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Tinkering with Eden, A Natural History of Exotics in America

"Tinkering with Eden is that rare thing, a profoundly important cautionary tale that is at the same time, both illuminating and entertaining."

--William Kittredge,
author of Nature of

Since Europeans started settling North America, exotic species have flooded in, becoming so prevalent that many Americans can't tell which species are native and which are not. Tinkering with Eden tells the stories of seventeen of these species, from the starling, introduced in 1890 by a man who wanted to bring all the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare to New York's Central Park, to the gypsy moth, imported by a naturalist who was trying to breed a silk worm that would survive New England winters. The book details the disasters unleashed with many exotics, as well as the few success stories, like the Vedalia ladybug from Australia that saved the California citrus industry.


The New York Times Book Review
"You really can't fool Mother Nature, as Kim Todd vividly shows in her fascinating, cautionary first book."

"Imagine the common birds of city and suburb, the ones we all see daily as they perch on phone wires and peck for crumbs on the sidewalk. The three most numerous species in our imaginations—starlings, pigeons, and house sparrows—are all exotic, non-native birds that were deliberately introduced to North America from Europe. In this fascinating history of the introduction of exotic species, Todd gives the reader the story behind the initial introduction of each species as well as its status today."

The New Yorker
"The pigeons fluttering in public spaces, nutria in Southern swamps, gypsy moths across New England -- all these are the thriving, abundant relics of abandoned experiments, most of them well meant."

Grist Magazine
"Todd weaves 17 tales of past and present exotic organisms that have staked their claim in North American soils -- abetted, of course, by their human companions. With a healthy dose of sympathy for her human characters, Todd clarifies the complicated, wonky world of Exotic Pest Plant Councils and feral animal eradication."

"Tinkering with Eden -- a fascinating narrative enhanced by Todd's far-reaching research and rich story-telling abilities -- explores nature and humankind's relationship to it. A former newspaper reporter, the author has a fresh voice, an inquisitive mind and the instinct to ask questions about ordinary things the rest of us take for granted. Her book will interest any caring observer of our environment or lover of mystery."

On Earth—Magazine of the National Resources Defense Council
"Author Kim Todd has chosen a small selection of these stories to tell, each a short but richly detailed narrative of how and why a particular species has come to be considered American. Readers will get reacquainted with common pigeons (from France), honeybees (from England), and brown trout (from Germany). They'll also meet lesser-known transplants, like blood-sucking sea lampreys, colonies of monkeys, and orange-toothed nutrias."

Outside Magazine
"Reaching back to the original farmers, crackpots, and scientists who opened this biological Pandora's box, Todd uncovers a Greek tragedy of human heedlessness....[B]eautifully written natural history."

California Wild
"Todd eloquently explains how one man single-handedly brought European starlings to New York’s Central Park, why brown trout (Salmo trutta) arrived in 1883 as a generous gift from Germany, and how gypsy moths (Bombyx dispar) were imported into Massachusetts to try to jumpstart the country’s silk industry. In all cases, Todd weaves myth, fact, and humor into interesting stories that enlighten us about our everyday surroundings."

The Austin Chronicle
"Kim Todd's Tinkering With Eden provides a clear, objective harbinger of how much the introduction of exotic species in America has changed the landscape since Christopher Columbus first set foot this side of the Atlantic."

Discover Magazine
"Todd re-creates the all-too-often neglected human dramas— and sometimes farces— that attended the arrival of nearly a score of exotics, including Canadian mountain goats in Washington State, Chinese pheasants in Oregon, and the European gypsy moth in Massachusetts."


From the chapter "Following Silk Threads:"

EVENTS that summer unfolded with the grim predictability of a horror story. Though predating Hollywood B movies such as The Deadly Mantis,Arachnophobia, or The Fly, this tale featured all the elements of a hack screenwriter’s fantasy. The mad scientist. A repulsive creature invading a suburban neighborhood. Women shrieking when they opened their closets. One slip, one tipped vial, and cities along the East Coast lived under swarming hoards of insect larvae that stripped apple and oak trees, wormed their way into houses, then turned and rose in a mad flutter of wings. Despite pesticides and predators, they spread, outbreak by outbreak, leaving a trail of bare branches and disgust. Eventually the story line veered beyond anything a cinema screen could hold.

In a modest house at 27 Myrtle Street in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1868, Leopold Trouvelot, an astronomer with a knack for natural history, was trying to breed a better silkworm. He imported several European gypsy moth eggs, planning to cross them with a North American species. If his efforts succeeded, he could jump-start the silk industry in the United States and boost his own fortunes as well. When several of the moths escaped one warm day in 1868, the plot ground into motion. . . .

Back in the kitchen, Trouvelot must shiver when he hears the "clink" of broken glass or finds a tear in his backyard netting. Having witnessed the ravages of the native silkworm, he has noted "What a destruction of leaves this single species of insect could make if only one-hundredth part of the eggs laid came to maturity." Panic knifes through him as he searches the grass, and he tells everyone he knows to be wary, but his mind can't possibly encompass the destruction that will follow, the acres defoliated and millions spent on pesticides, any more than he can picture a man on the moon.

Ten years later Trouvelot was gone, and his warnings forgotten. Mr. William Taylor moved to number 27. Exploring the shed in the backyard of his new property, he found the walls crawling with caterpillars. He quickly sold the enclosure, but the insects persisted. "In their season I used to gather them literally by the quart before going to work in the morning," he wrote.

The neighbors, first those who lived close to the astronomer, then those who lived farther down the block, began to notice something seriously wrong. They told story after story of discomfort verging on the unbearable, and the devoted authors of The Gypsy Moth took it all down. Next door to Trouvelot's old home, Mrs. William Belcher couldn't ignore the newcomers: "They were all over the inside of the house, as well as the trees." Another neighbor noted, "The caterpillars would get into the house in spite of every precaution. We would even find them on the clothing hanging in the closets."

Several houses away, in 5 Myrtle, Mrs. D.W. Daly waged a personal battle against the moths and their larvae. "I spent much time in killing caterpillars," she reported. "I used to sweep them off the side of the house and get dustpanfuls of them. At night time we could hear the caterpillars eating in the trees and their excrement dropping to the ground."

Then, in 1889, things started to get really bad.