Snake Stowaways

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

“Pythons and boa constrictors are now freely reproducing and living on their own in the suburbs of Miami,” a Discover magazine senior editor, Alan Burdick, said.

And you thought smog was an environmental problem.

“When we think of environmental threats, we tend to think in black-andwhite terms,” Mr. Burdick said. He gave the example of “the difference between having a Redwood forest and having a toxic waste dump.” But the threat he explores in his book “Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion” (Farrar Straus and Giroux) is much more subtle, he explained.

Speaking Wednesday at the South Street Seaport Museum, Mr. Burdick described species of plants and animals that move to new parts of the world, supplant native species, and create new habitats.

He has spent time in south Florida, which he described as “the nexus of the nation’s pet trade.”He said about 80% of all imported exotic animals pass through Miami airport, and much of the nation’s ornamental plant trade comes through the area, too. Many people in Miami have a backyard menagerie or greenhouse, he said, and meanwhile hurricanes blow through and “things are always getting loose.”

Mr. Burdick said he spent time with a local animal catcher who catches alligators, mountain lions, or macaque monkeys that have gotten loose from testing facilities. He even caught bison and zebra on the freeway. The animal catcher once pulled a 22-foot-long Indonesian python from under someone’s house in suburban Miami. As for those pythons and boa constrictors in Miami, they also live in the Everglades, where they have been spotted wrestling with alligators. The two encounters have come up even: one victory for the alligator, one for the python, he said, to audience laughter.

The author said he was particularly drawn to the subject of invasive species by studying the Australian brown tree snake, which was originally from Australia but made its way to the island of Guam shortly after World War II. Over time, the snake traveled to other islands, in part by crawling up into the wheel wells and cargo areas of jumbo jets and dropping out at airports.Guam used to have no snakes but now have more per square mile than anywhere else. This slightly venomous snake has driven a couple of endangered species to become extinct in Guam.

Mr. Burdick read a passage about one snake that an inspector picked up with tongs: The snake was “six feet of pure muscle coiling and uncoiling in midair.” Mr. Burdick found something admirable in its form: “The snake was a marvelous work of biology — powerful, elegant, efficient. I was impressed by its opportunism.” Mr. Burdick marveled that “an intelligence so minor could direct itself, unpremeditated, on such a profitable trajectory.”

Mr. Burdick reminded the audience “as we humans move around the world, we are moving plants and animals with us.” Mr. Burdick described the work of a marine biologist, Jim Carlton, who has studied microscopic plankton in ballast water carried by ships. Large ships traveling empty fill their holds with water that they suck up at the port from which they leave; the ships later dump out the ballast. Regarding this ballast water, “each one is a kind of giant aquarium,” he said. In studying plankton and underwater organisms, Mr. Burdick said,”I felt that I was privy to some kind of a lost world.”

He said dirt was at one time used as ballast on ships arriving in America.That ballast had later been used to pave New York streets: One could see Brazilian heliotropes blooming in the Bronx, he said.

* * *

READING ROOM “What I want to see is more of a culture of magazines,” the editor in chief and publisher of the Reading Room magazine, Barbara Probst Solomon, said. The Reading Room features fiction, poetry, art, and essays because, as she puts it: “You need magazines responding to each other.”

Nowadays, a provocative article can be written on a topic but get little or no response from other magazines. “There is no volley game going on,” she said.

The current issue of the Reading Room contains artwork and an interview with Larry Rivers, as well as a novella by the Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow called “Something to Remember Me By.”

Good writers, Ms. Solomon told the Knickerbocker, have the ability to name the times one is living in before other people do.”They are ahead of the curve,” she said. Like an early warning system, “a good writer says something we all recognized, but has not been said.”

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use