Without a doubt, Mark J. Rauzon has the quirkiest curriculum vitae in academia. Hunting feral cats across the guano mounds of an equatorial Pacific atoll is not a conventional job description. Yet this is exactly what seabird biologist (and cat owner) Rauzon was doing on Jarvis Island in 1982. At the time, he was employed as an “exterminator” for the US government. Rauzon spent more than a quarter of a century implementing ecological restoration strategies throughout the American Insular Pacific, an intimidatingly vast oceanic expanse that could hardly be less insular. This zone comprises “the largest marine protected area on the planet” (p. 1) including the far-flung territories of Oceania that the United States took by force or treaty during the past two centuries. The stories of Rauzon’s travels to the islands and atolls of American Samoa, Baker, Guam, Howland, Jarvis, Johnston, Kiritimati, the Northern Marianas, Palmyra, and Wake animate the itinerary of Isles of Amnesia. The author, currently a professor of geography at Laney College in Oakland, California, is a talented writer, and the book reads like a mesmerizing travelogue in the style of a Bill Bryson caper. Rauzon’s lively prose does justice to the remote landscapes of his sundry assignments. Some of these sites are verdant tropical biomes, designated as “paradise” by legions of beachcombers, missionaries, and postimpressionist artists of earlier times. Rauzon is admiring of such places and respectful of their longer term human residents, but he does not hesitate to describe the macabre elements of his destinations. Recounting his experience of Pago Pago during a torrential rainstorm, he opines, “The bay turns brown with mud and pig waste washing down from the hills. Half-dead mongrels forage for scraps in the lines of wet garbage and plastic trash that litter the shore. The water is fetid, polluted with noxious runoff, and street signs warn of toxic fish” (p. 9). Rauzon is also sensitive to the lived experiences of Pacific Islanders who frequently faced devastating displacements when policymakers half a world away in Washington, D.C., transformed their Pacific homelands into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons testing sites. Although this book is not primarily concerned with the history of the American Insular Pacific, Rauzon punctuates his narrative with a sprawling cast of characters who hail from various times and places. We read testimonials from (and about) imperial explorers, missionaries, whaling captains, Native Hawaiian guano miners, Japanese prisoners of war, Thai Buddhists meditating on Wake Island, Samoan wildlife officers, Secretary of State William Seward, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, and filmmaker James Cameron. Flocks of birds—including warblers, petrels, Peruvian boobies, blue noddies, and shearwaters—share the limelight with these human locals and luminaries. Across the book’s eight chapters, we learn of the conservation success stories that resulted from Rauzon’s “inherently violent” (p. 183) eradication campaigns. The endangered avian species of Jarvis made a complete recovery after the feral cat extermination strategies that the author and his collaborator, conservationist David Woodside, implemented. Conversely, the author chronicles “the unintended consequences” (p. 230) that have thwarted efforts to rid such ecosystems of invasive species, despite the best laid plans and the copious quantities of federal funding devoted to their application. Among the most crucial take-home messages from this book is that restoration ecology is a messy business, fraught with myriad ethical and historical dilemmas. What do we destroy in our attempts to recover a bygone environment? How do we decide where to locate the benchmarks for our endeavors to reverse the tides of history? The author is refreshingly candid with readers about his own inner struggles: “I had to pass the psychological barrier to killing that is itself a moving target—we sanction the killing of plants, ants, rats, chickens, or cattle easily, but not that of cats, dogs, or horses” (p. 47). If it had been titled, packaged, and promoted more cleverly, this book could easily be climbing the rungs of best-seller lists. Regardless of his publisher’s dubious decisions, Rauzon is to be commended for producing a vivid overview of the many Pacific territories that receive too little scholarly attention and for insightfully probing the conundrums of restoration biology. The term “amnesia” implies forgetting, but Isles of Amnesia is a memorable book. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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