Belonging on an Island by Daniel Lewis

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The typical understanding of what it means to be native to a place – a concept involving deep roots and intricate interconnections with surroundings – has always come into its sharpest focus on islands. Here, in ecological niches long separated from the larger mainland by stretches of water, species could evolve in near-isolation from the panoply natural pressures that obtained out in the larger world. Natural histories are full of stories about species of island birds growing accustomed to life without natural predators, so specialized they sometimes scarcely any longer resembled mainland ancestors. Island natives have in this way often been portrayed as poised on evolutionary stilts, protected only by the uncaring vagaries of tide and weather. These species have long been seen as playing the role of victim in the drama that stars “invasive species” as the villains.

In Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawai'i, Daniel Lewis upends this familiar scenario. In sharply intelligent and merrily readable prose, Lewis focuses on four species of Hawaiian birds: the Stumbling Moa-Nalo, the Kaua'i 'O'o, the Palila, and the Japanese White-Eye or Mejiro (“an enthusiastic little bird that acts as though it has perpetually just finished enjoying a cappuccino”). Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library and also an avid birdwatcher and author of 2012's delightful The Feathery Tribe; these things combine to make him a natural guide to both the history of field explorations in Hawaii and to the biology and behavior of birds long native to the islands – islands which had long been recognized as testing grounds for the very notion of ecological endangerment. “In the years leading up to the US Endangered Species Act of 1973,” Lewis writes, “numerous scientists, politicians, and civilians in Hawai'i had a sense – to differing degrees – that the islands were probably at profound risk for species extinction.”

The book is remarkably, almost playfully wide-ranging, studying the varying ways its quartet of feathery subjects managed under the onslaught of what one of Lewis' ornithologists refers to as the “ugly handmaidens of civilization” – the cats, mice, rats, diseases, and hunters who crossed the water and entered paradise. The resulting radical transformations created a large part of what millions of tourists every year mistakenly consider the natural flora and fauna of Hawaii. “I find it striking,” Lewis writes, “how much of the edible landscape seemed – and still seems – native to visitors, but in fact mostly it is not.”

Guiding all of the book's enthusiastic inquiries are the deeper notions Lewis lays out about the very nature of what it means to be a native anywhere. He argues for a more elastic conception of what it means to belong someplace, a conception that's far more reliant of natural networks than on physical isolation. It's a fascinating idea (and of course inadvertently, intensely topical in other arenas), something that serves to distinguish Belonging on an Island from the crowded shelves of other books on Hawaiian ecology and bird-life. Lewis has written an eye-opening study, one that will have all its readers – landlocked and otherwise – carefully scrutinizing every flittering and flowering thing in their back yards … for signs of belonging.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is