Featured Book Review
It was during a walk near Radley Lakes with my friends Jo and Chris that I first suddenly took notice of the isolated curious brown stalks with the odd curling bits all around their tops. We had been stooping our way through what was once a water meadow but of more recent use as a potash disposal area, examining the assorted flora and fauna that clearly had a decided preference for staying low to the ground, when these spindly tall, decidedly withering brown spikes suddenly began to become more numerous. “The orchids have certainly finished blooming this year” I recall Jo saying, to which I replied something at least similar to, if not exactly “Orchids? What orchids?” And so it was that my eyes were opened to the fascinating world of British orchids – albeit in perhaps at not the most picturesque moment of their life cycle.
Before this awakening I had, like many others, no doubt, thought of orchids as rarified tropical flowers found only deep in the rainforest or the meticulously climate controlled greenhouses of equally meticulous aficionados. Orchids were delicate, subtle, obscure plants – certainly not the sort to muck-in with a host of common species hardy enough to withstand a British winter, or British “summer” for that matter. Yet as my initial encounter with them, and subsequent reading of Jon Dunn’s brilliantly written Orchid Summer, clearly taught me, British orchids are anything but delicate hot-house flowers. Keep reading…
Recent Book Reviews
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. Keep reading…
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…
Mark on Sundays
For those who count themselves regular readers of Mark Avery’s blog, the recent uptick in new book reviews can’t have gone unnoticed. When I recently called up the site, I thought “Blimey! Is Mark doing anything other than reading these days?” However I then noticed by-lines indicating that two of the four most recent reviews were penned by none other than the noted ornithologist Ian Carter acting a as a guest reviewer.
Newly Noted Books
To anyone who has ever stumbled across one while strolling through a woodland, vernal pools seem to border right on the edge of magical. Disconnected as they are from other water sources, there’s something so remarkably serene about them that they almost beggar belief. And when the dappled light filtering through the trees is added to the experience, one wouldn’t be entirely surprised should one of the faerie folk suddenly appear out of the greenery just across the pond.
As with so many things in life, “it’s the little things” that so often make it all possible. And when it comes to the life in the the Earth’s oceans, the little things that in fact do make it all possible are the tiny crustaceans we commonly know as krill. However despite how readily to many of us the image may come to mind of these tiny creatures being essentially ubiquitous free-range whale chow, most of us actually don’t know nearly as much about them as we might think we do.
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.
Now in it’s seventh edition and continuing under the authorship of Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer, with range maps by Paul Lehman and additional artwork by David Quinn, John Schmitt, and Thomas Schultz, this new National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds presents its readers with 1,023 species. Following the taxonomy and nomenclature – both common and scientific – of the American Ornithological (due to an editorial error identified as “Ornithologist’s” in the text) Society, and with a bit of a nod given to the listing areas of the American Birding Association, this is indeed the most appropriate field guide for all who want not only a field reference that can identify any bird seen in its defined geographic area, but can also go deep into the metaphorical tall grass in pursuit of identifications down to subspecies level.
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.