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A Natural History of Exotics in America
By Kim Todd
W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $26.95

Tinkering with Eden

Throughout the history of this nation of immigrants, there have been settlers of a different sort: nonnative plants and animals.

Imported from Europe, Asia, and most every other place on earth, the exotic species in America now number more than 4,500. People have brought them as tourist attractions and pets, as sources of food and income. Others have sneaked in, like the mosquito larvae dumped into Hawaiian streams by way of a ship's water barrels. Tinkering with Eden shows us the unpredictable results of this intercontinental transport: a country in which native flora and fauna are crowded out of ecosystems they themselves helped create; where we curse foreign-born bugs that ravage our crops, while hailing as saviors those brought to kill them. In a jumble of successes, failures, and fortuitous twists of fate, the introduction of exotics over the centuries has shaped America's physical and cultural landscape immeasurably.

Author Kim Todd has chosen a small selection of these stories to tell, each a short but richly detailed narrative of how and why a particular species has come to be considered American. Readers will get reacquainted with common pigeons (from France), honeybees (from England), and brown trout (from Germany). They'll also meet lesser-known transplants, like blood-sucking sea lampreys, colonies of monkeys, and orange-toothed nutrias.

Some of these species have lived here hundreds of years, a fact that, beyond scientific exactitude, makes one wonder how meaningful the term "exotic" actually is. Many organisms, for better or worse, have evolved into fixtures of the American landscape.

In this increasingly interconnected world, exotic species keep settling our lakes, forests, and cities. Beyond that, we may be able to predict little. "[T]he natural world will continue to rattle, buck, elude, and astonish us," Todd writes, "serving up results far beyond the imagination."
-- Anthony Jaffe

An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood
By Sandra Steingraber
Perseus Publishing, 342 pp., $26

Having Faith

If you've read Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream, you will know that Having Faith, the story of the ecologist's own pregnancy, could not possibly be a mawkish tribute to the ticklish joys of first-time motherhood. Thank goodness. Possessing an insatiable intellectual curiosity, Steingraber is determined to tell people the truth about pregnancy, a goal that regularly sends her off to the local library to study what causes morning sickness, which heavy metals might pass through the placenta, and even the underlying sexism that kicked the midwife out of delivery rooms and ushered in the era of the heavily medicated birth. One truth is particularly troubling: When it comes to human-made chemicals entering women's bodies and how they affect babies, little is known. "I want to hear the warnings heeded and unheeded," Steingraber writes, after studying the effects of the now-banned drug thalidomide. "I want to know about the lives blasted and the battles fought."

Having Faith is not only courageous, but richly personal. The author's passages on the changing seasons, the feeling when her daughter kicks, and falling in love with her husband are moving, as are the chapters that find her in the throes of day-to-day motherhood -- with the dirty laundry, embarrassing nursing scenarios, and exhaustion that accompany it.

With two decades of activism stoking her fire, Steingraber tells the story of how she passed a jar of her own breast milk to a surprised UN delegation, then urged the members to ban a class of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, found in high levels in breast milk. She believes people must protect babies from what we don't understand -- and she believes they will. After all, she named her daughter, born in September of 1998, Faith.
-- Jill Davis

Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta

By Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas
Sierra Club Books, 267 pp., $24

Where Vultures Feast

Nigerian writers Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas have no trouble naming the many vultures of their book's title. The most destructive are the Royal Dutch/Shell multinational oil company and successive Nigerian military dictatorships, working together to exploit not only irreplaceable natural resources in the Niger delta, but also millions of citizens living in poverty amid nature's abundance.

Unfortunately, they have trouble bringing the vultures to life for the reader. The book consists mostly of difficult-to-follow Nigerian political and economic history; oil industry background; dizzying budget numbers; passionate, repetitive rhetoric; and abstractions rarely given life through flesh-and-blood heroes or villains.

The text comes alive mostly in chapter six, as the authors relate the saga of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the only character in the book who is satisfactorily fleshed out. Saro-Wiwa organized the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, an indigenous population in the delta. Starting around 1990, the educated, articulate, charismatic Saro-Wiwa challenged the vultures to stop raping the environment and start sharing the wealth. Saro-Wiwa understood he was risking his life; his 1995 death sentence surprised neither him nor anybody else knowledgeable about the region.

Whether reform will ever come to the Niger delta, or whether Saro-Wiwa died in vain, remains a painfully open question. Meanwhile, as ripple effects from the near-destruction of the delta ecosystem continue to spread, it is important for environmentalists to try to understand the situation and its impacts. This book, despite its difficulty, is well worth the effort.
-- Steve Weinberg

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OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council