Featured Book Review
Of all the problems facing the United States that I have, as an American, over the course of my life seen to be the most trouble-inspiring, are a profound misunderstanding of history and an over-abundance of nostalgia for the imagined past that this misunderstanding creates. An insufficient, and commonly over-simplified, initial education in our own history is made worse by a pervasive anti-intellectualism, coupled with a wide-spread preference for being entertained over being intellectually stimulated, has over the decades yielded a sizable portion of the population that takes more of what they “know” about American history from the oft-reinforced tropes of popular films and television programs than from carefully researched books and accredited historians.
Unfortunately, such popular cinematic productions as “Pale Rider” and “The Patriot,” as well as once long-running television series as “The Lone Ranger” and “Gunsmoke,” entertaining as they may be, present little more than absurdly masculine fictions about the American past, ones in which all important deeds were accomplished by lone, often brooding and psychologically damaged, gun-toting white men. Too many among us, both men and women, have adopted such nostalgic fantasies as their understanding of the nation’s history; “Oh for the good old days when men were men and women were women!” goes the tired refrain. Needless to say, adherents to such deeply ingrained inaccuracies get very upset when told that such was not the case – and they are disturbingly willing to follow anyone in authority who will pander to them, particularly in times of economic uncertainty and social change, by declaring that yes, it actually was – and it can be again. Keep reading…
Recent Book Reviews
At the Society for the Protection of Birds’ sixth annual general meeting in 1896, Miss Julia Andrews, a fifty-eight year old spinster and local secretary for the Society’s branch in Teddington, rose to ask a very uncomfortable question to all the good and the great – as well as the more middling sort such as herself – there gathered: how, if they were to be a society for the protection of birds, could they avoid opposing the shooting of pheasant, grouse, and partridge for pleasure? It was a question she had asked at the Society’s three previous annual meetings, and one, given that a not insignificant portion of her audience was made up of members of the landed gentry who not only profited from the hunting on their lands, but took active and enthusiastic part in such hunts themselves, that was received with, as Tessa Boase describes in her new book Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, “an awkward silence.” Keep reading…
As Glenn Shorrock both wrote and sang in Little River Band’s 1979 song Cool Change,
Well I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best
The albatross and the whales they are my brothers
It’s a song I’ve long felt described me remarkably well. I was born in a hospital less than one hundred meters away from the lower Columbia River, to a family who for generations had made its living from that river and the Pacific Ocean just beyond its mouth. I was helping my father with the nets by the time I was eight, and could pilot a boat long before I could drive a car. The water and the fish that lived in it were not just our livelihood, they were our life. Keep reading…
I remember it distinctly. It was the summer of 1976 and I was eight years old. I was standing by the door of the Pig & Pancake Restaurant in Astoria, Oregon, waiting while my father paid the bill for our meal. There was a coin-operated newspaper box in the entryway, through which the front cover of the local paper could be seen. But instead of the expected image of a local politician or a store-front along the town’s main street, there was a grainy, black and white image of what looked like a rock-strewn desert. I looked closer, trying to see the words beneath the picture that were partly obscured by the edge of the box and the reflection of the glass. Then I saw it, “Mars.” I was looking at an actual photograph taken on Mars! The Viking I lander had reached its destination and had successfully transmitted a picture from the surface of another planet. Keep reading…
We’ve all heard the old saying; whenever someone is embarrassed or fearful to the point where all hope seems lost, “I just want to crawl into a hole and die.” However when you think about it, this saying makes little sense. After all, the point is to get away from the problem, hence crawling into a hole for isolation from, and protection against, any worsening of the situation. But why die? After all, once you’re nice and safe in the aforementioned hole, the need for protection and a place to weather out whatever storm – metaphorical or otherwise – is blowing against you has been satisfied. Indeed, in such a hole, one actually has an improved chance of survival, be it physically or emotionally, therefore, as Professor Anthony J. Martin so superbly explains in his The Evolution Underground; Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet, the more appropriate response to a threat is the exact opposite of the “crawl into a hole and die” saying; you crawl into a hole and live. Keep reading…
Mark on Sundays
For those already familiar with the British Wildlife collection published by Bloomsbury, the appearance on book shop shelves of a new volume in the series is more or less an instinctive purchase – if you’ve read previous volumes, you’ll buy the next one as well. However for those who might not yet have discovered this remarkable series, relatively recent addition to the great tradition of British natural history writing that it is, Mark comes to the rescue with his most recent Sunday Book Review essay of Trevor Beebee’s “Climate Change and British Wildlife,” the sixth volume in the series.
Newly Noted Books
Although a copy of the new “RSPB Spotlight: Hedgehogs” by James Lowen arrived from Bloomsbury a few months ago, I delayed adding it to the Newly Noted column in order to better align it with an annual threat to its subject: Bonfire Night bonfires.
David Lindo first came to my attention back in 2012 with his memior “The Urban Birder.” Here, I recall thinking, was a voice that was different, had something interesting to say, and certainly came from a place – both geographically as well as demographically – that was not represented in the previous literature of the bird watching community.
While Juliet’s famous lines “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” are in practical sentiment quite correct, given that there are well over one hundred different species in the Genus Rosa, changing them around randomly without some sense of order and few ground-rules applied to the process would make things very confusing indeed.
Of all the many facets of natural history, the one we seem to most frequently overlook is us. Oh we do delve into anthropology and similar topics, but do we really very often get deep beneath the surface of just who we are – and why – all the way down to the cellular, or perhaps even the atomic, level?
Despite how often I’ve read about the U.K.’s mysterious and danger-filled moorlands in the works of Dickens and the Brontës, growing up in the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest as I did it has never fully made sense to me how so many people have for so long perceived such peril in what appears to be simply a softly colored landscape of gently rolling hillocks and the occasional dramatic stone outcrop.
Each time the nice people from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publicity department contact me to say that they have a new Peterson’s Field Guide soon to be released, I always reply with a note that includes the text “Western? ;-)” As nine times out of ten they’re Eastern, this has become a friendly little joke between us. However every so often a new – or updated edition of a – Western guide does make an appearance.
When it came to prisoners, Charles Bowden took none. Fools? He suffered none. And as for quarter or fu… well, none of either were given. Bold, sometimes brash, fiercely loyal, a blood enemy or the cruel and the greedy, with a heart as big as the wide open spaces of the American southwest that he came to call home and a mind with the seemingly limitless capacity to instantly recall a bewildering assortment of fact and figures, he was truly an original.
Dr. Castelló is once again back in the Newly Noted column with his next addition to the Princeton Field Guides series: “Canids of the World; Wolves, Wild Dogs, Foxes, Jackals, Coyotes, and Their Relatives.” Following the same highly effective format he employed in his 2016 field guide to bovids, this new guide covers not only every species of wild canid presently inhabiting the planet but every recognized subspecies of them as well.
When I first read and subsequently reviewed Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees,” I was deeply impressed by how “Mr. Wohlleben […] connected the “prose” (the science) and the “passion” (the receptiveness of human beings to stories) for the exaltation of the idea that we – each of us as individual human beings – can understand more about trees and forests than we previously knew, or indeed perhaps even thought we could know.”
Taking the form of a large-format plate book, The Splendor of Birds presents a collection of some of the finest ornithological artwork and photography from the National Geographic archives. Spanning a 130 year range, beginning in 1888 and moving forward chronologically up to the present, the images included present a remarkably varied assortment of photographic styles and subject focus areas, as well as some truly choice illustrations, most notably by the great Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
The Well-equipped Naturalist
When it comes to astronomy, let’s just say that I’m still learning. I’ve made some good progress with the Moon, and I’m learning to identify the brightest stars, but when it comes to anything much more complex than that – variable stars, nebulae, deep anything – I’m, as they say, “not quite there yet.”
For as long as I’ve ventured afield in search of whatever nature might wish to show me, I’ve gone fully vested. That is to say, I’ve worn a field vest. Not that I have anything against day packs or shoulder bags, mind you; I just find that vests (or as my British friends call them, waistcoats) allow me to carry what I need in a way that allows me easy access to all of it while still letting me move about with a feeling of being unencumbered.
For years we’ve been hearing story after story about the importance of conserving honeybees – specifically the European Honeybee, Apis mellifera. Then on 26 January 2018, Science magazine published “Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife” by Jonas Geldmann and Juan P. González-Varo, in which the authors reported that “managed honey bees can harm wild pollinator species.”
On the day this article is published, it will be exactly one month until the day of the 2017 North American Solar Eclipse; an event that is expected to cause tens of millions of people to stop what they are doing and turn their eyes (properly protected, it is hoped) skyward to witness one of […]
If you, like me, like moss, you’ll be pleased to learn that you can indulge your bryophilic inclinations to your heart’s content through the most recent episode – number 180 – of the In Defense of Plants podcast.
Just this week, a new “totally serious herpetological podcast” was launched by Mark D. Scherz, Gabriel Ugueto, and Ethan “New York Times Best-selling Illustrator” Kocak (who also designed their superb logo, shown here), named – appropriately, SquaMates.