Books

WEIRD WORLD

Brian Bethune July 9 2001
Books

WEIRD WORLD

Brian Bethune July 9 2001

WEIRD WORLD

Books

But it really is bizarre here.” Renowned ecologist Tim Flannery hails from Australia, home of the paralysis tick and the duck-billed platypus, yet he laughingly insists that North America can out-weird his continent any day. “When I came to Boston for the first time in 1997, I was stunned,” he recalls. “It was midSeptember, 100 per cent humidity, a vast biomass of plants and insects, dazzling green colours.

Six weeks later, it was all gone.

That doesn’t happen in Australia, or anywhere else.” Flannery’s astonishment at North America has only grown since that trip, and is on full display in The Eternal Frontier (Publishers Group West, $42.50), his extraordinary natural history of the continent.

Against a very deep background—he begins his book with that “most unfortunate day” 65 million years ago when it’s widely believed a dinosaur-annihilating asteroid slammed into the Earth—Flannery describes a landmass forever subject to the shock of the new. The asteroid killed large creatures around the world, but North America bore the brunt of the disaster. The 10-km-wide rock was coming from the south when it struck near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, sending shock and tidal waves, and tonnes of molten rock— what Flannery calls the “divot” gouged out by the impact—up to 7,000 km north. North America was scrubbed almost clean of life. Then there are the repeated revolutionary effects of the continent’s most distinguishing characteristic, its capacity to amplify climactic change.

North America is a giant inverted wedge, 6,500 km across in the frozen Arctic and only 60 km wide at its southern end. Not only are there no east-west

mountain ranges to break the north-south air flow, but the Rocky and Appalachian mountains actually reinforce a funnel effect, channelling super-chilled air south in winter and equally hot winds north in summer, producing the blink-of-an-eye transitional seasons that so amazed Flannery in Boston.

Flannery’s “climactic trumpet” plays two tunes, however, the seasonal variation

AN AUSSIE ECOLOGIST MARVELS AT NORTH AMERICA’S STRANGENESS

of extreme heat and cold, and a longer note, played out over geological time, that rapidly shifts North America between greenhouse and ice age modes. Fifty million years ago, crocodiles swam in the Arctic, but 18,000 years ago more ice than is found today in Antarctica covered almost all of Canada. It would take only a two degree-drop in deep-sea temperatures for those glaciers to return.

The 45-year-old University of Adelaide professor is at his most thought-provoking

when he discusses the impact made by humans. At the end of the last ice age, some 15,000 years ago, much of the continent looked like Africa. Mastodons and mammoths, recent invaders from Asia, roamed the land, keeping back the forests and allowing native horses and camels to thrive. Into this Eden came another ecology-changing wave of Asian immigration. The biggame hunters of so-called Clovis culture were either the first Americans or the first who knew how to exploit the mega-fauna. Within 300 years of Clovis’s appearance, all the giants were gone. Controversy is intense over the cause of their extinctions, with aboriginal Americans and many scientists arguing for climate change. But Flannery, displaying a very Australian disdain for political niceties, has no doubts—“Oh, they disappeared into a black hole, all right, the one between the Clovis nose and chin. It’s a dangerous, damaging myth to say that native Americans, or anyone else, are natural-born conservationists.”

What the first Americans experienced was the same phenomenon that European settlers underwent more recently: ecological release. The newcomers entered a land of plenty that offered no check on their technology—not, that is, until the bounty was consumed. Native Americans did adapt themselves to the end of the age of plenty, fanning across the continent to create societies—many unlike any others on earth—in harmony with their local ecologies. The European onslaught has been far worse, encompassing the extinction of human and animal groups, massive deforestation and water poisoning. Nor have we yet realized in our bones, Flannery argues, that the frontier is gone. “I’m not convinced that a fully adapted American culture exists yet.” Until one does, North America, land of extremes, will continue to suffer its latest invaders.

Brian Bethune