Considering 'Nature Wars' in the 50-year shadow of 'Silent Spring'

The drive from the Upstate New York airport to my parents' house took longer than the flight from Chicago, and I was elated to finally be in sight of the house. But the driveway was occupied by deer. Five elegant young does turned their large, deep, dark eyes on us with the disdain of teenagers annoyed at being interrupted. We gazed back, simultaneously thrilled by the proximity to such beautiful animals and impatient to park and stretch our legs. The deer flicked their tails, swiveled their ears, nosed the ground and slowly, grudgingly, sashayed onto the grass. 

As we extracted ourselves from the car, they gracefully promenaded across the lawn, slipping in among the trees along a busy street that funnels traffic onto Route 9, the heavily traveled highway that parallels the Hudson River.

Jim Sterba, a distinguished foreign correspondent and national affairs reporter who was in the thick of things in Asia during and after the Vietnam War, escapes New York City on the weekends to stay in Dutchess County, not far from where I grew up. Sterba's first book, "Frankie's Place," is a memoir about courting and marrying his wife, the journalist and author Frances FitzGerald, whose own account of the Vietnam War, "Fire in the Lake," won the Pulitzer Prize. His second book, "Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds," is about why herds of deer now occupy our driveways and yards, eating our flowers and plants.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


Sterba begins "Nature Wars" with an impressive roll call of all the wildlife he and his wife see around the cottage they rent on a former 180-acre dairy farm. As I read this census, I find myself nodding. Even in our Poughkeepsie neighborhood, we see lots of different songbirds, woodpeckers, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, woodchucks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, beavers, ducks, eagles, turtles and blue heron. But there was no such cavalcade of wildlife when I still lived at home, back around the time I read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Carson's galvanizing exposé of the "sinister" effects of DDT and other chemical pesticides that were in widespread and wanton use following World War II. Carson's now classic book of warning begins with "A Fable for Tomorrow," which presents a world in grim opposition to the vitality Sterba describes.

"There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings." Carson describes "prosperous farms," wildflowers, trees, an "abundance and variety" of bird life, streams full of fish, deer and foxes, all abruptly transformed when "a strange blight crept over the area ... a shadow of death." Animals, people, plants and trees began to sicken and die. "There was a strange stillness." What caused this catastrophe? "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves."

Carson's clarion book has been compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in terms of its role as a catalyst for social change. The environmental movement did coalesce in the wake of "Silent Spring," and laws were passed to protect endangered species and the air, water and land that sustain all of life. Even so, environmental threats continue to multiply. The battles to protect wetlands, forests, rivers, oceans, public lands and wildlife against pollution, destruction, decimation and global warming rage on. Environmental writers continued to sound the alarm. Carson wrote that science and literature share the same mission, to "discover and illuminate truth," and her intrepid and eloquent followers are many, including Gretel Ehrlich, John McPhee, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Rick Bass, Barbara Kingsolver, Rebecca Solnit, Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, Carl Safina, David Quammen and Elizabeth Kolbert. Yet there have been some phenomenal improvements. The facts about wildlife resurgence that Sterba present in his mind-bending dispatch from the new world of "people-wildlife conflicts" are startling and staggering.

Remember the coyote who sauntered into a downtown Chicago Quiznos? The cougar Chicago police shot dead in Roscoe Village? Consider the more routine animal nuisances: herds of garden-devouring deer, gaggles of excreting Canadian geese and battalions of beavers busy chewing down cherished trees and building dams that cause infrastructure-damaging floods and even disrupt "the water flows around electrical power generation facilities." We have sprawled into animal terrain, building houses, malls, corporate parks and golf courses, and now, Sterba writes, "critters have encroached right back." And why not? We have enhanced their habitats and eliminated predators — although we do accidentally kill an appalling number of animals with our cars, and millions of birds die in collisions with high-rise windows. Filled with wonder over the beautiful animals that are now all around us, we feed wild birds (supporting a hugely profitable bird seed industry) and even coyotes and bears, inviting deadly attacks. And don't get Sterba started on the subject of feral cats.

It is exciting to see wildlife. Consider, there were no deer left in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio by the late 19th century. No beavers anywhere. Restocking and restoration efforts have been a tremendous, resounding success. We owe profound thanks not only to environmental writers, but also to all the unsung biologists, environmentalists, policymakers, attorneys, grass-roots activists, government staffers and politicians who ensured that we averted ecological disaster 40 years ago. But just as we had no clue as to what havoc we were unleashing with the use of DDT, we have not been aware of the consequences of renewed animal populations. We've even been oblivious, Sterba tells us, to the return of the trees. The halt to deforestation in the late 19th century initiated an era of luxurious regrowth. Citing tree counts and aerial survey, Sterba asserts that we are all, in essence, forest dwellers now, even those of us who live in the heart of big cities. Trees support wildlife.

Sterba is ferociously well-informed and lucid in his chronicling of "how we turned a wildlife comeback miracle into a mess." His book is a tale of noble intentions and unintended consequences, ignorance and aggression, idealism and irony, reality and responsibility.

Here's one example of the many Sterba considers. Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling — nicknamed "Ding" because he "regularly dinged (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt" — was also "an ardent and knowledgeable conservationist." So FDR appointed him to a committee formed to figure out a way to restore the country's imperiled waterfowl. Also on board was Wisconsin-based Aldo Leopold of "A Sand County Almanac" fame, the man who founded the profession of game management. Leopold's paradigm-alerting land ethic, as he explained, "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." This crucial land ethic also "enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." A vision to live by.

Roosevelt then appointed Darling director of what would become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (for which Carson later worked). Darling proved to be a formidable and effective protector of ducks and geese, so much so that his agency inadvertently established the very conditions that nurtured today's immense population of "nuisance" Canadian geese.

So we find ourselves in a quandary. American wildlife has rebounded from near-extinction to overabundance, and many of us recoil from the need to cull animal populations.

How easy it is to hold fast to outmoded assumptions, to grow rigid in one's perceptions, to tune out the "other side." Thoroughly researched and powerfully written books such as "Silent Spring" and "Nature Wars" induce us to question our thinking, opinions and values. It's one thing to argue that animals are sentient beings and that we should never abuse or unnecessarily kill them. It's another to allow naïve and wishful fantasies about wild animals to cloud our understanding of what's at stake when nature gets out of balance, even if it's thanks to our interference, however well-intentioned. We are going to have to figure out how to live safely with all those amazing and, yes, precious, deer, geese and beavers, those coyote and cougars and bears.

Donna Seaman is a senior editor at Booklist and editor of the collection "In Our Nature."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading