The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History by John L. Riley (review)
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John L. Riley, The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. 488pp. $39.95.

John L. Riley has written an ambitious, thoughtful, and useful book that ranges from the ice ages to the impact of modern globalization on the Great Lakes region. Yet it is also an eccentric and uneven approach to a subject that is admittedly daunting in scope and complexity. Riley is a scientist with a diverse background in botany, geology, and ecology. This often allows him to bring to bear a range of knowledge and insights into environmental change that is beyond the grasp of most environmental historians. As the chief science advisor to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and a lifelong resident to Ontario he has an intimate knowledge of how wildlife populations and plant species have been shaped by human action in the only Canadian province situated on the Great Lakes. His book is less surehanded in dealing with the environmental history of the United States side of the lakes and with the political and economic policy history that has so influenced the way cities sprawl and invasive species spread.

A strength of The Once and Future Great Lakes Country is its coverage of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century changes to the forests and wet lands that flank the basin of the inland seas. The discussion of First Nation and American Indian history in the region is excellent especially his chapter “Wilding the Land with War” that discusses the impact of the Iroquois wars and non-native disease on the flora and fauna of a broad swath of [End Page 113] the region from what had been Huronia and across the Michigan peninsula. Riley gives the reader the best available terrestrial wildlife history of the region. Unfortunately he sometimes seems so enamored with the accounts of early explorers and travelers that he indulges in long pages of descriptions of the plentitude of fish and game in contact period North America. Much of this description is not even of the Great Lakes region but of New England and the Gulf of St. Lawrence ranging out even to Newfoundland and the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Yet when Riley gets back to the Great Lakes region the reader is rewarded with a picture of a regional ecology that has ever been in flux. The Great Lakes region explored by Jean Nicolet in the 1630s was significantly different than that of Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac in the eighteenth century or John Muir in the nineteenth century.

A touchstone for the volume is a small piece of former agricultural land in Mono Township, Ontario on elevated ground between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. In his youth Riley used a timely inheritance to buy a rundown farm there. “The story of Nature writ large,” he writes, “on the wider landscape—of collapse and restoration—I see through the lens of a farm that is just like a thousand others” (xvi). He periodically returns the reader to this single piece of land to reflect on reforestation, the return of predators such as the cougar to the region, or the impact of beech-bark scale insects. The device establishes Riley’s passion for the landscape and rooted commitment to it. It also reflects something this reviewer regards as weakness of the book.

The Once and Future Great Lakes Country is rooted in the land. The great inland seas that are the heart of the region and lend name and identity to the region take a decided backseat to Riley’s narration of changing vegetation, settlement, and wildlife. For example, Riley devotes considerable attention to the forests of the region. He knowledgably discusses market driven deforestation in the nineteenth century, the type of species that dominated the partial reforestation that occurred in the twentieth century, and the harrowing loss of native trees to Eurasian insects and fungi in the twenty-first century. Yet the reader is given only a superficial review of the impact of invasive species on the Great Lakes. The zebra mussel is afforded a paragraph and the insidious quagga mussel goes unmentioned. Similarly, one of...