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This may be hard to believe but it is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds and trees in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history. For nature lovers, this should be wonderful news -- unless, perhaps, you are one of more than 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today, your child’s soccer field is carpeted with goose droppings, coyotes are killing your pets, the neighbor’s cat has turned your bird feeder into a fast-food ...
This may be hard to believe but it is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds and trees in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history. For nature lovers, this should be wonderful news -- unless, perhaps, you are one of more than 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today, your child’s soccer field is carpeted with goose droppings, coyotes are killing your pets, the neighbor’s cat has turned your bird feeder into a fast-food outlet, wild turkeys have eaten your newly-planted seed corn, beavers have flooded your driveway, or bears are looting your garbage cans.
For 400 years, explorers, traders, and settlers plundered North American wildlife and forests in an escalating rampage that culminated in the late 19th century’s “era of extermination.” By 1900, populations of many wild animals and birds had been reduced to isolated remnants or threatened with extinction, and worry mounted that we were running out of trees. Then, in the 20th century, an incredible turnaround took place. Conservationists outlawed commercial hunting, created wildlife sanctuaries, transplanted isolated species to restored habitats and imposed regulations on hunters and trappers. Over decades, they slowly nursed many wild populations back to health.
But after the Second World War something happened that conservationists hadn’t foreseen: sprawl. People moved first into suburbs on urban edges, and then kept moving out across a landscape once occupied by family farms. By 2000, a majority of Americans lived in neither cities nor country but in that vast in-between. Much of sprawl has plenty of trees and its human residents offer up more and better amenities than many wild creatures can find in the wild: plenty of food, water, hiding places, and protection from predators with guns. The result is a mix of people and wildlife that should be an animal-lover’s dream-come-true but often turns into a sprawl-dweller’s nightmare.
Nature Wars offers an eye-opening look at how Americans lost touch with the natural landscape, spending 90 percent of their time indoors where nature arrives via television, films and digital screens in which wild creatures often behave like people or cuddly pets. All the while our well-meaning efforts to protect animals allowed wild populations to burgeon out of control, causing damage costing billions, degrading ecosystems, and touching off disputes that polarized communities, setting neighbor against neighbor. Deeply researched, eloquently written, counterintuitive and often humorous Nature Wars will be the definitive book on how we created this unintended mess.
"If you love animals and trees and other wonders of the natural world, this book will astonish you. Sterba's great gifts are reportorial energy, out-of-the-box thinking, and an easy, relaxed prose style that makes Nature Wars a pleasure to read, even as its counterintuitive discoveries explode on every page." —Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
“Most Americans now live not in cities but in regrown forests, among at least as many deer as when Columbus landed. Jim Sterba tells us how this came to be and why it isn’t all good. In graceful, clear-eyed prose, he explains why we need to relearn how to cut, cull and kill, to restore a more healthy balance to our environment.” —Paul Steiger, Editor-in-Chief, ProPublica
"Although few of us realize it, America is at a turning point where we must rethink our most fundamental ideas about nature, animals, and how we live. Fortunately we have a wise and witty guide in Jim Sterba, whose Nature Wars is my favorite kind of read -- a book that affectionately recasts much of what we thought we knew about our nation's past and our relationship to the American wild, while at the same time revealing how intimately we ourselves are a part of nature, but in the most surprising and unexpected ways. In Sterba's hands, your everyday notions about the creatures around you -- whether pests, pets, or magnificent beasts -- will turn into entirely new ways of seeing the world." —Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi
Mount Desert looks as if it is very much part of the “North Woods”--a thick forest of evergreens interspersed with mixed hardwoods and dotted with ponds and cedar swamps, with villages, cottages, boatyards, and lobster pounds perched along a rocky seashore. Visitors can drive or climb to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, at 1,530 feet above sea level the highest point on the island, and look out upon a landscape created by glaciers that advanced and receded for a million years. Like a sculptor with chisels and sandpaper, the glacial ice cut and smoothed bedrock, creating twenty-six mountains of pink granite arranged side by side, north to south, many elongated like baguettes of French bread. The mountains, some of them bald on top, are cloaked in white and red spruce trees, balsam fir, white hemlock, and red and white pines, and are splotched with a mix of hardwoods, mainly oak, maple, and birch. The ice created a fjord, seven miles long, up the middle of the island, and gouged out other valleys that contain lakes, ponds, bogs, and dense cedar swamps. People are concentrated along the island’s coastal fringes. There, too, are the commercial trappings of a tourist industry fed mainly by Acadia National Park, the island’s primary attraction.
The island and the park attract almost 3 million visitors annually. Guidebooks say that at 108 square miles, Mount Desert is the third-largest island off the continental United States, after Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard, and, with its mountains seeming to lurch up out of the sea, it is certainly the most physically arresting of the three. For newcomers and visitors, it is easy to find here confirmation that if people just leave nature alone it will be fine. It is easy to imagine Indians and then Europeans discovering a pristine natural wilderness so beautiful that they made up their minds in turn to save it from the despoliations of man. But such imaginings would be wrong. Only small patches of the island were saved more or less in their natural state. Today what visitors see is a North Woods forest. What they are looking at, however, is natural beauty re-created, protected, and managed by man--a kind of “wilderness” theme park rebuilt by nature under human supervision.
Newcomers like me had difficulty believing that in 1880 this island was a pastoral countryside of hay meadows, livestock pastures and cropland, trees here and there, and forest hugging the steep sides of mountains off in the distance. It was hard to imagine bustling hubs where the commerce of logging, fishing, shipbuilding, and milling had taken place; villages with blacksmiths, shoemakers, wool carders, shingle makers, sawyers, and carpenters; the storefronts of merchants; factories producing lumber, barrels, ice, bricks, stones, and salted fish for market; and wharves where ships loaded materials for export and unloaded goods from afar. But that’s what Mount Desert looked like after the Civil War and well into the twentieth century.
Old--timers like George Peckham fondly recounted the days when the island had been much more manicured and refined. When Peckham was born in 1927, Mount Desert was a radically different place. Much of the island--that is, land flat enough and with soil enough to farm--had been cleared of trees by the late nineteenth century. The trees were used for fuel and lumber or were simply burned to get them out of the way for pasture, hay, and cropland. The lowland landscape and the patchwork of family farms and homesteads that occupied it were still very much in evidence when Peckham was growing up, although some of that farm acreage had already been bought up, given to Acadia National Park, and left to the trees to take back. Peckham grew up in the tail end of an era in which well-heeled vacationers turned the island into one of society’s most fashionable resorts. The island’s villages--Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor among them--bustled in the summer with people “from away.”
“When I was growing up, this island was more civilized than it is now,” he told me. “Northeast Harbor was booming back then. It had four garages for cars, and lots of chauffeurs, butlers, and cooks. It had four hotels, six grocery stores, two drugstores, a high school, and a summer theater. The whole island was more developed and less wild than it is now.”
Mount Desert Island has been under human supervision for almost two thousand years. Scholars don’t know exactly when Indians first arrived (graves dating back to 3000 B.C. have been found elsewhere on the Maine coast), but they are believed to have established their first settlement around 1000 B.C. at the west entrance to Somes Sound, at a place now called Fernald Point--a gently sloping hillside, with freshwater springs and protected coves. They used it and a place now called Manchester Point across the sound off and on for the next twenty-six centuries, coming and going with the seasons. Because they were hunter-gatherers and their populations were small, these people managed the land and waters of Mount Desert with a light touch--but they did manage them for their own purposes.
The first Europeans to arrive in the Gulf of Maine in the 1490s were cod fishermen--mainly Bretons, Basques, and Portuguese. Looking for fresh water and places to dry their fish, they came ashore and met the local Indians. These visits evolved into barter trade: fur garments and freshly killed meat, for example, for cloth and small metal tools. Explorers and traders followed, exchanging manufactured goods for Indian furs, mainly beaver, but for Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Maine was a cod-fishing paradise. By the 1620s, hundreds of fishing vessels were sailing annually from European posts to catch cod in the Gulf of Maine.
Europeans broke ground on Mount Desert in 1613, when the first settlers--forty-eight Frenchmen led by a Jesuit priest named Father Pierre Biard--arrived at Fernald Point and decided, among other survival tasks, to try a little farming. Long before their crops could come in, however, they were discovered, captured, and driven off by an English privateer based in Virginia named Captain Samuel Argall. His job was to expel all Frenchmen he found along the coast.2 It would take another 148 years for farming to be taken up in earnest on the island, this time by the English--and only after the French and Indian Wars had finally sputtered to an end. The transformation of Mount Desert into a working landscape began in the fall of 1761, when a twenty-nine-year-old cooper named Abraham Somes arrived from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and took up residence at the north end of the fjord that would be named in his honor.
Over the next 150 years, settlers, fishermen, loggers, farmers, shipbuilders, and ice and granite cutters would exploit the landscape, eventually stripping away the trees on virtually all the land that was flat enough to farm. Trees on mountainsides too steep for farming and too far from water-powered sawmills were spared--for the time being. But the loggers were rapacious. They moved rapidly across the island, cutting roads in the woods, hauling out trees, and leaving brush to dry and catch fire.
1. I had violated part 2 (Resource Protection, Public Use and Recreation) of the general Federal Code provisions governing the National Park Service; specifically section 2.1 (Preservation of Natural, Cultural and Archeological Resources), subsection (a): “Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, the following is prohibited: (1): Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state: (ii): Plants or the parts or products thereof.” The penalties section of this statute reads: “(a) A person convicted of violating a provision of the regulations . . . of this section shall be punished by a fine as provided by law, or by imprisonment not exceeding 6 months, or both.”
2. Earlier that year in Virginia, Captain Argall kidnapped Pocahontas, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Potomac chief, Powhatan, to exchange for English captives, property, and food. Six years earlier Pocahontas had “rescued” Captain John Smith, leader of the Jamestown Colony, from her father.
Part 1 Forest People 1
Chapter 1 The Spruce Illusion 5
Chapter 2 An Epidemic of Trees 19
Chapter 3 Sprawl 46
Part 2 Wild Beasts 53
Chapter 4 The Fifty-Pound Rodent 59
Chapter 5 The Elegant Ungulate 86
Chapter 6 Lawn Carp 118
Chapter 7 Gobblers 146
Chapter 8 Teddies 161
Part 3 Denatured Life 187
Chapter 9 Doers to Viewers 189
Chapter 10 Roadkill 206
Chapter 11 Feathered Friends 220
Chapter 12 Feral Felines 239
Posted January 27, 2013