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Review

Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests

By Andrew Nikiforuk

The Insatiable Bark Beetle

By Reese Halter

November 4, 2013

Review By David Brownstein

 

The two books under review describe anthropogenic climate change as now having a discernable recent past, rather than something imagined in theoretical futures. Though different in approach, Reese Halter and Andrew Nikiforuk have created similar independent narratives. Each suggests that warmer winters mean more bark beetles survive until spring, when they can launch on a destructive march through North American conifer forests, attacking drought-stressed trees. They both further link human activity, perceived resource mismanagement, and much wider ecological health. Certainly their message is clear: either we must learn from these recent misadventures in climate change, or we will continue to suffer much more of the same.

“Earth Dr. Reese Halter,” as his website cryptically proclaims, has written a small, palm-sized book as a follow-up to his previous The Incomparable Honeybee and Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming. In this recent offering, The Insatiable Bark Beetle warns that “we must adapt quickly or we — and life around us — will perish.” The book is a curious mix of clear explanation and unnecessary, highly technical jargon, likely to alienate the intended popular audience. The narrative is a synthesis of recent literature on forest insect epidemics. “After a couple of months of reading a couple of thousand scientific papers and several dozen books,” Halter tells us, “I was shocked at what was going on in our forests” (133). Despite the book’s title, however, the volume is as much or more about trees than bark beetles, belying Halter’s background in tree biology, and indeed it is tree names that title most chapters, standing in for particular biogeoclimactic zones.

Beyond these geographical categories, there is little discernable structure to Halter’s writing, so the reader would be wise to pay close attention to the table of contents as a perpetual guide. Within each chapter, content is a set of loosely related topics organized by paragraph blocks, often with frequent and fast transitions from one to the next. This book required a much stronger editorial hand. The reader looking for lyrical prose will be disappointed, but those seeking a fast speed-read of an entire scientific subfield will be richly rewarded. Perhaps because of economy, there are no images or maps, and only one figure, which seems an odd strategy for a book meant to popularize familiarity with natural history. Maps, particularly, would have been very helpful, as long lists of unfamiliar local place-names only prompt repeated trips to the internet. A great strength of the book is that Halter has written many passages from a non-human point of view, speaking for trees, beetles, birds, etc., and in these instances he is extremely successful. The patient, educated reader will learn much from this book, though a novice may find this a frustrating journey.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a journalist, rather than scientist, writing here in the context of a David Suzuki Foundation series. Subscribers of BC Studies may be familiar with Nikiforuk’s other work on energy and the oil sands. In his ten chapter-length case studies, Nikiforuk suggests that the beetles are a cure, in that they restore the natural character of a place, or correct fragility caused by human activity and ignorance (e.g., 97). This paperback is much longer than Halter’s book, and rather than looking to the scientific literature, Nikiforuk has relied upon interviews with scientists for the substance of his story. This different method provides the framework for a strikingly similar narrative, though told with greater craft. The imagery throughout is quite strong: beetles as crowded buses, transporting fungi and mites from tree to tree; drought-weakened trees as defensive medieval castles robbed of their most potent defensive chemical weapons; musical communication strategies used by beetles to organize their insect society. Despite these strengths, to a lesser degree Nikiforuk, like Halter, includes interesting but tangential factoids and historical tales, giving his narrative an unnecessarily disjointed aspect. This book helpfully provides a map of western North America showing Bark Beetle outbreaks, scattered tree silhouettes, beetle sketches, and a life history diagram. These are very welcome additions.

Greater than anything separating them, both books share one disappointing flaw — the two stories are hobbled by the limited sources that informed them. Page after page makes it perfectly clear that the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic was a human-caused disaster, yet Halter and Nikiforuk understand these events from the position of the botanist, the entomologist, the hydrologist, and the climatologist, most often looking back in judgmental hindsight. With such a limited cast of informants, it is easy to lay blame for ignorance, bad management, and greed, but in so doing both authors have sidestepped the most difficult issues that demand exploration. Except for fleeting mention, nowhere here are First Nations, capitalists, forest workers, or front line bureaucrats. If these potential interviewees refused to instruct us, then that is unfortunate. If they were never invited to do so, then that is a shame. Nikiforuk does make a gesture towards understanding the complexities of managing ecosystem resilience in his last chapter, in which he describes C.S. Holling’s eastern budworm work of nearly forty years ago. For the interested reader, this should be a launching pad from which to begin to understand the long series of collective decisions that created this disaster. To date there are only a few short academic pieces on the history of beetle management in British Columbia: for instance, Richard Rajala’s “The Vernon Laboratory and Federal Entomology in British Columbia.” This field is wide open for potential contributions. I urge interested readers to learn the ecology of the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, as told by both Halter and Nikiforuk, and to become inspired to unravel the very complicated human dimension of these unfortunate events.

The Insatiable Bark Beetle 
By Reese Halter 
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2011. 176 pp. $16.95 cloth. 

Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests
By Andrew Nikiforuk 
Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2011. 240 pp. $19.95 paper.