How the natural world is reclaiming civilization

Reporter takes a thoughtful look at today’s ‘Nature Wars’

Los Angeles TimesDecember 22, 2012 

  • Nonfiction Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds Jim Sterba Crown, 368 pages

The nature-challenged reader will discover many new and startling facts in Jim Sterba’s new book. One stands out: Not only are America’s Eastern forests roaring back to life, they’ve been doing so for more than a century.

Sterba, a veteran reporter for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, literally stumbles onto this truth one day amid the majestic trees of Maine’s Acadia National Park. He sees feral grapevines strangling a birch tree. When he gets out of his car to rip the vines out, he finds a rusting 1927 Maine license plate.

Sterba realizes he’s walking on the ruins of a farm that’s been swallowed up by a new forest. The grapes were there before the trees, “a remnant of a very different civilization that had existed not long ago.”

In some densely populated corners of New England, trees have been filling up abandoned farms since the 1850s. Now creatures are filling up those forests, too, including white-tailed deer. So many deer, in fact, as to become odious.

Sterba’s book is a much more sweeping and thoughtful work than its title would suggest. “Nature Wars” is best read as a history of Americans’ widespread and enduring ignorance of the natural world and how that ignorance has created new and strange ecosystems – especially in our sprawling suburbs and exurbs.

Consider the weird, epic saga of the North American beaver. Beavers were wiped out in Massachusetts by frontiersmen and Indian trappers and traders in the early 18th century.

But in 1928 they returned as the descendants of 34 beavers from Canada released in the Adirondacks decades earlier. Sterba shows how beavers soon thrived in resurgent forests now largely free of their old predators – including humans. By 1996, the state’s beaver population was estimated at 24,000.

Those beavers now live amid strip malls and golf courses. “People and beavers were sharing the same habitat as never before,” Sterba writes. “They had similar tastes in waterfront real estate. Both like to live along brooks, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes with lots of nice trees nearby.”

Sterba relates the story of the beaver and other troublesome wild creatures with wit and impressive reportorial diligence. He shows us how new suburban residents plant pretty trees, only to see the beavers chew them down to build dams that flood their yards.

Sterba says Americans have forgotten how to be stewards of the natural world around them. We Americans don’t understand nature in the same way that Sterba did when he was a boy growing up on a Michigan farm in the 1950s; Americans today have become so immersed in “virtual reality,” he writes, that they prefer to have “the natural world delivered to them on a digital screen.” Even their house cats are “denatured” – back on the farm, he says, cats had real, honest “work” to do.

Not only are these facile points, they conveniently ignore that Sterba grew up during a time when rural people continued to radically alter their environment. Among other things, they sprayed their fields with pesticides that wiped out songbirds and nearly caused the bald eagle to become extinct.

Nor are all the current defenders of wild turkeys, beavers, feral cats, white-tailed deer and other “nuisance” animals the shrill, misinformed and naive people Sterba makes them out to be.

There is a lot in “Nature Wars” for the reasoned and concerned human to learn about the changing natural landscape.

White-tailed deer, Sterba shows us, thrive in the faux rural, predator-free zones of many an American exurb. He paints a vivid and memorable portrait of these new eco systems, where only one, plentiful species is capable of bringing balance and harmony among living things: Homo sapiens.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service