Tag: Nature

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

Public Lands, Private Herds and the Natural World

by Cat Urbigkit

Following and tending to a herd of sheep, through one season on a Wyoming range. The author and her husband raise sheep on a federal grazing allotment, keeping the herd within a prescribed area (albeit very large) for the main part of the season, and returning home to the ranch for the winter. There’s day-to-day descriptions of her work with the herd, weather and wildlife encounters on the range. Interspersed with all that are explanations on how grazing animals affect the landscape, the difficulties in dealing with predators which are protected under law, and descriptions of how range sheep are managed in other parts of the world, with a lot about the benefits of pastoral grazing and the culture of sheepherders. It was a bit dry in style, but also very interesting because presented a completely different viewpoint to previous things I’ve read about wildlife and the use of land for grazing animals. Just one example, even though I read it many years ago, I still remember how strongly this book convinced me that coyotes are good for the landscape- insisting among other things, that they mostly ate small rodents and ground squirrels, not calves (that writer lived in an area with many cattle ranchers). Urbigkit makes it very plain that coyotes were a serious threat to her lambs, along with birds of prey, black bears, wolves (introduced from Canada) and mountain lions. The most effective -and least harmful to protected wildlife- way to keep the sheep losses to a minimum, is using guardian dogs that are raised with the sheep and live among the flock. I’ve heard about these special dogs before, so I really liked reading more about that. They’re quite fierce- not hesitating to tangle with the predators- and tenderly watch over lambs that go astray or get abandoned by their mothers, until the shepherd can take them into her care (during the year of this book, she had fifteen “bum” lambs). I was surprised to read how widely the dogs roam- pretty much wherever they want to, in their duties protecting the flock. Sometimes she got visited by dogs from other flocks that happened to be nearby- and often recognized them, as being from the same litter as one of her dogs, offspring of one she knew, etc. The young lambs sound so darling, but of course they sometimes meet with mishaps or disease, and not all the orphans she raises in the bum flock make it. The book closes tidily with the end of the season, when they move the sheep herd to sort out the lambs and older ewes for sale, and return to the ranch for winter.

Some of the more interesting points were learning about how the grazing habits of the sheep, with their hooves breaking up the soil and their dung fertilizing it, actually improve the land (sagebrush does better and is more productive with grazers passing through, for example). I read more about the controversial winter feeding of elk on the range- I thought this was just to keep elk from starving during tough winters, but apparently it is to keep them from going to areas where cattle are fed, because disease can pass between the two species. Also I learned that wild bighorns can cross with domestic sheep, although the resulting hybrids are a problem because legally the shepherds can’t own any wildlife or hybrids thereof (even though they tried to keep the bighorn ram out of their flock!) There was also a pronghorn that started hanging out with the sheep on a regular basis at one point. And she had two donkeys that lived with the herd, also protecting the sheep but with different focus and methods than the dogs. All the interactions of the animals are engaging to read- whether dogs and sheep, dogs and coyotes, ravens hanging around the lambing grounds, grouse, foxes, osprey, cranes and more that the author could observe up close. There’s plenty of photographs.

I was curious to see what else this author has written, so took a look- quite a few books about sheep, the guardian dogs, and some of the wildlife in Wyoming. I’ve read her book about pronghorn. Most of the other titles appear to be juvenile non-fiction, which is still appealing enough I may look for some of them at the library.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
289 pages, 2012

On the Wings of the World

by Fabien Grolleau

Graphic novel about John James Audubon, illustrated by Jérémie Royer. It was nice to learn more about the man, how his obsession to find and document all the bird species in the United States took him on dangerous travels away from his family for so many years. While I didn’t find the artwork particularly appealing, I did feel like it conveyed a sense of how dark, wild and foreboding the wilderness must have seemed during those times. Audubon faced rough circumstances, aggressive men, bad food, illness and more in his quest. Also lack of support, when traveling companions, assistants or patrons fell by the wayside. Then there’s the overshadowing competition from his rival Alexander Wilson. I looked up Wilson’s artwork and really, I find them both of wonderful in quality. Maybe Audubon’s is more expressive (a fact that seemed to make patrons disinclined to fund his efforts). Modern readers will probably find the numbers of birds Audubon shot, and his work of taxidermy to make the specimens subjects for his studies and paintings, disturbing. Seems plenty of Audubon’s compatriots did as well. This book is just a glimpse of his life and the work he did- there’s a lot left out (not surprising) and some parts are rather fanciful, but I like that it gave me an overview of what he did and how singleminded his pursuit was. It’s nice that many words from Audubon’s own writing is included in the text, and several of his bird plates are reproduced in the back pages.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
184 pages, 2017

A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard

by Douglas W. Tallamy

Companion book to Bringing Nature Home. It’s been a while since I read the previous one, so a bit difficult to put my finger on how the focus is different between the two- because in a broad sense, they’re about the same thing? This book is also about how important it is for everyone to do something to support wildlife, specifically “the small things that run the world”- the insects- because they are the base of so much other life on earth. It’s about why you should remove invasive plants- and exactly why they are so damaging to the environment, making entire systems collapse or become sterile- and what types of plants you should choose to replace them. I should have realized that plants have keystone species just like animals- ones that are so important to the support and health of all the rest that without them the ecosystem is seriously degraded. The author reiterates over and over through this book which half a dozen shrub, perennial and tree species will provide food and shelter for the greatest number of insects, and thus birds (specifically to the Eastern United States). He points out that it doesn’t matter how small your yard is, or how few resources you have- just starting by removing one invasive, or by planting one native that feeds insects and/or birds, will start a change. Notes how even a small yard can be an oasis for wildlife in the middle of a built-up city, bringing in birds and other creatures from miles around. His biggest points seem to be: make your lawn smaller, plant more natives- but not just any native- ones that are keystone species- and remove as many destructive, invasive plants as you can. Other helpful tips, like: don’t put up a huge “bee hotel” with hundreds of cavities. This makes bees susceptible to their predators. Instead make smaller blocks with drilled holes, and space them out through the yard. Make sure to keep your yard tidy and have at least a strip of well-manicured lawn with nice edges out front where people see it. This gives the impression that the area is cared for, so that wilder looking collections of plants, or unfamiliar natives that some people call weeds, will be more accepted by your neighbors. Made me chuckle a bit, because how true that is. The book also made me sigh, because now I think I’ve now identified another invasive in my own yard which I need to work at removing.

So a lot of it felt like re-iteration from the other book, the same things explained a bit differently. My copy is full of photographs, which I really appreciate, especially of all the birdlife and interesting caterpillars. It’s surprisingly heavy, though. Might actually be the reason it took me two or three weeks to gradually read this one, in between a bunch of others, because sometimes merely the idea of the weight in my hands made me pause and reach for a different book instead, ha. It’s nice that in the back, the author has a kind of question-and-answer section, where he addresses common objections people have to making the changes to their yards and landscapes that he recommends. I learned some from that, too.

Rating: 4/5
254 pages, 2019

More opinions: Bookfoolery
anyone else?

A Journey to Season's Edge

by Pete Dunne

I really waffled between giving this one two or three stars. It’s the kind of book that would usually appeal to me- travel in a far off place to find and observe wildlife, in this case a husband and wife photography team on an ecotour with a group. The husband is also into bird watching. The book has a good mix of personal appeal, the small incidents and struggles of travel, banter between the companions, awe at the wide gorgeous scenery, and encounters with animals. But something about it just couldn’t hold my attention. I found myself skipping and skimming a lot. Maybe the explanations and history bits of geology, animal/human interactions and the like were interjected too much? the background info about all their traveling companions uninteresting? or the appearance of animals too few, and the remarks on them not engaging enough. Some of the observations about his travelling companions kind of rubbed me the wrong way, too. They saw many birds, glimpsed a wolf, found caribou after much searching, viewed hawk owls and had a close sighting of polar bears at Churchill. All these things I would have rather read more details about, instead of what they ate for breakfast or the brand of clothes their buddies wore. I did like the part at the end where the author attempts to hunt caribou, and explains why he’s a hunter, and talks with a French woman in the group (minimal conversation ability) about why she’s vegetarian. But it wasn’t part of what I thought the book’s focus was. I suppose that’s what it was- the book felt scattered, unfocused, like it was trying to tell all things at once. In this case, it just didn’t quite work for me.

There was also this incongruous thing about the leave no trace principle. More than once in the book the author complained about how previous tourists or visitors had left something noticeable behind – in the first case, it was just a blackened fire ring and some shifted rocks. (Honestly, that wouldn’t bother me. Trash on the other hand, very much would). He kind of went on a bit about how the landscape was no longer pristine and he deserved to see it untouched. But then when his wife made a sculpture of balanced rocks, well that was something in harmony with nature and so perfectly okay to leave for other people to see. I just- didn’t get this at all. His attitude about it bothered me.

I did, however, find one passage striking enough that I added it to my quotes page.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
258 pages, 2011

Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar

by Heather E. Heying

One of the first travels I took with my husband was to Madagascar. I still can hardly believe I went there! It was incredible and beautiful, but also a bit rough, and plenty frustrating. So I was instantly curious about this book when I found it at a library sale- how much would I find familiar, from my limited exposure? It’s about a young scientist’s work in the field, studying a rare species of poisonous frog. A bit disappointingly, not much in the book is actually about the frogs. They’re very small, difficult to find- even when she’s located a population, simply finding the individuals each day to observe is a trial. Much of the book is about the struggles. How difficult it is to simply get to the island in the first place. The impossibility of bringing all the right equipment, finding or making do or improvising once in the field (because most things are just not available). Dealing with rough living quarters, lack of variety in the food, suffocating heat and pervasive mold, illness, heavy weather, falling trees, and so on. (But there’s no poisonous snakes to worry about!) Everything seems to be hard to manage, from transportation to acquiring permits, to finding people to help with the work, to facing locals who can’t understand what she’s doing there, stare and point just because she’s foreign, steal her belongings because she has so much and they so little, and conservation workers on the island who don’t do anything to actually protect it. Of course, there’s also writing about all the amazing things about being there, and the discoveries she made, that made it all worth it. The gorgeous sky. The unique wildlife. The friendly, generous and overall helpful people she did meet, some who became partners in her research, as she taught them the skills. How her sense of time, urgency and pressure changed during her stay, until she came to fall in line with the Malagasy attitude of patiently waiting, when things did not occur as expected or scheduled. What happens, will happen, because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, seemed to be the prevailing mindset.

The last chapter does have more details about the actual frog study- this species was remarkable for being somewhat social, the males vying for small territories, not just breeding rights- and exhibiting some parental care. I would, as usual, liked to have read more about the animal behavior, but all the details of her trials and frustrations, her discoveries with the culture and what it was like to live in a place so very far away and lacking many conveniences and comforts we just take for granted, was plenty interesting in and of itself. One thing that stood out to me was how hard she found it to simply mark the individual frogs for identification. Apparently it’s common practice for field biologists to tag frogs by cutting off certain toes! She didn’t want to do that and tried other methods- including tying decorated waistbands around them, or sewing colored beads onto their skin, but finally (near the end of the book) found a way to tattoo the little amphibians.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 2002

How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene

by Emily Monosson

This book was unsatisfying. Just too short for what it tackled. It is very clear and concise, and I feel like I have a better understanding of the issues addressed. But it seemed incomplete, didn’t really offer any conclusion or solution to the problems. Discusses how human impacts via chemical and toxic pollution, use of pesticides and herbicides, genetic manipulation of plants and war waged on germs via vaccinations and drugs, is pushing evolution in all kinds of species. Including those targeted (bedbugs, weeds, cancer, mosquitoes, etc) and those that are just bystanders- frogs, salamanders and fish that live in water collecting runoff and chemical waste, for example. Also how humans are perhaps evolving, changing in response to environmental stressors and pollutants, though this part didn’t talk about quite what I expected, and didn’t answer my questions either. There’s explanations in here about genetics, inheritance of traits, how mutations arise that may or may not benefit organisms, and why they are prevalent enough to influence a population’s evolution or not. Which happens way faster that Darwin ever surmised. It felt odd to be reading a book old enough that it didn’t deal with the biggest things seen in my lifetime. In the chapters about vaccinations and disease, it raises alarms about flu strains and MRSA. Now you’d expect of course, such a book to be talking about Covid 19. The introduction, mentioning how changing traits in stressed populations are seen far quicker in rapidly-reproducing species like houseflies and gnats, says “We won’t see the evolution of tusk-free African elephants in heavily hunted populations  . . . in “contemporary” time, but we are certain to encounter plenty of chemically resistant pests and pathogens.” Wrong. This is happening right now, tuskless elephants are becoming more prevalent in the population. I remember I felt shocked when I first read about it in National Geographic several years ago- but then after a moment’s thought I wasn’t too surprised. So this book goes into details about how unsustainable our battle against insects, disease and competitive plants in our crops (weeds) can be- because they will always evolve quick enough to one-up our defenses, putting us in a worse situation, and now we are starting to suffer fallout of our own creation. (I thought for a moment the text was going to be supporting antivaxxers but it didn’t quite go that far). On the other hand, it didn’t offer any answers as to what we should do, either. That’s the part that frustrated me. Raising alarms and pointing out problems, but no suggested way forward.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
187 pages, 2015

a journey back to nature

by Brigit Strawbridge Howard

I’ve read many books about birdwatching, one about someone who traveled all over to see certain turtle species, and another about seeking out hummingbirds. This one is in a smiliar vein, but about bees. Specifically, wild bees. One of the facts I learned: there are over twenty thousand bee species on Earth, and only 260 are the familiar bumblees and honeybees. So many more are unknown. At least, to most of us. The author of this delightful book realized one day that she couldn’t name the tree species in her town, and decided to learn more about nature by close observation. She quickly became fascinated with wild bees, taking photos of them, trying to identify them and learning about their behavior. Her delight becomes the reader’s. So much to know! I was vaguely aware of a few solitary bees- mason bees and carpenter bees- but I didn’t know anything about tree bumblebees, or ivy bees, or cuckoo bees (which do exactly what their name suggests). Besides all things about bees in here, this book also has sections that discuss global warming (and its impact on wildlife, of course), problems that humans cause for bees, birds and other wildlife (including a new term for me- anthrophony– which is the collective background noise caused by humans). There’s things about gardening, about living alongside wildlife, about appreciating trees and flowering plants. There’s a bit of travel writing and bird-watching, but mostly it is close to home, with loving scrutiny of the small creatures- especially bees. Home for the author is in the UK, so my only little disappointment with this book is that not all the species mentioned are familiar to me, or ones I will see in my garden. I liked it a lot regardless. Fun tidbit: did you know that if a bumblebee feels you are too close, it will signal its desire for you to back off by raising a leg in the air? That’s just great.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
282 pages, 2019

A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear

by Kieran Mulvaney

I’ve read other books with polar bears, so didn’t expect to find a ton of new material in this for me, but either I forgot a lot of things or this had different details, presented differently, a lot of it was so interesting and explained well. All things polar bear. How they live on the ice, and how crucial it is to their survival. How careful the balance is between consuming and using energy, and maintaining their ideal body temperature. How carefully the mother bears select their den sites, why there are no polar bears in the Antarctic, their impressive powers as hunters (and they’re so smart!) leading mostly solitary lives yet they come together in groups to feast on whale carcasses, or to wait for ice to form in the fall. The book is a mix of chapters on bear physiology, history with mankind (including some fascinating legends from northern peoples) and direct observations by the author, who lived in Alaska for many years and also travelled to Churchill to see polar bears there. The last part got a bit dull as it was mostly facts about how polar bear hunting for trophies was finally stopped, and measures started to be taken to protect their environment. As the book is already dated now, threats of global warming are only touched on, though the seriousness of it was soundly recognized. I’m always prompted after reading something more than ten years old like this, to look up how things have continued or changed, following some of the author’s predictions. In this case, I was struck by a statement at the end of the book that in fifty years’ time (so around 2060), female polar bears might no longer be able to travel to and from their denning sites- two of the largest areas in use being Svalbard Archipelago and Wrangel Island. Well, here we are ten years later and so far the bears are still using those areas to raise their cubs. But they are having to go longer and longer without food to do so.

Really good book, but now I want to read the one by Ian Stirling! Which is quoted from in here numerous times.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
251 pages, 2011

by Elspeth Huxley

Memoir that continues the story started in The Flame Trees of Thika. After the war, the author’s family did return to their farm in Kenya. It continues much the same- with the difficulties of raising crops- one attempt after another that failed to make the profit they hoped for (maize, almonds, coffee and so on- one neighbor was growing geraniums to distill essential oils) and the struggles to keep peace among their employees from different, warring tribes. The descriptions of the landscape, plants and wildlife are just beautiful, and the details about the various tribal cultures very interesting. Unlike the prior book where the author often seemed a nonentity in the background eavesdropping on adult conversations (and not really comprehending them), in this book she’s very much a personality and involved in all kinds of events on and around the farm. Efforts to make new enterprises work. Observing disputes among the natives (and how her family handles them). Raising orphaned wildlife- a civet cat, a cheetah cub. Going on hunts and near the end of the book, a longer proper safari after lion. Her unspoken but very evident crush on a young man from a neighbor’s farm. Her early attempts at writing seriously, publishing stories about their hunts and local polo matches in a magazine (which the family doesn’t take any interest in). Her attempts to learn and perform magic tricks, from correspondence kits. There are some very lively descriptions of people, some really colorful characters among her parents’ acquaintances. There’s a few chapters describing a visit from her mother’s cousin, an educated wealthy man, very kind and talks so poetically, but also something of a hypochondriac! which made him a difficult guest in their rough accomadations. The beauty of the land and freedom of the wide open space seems to make up for all the hardships and suffering they see around them- the awfulness of diseases for which there is little treatment available, livestock stricken by drought, insects and fire destroying things. Lots of incidents that end badly- and a few that come out surprisingly well. In the end, the book closes very similar manner to the first- the author now eighteen, has to leave for schooling in Europe, but vows she’ll return once again.

I appreciated seeing how her outlook on the use of the land and its wildlife gradually changed. When she was younger she admired the hunters and their trophies, and was eager to participate. But near the end she’s starting to see how uncontrolled hunting has changed the behavior of game animals- and in some areas depleted their numbers entirely. She thrills to see the animals in their native habitat, and doesn’t see the value in killing them just to display horns on a wall or show off a skin. People around her don’t understand her sentiment of preferring to see the land unspoiled as opposed to developed and civilized. She even noted how things the Europeans introduced had changed the native peoples. Insightful.

Rating: 4/5
335 pages, 1962


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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