Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America

Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America

Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America

Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America

Synopsis

Some 10,000 alien plants and animals live in North America. While environmentalists almost universally decry the invasion of non-native species, Leland suggests that the stories of how these plants and animals have reshaped the landscape are as much a part of the continent's history as that of presidents and politics.

Excerpt

No Native American ever ate an apple pie before 1492. It couldn’t have happened. While there was water aplenty and salt enough, there were no apples for filling, no lemons for juice, no cinnamon or cloves for spice, no sugar (other than maple) for sweetening, no wheat for flour, and no butter for pastry. Nor did any North American Indian before Columbus graze a horse on Kentucky bluegrass, eat an Idaho potato, see Boston ivy growing, get stung by a honeybee, or use a night crawler to catch a brown trout—because none of these was here back then.

Of course, the very notion of an America to be a native of is postColumbian. the year 1492 is arbitrarily picked as the cutoff for things that came here “naturally.” But a “natural” America is a cultural fiction. Not only did the Native Americans bring with them an “un-American” flora and fauna, they also reshaped what they found here, with the result that the forest primeval greeting the first Europeans was less primeval than it was man-made. Our “native” plants and animals themselves were—and still are—on the move. We tend to forget that a mere ten thousand years ago, a continental ice sheet covered everything north of Pennsylvania and boreal forests grew in Florida. What biologists a hundred years ago assumed were age-old forest or prairie communities that would, without human interference, perpetuate themselves as climax communities are thought by some today to have been catch-as-catchcan assemblages of opportunistic plants and animals scrambling northward to colonize land liberated from the Ice Age. Like participants in Mother Nature’s version of the Oklahoma Land Rush, plants and animals, independently of each other, pushed farther north each year, light-seeded maples outpacing heavier chestnuts, nimble squirrels leaving slower possums behind, and winged mosquitoes trouncing earthbound worms. Nor did this progression stop with Columbus. Possums plodded into New England only after the colonists had arrived . . .

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