Saturday, April 18, 2009

The aliens that are eating Florida

If you only read one long article this week, make it Burkhard Bilger's jaw-dropping "Swamp Things" in the current issue of the New Yorker. It's about how Florida accidentally became home to thousands of non-indigenous "exotic" creatures. Many started off as domestic pets and were let go when they got too big. Others were smuggled into the state to cater to a novelty-obsessed local market. Some were displaced many miles during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The outcome is that since 1994 the Florida Everglades have been home to a growing population of Burmese pythons. They were a few inches long when they were bought as pets. They can now grow to twenty feet and are almost-impossible to capture. They reckon that there could be 140,000 Burmese Pythons in the Everglades. This would be disturbing enough on its own but the last section of the article is about the arrival of the Nile Monitor. This six foot lizard, which is described as "omnicarnivorous", can out-run a man and is known to hunt in packs. Thanks to the canals linking the swamp with the town they have taken up residence on the lawns of a suburban community called Cape Coral.

It's a brilliant feature. The line that stays with you is a quote from one zoologist commenting on this alien invasion: "it's time to stop studying these things and start killing them".


  1. I know you're a journalist and all, but there's a big difference between you saying "there could be as many as 140,000 Burmese Pythons in the Everglades", and the article saying that, at capacity, "the Everglades could hold as many as 140,000". Ones about capacity, one's about population size. Do all journos do this all the time? Just caught The Sun writing about Gordon Ramsey's prepared meals, and they were saying that they were in a 'Transit Van', the Evening Standard said a 'White Van'. Would they have been happier if they had been delivered by horse drawn carriage?

  2. Yes, all hacks do this all the time. That's why they're not academics and also why most academic books are read just by academics.

  3. I wouldn't say you were a hack. Your writing is far too interesting for that. It's just that there is an issue I have now with getting any useful truth or facts from newspapers.

    It's especially odd as I am a documentary maker, but seem to be able - in general - to excuse myself from this. Years ago I used to work in the science dept at the BBC, and on the search for easy stories looked at the back pages of the Sunday Times, where there used to be a column on tech. Everyone I checked out was, in real terms, made up. (it was a process every new researcher went through, before realising that there was no easy source for good stories). I got over it, and made some good films. But even now I tend to limit the journalistic impact of what I write because I am too aware of my biases. (I'm moving into fiction for that very reason).

    Clearly the act of turning info into a story removes any 'truth' from it. When I do read articles now it's hard to stop myself form looking at the biases of the author rather than extracting any content (e)ven yours). Perhaps it's better to read journalism for it's poetic value rather than anything else. I know you are a fan of a nice turn of phrase (Anthony Lane).

    By the way, regarding academic books, of course they are read by academics. That's why they are called academic books isn't it? All this anti-journalist bias is brilliantly contained, but badly written, in Nicholas Tassim Taleb's 'Fooled by Randomness' which I thoroughly recommend. Interview him for The Word, go on.

  4. Can I just reiterate that I'm a hack and very proud of it.

  5. Do you mean you can write really well, really fast?

  6. I can also write really ordinary stuff really fast. I'm always fast. "Will write for food" is my motto. I follow the same policy as the bloke who presented himself as a handyman and then confessed he couldn't change a plug.
    "I thought you said you were a handyman."
    "I am. I live next door."
    I'm a great believer in such maxims as Woody Allen's "70% of success is turning up" and PG Wodehouse's "apply the seat of the pants to the surface of the chair."
    I think "journalist" is a bit of pretentious word for what I do and I hate all the abbreviated forms of the term. Nobody knows what "wordsmith" means so I prefer hack.

  7. I think all the best one's are fast. I had Charlie Murray in my spare room once, writing his book on Hendrix. He'd nip back there for three hours and come back with a chapter. That's not to say he didn't do a lot of thinking, and listening, but the quality to speed ratio was amazing.

  8. I think everyone else is out enjoying the weather.

    By the way, I say 3 hours, but I might be exaggerating for (hack-ist) effect. But it was quick.

  9. My mother was an old-skool hack on a local rag - inquests, weddings and bar mitzvahs. "Don't call me a journalist. I'm a reporter, not bloody Boswell."

    Over the last 30 years I've earned my living from practically every form of paid hackery known to man - copywriter, journalist, sub, self-styled style czar (subbing the subs - oh, how I enjoyed that one), script doctor and, most recently, translator.

    If I say I'm a "writer", people assume I do fiction: the one genre of hackery I haven't really touched, because I've always had bills to pay.

    I usually end up saying "I, er, write stuff" and try to change the subject.

  10. The native population of animals in Florida is bad enough. I lived there for a while and it didn't take me long to figure out why they have screen doors over there, one day I left mine open and in flew this insect the size of a shoe (it was a Palmetto Bug, imagine a very large cockroach with wings). I'm not ashamed to say I ran out of the room and hid in the bedroom.

  11. DH - hack - schmack! You should wake up every day and thank the good Lord you don't translate. Hang on, maybe you do, kind of.

  12. Enjoyed your piece David and the 'abstract' version I was able to view without subscribing to the New Yorker.

    Have to say though, I thought David Aaronovitch made some good points over the last few weeks (most recent: in recent Times columns, where he followed up some oft-quoted stats such as 'the average citizen is caught on CCTV 300 times a day' and found they were something of a house of cards.

  13. I logged on to the New Yorker piece for free. Don't know if it should have cost me something, but there you are.