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Vol. 11, No. 2, 2012
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andrew nikiforuk’s

Richard Pickard (U. of Victoria)

reviewed by


Living is easy with eyes closed,
misunderstanding all you see.
The Beatles

Richard Pickard teaches courses in environmental humanities, composition and technical writing at the University of Victoria (B.C.). He blogs his book reviews at

Now, this review may make more sense if you know from the start that I am a third-generation BC forestry nerd, a tree-hugging commie and a pinko environmentalist: maybe I’m going to be a little biased, is what I’m saying, about the book that is the subject of this review. But even if I wasn’t as rabid as I am about environmental politics generally and BC environmental history in particular, I’m confident that after having read Andrew Nikiforuk’s newest book, I’d still stand by the following claim:

Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is the most important book to have been published in BC so far this century.

That’s not to say it is the best book. Nikiforuk is not aiming at literary excellence, though at his best he rivals John Vaillant (The Golden Spruce) in the way he brings together disparate and complicated facts in the service of an energetic narrative. He’s also not giving us bullet-proof academic work, though I was sometimes reminded of the brilliant Julie Cruikshank’s ability (Do Glaciers Listen?) to nestle her meticulous research into the texture of wide-ranging, apparently effortless stories.

Nobody but Nikiforuk, though, has put this much time into understanding the question of beetles in the forests of this area -- BC and the whole Pacific Northwest -- and I don't know who else could communicate his resultingly complex understanding so smoothly. He contextualizes the contemporary beetle crisis against similar crises elsewhere at different times, and he links the BC mountain pine beetle crisis to crises among different tree species (here and elsewhere) caused by different species of beetles. Most amazingly, he’s able to dwell lyrically and powerfully enough on beetle biology itself, especially beetles’ speciation and evolutionary history, such that I came away feeling like I’m working in the wrong academic discipline.

Nikiforuk brings together the history of forestry as a science; the vagaries of public policy related to forests and forestry; and the miraculous lives of beetles. At bottom, he moves toward the argument that humans are coming to the end of their run, and that beetles are taking the world back from us “mammals,” he says, not just humans but the mammal phylum -- “a quaint evolutionary experiment with limited prospects” (p.164). Beetles, he explains, can be understood to farm entire forests. We’re okay with the idea that an ant colony works together to build its complex structure and to maintain (for example) small farms of fungus, but we can’t fathom that beetles operate the same way within entire forests on an almost unimaginable landscape-wide scale. Maybe it’s a metaphor, 'farming,' but maybe not: it’s the closest term we’ve got, so far, when we attempt to describe the world-changing collective practices of a million members of the same species.

The standard discourse about beetles is what dominates this book, the apocalyptic idea that beetles are destroying forests. Ingeniously, Nikiforuk sidles up to the idea that the forests most at risk from beetles are those that have been culturally modified by the rapacity of monoculture capitalism, and hence beetles can (and perhaps should) be understood as a potential ally, so to speak, in the long insurgency against capitalism. Where a forest consists of trees of multiple ages and multiple species, beetle practices will not kill anything like the same number of trees that they do in a single-aged, limited-species forest. Without being too Edenic about it, I’m finding myself thinking now about mountain pine beetles as a moderating influence rather than a destructive force, not so much killing trees as guaranteeing a broad-based respect for local conditions that’s entirely counter to the dominion-based approach of commodity capitalism.

Beetles, in other words, might just save the world.

So let me say it again. Andrew Nikiforuk's Empire of the Beetle is the most important book published in BC this century, not because its subject is so important to BC, but because its message about beetles’ past and future influence on human history is so troubling, so detailed and so richly imagined.




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