Peter Alsop on “Invasion of the Longhorns”
Peter Alsop is a science and environmental writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Formerly the managing editor of Tricycle magazine and senior editor of GOOD magazine, he has written for Salon, GOOD, and now, Smithsonian.
What types of stories do you usually gravitate towards writing?
I like suspenseful stories, and I tend to gravitate towards stories frequented by passionate (and occasionally obsessive) people. When these elements come together, as they did with this story, the work of reporting and writing is a pleasure.
What drew you to this story in particular, about Asian longhorned beetles?
I grew up not far from Worcester, near the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and the forests of that region are my terra cognita—the landscape that I first learned and will always love. So the beetle is in my backyard, or the backyard of my childhood anyway, and the threat posed by the insect is quite real to me.
What surprised you the most about the how the beetles have invaded New England?
The beetle is an amazing organism: its antennae can pick up the "scent" of a maple or a birch from many meters away, and some entomologists speculate that it can distinguish the silhouettes of trees—between, say, an oak and a maple. But as fascinating as the science is, and there's still so much we don't know about the beetle and its behavior, I was equally intrigued by the human element here. It was astonishing to me that the decisions of foresters in China in the 1970s ultimately caused the destruction of an urban American forest decades later. The law of unintended consequences runs throughout this story, as it does in almost every tale about invasive species.
Is there a moment during your reporting that stands out as your favorite?
One of the more memorable moments actually never made it into the finished story. During my reporting, I traveled to Delaware to visit with Michael Smith, a USDA entomologist who has been trying to find a natural predator for the Asian longhorned beetle. I interviewed him in his office and then he took me on a tour of the research facility, which is one of a few locations in the country where scientists can work directly with invasive agricultural pests and pathogens. And what struck me most was the elaborateness of the security procedures: everyone was in jumpsuits, wearing masks and booties, the doors were vacuum-sealed, and precautions were in place to prevent more than one person from entering a room at any given time. It seemed like a scene from Outbreak, and if I had any doubts about the havoc such organisms could wreak, they were laid to rest then.