Dr. Fred Bortz

Nature out of Place: Biological Invasions in the Global Age

by Jason Van Driesche and Roy Van Driesche

(Island Press, 2000, $29.95, 384 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

Return to Science Shelf Home Page

Note: All materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverShop for Nature Out of Place at discount price


coverShop for Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion at discount price

coverShop for Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America at discount price

coverShop for The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World at discount price

Read the Science Shelf review of The Botanist and the Vintner

It begins with good intention, innocently, unobtrusively. An attractive ornamental chestnut tree is imported from Asia in the early twentieth century carrying a fungus with which it has co-evolved but which devastates the chestnut's North American cousins.

A boat arrives from Europe in the late 1980s and discharges its ballast, containing larvae of zebra mussels, into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Within a few years, water systems on the Great Lakes and nearby rivers are clogged with colonies of invaders that have overwhelmed and displaced native mussel species.

European explorers bring swine and other nonnative livestock to Hawaii. The animals transform the texture of the soil, creating niches for vegetative invaders. Centuries later, feral pigs continue to drive the transformation of the ecology and the loss of precious, unique habitats and species.

Leafy spurge, an Asian perennial, arrives in North America, probably for the first but certainly not the last time, in the 1820s as seed in ballast soil from European merchant ships. First noticed in Massachusetts in 1827, it slowly moves westward as a troublesome but minor weed. It finally takes hold in the Great Plains at about the time chestnut blight is doing the same in the Appalachians, probably arriving in crop seed carried from the Ukraine by Mennonite immigrants. Grazing cattle won't touch it. This bit of Nature Out of Place has become a threatening alien invader.

Writing with scientific objectivity, rich detail, and quiet passion, the father-son team of Roy and Jason Van Driesche produce unique insights into the dramatic transformations that human culture and commerce have brought to ecosystems throughout the world. University of Wisconsin graduate student Jason acts as tour guide, giving readers intimate, first-person experiences in each venue, introducing them to the scientists on the front lines of investigation and action. University of Massachusetts professor Roy lays out the scientific background.

Most important, the Van Driesches resist the temptation to produce a doom-and-gloom expose. Rather, they move progressively from the most alarming settings to the most hopeful, where determined activist scientists, economists, and policy makers seek ways to reverse the ecological damage in the context of twenty-first century civilization and commerce.

In the end, they bring the issues "home" to the readers, closing with a chapter entitled "Going Local: Personal Actions for a Native Planet." Whether a reader devours every word of this important volume or merely focuses on the chapters of personal interest, he or she will never view life in the Global Age in the same way again.

Ph.D. Physicist Fred Bortz has found his ecological niche in the world of science books, both as a frequent reviewer for adults and an author of several titles for young readers, including Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth.