Book Review: Readings

Tim Flannery

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

by Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly Press, 404 pp., $27.50

The Eternal Frontier is a kind of nonfiction mystery book, examining the fossil record and geology for clues as to how native flora and fauna first evolved on the landmass we call home, and later turning its attention to how creatures and later peoples, primarily from Asia and Europe (or "Eurasia" as Flannery regularly and rightly refers to the planet's largest single landmass) have made North America their home as well. Given the possibilities, it's too bad that the major thrills in this volume fail to do the subject matter full justice.

If you are prone to scientific musings, either because of some innate curiosity or simply because you tend to spend a lot of time outdoors, Flannery's latest work will be of some value to you. He writes in a conversational tone, and while prone to annoying rhetorical flourishes -- when ancient geological clues don't answer his inquiries, he tends to lapse into quasi-hypothetical call-and-response patterns -- Flannery ably clarifies much debated points about patterns of extinction going back 65 million years. In other places, he tackles the seriousness of the current global warming crisis and other climatic issues, such as when the planet might see another Ice Age (not soon, he assures us).

The author, who is a world-renowned paleontologist, also manages to articulate a great host of information surrounding the evolution of everything from deciduous plants to hunting and gathering societies on the American plains. Not surprisingly, the book is strongest when Flannery focuses on evolution and other areas of biology related to his own scientific expertise. Unfortunately, he's on less-sure footing when it comes to anthropological questions and recent human history -- which, in this case, means anything that took place after 1492. But for those looking for a crash course in North American ecology crossbred with a none-too-subtle message of conservation, The Eternal Frontier makes a fine Exhibit A.

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