EMPIRE OF THE BEETLE
is easy with eyes closed,
misunderstanding all you see.
Pickard teaches courses in environmental humanities, composition
and technical writing at the University of Victoria (B.C.).
He blogs his book reviews at boughtbooks.blogspot.com
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:
of the Beetle is the most important book
to have been published in BC so far this century.
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
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.
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.
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.
in other words, might just save the world.
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.