When I was a boy, every Sunday evening after the dinner dishes had been washed and the kitchen tidied up, my parents and I would sit down in front of our wood cabinet console encased (first for our family) color television set and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Hosted by the eminently calm Marlin Perkins and the perpetually good-natured Jim Fowler, Wild Kingdom was sufficiently entertaining for my parents while at the same time being factual enough for their budding young science geek of a son. This is what made the program so successful – it offered accurate information about wildlife (and often the importance of the conservation thereof) in a way that allowed a wide-ranging audience to both learn from and be entertained by its presentation.
I mention all this as it was to Wild Kingdom that my mind kept returning as I was reading Dan Eatherley’s recently published book Bushmaster; Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper. Ditmars, largely self-educated, rose from being a young man with questionable career prospects and an unusual (according to his family, at least, who endured their home being increasingly filled with them) interest in snakes to becoming the first curator of reptiles (and mammals as well following the retirement of William Hornaday) at the newly built Bronx Zoo. He also dramatically improved the way animals are cared for and exhibited in zoos, advanced the preparation and dramatically expanded the availability and usage of antivenin, and pioneered the art of filming wildlife for both presentation in motion pictures and the then embryonic new medium of television. Throughout his professional life, he was a tireless public speaker and prolific author. When he died at the age of 65 in 1942, he was known far and wide as one of the world’s most accomplished herpetologists and as a well-respected and beloved public naturalist as well. Keep reading…
Recent Book Reviews
As a frequent traveler – mostly on business – I often find myself in locations with which I am not particularly familiar. For most business travelers this isn’t unusual; which is why so many can only tell you about airports, hotels, conference centers, and the odd restaurant when asked bout their most recent trip. However as a naturalist, I absolutely abhor the thought of going somewhere without making at least a small attempt to become better acquainted with its natural history. Therefore my shoulder bag always contains an optic, a notebook, and some sort of field guide relevant to the area. Keep reading…
For the majority of human beings – particularly those living in the developed nations – there exists an unnatural veil between themselves and the natural world. For some of these the veil is slightly opaque and allows perception that there is something on the other side of it; for others it is as heavy as a velvet curtain – obscuring even the slightest hint that anything more than the man-made world exists. Yet for a few, the veil is diaphanous, delicately sheer, and at times even able to be rended so as not only to be able to allow a clear view of the other side but to allow passage through, and direct connection with, the myriad other forms of life constantly surrounding us. Susan Cerulean is one of these fortunate few for whom the veil is at most a mere whisp of fog which can be walked, paddled, or swum through at will – and in her book Coming to Pass; Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change she takes her readers along with her in doing so. Keep reading…
Newly Noted Books
Field guides are wonderful things – particularly those that feature top-quality photographs or illustrations of their subjects. But sometimes, high quality as they may be, it’s simply difficult to get a sense of the animal, plant, or what-have-you as it is in life without being able to see it life-size. Which is why so many naturalists have been praising University of Chicago’s “Six Hundred Life-Size” books; they present their subjects, just as the title says, in life-size.
When it comes to people from history about whom I never tire of reading, Theodore Roosevelt is right up at the top of my list. Whether it be his self-development from a sickly boy into the famously robust man he became, his fascinating and unconventional political life, or his many and varied outdoor adventures, T.R. was a boundless source of interesting material for authors. Which is why my interest was immediately piqued by word of a new book from University of Chicago Press by Michael R. Canfield titled Theodore Roosevelt in the Field.
Each time the second day of February comes around, I am reminded of a question that first entered my mind many years ago, “Just what in the name of John James Audubon does whether or not a particular groundhog in Pennsylvania sees its own shadow on this day have to do with the weather?” Then, last month, whilst perusing the most recent catalog from Penn State University Press, I happened upon the listing for William W. Donner’s new book Serious Nonsense;
Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage.
If there was ever a geographic location that needed a comprehensive reference guide to its amphibians and reptiles, the border states between the United States and Mexico is it. And not only a comprehensive reference guide, but a bilingual one. Therefore its exceptionally fortunate that Texas A&M University Press has recently published Amphibians and Reptiles of the US – Mexico Border States/Anfibios y reptiles de los estados de la frontera México – Estados Unidos.
The first time I heard of John Muir Laws was when a publicist from Heyday Books contacted me about his book The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. As both an amateur sketch artist as well as an old silverback who very much likes to see such field craft skills as drawing perpetuated among its existing practitioners and propagated among younger naturalists, I was very keen to learn what the author had to teach about this art. After a thorough reading, I found myself to have been very impressed indeed with what he had created.
As one who lives in an area where the Nutria (Coypu) is the most commonly seen semi-aquatic mammal, the mere sighting of a Beaver is enough to bring on a feeling of accomplishment. It’s as if Mother Nature herself is smiling upon all of one’s natural history studies and granting a well-deserved reward.
Whenever I travel, I not only like to take along a relevant field guide to at least one form of life to be found in the area to which my journey takes me, I also like to take along a book I’m considering for a review that has a subject related to my destination as I find that when I read a book “on site” I can often pick up subtle details in it that I might otherwise miss.
The Well-equipped Naturalist
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.
It was on this date in 1859 that Charles Darwin entered the words “all copies ie 1250 sold first day” in his journal. He was writing, of course, about his then just published book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – the book that would become the most famous of all his many works, would spark debates that still rage to this very day, and would end up being far more talked about than actually read.
Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene; a Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made (Milkweed Editions / Chatto & Windus) has been awarded the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
In their decision, the Winton Prize judges said, “Vince’s passion and strong voice grabs you instantly and the story she tells is truly original. A finely-crafted book on an important, urgent topic.”