Where the Wild Things Were is a book about apex predator ecology and trophic cascades, but the heavy science of these fields is cleverly packaged as a narrative story for general audiences that clips along at the speed of a long-distance wolf trot. The book’s author, William Stolzenburg, manages to include just about every classic predator ecology paper that I can recall having studied in my general ecology courses, but he deftly weaves the personalities and epiphanies of the scientists behind the papers into the book’s narrative and brings the reader along for the ride. The reader “discovers” the same ecological truths and relationships as the scientists did, instead of merely being told what the results are. And by linking these various predator-ecology papers together — starfish and mussels, otters and sea kelp, coyotes and songbirds, wolves and deer and forests, cheetahs and pronghorn — he uses repetitive case studies to build the case supporting top-down control of ecosystems by predators. While predator ecology is utterly fascinating in itself, science discovered these truths a century or two too late. Just as we’re beginning to understand how predators hold ecosytems together, we’re also dealing with the ecological aftermath of a continent (some would say a planet) plundered of its predators and reeling from the aftershocks of ballooning herbivore herds browsing and grazing our forests and grasslands to death.
Stolzenburg is a skilled and gifted storyteller. His use of methaphors and brevity of description remind me of Philip Wylie, a fiction writer famous for his characters Crunch and Des (a captain and first mate who were fishermen in Florida in the early 1900s). Wylie and Stolzenburg both have such great control over their sentences and pacing that the reader is literally swept along in the tidal surge and wake of their story telling. Where the Wild Things Were catches you up and you literally don’t want to get off the ride, despite the grim message of ecological havoc and evolutionary loss that it embodies. If you like learning about how things work in nature, and how one animal affects the livelihood of another — and if you like mysteries — then you will love this book.
I have only one quibble with the way the book is written. And as a writer, I understand why it was done this way. Stolzenburg takes a mile-high view throughout most of the book. He skates across scads of peer-reviewed papers, academic books and primary and secondary literature to amass his story. But he doesn’t let the story get bogged down in details that might lose or disorient someone unfamiliar with science. It’s a case of maintaining acurcay, but losing precision. And in a few places, I wanted more precision to flesh out the argument because some statements were so generalized that they lose their sparkle. But it’s a small quibble, and one I’ll gladly forgive to sit back and enjoy learning about killer whales and otters, wolves and aspen and sharks and bay scallops.
I’d love to see this book listed as required reading for high school and undergraduate biology students. It’s exactly the sort of general audience science book that cracks any fears a person may harbor about getting into science because it may be too hard or too tedious. And it’s exactly the sort of mile-high view that every member of our global society needs to be exposed to in order to understand the ecological history of Earth’s past and to tune into how impoverished today’s world is by comparison. Just go read it — you’ll see what I mean. And at a slim 218 pages, you’ll whiz through it in only a handful of evenings. (Note: Best read while sitting outdoors, on a porch or in a park, while listening to birds singing.)