I was recently given the opportunity to read and review Will Stolzenburg’s book Where the Wild Things Were, recently out in paperback, about the importance of top predators in ecosystem functioning. It was a pleasure to read and recommended for ecologists and non-ecologists alike. Will does a great job going through the last century of our understanding of food webs, slowly building up the argument that top predators really are necessary to sustain any balance that has evolved within a community. Will was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book:
Q. To me, the great appeal of Where the Wild Things Were lies along two axes: first, a respectable caution with regards to “the truth” and second, a painstaking craft of organization. The argument in the book builds upon itself, while the true weight of the situation is slowly revealed.
I’d like to start with the first part of that, “Truth.” I’m often told as a graduate student that my job is to question all of the “truths” in my field. By contrast, in science journalism, it often seems that the job is to shoe-horn the truth into the hook. One of the great things about this book is the care that you take to delineate what is and is not known. For example, your depiction of the Pleistocene extinction debate (p. 40-41) is excellent. You’re able to somehow take a complex subject that gets a lot of people very angry and lay out the major points without detracting from the flow of the book. What’s your process for getting a handle on what scientists know, and then whittle it down to make it entertaining, but still informative?
A. If my rendition of the Pleistocene overkill seems even-handed, it’s because I’m honestly divided, albeit heavily veering to one side. I’ve always harbored a naive sense of disbelief that these skinny spearmen could clean out entire continents of megafauna in so rapid fashion. But I wince even more when I’m asked to believe that the umpteenth glacial cycle in a series of so many finally punched the megabeasts’ ticket. Over the years I’ve spoken with both sides of the debate more than a few times, and I’ve come to sense that each mischieviously loves the fight as much as the truth. So I’ve come to the point of feeling comfortable just throwing the debate out for grabs, to let the buyer beware, even though I don’t doubt that we had a starring role in the blitzkrieg then as we do now.
Q. To go a little further on your writing process, part of what makes the book easy to read is the little details you include. Bob Paine’s rotator cuff problems (from heaving away Pisaster from his study area) was one of those little things that you stick in that make reading worthwhile. How do you go about deciding what to include, and when?
A. Besides being a nature nerd, I’m also an incurable jock, and Paine’s rotator cuff (as well as Jim Estes’ and Joel Berger’s throwing arms) quite naturally aroused my sporting interests. I included those details because they help me relate to their characters as physical beings, as something other than data collectors—just as I like to know how the pronghorn runs so fast, and why. I simply admire athleticism.
Q. You spend a good chunk of text building up to and then discussing the killer whale debate. What about that issue struck you as particularly important?
A. I really hadn’t intended to make a big deal of the killer whale debate, because like the Pleistocene overkill, there was a part of me that had a hard time swallowing the underlying hypothesis. And I was nervous that it might be overturned a day after The Wild Things came out. But it was and remains a valid hypothesis. And more importantly, given its implications and controversy, it would have been conspicuous by its absence. It was the 5-ton-killer-whale-in-the-room sort of thing.
Q. Switching over to the structure of this book, there seems to be an underlying logic in the way you present it. Although it does work as a good history of food web ecology, it’s not just the chronology. How did you think about the presentation of your main argument when writing it?
A. The order of the story is fairly simple in that it’s also fairly chronological. The main argument started with Bob Paine, whose experimental starfish eviction on the Olympic coast set the stage for everything after, and also neatly provided the platform for discussing everything before. Paine was truly an admirer of Charles Elton, the father of food webs. Paine was in turn mentor to Jim Estes, whose sea otter observations stamped the keystone predator on the environmental conscience. In fact all the key characters of the top-down argument had crossed paths at pivotal junctures in the history of the science, a serendipitous web of history that I exploited to help glue these vignettes into a single narrative.
Q. About halfway through the book, we get the story of Lago Guri in Venezuela. You tell the story of monkeys now isolated from their predators on man-made islands: “Free of fearsome predators — and hounded by hunger –the howlers of Lago Guri no longer lived in coherent groups but instead they slept in separate trees. For lack of contact, they seldom groomed. Those that did come together sometimes fought, inflicting savage wounds. Their babies never played. The monkeys of Guri grew thin. There were ominous signs of infanticide. The howler monkeys of Lago Guri no longer howled… the howlers of Guri simply didn’t like each other anymore. In this supposed paradise free of predators, the group-hugging howler monkey had been sentenced to a solitary confinement in hell.” It’s a really haunting picture. You hint a bit more at it later in the book (especially in “The Loneliest Predator”), but it’s really easy to draw a link from one primate to another: how much of this did you intend as a parallel to the human world?
A. I didn’t really need to anthropomorphize the howler monkeys of Lago Guri, because the scientists did it for me. I found them rather freely offering up their emotions on witnessing the decay of howler society. And those emotions were darker and starker than any data or pictures they could possibly have shared.
In “The Loneliest Predator,” which ends the book, it was both my curiosity and duty to step beyond the ecology story and into what for me was the far scarier terrain of the human psyche. We have a long and intimate history with these beasts, more so than with any others, and I felt the story demanded something deeper than a clinical examination of big predator science.
Q. There’s a lot in your book that’s implicit. Looking from the outside in on journalism (especially science journalism), it seems almost too easy for journalists to “tell” rather than “show.” But you seem inclined much more to write through the power of suggestion. How do you find that balance in non-fiction?
A. I agree that it’s too easy to tell, rather than to show. There’s a place for simply telling the facts, but there’s also a place where you owe it to your audience to illustrate—particularly in a natural science book of words, whose title is a take-off on one of the most unforgettable book of pictures ever. As for balancing the show-or-tell, I leave the decision to my degree of enthusiasm on the particular topic. If I’m excited by the action behind the facts, or bored by the lack of it, I start illustrating.
Q. Okay, moving away from process. There’s real heterogeneity in terms of danger to humans from wildlife around the world, and even in the United States. What do you say to somebody who is (legitimately) worried about their, or their children’s safety? Does the argument begin with the limited richness of our lives without predators? Does your argument change for a “rancher” in Jackson Hole afraid of grizzlies versus an Indian farmer afraid of tigers (e.g. those who live in an area by choice versus necessity)?
A. What would I say to somebody legitimately worried about their safety? I’d like to think I would just shut up and listen.
I do try to make the point, in my book and in my talks, that nowadays the most dangerous forms of wildlife tend to be prey species. We have more people being killed every year by deer in the United States than by grizzlies, cougars and wolves over the last century. And we can blame a flock of geese, and not a pack of wolves, for sending Flight 1549 into the Hudson last January. But inevitably, this is society’s decision as to whether we allow our big predators back. And given what science now tells us, and what our heart and guts long ago understood—about the worth of having these powerful but potentially deadly creatures around—we at least ought to think twice about a lifestyle that no longer allows for their existence. There are a lot more genuinely worrisome things stalking humanity these days than a few big animals with sharp teeth.
Q. Most solutions require at least some element of improved policy. In particular, I’m thinking about the discussion of policy in “Bambi’s Revenge” and “Little Monster’s Ball,” and how easy it is to interpret science for whatever outcome the policymaker wants. How do you argue the need for apex predators for policymakers? Is it more important to stress the importance of predators to human experience or do you highlight the increasing weight of the science? If the science is so easily manipulated or, worse, misinterpreted, is the poetry of the situation more important? Do you focus on their hearts or minds?
A. As much as I’d like to imagine science and common sense ruling predator policy, I see prejudice and emotion ultimately trumping all. So I ended up writing a story of scientific discovery, inescapably peppered with emotion. The idea of The Wild Things wasn’t to directly advocate for them, but to offer an engaging perspective on life—with and without them—that some might never have otherwise considered.