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Aliens in the Backyard

Plant and Animal Imports Into America

John Leland

Publication Year: 2012

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 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 alien arrivals and assimilation is a more intriguing—and ultimately more beneficial—endeavor. Mixing natural history with engaging anecdotes, Leland cuts through problematic myths coloring our grasp of the natural world and suggests that how these alien species have reshaped our landscape is now as much a part of our shared heritage as tales of our presidents and politics. Simultaneously he poses questions about which of our accepted icons are truly American (not apple pie or Kentucky bluegrass; not Idaho potatoes or Boston ivy). 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.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. 6-7

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-13

This book could not have been written without the help of others. I wish to thank the Virginia Military Institute for encouraging me to pursue a topic only tangentially related to my professional interests and the Jackson-Hope Committee for the generous support and confidence in giving me my first-ever sabbatical. The late Elizabeth Hostetter of the VMI Preston Library was both a ...

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As American as Apple Pie: An Introduction to Weeds

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pp. 1-6

No Native American ever ate an apple pie before 1492. It couldn’t have happened. While there was water aplenty and salt enough, there were no apples for filling, no lemons for juice, no cinnamon or cloves for spice, no sugar (other than maple) for sweetening, no wheat for flour, and no butter for pastry. Nor did any North American Indian before Columbus graze a horse on Kentucky bluegrass, eat an Idaho potato, see Boston ivy growing, get stung by a honeybee, ...

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Out of Africa: How Slavery Transformed the American Landscape and Diet

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pp. 7-17

Two hundred and fifty years of slavery left an indelible mark on America. Twenty-six million of us descend from the one-half million men, women, and children brought to the New World on the infamous Middle Passage. American jazz, blues, rock and roll, and gospel music have deep African roots. African words—okra, gumbo, juke—enrich our language, and soul food graces many ...

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A Green Nightmare: The Un-American Lawn

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pp. 18-28

North America has thirty-two million acres of grass. There are more acres of lawn than corn. Ostensibly a symbol of suburban leisure, the lawn is actually a labor intensive monoculture annually consuming three million tons of fertili - zer and sixty-seven million pounds of pesticides, and it is responsible for the use of five hundred and eighty million gallons of gasoline. ...

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A Sow’s Ear from a Silk Purse: The Legacy of Sericulture

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pp. 29-42

Despite four hundred years of effort, the American silk industry has never achieved the success its boosters dreamed it might. But efforts to establish it have introduced alien flora and fauna. Ironically, the species that silk boosters worked hardest to establish have thrived least, while less popular species and escapees have become the objects of massive government-sponsored eradication ...

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Psychedelic Gardens: What Grandmother Grew in Her Backyard

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pp. 43-66

Chances are that your garden harbors plants with potent mind-altering abilities, some of which you know about, others of which you are unaware. Some may be illegal just to possess. Many plants either accumulate or produce chemi - cal compounds to help them in their perpetual battle against predators, which would eat them to death. All our kitchen herbs, for example, derive their culinary attractiveness from compounds that the plants produce to deter herbivores. ...

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Bad Air and Worse Science: Malaria’s Gifts to America

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pp. 67-80

Malaria may well be the deadliest disease humanity has ever encountered. Experts guesstimate that the disease has killed more people throughout history than have wars. Today 250 to 300 million people worldwide are infected, and 2.5 million of these die each year. Prior to World War II, the United States was also cursed with malaria. During the Civil War 50 percent of white and 80 percent ...

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Bioterror: Older Than You Think

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pp. 81-91

In the fall of 2001, letters containing anthrax appeared in news media offices in Florida, New Jersey, and New York, in Microsoft offices in Nevada, and in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. Five people died from anthrax, twentyfive survived, and perhaps ten thousand had to take precautionary antibiotics for two months. The rest of us became uncomfortably aware of the possibilities ...

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Cowboys: And Their Alien Habits

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pp. 92-106

The quintessential American icon, the cowboy, and his accessories—horse, cattle, and tumbleweed—are all alien. The cowboy, being human, is, of course, an interloper in the New World. His accoutrements—hat, horse, saddle, and spurs—are Anglicized versions of those used by his antecedent, the Mexican vaquero (or cowboy, vaca being Spanish for cow). The Stetson, named after John B. Stetson, who made the first one in 1865, is a modified sombrero; the ...

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. . . and Indians: Less Native Than You Think

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pp. 107-123

Adopted hero of many, the Native American is often hailed as the dispossessed guardian of a “natural” America that post-Columbian invaders—plant, animal, and human—despoiled and degraded. While the post-Columbian flora and fauna of the Americas radically changed thanks to the influx of thousands of new species, the idea of Native Americans tending to a pristine America is ...

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An Entangled Bank: Roadside Weeds

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pp. 124-142

The “entangled bank” that concludes Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has become famous as a trope for natural selection. Given current religious opposition to Darwinism in America, that his only mention of evolution is here, at the very end, in the same sentence, if not breath, with which he credits the Creator with creation must surely entertain both Darwin and his Creator ...

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House Pests: Some of Those Who Share Your Quarters

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pp. 143-157

House pests, like the houses they plague, are almost all imports to America. Few, if any, are accurately named either popularly or scientifically as to country of origin, although the warm, humid environments they like point to a tropi - cal birthplace for these cosmopolitan creatures. Not that country of origin has stopped us from slurring other nations; the misnamed American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), German cockroach (Blattella germanica), and Oriental ...

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It Seemed a Good Idea at the Time: The Well-Intentioned Ecological Disaster

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pp. 158-169

Who are the greatest villains in America’s long history of alien invasion? Columbus heads many a symbolic list, since he is credited with being the first European to land in the New World. That, of course, lets the Vikings off the hook, although the effects of their invasion, admittedly, were limited. But Columbus, though a fitting symbolic figure, actually didn’t touch America ...

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Misplaced Americans: As Rootless as the Humans Who Invited Them In

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pp. 170-186

Humans are not the only species to have immigrated on their own into the United States. A number of our more visible fauna come from elsewhere, many under their own steam. Some are indigenous to the United States and have greatly expanded their native ranges, becoming pests in their new homes and ...

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Gone Fishin’: An Unnatural Pastime

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pp. 187-199

Nothing could be more typical of a lazy summer’s day—An American youth is headed toward his favorite fishing hole armed with a cane pole and a can of worms. Yet few scenes have more nonnative elements in them than this one. The kid, the pole, the fish, the worm, the pond—all are nonindigenous. ...


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pp. 201-228


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pp. 229-235

E-ISBN-13: 9781611172133
Print-ISBN-13: 9781570039584

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012