Bugs, Bays, and Biology Lessons
BY JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
Life on Matagorda Island By Wayne H. McAlister Texas A&M University Press 264 pages, $17.95 The Book of Texas Bays By Jim Blackburn Texas A&M University Press 290 pages, $40 ere’s my current dilemma: Carpenter ants have infested a window frame on the back of my house. Although a relatively minor inconvenience, such mundane matters can be daunting ideological litmus tests for the environmentally inclined. Truth be told, my instinctual reaction is to bomb the little bastards into oblivion. And not only that, but—considering the monetary damage to be sustained—I’d like to squash these arrogant home wreckers with a high-octane chemical blast capable of reminding all lower forms of life that we humans—armed with deeds, advanced technology, a more evolved brain, and access to KillerBugSpray!—have a natural right to defend our abodes by any means necessary. Thus inspired, I went online to find the proper agent of mutilation. Lo and behold! These bugs are mind-boggling creatures. Did you know that carpenter ants lick their food before eating it, coating it with a slime of enzyme paste rendering the meal soft and digestible? Or that they routinely kick the collective asses of the more destructive termites, overpowering them with superior chitinous strength and more elaborate military strategies? How about the fact that their consumption of inorganic matter (albeit not the wood around my window frame) is an essential ecological process that aerates more soil than even earthworms churn up, making wide swaths of otherwise barren land fertile? Carpenter ants also control a variety of stinging, parasitic pests that strike special fear in humans—ticks, wasps, spiders, scorpions, and other nuisances. The most recent issue of The Journal of Pesticide Reform might not be found on your local magazine rack, but its few lucky subscribers will learn that woodpeckers—among other birds—would perish without the benefit of carpenter ant protein. One entomologist has deemed the earth “one giant ant hill,” a point for which she expresses thanks. Taking closer stock of the natural world—even on the Internet, no less—can alter our pedestrian perceptions about the creatures that normally disgust us. All but the most pathologically incurious are bound—when immersed in the furry and spindly esoterica of the wild kingdom—to be seduced by what the great science writer Natalie Angier has termed “the beauty of the beastly.” Of course, such a radically altered perception can quickly morph into despair under the painful sting of a window frame estimate. Nevertheless, when our ambassadors into the ecosystem’s hidden nooks are especially charismatic teachers, even adult homeowners find themselves drawn to a netherworld of insects, arachnids, reptiles, and crustaceans with the wide-eyed innocence of a three-year old looking under a rock. Wayne H. McAlister, in Life on Matagorda Island, proves himself to be such a guide. Under his spell, I found myself—in the midst of my ant dilemma—even more entranced by the complexities of things that crawl, bite, sting, and slither. It’s a charming book that, at the least, inspired me to forego the can of Raid. Which, in a way, is a literary triumph. Matagorda Island—“an undeveloped ribbon of sand lying off the central Texas coast”—is part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge system. McAlister is a retired zoology professor. An opportunity to develop education programs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought the two into a symbiotic embrace. With his wife Martha (who did the whimsical illustrations), McAlister chose to leave the comfort of his Victoria, Texas home and slum it out in a ramshackle trailer on the beach, blissfully isolated from “the ticky-tacky that people have imprudently erected on the coast.” McAlister’s initial chapters, based on a diary he kept while living on the island, suggest a kind of “how I rediscovered myself while living in nature” memoir, one marked by purple prose and bromides of environmental rapture. (“Each time the cloud rumbles, I quiver, not in pain but in ecstasy.” Ouch.) As the account evolves, though, it becomes clear that McAlister has more in mind than quivering ecstatically under the cope of heaven: “I wanted to know every plant, ferret out the haunts of every kind of animal, imbibe the smells, hark to the sounds, comprehend the sky, turn with the seasons.” Yeah, yeah, it’s still pretty purplish but—saving grace—when McAlister explores why mullet jump, the intricacies of a ghost crab’s burrow, or the ecological role of beetle fecal pellets, his prose relaxes into a steady flow of gee-whiz phenomena. The animal world that McAlister knows so intimately is thus allowed to speak for itself. McAlister, much to his credit, limits his role to that of an interpreter. And, ex-biology teacher that he is, he’s an excellent one. One need not be a devotee of the hard sciences to appreciate the evolutionary magic of fish that use watery trenches left by swinging alligator tails to wiggle toward food. Even bacteria can, in McAlister’s telling, become a source of fascination. When a group of students encounters a patch of purple bacteria in a marsh, McAlister tells them that the source of the vibrant color is rhodospin, the same pigment that provides the basis for human vision. One hopes that a few creationists are in the crowd when he notes, “It is a small, interconnected world, isn’t it?” Saltmarsh mosquitoes evoke admiration when we learn that they scatter eggs on the marsh’s outer regions in order to make it harder for fish to eat them. McAlister calls it “built in shrewdness,” but by this point I’m convinced they know exactly what they’re doing. For many a reader of highbrow literature, books are supposed to evoke deep thoughts. McAlister reminds us that sometimes it’s okay to just read, gasp, and go “holy shit, that’s so cool.” ecognizing the hidden beauty of Texas’ coastal ecosystem is one thing, making environmental decisions that foster it another. Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer based in Houston, harbors few illusions about humankind’s unique capacity for environmental degradation. “[H]abitat is being lost at unprecedented rates,” he writes in the densely illustrated The Book of Texas Bays, “and the earth is losing a stunning fifteen to twenty thousand species annually.” Fifty years ago, the corresponding figure was one hundred; three hundred years ago, it was one. Granted, ever since we quit dragging our knuckles and grunting (well, some of us still have work to do) we’ve seriously messed with the natural environment—altering balances, tapping new resources, and demanding necessary adjustments. More often that not, however, balances altered, resources replenished, and adjustments were made. Today, by contrast, the handwriting on the wall—scribbled in permanent marker by petrochemical companies, oil drillers and refineries, and the Army Corp of Engineers—confirms, according to Blackburn, that “we have reached a special position of unique power over other living things.” We have done so, moreover, without developing an “ethic to control the use of this power.” The natural environment throughout most of human history, in other words, hasn’t needed our help. Now, desperately, it does. Readers familiar with the work of Jared Diamond, especially his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, will recognize that Blackburn’s premise differs from Diamond’s. Diamond suggests that we’ve been obliterating our environment from the outset, a thesis which leads him to place our current environmental concerns on a continuum of gradual historical destruction. Diamond’s bounty of honoraria notwithstanding, Blackburn (who never directly addresses Diamond in the book) disagrees, making a convincing case for the special immediacy and unique intensity of our current environmental dilemma. He does so by linking the destruction of the Texas coast to the emergence of large-scale industrial practices and the corresponding population sprawl—developments that are qualitatively distinct from anything we’ve ever seen. Industrial and suburban water consumption over the last 50 years, to cite just one example among scores, has contributed to the unprecedented obliteration of 50,000 acres of Galveston Bay marshland. Healthy marshland not only supports the little creatures that warm the chambers of McAlister’s heart, it also controls floods, recycles pollutants, and provides a safe nursery for the fish and shellfish that eventually stock the colossal display cases at Whole Foods. As corporations, suburbs, and golf courses were “sucking out as much groundwater as [they] could,” he writes, the Galveston Bay system was losing about $250 million a year to flooding, pollution, and unrealized catches. Tens of thousands of acres… multi-millions of dollars… these figures do not belong on a historical continuum. They reflect, instead, the modern environmental condition. Environmentalists are often criticized for sounding alarms. Blackburn shows us why they should make even more noise. Like McAlister, Blackburn suffers the occasional bout of mild melodrama. “I smile when I think of the beautiful birds and the lush greenery,” he writes. “For me, the coast in its natural state is like the metaphorical Garden of Eden, a place of abundance, of peace, of contentedness.” While the sentiment is remarkable for the very fact that it links Texas to Eden, it belies Blackburn’s pragmatic solution to his depressing catalogue of coastal devastation. Although (making a choice metaphorical shift) the “hogs are feeding at the trough of our natural resources,” Blackburn’s hope lies in a strategic combination of federal legislation, ecotourism, nonprofit activism, and—least likely but not hopeless—corporate enlightenment. His spirit of compromise will earn him little love from the Earth Liberation Front, but in a state where, indeed, the swine root through Eden as if it were an endless trash pit, it’s most likely the best deal environmentalists will strike It was, alas, in this spirit of pragmatic compromise that I called an entomologist I know about my ant problem. We both agreed that a chemical holocaust was, upon deeper consideration, ideologically problematic, if not threatening to the life of my dogs. Plus, he explained, carpenter ants typically attack wood that’s already started to rot, thereby actually doing me a favor by reminding me to make a necessary home repair. My friend—bursting with enthusiasm over ants—also allowed that the best way to avoid these unwanted guests in the future was to keep bushes and vines off the house, seal areas where moisture can enter, and remove dead stumps from the yard. He described these simple precautions as he retrieved a bag of diatomaceous earth and boric acid from the back of his van. As I expressed my appreciation for this advice, already feeling less invaded by the infestation, the entomologist drilled several holes around the frame and poured in the innocuous-looking powered mixture. “Will this stuff lure them out?” I asked. “No man,” he said, “it’ll kill them.” Then he charged me three hundred bucks. James E. McWilliams lives in Austin.