons, bison, and buffalo while all immigrants, helped foster the continent's great plains and Alaskan tundra.

When these animals decreased, the land again began to change. Humans continued to flood over the continent, and true to Flannery's description of North America as an eternal frontier, "each successive wave of human invaders found their niche in a more marginal part of North America." Once humans thrust themselves into the picture, the dynamics were forever changed.

When people started interacting with megafauna and climate, a land that had been reinventing itself every few million years began changing at a more observable pace: People began to settle the land, cut down its forests, destroy its inhabitants (passenger pigeons, bison, and humans alike), and disrupt the continent's delicate balance.

From a non-paleontologist perspective, the first 150 pages of The Eternal Frontier are anything but gripping, although the facts they provide are important to understanding North America's mutable nature. Unlike Flannery's previous book, "Throwim Way Leg," the subject does not lend itself to an easy narrative. The scope of his story is huge, and his research exhaustive, but even Flannery cannot make a dry subject completely compelling.

The last half of the book, however, makes for a good read. It's here that Flannery drives his point home, and here that the true significance of his frontier theory becomes clear: The history of the land has influenced America's politics. "What is most worrying about this dismal history," he writes, "is that on the frontier, ruthless exploitation, greed and senseless environmental destruction had become an honored tradition. All of the US's defenses, both political and social, were traduced by the vast wealth and influence won by the rapers of the land."

It's enough to make this reader want to trade the safety of her superpower government for the sound of a passenger pigeon flying overhead.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If Nature itself has a nature, it's the desire for balance. In a fascinating chronicle of our continent's evolution, Flannery shows, however, that this desire must forever be frustrated. Flannery starts his tale with the asteroid collision that destroyed the dinosaurs, ends with the almost equally cataclysmic arrival of humankind and fills the middle with an engaging survey of invaders from other lands, wild speciation and an ever-changing climate, all of which have kept the ecology of North America in a constant state of flux. We see the rise of horses, camels and dogs (cats are Eurasian), the rapid extinction of mammoths, mastodons and other megafauna at the hands of prehistoric man, and the even quicker extinction of the passenger pigeon and other creatures more recently. Flannery also spotlights plenty of scientists at work, most notably one who tries to butcher an elephant as a prehistoric man would have butchered a mastodon, and another who had the intestinal fortitude to check whether meat would keep if a carcass were stored at the bottom of a frigid pond, the earliest of refrigerators. This material might be dense and academic in another's hands, but Flannery displays a light touch, a keen understanding of what will interest general readers and a good sense of structure, which keeps the book moving, manageable and memorable. (May) Forecast: Atlantic Monthly clearly intends to build on the reputation Flannery attained with his previous, highly acclaimed book, Throwim Way Leg and they may have a winner here. The first printing will be 60,000 copies, with a $100,000 promotional budget and a 21-city author tour. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Most natural histories tend to be time- and place-specific, describing, for example, a particular lake, valley, or forest. Flannery is one of the few nature writers able to sustain a big-picture perspective that is both sweeping and substantive. Reminiscent of The Future Eaters (LJ 9/1/95), Flannery's account of his native Australia, this new book explores approximately 65 million years of the ecology of the entire North American continent. Beginning with the asteroid impact presumed to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs, Flannery paints with broad strokes that melt glaciers, raise mountains, cover the land with forests and new species, and, ultimately, create human civilizations unlike any others on Earth. Throughout, he unabashedly celebrates the uniqueness of geographical, geological, climatological, and cultural forces that have shaped this "eternal frontier." The nearest comparison might be with John McPhee's anthology of essays, Annals of the Former World (LJ 5/1/98), but Flannery's book has the virtue of being a continuous narrative, so it reads like an unfolding story. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Director of the South Australian Museum, Flannery (U. of Adelaide) traces the physical and ecological evolution of North America, beginning 65 million years ago, when, he says, a giant meteor smashed into the Gulf of Mexico and closed the curtain on dinosaurs. He draws on his training as a paleontologist to describe the subsequent rebirth of plants, animals, climate, and landforms and the impact of human migration onto the continent, which he places about 14,000 years ago. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping natural history of North America from its birth as a self-contained continent in the Cretaceous era to its current precarious status as an ecological superpower. Australian mammologist Flannery (Throwim Way Leg, 1999) writes a lively account of an ever-changing landscape of deserts, tropical forests, and creeping ice sheets-a land where elephants, camels, giant pigs, and other creatures appear, thrive, move on, or become extinct. He divides his drama into five acts, the first spanning the period from 66 to 59 million years ago. His story opens just before an asteroid smashes into Earth near the Yucatán Peninsula, ending the age of the dinosaurs and launching the rise of large mammals. In act two, from 57 to 33 million years ago, the climate warms, land bridges to Europe and Asia appear and disappear, and animals from North America invade Europe. Act three covers the period from 32 million to 13,000 years ago, a time of wild fluctuations in climate and dramatic changes in the continent's plant and animal life. Act four begins with the migration of humans from Asia and the disappearance of its largest land mammals and ends with the arrival of Columbus. In the final act, European immigrants move in and expand across the continent, decimating the native human and animal populations, and replacing much of the native flora with planted crops. Flannery, who knows how to make paleontology, geology, climatology, and anthropology accessible to all, has even provided an unusually entertaining table of contents. In the final chapters, however, the knowledgeable ecological historian takes on a sharper tone. He is clearly dismayed by what he sees happening ("ruthlessexploitation,greed, and senseless environmental destruction") as he catalogs what we have done to our continent's natural resources. Natural history par excellence. First printing of 60,000; $100,000 ad/promo; author tour

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