In truth it’s a sub­tle pur­suit

The Heretics: Ad­ven­tures with the En­e­mies of Science

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams

By Will Storr Pi­cador, 395pp, $29.95 have fun, meet peo­ple, gather di­vert­ing ma­te­rial for a sec­ond book. (His first, in 2009, was the quirky The Curse of the Labrador Duck.

The re­sult is an above-aver­age trav­el­ogue, by turns amus­ing and in­for­ma­tive. The se­ri­ous mes­sage is that hu­mankind in­ter­feres with na­ture at its peril. Suc­cess sto­ries are rare and usu­ally (nine times out of 10) an in­tro­duced for­eign species sim­ply dies off.

Oc­ca­sion­ally real dam­age is done. Chilton’s cau­tion­ary ex­am­ples in­clude Pa­cific oys­ters in The Nether­lands, rhodo­den­drons in Ire­land, ruddy ducks in Spain, For­mosan ter­mites in New Or­leans and bull­frogs in Uruguay.

Es­pe­cially dis­as­trous has been the plant­ing in Ice­land of nootka lupine flow­ers, na­tive to Alaska and Bri­tish Columbia. The idea was hatched in 1885 as a way of re­plen­ish­ing the is­land’s thin soils, de­nuded by de­for­esta­tion since the 11th cen­tury. ‘‘ On pa­per,’’ writes Chilton, ‘‘ it looked like a good plan ... How­ever, the wrong species was cho­sen for in­tro­duc­tion. Some lupines are per­fectly palat­able, but other species are toxic, con­tain­ing nox­ious chem­i­cals.’’

The ge­nius in charge chose the toxic ones. The re­sult: min­i­mal im­prove­ment to Ice­land’s soil but a wide­spread pest po­ten­tially fa­tal to live­stock and hu­man be­ings and, to boot, re­duced di­ver­sity of na­tive Ice­landic plants.

Such ex­am­ples are in­ter­est­ing but Chilton did not need to tra­verse the globe to find them. In­deed, he need not have left Aus­tralia. Or he could have con­fined him­self to just one other des­ti­na­tion.

‘‘ Hawaii,’’ he jokes, ‘‘ is in per­pet­ual com­pe­ti­tion with Aus­tralia for brag­ging rights about whose land­scape has been more thor­oughly chewed up by in­tro­duced species.

‘‘ Aus­tralia has rab­bits, cane toads, camels, rab­bits, fire ants, foxes, rab­bits, pi­geons, and more rab­bits, but vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing in Hawaii has been brought from some­where else.’’

But if Chilton had gone only to Hawaii, or had just stayed home, he would not have gath­ered the ex­otic ma­te­rial he needed for this book. Read­ers also would have missed out on the nice in­ci­den­tal de­scrip­tions of other places and cul­tures and some witty char­ac­ter sketches of his trav­el­ling com­pan­ions. There were some real ec­centrics among them. I ex­pect Chilton was glad to come home to his wife. Ev­ery­thing he needed was here.

The same can­not be said of Storr. He needed to travel to ap­praise some of his more no­table sub­jects, such as his­to­rian and Holo­caust de­nier David Irv­ing. To gain ac­cess to Irv­ing he joins a small tour group in eastern Europe. Its mem­bers — a ghastly col­lec­tion of racist cranks whom even Irv­ing de­spises — pay their hero to show them around con­cen­tra­tion camps and other at­trac­tions.

‘‘ When I re­turned to my room,’’

Storr

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