A fresh look at the origins of our iconic immigrant flora and fauna, revealed with wit and reverence for nature
Aliens live among us. Thousands of species of nonnative flora and fauna have taken up residence within U.S. borders. Our lawns sprout African grasses, our roadsides flower with European weeds, and our homes harbor Asian, European, and African pests. Misguided enthusiasts deliberately introduced carp, kudzu, and starlings. And the American cowboy spread such alien life forms as cows, horses, tumbleweed, and anthrax, supplanting and supplementing the often unexpected ways "Native" Americans influenced the environment. Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America recounts the origins and impacts of these and other nonindigenous species on our environment and pays overdue tribute to the resolve of nature to survive in the face of challenge and change.
In considering the new home that imported species have made for themselves on the continent, John Leland departs from those environmentalists who universally decry the invasion of outsiders. Instead, Leland finds that uncovering stories of aliens' arrivals and assimilation is a more intriguing—and ultimately more beneficial—endeavor. While he does lament such storied ravagers as the chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, and gypsy moth, Leland also posits that the majority of nonnative plants and animals, much like their human counterparts, go about the business of existence and reproduction without threat to the world around them.
Mixing natural history with engaging anecdotes, Leland cuts through patriotic and problematic myths coloring our grasp of the natural world and suggests that the stories of how these alien species have reshaped our landscape are as much a part of the continent's heritage as tales of our presidents and politics. Simultaneously, he poses questions about which, if any, of our accepted icons is truly American (not apple pie or Kentucky bluegrass; not Idaho potatoes or Boston ivy). Written with a genuine appreciation for nature's resiliency, Leland's ode to survival reveals how plant and animal immigrants have made the country as much an environmental melting pot as its famed melding of human cultures, and he invites us to reconsider what it means to be American.
John Leland is the author of Porcher's Creek: Lives between the Tides, which is both a natural history of a South Carolina waterway and a memoir of his childhood there. He is a professor of English at the Virginia Military Institute.
"From the innocuous morning glory to the British-supplied deadly smallpox that purposely decimated Native American tribes, nearly every plant, animal, fish, bird, insect, and weed that is either taken for granted or cursed as a nuisance has an intriguing story to tell….How such interlopers got here, and the ways in which both they and society have adapted to their presence, is provocatively and entertainingly revealed in Leland's engrossing look at the backstory behind the more notorious as well as the most mundane flora and fauna one can encounter."—Booklist
"Leland is a lively writer and has amassed a mountain of research, pulling in everything from the Thugs of India (in a discussion of jimsonweed) to Archy, Don Marquis's poetic cockroach…. The chapters on psychoactive plants and the environmental impact of Native Americans are particularly interesting."—Publishers Weekly
"Aliens in the Backyard takes readers on a fine ramble through the fact and fiction, lore and legend of introduced species, covering everything from the boll weevil to the ailanthus tree, accidental and deliberate introductions, and species that came by themselves. Leland's account contains solid biological information but also odd facts and curious consequences that should have readers turning the pages and, once they finish, looking at the plants and animals around them with a new understanding."—Thomas R. Dunlap, author of Saving America's Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850–1990 and Faith in Nature: Environmentalism As Religious Quest