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
While I held many delightful conversations at the recently concluded Birdfair with friends both old and new, one person I kept repeatedly missing was Mark Avery. Oh I had sightings – coming upon Mark and his friends from Birders Against Wildlife Crime as I was exiting the Authors’ Forum following the conclusion of Tessa Boase’s brilliant presentation of her new Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, stumbling upon him meeting with a table-full of fellows outside the Celestron stand. Unfortunately, each time our paths crossed, one or the other of us lacked the available time for a nice cuppa and a sit-down.
Newly Noted Books
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.”
One of the great joys of my work reviewing books on natural history subjects is that, while many times the books arriving for review are expected, occasionally one appears that I otherwise may have quite possibly missed. In some cases this may be just as well; however in others, such as with the recently arrived “A Sustainable Future; 12 Key Areas of Global Concern,” not having the opportunity to discover what their authors had to say would be most regrettable indeed.
On my recent travels in England, just before making the pilgrimage to the BirdFair, I had the great good fortune of exploring the area around Radley Lakes with Jo Cartmell in search of Water Voles – or at least signs thereof. As the day warmed, the butterflies and dragonflies became more active, culminating in the opportunity to snap a photo (with merely my mobile phone camera, no less) of this exquisite Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, male as it basked on a barbed wire fence along the path.
Even among all the remarkable and fascinating rays of the world, manta and devil ray are special. Evolutionarily freed from bottom-dwelling status, their wing-like fins propel them gracefully and seemingly effortlessly through – and in some cases even above for short periods of time – the the open waters of the world’s oceans. Think back to when you last saw one featured in a nature documentary; it likely elicited an audible gasp of wonder and astonishment.
Meteorology, climate science, magnetism, acoustics, bacteriology; all these fields were greatly advanced by the contributions to them made by John Tyndall. However if you’re like many people – including may who consider themselves relatively well-versed in the history of the sciences – his name may not be a familiar one to you. Yet in his time, his writings were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, and his lectures filled halls night after night.
Imagine that you’re a Seventeeth Century merchant of some means, and you’ve just acquired a new pet Nightingale. It’s a lovely bird with an exquisite song; doubtless soon to become an object of envy amongst your friends at your next dinner party. But as you sit admiring it, you are suddenly struck by a troubling thought: “What am I going to feed it; what do Nightingales even eat?”
Ever since the remarkable success of the English translation of Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees,” it seems that English language publishers have been very busily working their way through his previous writings in search of any others that might meet with similar success in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. Not to in any way diminsih Herr Wohlleben’s work – I happen to be quite impressed by the way he has brought his fresh, “deeper than deep” ecological ideas into the mainstream reading public.
After completing my reading of Andrea Wulf‘s award-winning – and justly so – The Invention of Nature; Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, I not surprisingly found myself wanting to take up some of the works of von Humboldt himself. Unfortunately, as my French is very rusty from decades of neglect and my German all but non-existent save those few helpful phrases that most any traveler acquires (“Wo ist die Toilette,” etc.), I am limited to reading English translations of his writings. And here my troubles began. Keep reading…
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 […]
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.
Episode 40 of the Cornell University Press 1869 podcast features a very insight-filled discussion with Jerry Jenkins, director of the Northern Forest Atlas Project, about his recently published “Woody Plants of the Northern Forest; A Photographic Guide” and its more field-worthy complement “Woody Plants of the Northern Forest: Quick Guide.”