Tag: Animals Nonfiction

Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse

by Nancy Marie Brown

This book is about Icelandic sagas and horses. The author tells how she first became interested in studying the sagas during university years, and took her husband to Iceland to rent out a summerhouse one year, where they would find solitude to work and write. She fell in love with the land, and its distinctive horses. I didn’t know how remarkably difference Icelandic horses are from other breeds (Arabians are too, in different ways). Also very different is how they are raised and trained, and the attitude of people towards them in Iceland. After visiting several times the author, a moderately experienced rider, decided she wanted to buy two Icelandic horses to take home to America. She returned alone specifically for this purpose. Which was made difficult by the fact that after some fifteen years spent studying the language, her conversational skills were still very basic. Her riding skills were above beginner level- but she wasn’t at all trained how to handle an Icelandic horse. She traveled around and rode many different horses to try them out, but couldn’t find one that she really connected with. And in spite of constantly repeating the phrase popular in Iceland that color doesn’t matter (a horse’s personality, willingness, smoothness of gait, etc being far more important in defining its quality) she kept being drawn to horses that had an attractive appearance (but other serious flaws that revealed upon handling). Then there was the tricky social aspect- her host expected her to purchase the mare he recommended (being known as a fine judge of horses) and was offended when she kept looking around. It was all very interesting to read about. The first half of the book was a bit less intriguing for me- having lots of asides about the language, and retelling bits of sagas that related to what the author was experiencing or thinking about. I liked it much better the further she got into testing out the horses, learning about what defined the Icelandic horse, trying to improve her skills in riding them, and so on. More about this was much to my liking. A great book.

Rating: 4/5
230 pages, 2001

Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond

by Douglas Chadwick

I don’t think I knew there are grizzly bears that live in the harsh, barren desert. There’s not many of them- thirty or forty it seems. The author, a renowed biologist, traveled to the Gobi region in Mongolia multiple times as part of a team studying the population of golden desert bears. Tracking them with difficulty, supplementing their food supply (a difficult adjustment for a scientist who his whole life had followed and urged the rule don’t feed the bears! but he explains why in this case it was okay and even essential), setting live-capture traps to take vital signs. Putting up barbed wire strands in key areas to snag hair for DNA samples. Meeting with local officials to help form laws and regulations protecting the bears and other animals, and with schoolchildren to teach, encouraging appreciation of their wildlife. Lots about the landscape of the desert, the vast sense of place, the cheerful optimism of the people around him, the culture. Made me remember other books I’ve read that take place in Mongolia and surrounding regions. I wish there’d been more about the bears than just glimpses, but the wealth of information they could gather from hair samples, dissecting scat, tracking collars and motion-activated cameras (often destroyed by the startled bears) was impressive and valuable. It’s nice to see this book end on an upnote, with the population remaining steady perhaps even increasing a bit, protections and scope of the study widening, and more people caring about the bears.

When the author mentioned his work on mountain goats, I thought, I have to read that book! and guess what I recalled that I did- several times actually- and it’s still among my very favorites – A Beast the Color of Winter. (I think I like it even better than this one, because it has more detail about the animals’ daily lives and habits, since he could habituate them to his presence and get very close). Chadwick is a great writer, the narrative moves along with vivid and definite prose, clear descriptions of the landscape and the work, warm and thoughtful portraits of his fellow men, and also a good dash of humor throughout. Here’s just a sample sentence: the landscape unfolding before us felt so elemental and ancient that the human habit of parsing time into minutes and then fussing over their loss had begun to seem like a mental disorder.

Another bit I particularly like: In science, being confused is an opportunity to admit that you don’t understand something and to start asking questions. The obstacle is that part of human nature urges us to avoid confusion and stick with the answers we already have, working to make them fit. The more you heed that inner voice, and the more you assume that the answers you have must be right, the lower your chances of learning something new.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2017

Mighty Monarch of the Sea

by Jacques-Yves Cousteau

An older book about whales. It caught my attention at a library sale because I knew this author was famous for being among the first men to film underwater, making early documentaries of sea life. He invented the aqualung (very early type of scuba gear) and some other apparatus that enabled man to explore the oceans. This book is part of a series called The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-authored with Philippe Diolé. I have a few others- the one on sharks and another about coral reefs- and I’d really like to read the one about cephalopods, too.

This book describes a number of ocean expeditions the author made with his team, in pursuit of whales. And when I say pursuit, I really mean that. His attempts to film whales swimming free in the oceans were among the first ever done- they had to find the whales, get close enough and then stay in range. To not loose track of the whales when they dived, they tried to tag buoys on them with several-thousand-plus-foot lines, using light harpoons. Said over and over again that the whales would hardly feel it and were not injured, but I dare say they were bothered a lot, according to how quickly they swam away, and tried to avoid the boats. The team discovered they could hold individual whales in one place by circling them with an outboard motor- the ring of bubbles and noise disorientated the whales (presumably making it hard for them to use their echolocation). When they did this to calves, it’s no wonder the mother whales became aggravated. They found the whales were usually not at all aggressive, taking care to avoid divers in the water with their giant fins, and they often could approach close enough to grab hold and “go for a ride.” They seemed pretty thrilled with this. It was all in the attempt to get film footage of the whales, but honestly from a modern perspective, anyone doing this would be called out for harassing the animals.

That said, they did have some incredible encounters and learned some things about whales that nobody knew before- although the book feels seriously outdated to this reader. In different parts of the book they find and follow around humpbacks, grey whales, right whales, sperm whales, orcas, dolphins, finback whales and others. They rescued a few pelicans found injured, and one with a broken wing. They found a way into some secluded lagoons in Baja California where grey whales give birth and raise their young- didn’t witness a birth, but found many calves nursing, and were closely approached by calves while the mothers napped. Made an attempt to save an injured grey whale calf that had beached, the mother nowhere in sight- but it only lived a few days. There’s descriptions of the gear they used, the differences between the whales, what was known about whale physiology and social behavior (not much on this last point, and some of the information given is just wrong). I was mostly interested in parts about the orcas, to compare to the last book I read, but while Namu was mentioned, and the captivity of orcas criticized, this was only a few pages. There’s lots about the sounds whales make, especially the humpback songs, and how whales reacted to recordings played back to them. The author surmises that soon mankind will decipher the language of whales- well here we are fifty years later, not yet. But currently AI is being used to try and “decode” the sounds that sperm whales make- I have to admit I’m skeptical, but also find this quite exciting.

The author writes a lot in this book about how profoundly emotional he and the team members felt in the presence of the whales, that they often were observed and scrutinized, and in awe of the animals’ great size and apparent gentleness. Just by the way whales would look closely at them, they felt indicated a high intelligence. And they often related maneuvers the whales made as a group to shake off the trailing boats, which pointed at an obvious plan and collaboration among the pod or school. It’s kind of dismaying that with all the respect and admiration they claimed to feel towards the whales, they would still find it okay to lasso a calf, stand on a wild whale’s back, or try to ride it like a horse. I guess they thought it wouldn’t hurt and took pride in the daring of these antics, and I’m sad that this is what stood out to me upon closing the book, when really there are many interesting passages and firsthand observations that were at the time, stunning revelations about whales.

The pictures are somewhat blurred and grainy, but some are quite compelling in spite of that. I think my favorite are three photographs of a wild orca accepting fish from a diver’s hand.

Rating: 3/5
304 pages, 1972

How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator

by Jason M. Colby

Before 1965, killer whales were widely regarded as dangerous animals, considered pests by fishermen, often shot at and killed without any restrictions by fishermen, whalers and government agencies alike. That started to change when one man, Ted Griffin, braved getting in the water with a captured killer whale. His action was unprecedented and sensational, drawing shocked and astonished crowds of people who would had never seen a whale up close, never would have dared to approach one. Before long there was a scramble to catch more orcas and keep them alive- up to this point they had always been sent to rendering plants or dissected for scientific study. Methods were crude and rough at first, lots of whales died, and plenty that were caught didn’t last longer than a year in captivity- if even that. But within the short span of a decade, public opinion about orcas had flipped completely. Far from being viewed as dangerous, vicious beasts, they were beloved and admired by many. Which was only possible because one person thought to keep a whale confined, and show others it didn’t automatically attack (or eat people).

Gradually, though, the more orcas that were caught and put in pools, pens and even (temporarily) fish ponds, the more people began to wonder if this was a bad idea. Finally able to study orcas up close, scientists began to learn more about their acoustic sensitivity, their close social bonds, even the differences between pods that ate fish and others that only fed on mammals (unknown before). When someone finally realized how to individually identify and track orcas, family structures were teased out, and population counts were finally conducted. The public started to clamor for whales to be protected instead of pursued, and many protested their being kept in captivity at all. Lots of mishaps in this book, there’s accounts of Luna and Keiko and others. The narrative doesn’t dwell on the stress and poor health the whales experienced in captivity, though. Mostly the focus is on the people. People who first tried to catch whales, who tried to study them, who trained them and worked to protect them and all kinds of competition and political friction around their welfare. It can get hard to keep all the names straight- after a while I quit trying much, reading lightly to get a general impression. There’s a nice personal touch brought in by the many interviews, the author having travelled to visit with men who were involved in the early heyday of live orca shows, getting personal stories, opinions and viewpoints not often shared before. Overall it’s a detailed historical account of how public opinion changed so quickly about this one whale species. I much prefer stories with more depth about singular individuals, so that’s the only reason why I considered this book good and not great. However it was interesting enough that I made the effort to finish. Very well-researched, extensive notes and references. I have a long list of new titles to look for, thanks to this one.

I actually liked reading the history in this book, because much of it took place in the Puget Sound region, where I grew up. Lots of details of maritime culture, fishing and whaling industries and how they changed, things about the Seattle waterfront, and brief mention of how native tribes viewed the killer whale. One small thing I could somewhat relate to- Ivar’s. I’ve been to the famous Ivar’s seafood restaurant with my family (once). I didn’t know that originally the man Ivar Haglund also ran a small public aquarium. When it folded he kept the adjoining restaurant going.

Side note: this book has the best organized endnotes I have ever seen. Usually it’s kind of tedious to find the endnote at the back of the book that you’re looking for, so I’ll keep a separate bookmark back there if I wanted to frequently look for more information. In this volume, the endnote pages had the span of origin pages marked in each top margin, which made it very easy to find them! It’s a small thing, but I really liked that feature.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
394 pages, 2018`

Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World

by Patrik Svensson

The more I read about eels, the more fascinated I am. This book was published almost a decade after Eels by James Prosek, and yet it doesn’t add a whole lot to the eel’s story. Not to say there isn’t a lot of different information, and what was familiar was presented from different angles, so I found it intriguing all over again (plus I had forgotten plenty of details in the meantime). But in the end, the unanswered questions still remain. The eel’s birthplace remains at most a highly probably best guess, still nobody has seen two eels mating, or found adult sexually mature eels in the Sargasso Sea. If I read about this in the first book I had forgotten: that young Sigmund Freud spent a month dissecting hundreds of eels in search of one that had reproductive organs (eels don’t develop sexual organs until they’re on their final journey to the sea to mate). I read (probably again) about the man who tracked down the eels’ breeding ground, by following the leaflike eel larvae searching for smaller and smaller ones until he must be near their birthplace. Twenty years of searching. I read about how eels were among the foods that saved early colonists in New England from starving (even though nobody eats eel for Thanksgiving, they should!) About an eel that a kid tossed down a well, and apparently it survived there for a hundred and fifty years, alone in the dark, eating the occasional thing that fell in. Eels can have a very long lifespan. And what’s crazy is that they make their journey back to the sea, undergoing a final metamorphosis into an adult eel, at anywhere from four or five years to thirty, fifty, eighty . . . or more. So two eels that meet in the Sargasso Sea could be “all in the same developmental phase, the same relative age, if you will, and yet the oldest seven times older than the youngest.” There’s stories of eels caught in their young stages and kept in captivity, that stayed in that phase for years and years, never developing further.

There’s a lot of material in this book quoted from Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, which has a lengthy section about the life of an eel. And a passage reproduced and examined at length, from The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, where the main character and his parents observed a man pull a dead horse’s head out of the water and extract eels from it. I found this passage very disturbing back then and disturbing now all over again! (In fact, a lot of that book was disturbing. It’s one I read in high school, the words captivated me and I was proud of reading a real dorstopper, but a lot of things in that book were rather repulsive, it’s one I kind of regret reading at all. However a lot of it also went way over my head, so not sure I can judge it fairly).

This book also has a lot of personal narrative, where the author describes fishing for eels with his father as a young boy, how their methods changed over the decades, and different details surrounding that. It was lovely, even though of course the eels die and get eaten. And the way they acquired a massive amount of worms to make a special kind of bait ball, was rather shocking!

Plus lots more facts and interesting stories and tidbits about the life and mystery of eels, of course. At the end, as is sadly the case with many books about wild animals that I read, is a chapter full of concern for indications that eel numbers are falling drastically, and it is likely this animal will go extinct before we even have understood it completely.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
241 pages, 2019

by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

It’s a tad disappointing that this book was on my TBR list for eight years, and now that I finally got a chance to read it, I just wasn’t that awestruck. It’s another photograph-heavy coffee-table sized book, companion to The Hidden Life of Wolves. (I thought at first this one had been published later, but actually it came first). The project it was based on is described in Wolves At Our Door. Having already read those other two books, this one offers very little new or different info. It’s actually somewhat repetitive inside its own pages. There’s parts that describe (briefly) the filming project, the social structure of the wolf pack, their hunting skills and involved care of the young. There’s very little narrative of actual incidents- but two stand out to my mind in particular: the wolves’ reaction when a raven died, and how they were observed eating flowers (shooting stars) in a field, every spring (but nobody was sure why). Everything else was nice- but for me, not much more than that. The photographs really are beautiful and expressive, but also a bit grainy, not with the clarity of focus or printing as nowadays. For it’s time this is a gorgeous book, but I can’t help comparing it to other things I’ve read before that were written since, and it doesn’t stand up as excellent in that regard. All that said, I am holding onto it!

What I really want is to see the films these authors have produced- about wolves, and cougars. Haven’t been able to find them available anywhere (aside from buying my own dvd that is).

Rating: 3/5
176 pages, 2005

Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst

by Catherine Reid

The author wanted to see a coyote. Not in a zoo or research center (though she did visit one where litters of coyote pups were being raised), but out free in the wild. Near her house. This book is about all sorts of things circling around the coyote. Sometimes it doesn’t sit well with me when a book purportedly about an animal, tends to be just as much about the author’s personal life. In this case, I didn’t mind- I found that part interesting and relevant, but I can see why another reviewer complained about it. She talks about the landscape, her reasons for moving away from the area and back home again, her fears of the family’s reactions to her partner (she’s lesbian), her trans friend visiting, how she attempts to thwart deer and other animals from eating her garden (I can relate!), looking for a fox den, the history of wildlife management where she lives (and all over the States, really), etc. The parts about coyotes range from how they’ve been persecuted to their interbreeding with wolves. There’s plenty of musings on how close coyotes are related to red wolves or Mexican wolves, and where do you draw the line to define a species. Because is the Eastern coyote a coyote/wolf hybrid, or a coyote evolving into a distinct species- larger than its western counterpart, with subtle but distinctive differences in how it hunts, how its pups play, and so on. A lot of those differences align more with the habits of wolves, so thus the confusion. There was a lot in here about coyotes and wolves and their interrelationship with man (in general) that I hadn’t thought on before. I knew that coyotes eat cats and small dogs, I didn’t know they would attempt to make off with a small child- many incidents of toddlers being accosted by coyotes in here. And in the end, the very last chapter, she does finally catch a fleeting glimpse of a coyote, out in the wild. Pervasive, persistent, elusive creature. Like so many other animals– they are surviving around and in spite of us because they’re successful.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
179 pages, 2004

Living with Caribou

by Seth Kantner

The author grew up in Alaska, where his family (white folks) lived as the Natives did, in a sod igloo on the tundra, hunting and gathering food each year. Very close to the land. As he got older, his brother decided to leave for college, and when Katner had his own children, his daughter likewise left for the Lower 48. But he stayed in his father’s footsteps, only wanting to be an expert hunter, to know the animals and landscape more closely, to be there. The book varies widely in its focus: some chapters are about his family history, why and how they lived the way they did, the difficulties and sense of fulfillment in it. Other chapters are about the land, the history of people in Alaska, how arrival of Outsiders changed things, how wildlife management and land ownership has changed things, and most of all how climate shifts have changed and affected everything. But mostly it’s about the caribou. How much they depend on this one animal. Why it is so valuable to people living a subsistence lifestyle. Possible causes between a population crash in the past (which sounded like fable to Katner when older people told him about it in his youth), the abundance and growth he knew most of his life, and the troublesome reduction in numbers more recently. As much as this man loves the wildlife and hunting, he is honest about the choices he’s had to make to maintain it. Why they stopped using dog teams for the most part, and switched to machines. How thrilled he was as a teenager to finally own a modern (semi-automatic) rifle that had far more accuracy and ease of use than any weapon he’d had in the past. This was so effective in “harvesting” animals that most people overdid it. Or got careless. Leaving wounded caribou, or spoiling the meat with bad shots. How shameful that was, and yet he found himself struggling to resist the urge to continue, to just get another and another. The passage describing this impulse to keep killing and how he fought it off, was very sobering. It reminds me of reading accounts when a predator got into a pen of sheep, or a fox into a henhouse, how rampantly they slaughter- because the prey can’t flee, and suddenly it is so easy . . . 

There are stories in here of people he knew growing up, and the wisdom they shared. Interesting characters. Stories of how villages changed and grew with influx of new technologies and connections to Outside. Accounts of government and politics likewise getting involved, affecting the lives of people and animals too. The historical parts interested me more than I first expected them to. I didn’t know, for example, that reindeer were introduced from other parts of the world, when caribou scarcity threatened the lives of Natives decades ago. Or how different they are now, in spite of actually being the same species. Since this is a book about a hunter, there is a lot on how the animals are butchered and their bodies used, in plenty of detail- which might put off some readers.

I recall now having read Caribou and the Barren-Lands, but the details now unclear. I wish I’d read these books alongside each other.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2021

A Dog and His People

by Rick Bragg

By the same author as All Over But the Shoutin’. Which I had forgotten about, but reminded myself of via my own review, and now I feel this one rounds the other out nicely. It’s kind of a memoir, mostly focused on the dog. The author lived with his mother and brother on a small farm, in his older age. Struggling with some health issues, just getting through each day and keeping the place more or less running. They took in a stray dog that had lots of problems. Half blind, loved to chase everything, always getting into all kinds of trouble. Author would tell everyone what a bad dog he was, worst dog he’d ever have. Never minded unless he had his own reasons too, that dog. At the beginning you get a sense they wondered why they bothered to keep him around. Then they started to tolerate his ways, quit expecting him to change (though he did mellow some after finally being neutered). And at the end, you get a sense that this phrase “he’s a bad dog” was said with pride, and even fondness. The dog really behaved awfully, but he needed a home after living rough for who-knows how long, and when he saw it was good here, he stuck by his people. Just sitting companionably on the porch when someone was too unwell to do much more than sit and gaze down the driveway. He spent hours in the house (though usually preferred being outside) being near his elderly mother, an ear to all her stories when she lost family during Covid. When folks needed him, the dog was there. I didn’t realize how recent this book was, how current to times, until I read about their fears of Covid, struggles with lockdown, grief that went unattenuated- no funerals or family gatherings to honor someone’s passing. That made it very much more real to me, but also kind of eerie, as I don’t often read books that echo so soon something I’ve gone through. (I didn’t loose any family members during Covid, but other aspects of that story, I could relate to).

It’s not all sad though, not by a long shot. There’s wry commentary and quiet moments and lots of humor, especially at the dog’s misbehavior. I think my favorite part was when the dog tried to herd kittens in the barn- the episode included a large paper sack- and I was laughing so hard. This author is a really good storyteller. I ought to read more of his work.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
238 pages, 2021

The Physics of Animal Life

by Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher

Animals and science. This one was a bit slow for me to get through. I enjoyed all the things I learned about exactly how animals do things (though some details are still undiscovered, or at least at the time of this publication), but I didn’t always grasp the explanations, even though I could tell the author was simplifying matters for the general reader. In a nice way. And when equations came into the mix, my focus would start to slide. Mathematics and physics not really my thing. But I’m game to try and comprehend.

This book delves into heat conduction and energy transfer, Newton’s laws of motion, the properties of fluids and what that means for animals that move through it, on top of it, or simply want to avoid turbulence (in water or air); sound vibrations and how animals use or exploit them, likewise with electricity and magnetism, curious properties of how light travels, and quantum physics. I admit I got lost a few times. But the main subject- the animals- kept drawing my curiosity back to continue.

Some of the things I learned: some garter snakes pretend to be female to steal heat from others. Ground squirrels fight rattlesnakes by bluffing with their tails- about their size- via heat conductivity. Dwarf seahorses are super sneaky. Bees find flowers and detect if other bees have already visited them, via perception of electric fields. Oriental hornets can absorb sunlight and save it as energy using a pigment called xanthopterin! Ants navigate by polarized light- so they can find their way even on cloudy days. And there’s so much more, from how archerfish hit their targets in spite of light refraction through water, to why giant squids have such huge eyes and how geckos manage to walk on the ceiling, to the ways many other animals’ bodies work within and exploit the laws of physics- from harlequin mantis shrimp, bats, sea turtles, cuckoo chicks, elephants, bees, spiny lobsters and peacocks (shivering their tail feather display to create sounds outside the range of human hearing- but apparently very alluring to peahens), komodo dragons and mosquitoes, to your ordinary cats and dogs. Fascinating stuff, if also a bit tiresome. (It was a good go-to-sleep-at-night book).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
304 pages, 2016


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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