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The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples [Hardcover]

Tim Flannery
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871137895
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871137890
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,888,922 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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There are forces in the lives of people, and animals and plants too, that have made them what they are. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written book - interesting perspective 18 April 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book takes a broad sweep of 15,000 years of ecological history of North America, from the peak of th elast Ice Age to the arrival of Europeans and the extinctions of the 20th Century. The writing style is cahtty and accessible - not too academic. A great read for the layperson and specialist alike.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution of North America 4 July 2001
By Retired - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an outstanding book. Without doubt it is the best I have ever read on plant, animal, & landform evolution during the Cenozoic Era in general, & North America in particular. However, the only reason I don't rate this book at 5 stars is that it desperately needs illustrations. Tim Flannery, if you read this review, please put out a second edition of this book ASAP, but containing some 50-100 new pages of drawings & color images of all the major plants & animals described, along with maps showing changes to the North American land mass - its immigration routes from Europe, Asia, & South America, glacier advances, etc - for each Epoch of the Tertiary & Quaternary Periods. I also recommend that a geologic time-chart be shown at the beginning of each chapter, highlighting the time period being discussed, since I expect the general reader could not differentiate the Paleocene from the Pleistocene by name alone. Even without these illustrations, this is still a great read, but it would have been a lot more fun without having to keep a dozen other books nearby to look up pictures of each plant, animal, or landform change being discussed.
60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crocodile Dundee Does America 25 April 2001
By Diana Muir - Published on Amazon.com
Eternal Frontier is a marvelous read, lively, insightful, fast - well, you have to go fast to cover 65 million years in 357 pages. And, boy, does Flannery cover the territory. A student of the animal kingdon, he has covered a lot of physical territory in his career, studying the remains of extinct species and searching for undescribed living ones in the forests of New Guinea. Small wonder, then, that Flannery is at his best when contemplating the forces that led to the evolution or extinction of species, or of entire classes of species. In the pages of Eternal Frontier ancient periods of warm climate conjure tropical forests in the Dakotas and create strange herbivorous beasts who munch their way across the landscape, only to be swept away by the onset of an ice age. The pleasure for readers is that Flannery doesn't just describe what took place, he leads us into an understanding of the process whereby creatures evolve to fill vacant niches in an evolving ecosystem. It is wonderful stuff.
The closer we come to the present day, however, the further Flannery moves from material he knows really well. Readers spoiled by such masterful works of ecological history as William Cronon's Changes in the Land and Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire will find Flannery shallow indeed.
In truth, this entire, wonderful book will not bring much pleasure to readers who are familiar with the subjects covered. When confronted with confusing evidence that might support one of several plausible historical scenarios, Flannery picks the one he finds most compelling and dismisses the others. Extinction of the paleolithic megafauna, for example, was here caused by overhunting by spear-carrying paleo-Indians, the first humans to enter the western hemisphere, who arrived about 13,000 years ago. This dismisses some major areas of evidence to the contrary. Flannery is, of course, familiar with this evidence. Readers will not discover how compelling some of it is. When the story reaches European settlement, it becomes clear that Flannery has only a cursory familiarity with the literature. The irony is that both when dealing with the pre-history he knows so well and with the historical period with which he is less familiar, Flannery has a sure instinct for apparant truth. Most of the hypothesis that he ignores or dismisses are, indeed, less well-supported than the story he tells. And even when in discussing the historical period he gets lots of the details wrong, he has the grand outline right. A reader of Eternal Frontier will have a very good grasp of how nature continues to shape America.
The advantage of Flannery's approach is that he tells a ripping good story. It moves quickly, it is fun to read, it is thought-provoking, and it is even true.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic for our times! 19 April 2001
By Keith Thomas - Published on Amazon.com
Flannery begins his ecological history of North America 65m years ago with the Chicxulub asteroid impact spraying molten rock far into the present Canada and creating a shockwave that flattened trees across the continent. North America lost 80% of its flowering plant species and the dust polluted the atmosphere so most photosynthesis stopped as the planet entered a decade of freezing temperatures.
From here the book describes the major ecological developments through to the present, starting with how the continental drift of Australia from Antarctica and the rise of the Panamanian isthmus impacted on North America's climate. Even when writing of continental drift, Flannery's account is fast-paced. Some will deplore Flannery's speculations, but I found them intensely stimulating. One speculation is not necessarily like another: a well-informed speculation can help to eliminate more far-fetched speculations.
This quote exemplifies his well-informed speculation:
"The lifestyles of the oreodonts have been a mystery for some time. Some possessed eyes on the top of their heads like hippos, which certain researchers have taken to indicate an aquatic life. Oreodont remains, though, are most common in windblown sediments, indicating dry conditions. New and still contentious studies focusing on well-preserved remains of animals that were presumably buried where they lived suggest that some oreodonts may have been burrowers. Some skeletons even have the remains of foetuses, usually, two, three or four, preserved in their mother's belly. Such large animals tend to have so many young only if they live a precarious life, prompting one researcher to suggest that oreodonts used those eyes atop their heads to peek over the rims of their burrows before emerging. But what kind of danger were they keeping an eye out for? The caution of the oreodonts may have been prompted by the pig-like entelodonts...."
Throughout the book Flannery lifts the lid on some of the liveliest scientific controversies. Thus he begins the second half of the book with a clear account of carbon-14 dating and the debate about whether the extinction of most American megafauna was caused by climate change or the arrival of the American Indians. Both debates have political implications for present social policy and Flannery does not, thankfully, smother his account with politically-correct obfuscation.
Chapter 23 describes the destruction of the American Indians - an eye-opener for someone like me who, as a child, played "cowboys and Indians" on the premise that the two sides were evenly matched.
Flannery is fascinated with the notion of "frontier" as was Frederick Jackson Turner who documented the closure of North America's physical frontier; but for Flannery the frontier lives on in US popular culture.
Flannery describes how the myth of the eternally bountiful frontier has fostered a cavalier disregard for environmental laws and other attempts to constrain profligate behaviour. A nation "conceived in liberty" actually had its cultural and political freedom underwritten by rich glacial soils, abundant water and ecological diversity. When these frontier underpinnings no longer apply, US culture will have to adapt to survive.
Flannery leads the reader to ask if the spread of American frontier culture to nations without the bounty of North America has been at huge cost to their environment. Flannery's second theme is his three-phase model of "founder effect", "release" and "adaptation". The founders find an ecological niche and exploit it and in the absence of competition almost all variants make a living of some sort. "Release" occurs when a species is newly arrived in its environment with few competitors and abundant resources; they diversify and flourish in their new conditions. In Flannery's book, the same applies to grizzly bears as to humans on the "eternal frontier"; however, release and adaptation is faster with humans as culture can change more rapidly than biology. When abundance diminishes, species have to adapt to their environment. Because North America is such a rich continent, Europeans have as yet adapted very little - a phase they must enter to produce a diverse and truly North American society. He observes that North Americans still seek frontiers to exploit (irrigating the deserts, even exploiting space - their last frontier) rather than adapting.
This review cannot hope to bring out the richness of Flannery's book. It flows so effortlessly that the reader barely notices the superscript references that follow many paragraphs which show that he has woven together his 365 sources into a seamless tale.
Flannery takes Aldo Leopold's dictum about restoring the environment and shows that there was no complete ecological balance in pre-European or pre-Indian times.
This introduces the question of how the wilderness areas should be managed for the future. Flannery seeks to "revolutionize our rangelands management" by proposing a megafauna to recreate the more balanced ecology of 13,000 years ago: elephant (to replace the mammoth and mastodon), bison, llama, tapir, jaguar, camel and Chacoan peccary - all of which could be harvested for mutual human/megafauna/ecology benefit.
My criticisms of the book are minor and I would not like them to be taken as detracting from this otherwise positive review. The seven-page index is adequate but has not been compiled by someone who understood Flannery's theoretical models. It would have been more helpful, too, if all the animal and plant species mentioned in the text were included in the index. The maps are inadequate: they do not show the majority of the sites mentioned, nor the locations of the Indian tribes referred to. The addition of timelines and illustrations (even silhouettes) of all the animals covered would enrich the book.
Flannery's book has come at an opportune time. Most topically, when the US is considering the implications of the most recent census, when the Bush administration is finding its feet in terms of environmental policy and when creationist escapism is threatening scientific education. More significantly, because the physical and biological frontier, eternal for millions of years, has been closed for all time by the latest mass immigrant and mass exploiter: homo sapiens.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He Didn't Forget The People! 23 Dec 2001
By Bruce Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Tim Flannery's book The Eternal Frontier is not a perfect book [but was closer to a 5 than a 4 for me], but given the amount of Earth history it covers well and in detail, it's a helluva read. Flannery covers the history of North America from the really bad day that ended the Cretaceous Period up to the present day. Flannery could've included so much more, but then The Eternal Frontier would've been turned into an Earth history textbook, which was not the author's purpose. I do agree with other reviewers that more illustrations would have been nice [maybe if The Eternal Frontier does well, an illustrated edition a' la A Brief history Of Time or Longitude might be forthcoming], but for readers with a little background and a big imagination, the lack of illustrations shouldn't be too much a hindrance to enjoying the book. The thing I liked the most about the book was the seamless incorporation of humans into the story. One of my personal pet peeves is the rigid dichotomy of natural versus synthetic that often shows up in ecological discourse. Certain human activities ARE unique in the history of the Earth [e.g. humans produce chemicals never before seen on Earth], but to consider the ecology of the Earth without humans as an integral part is incorrect and foolish. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Earth history or ecology, with a special recommend to those folks involved in any current environmental and ecological debate in North America who want to have a thorough grounding in the history of the place they are arguing over. Whether for good or for ill, the near future of North America and the Earth includes human beings and all thinking humans should know something about how we got to where we are.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rippin' good yarn 5 Sep 2001
By John Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I agree with earlier reviwers that it could use more and better illustrations and also tends to favor particular ecological hypotheses to the near exclusion of others. The book begins with what is certainly the most dramatic description of the KT asteroid impact that I have read so far, and then takes us on a wild ride through the next 65 million years and across the entire North American continent. The book is well-written (downright gripping in places) and I appreciate the exhaustiove-but-unobtrusive footnoting. Anyone keen on digging into pre-Columbian ecological history will appreciate Flannery's assemblage of material that would otherwise be scattered across the technical literature. As we approach the Recent Flannery's focus (almost bordering on hero worship) on Paul Martin and the "Pleistocene Blitzkrieg" will doubtless annoy many -even though I tend to agree with Martin & Flannery about the importance of hunting on mammalian ecology I wish that more space had been given to competing hypotheses. Flannery's analysis of the Really Recent (last few hundred years) is definitely abbreviated (I encourage the reader to look to Diana Muir's excellent REFLECTIONS ON BULLOUGH'S POND for more detail) but it is hardly shallow. Instead Flannery asks us to both consider & seriously speculate on how the events of so short a time as we usually regard "history" might produce a future North America. Controversial? you bet! Thought-provoking? Absolutely! Give us some more maps & diagrams & this will jump to 5 stars easily!
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