Tag: Nature

by Robyn Davidson

This book reminded me a lot of Wild, although the tone is very different there are similarities. A woman takes a very long walk across the landscape solo, to remake herself. Or so it seemed to me. That was a part of the story I couldn’t help being curious about at first, because it seemed such a strong undercurrent: what was the traumatic past Davidson was getting away from? or trying to heal from? but before many more pages I found myself respecting her privacy, especially seeing how she had to defend her need for solitude from so many people- local men in Alice Springs, tourists, National Geographic representatives . . .  She was a woman who got along better being alone or with her animals, not people- so deciding to walk 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with just four camels and a dog made sense to her. First she had to work for men in Alice Springs in order to obtain the camels- had no money, and needed some know-how. The magazine heard of her plans and wanted to do a feature on her trip, so sent a photographer to accompany her for certain legs of the journey, and of course she used the much-needed money to fund her equipment and supplies. But bitterly resented having to do so. Wanted it to be all her own effort. I admit, reading the first part of the book was difficult for me. Not only about how brutally (by neccessity, it sounds) the wild-caught camels are treated during training, but also how rough the scene was at Alice Springs. It’s very different from the picture I got of Alice Springs in other accounts. Also upsetting to read how systematically the Aborigional people were oppressed, and how racist many of the people Davidson met were.

But once she gets out in the desert, alone with her camels, things change. And not at all in the manner I might have expected. She had a lot of mental turmoil to work through, and the solitude and stress of the desert also worked upon her. She met and sometimes stayed with Aborigional people along the way- encounters she’d looked forward to, but they weren’t always as expected either. In fact a lot of things didn’t turn out as she’d planned or hoped. The way she became in tune with the landscape and learned to recognize, appreciate and use the native plants was part I loved reading about- though nearly all the plant life was totally unfamiliar to me, so I had a hard time picturing it. Very little mention of wildlife- not sure if because she didn’t encounter many animals, or just didn’t think to write about them. Overall it just sounds like it was an amazing, life-altering, and very strenuous and difficult experience- but at the same time, became very easy once she got used to the routine and rigors of the journey. She talks about social mores and niceties falling away, and how hard it was to readjust when she left the outback.

A book I definitely want to read again someday. And watch the film, though I know it simplifies the story and probably makes more of her relationship with the photographer.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 1980

A True Story of Survival and Peril on the Edge of a Warming World

by Kale Williams

Very recent book by a reporter, weaving two storylines- one about a polar bear raised by humans in a zoo (and subsequently moved to two other zoos in America), the other about a small native village in Alaska threatened by climate change as the shorelines collapse from rising temperatures (to put it simply). There’s also a lot of information- historical and current- on global warming issues. I found all three subjects interesting, but the way they fit together was sometimes awkward, the segue between chapters sometimes abrupt. The polar bear was abandoned by her mother at just a few days old, so raised by hand in the zoo- which was extremely difficult- I had no idea why, before. Polar bear milk is very hard to replicate, and the little bear apparently missed some key nutrients early on, she had weak joints and broke some bones later. Also grew up with too much attachment to humans, even though they tried to mitigate that. Eventually she lived in another zoo with another young polar bear, I found all the details of her adjustment intriguing. Sad that she continued to suffer joint issues and emotional problems (requiring the use of psychiatric drugs sometimes) for life. The author kind of questions all the effort done keeping her alive. He talks about some of the useful research done on captive bears, and mentions the breeding programs for endangered species, but also seems to be subtly questioning the idea of wildlife in zoos being “ambassadors” for their species- how much good does that really do?

On the other hand, alternating chapters tell about the struggles of native peoples in Alaska, how their way of life is altered by climate change, their subsistence lifestyle alongside and dependent upon the arctic animals crumbling when the sea ice disappears. The book puts real names and faces to this dissolution- people and vehicles falling through ice that used to weakened where it never had before in human memory. Houses collapsing. Game difficult to find, hunting unsuccessful, people going hungry, having to move from places they’d lived for generations. The effects of alcohol and introduced things from American culture that detract younger people away from their heritage- no longer interested in learning how to track weather patterns, animal movements, learn the skills that made living in the frozen land possible, because the land itself is falling apart. They can see it’s not tenable for the future.

I had to go look at pictures of it all, after I was done reading. Of the small Alaskan village, and videos online of Nora the polar bear. Other Alaskan towns are mentioned in this book, and the stories of a few other polar bears in captivity are shared, as comparison to Nora’s. Lots more info on climate issues than I’ve mentioned here, too. Wildfires, drought, etc. Words urging us all to do something. I do as much as I can but it never feels like enough. Makes me glum.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
274 pages, 2021

by Paul Brooks

Nature writing. The author describes a number of trips he took with his wife into wilderness areas, deliberately going where travel was only on hiking trails, or by canoe. Each chapter describes one location (sometimes from multiple visits): the Border Lakes of Canada and Minnesota, Olympic National Forest in Washington state, the Virgin Islands and then contrasting Isle Royale (where to my disappointment they did not see a wolf), the Great Smoky Mountains, Alaska, Canyonlands in Utah, Sanibel Island off the Florida coast and Baja California. A bit different in locale are the chapter about a safari trip with his family in Africa, and a canoeing trip through canals in England. The part about Canyonlands is mostly about arguments that were going on at the time whether or not it should be made into a national park, and the final few chapters also switch focus- one is a brief look at how our views towards the wilderness has changed through history, and the value on keeping some wilderness untouched. At the end there is basic information on camping and canoeing, a brief list of their usual supplies, and pointers on getting started. Most of it though, is descriptions of landscape in the places they traveled, with glimpses of wildlife. My favorite part was very short- a few brief sentences describing how pelicans fished off a beach- I have watched them from Ocean Beach in San Francisco myself, and I was just as enthralled as this author, to see how they fold their bodies to dive into the sea so narrow and streamlined. I used to just stand and watch them. It was nice to be so vividly reminded of that.

When I read his plea for wildlife, I had to take note of how we’ve done in the 80 years since this book was published. I’m glad to say yes, we saved the whooping crane, California condor and Arabian oryx from extinction. Bighorn sheep and white-tailed gnu are no longer endangered. Other animals, not such a good record: Asiatic lions, mountain gorillas,  and woodland caribou are still in trouble, various rhino species still very rare, polar bears are now endangered due to shrinking ice habitat (not from overhunting as was the case in this author’s time). I was a bit happy though, that none of the animals Brooks mentioned as being on the verge of disappearance, have actually done so yet.

Rating: 3/5
242 pages, 1942

The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther

by Craig Pittman

Found this book browsing the shelves, it was right alongside Path of the Puma. Not nearly as good, though- at least for me. I had a good inkling from the jacket and flyleaf descriptions that this one was going to be more about people and politics surrounding efforts to save Florida panthers than it would be about the cats themselves, but I was still willing to give it a read. I never got settled into the pages, though. It has a ton of detailed information about policy-makers, panther trackers, early studies on their whereabouts and land use, captive breeding efforts, why development was allowed to happen in crucial panther habitat lived, how Texas cougars were brought in to diversify the gene pool, and so on. But there’s far more about the people involved- and I just did not care about all their background histories and physical appearances. There’s lots on politicking and how data was wrongly presented, with long-reaching consequences, but not enough of the facts I actually like reading about animals. Plus the humorous asides and wordplay here just did not appeal to me. I actually skimmed the entire book, slowing down for the final chapter which had a bit more of interest for me.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
336 pages, 2020

the Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion

by Jim Williams

Written by a wildlife biologist, about conservation work on mountain lions, or pumas. There’s a few chapters about the author’s background, his early work tracking and collaring the big cats in the Rocky Mountains, and his efforts to manage friction between mountain lions and ranchers, as well as make science-based regulations for hunting. There’s a lot about the corridors that wildlife needs for migration and dispersal, and about the many species that cougars interact with or influence- whether by preying on them, or feeding them with remains from their own meals. Of particular interest to me was reading about the mountain caribou, which used to have a population in parts of northern Montana and Idaho, but when global warming caused deer and elk herds to move further north, the mountain lions followed and this impacted the caribou. The second half of the book is mostly about conservation work in South America- especially in Patagonia, where pumas live in vast grasslands, on high arid slopes, and on beaches (eating penguins)! A lot in those chapters was new to me. I came away from this book with a new admiration for mountain lions. I hadn’t realized before what the author points out: they are the only big cat whose numbers have been increasing in recent years. He attributes this to their adaptability and their secrecy- they are very good at living in the shadows, close to humans yet unseen. What really makes this book stand out are the photographs- all in full color, most of them stunning. I thumbed through to look at all the photos before reading a single page, and again since finishing have gone back to look at many of them twice. They’re just that good.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
311 pages, 2018

the Story of a Boy

by Richard Jeffries

Marvelous (but also disturbing) book from the 1800’s- others have described it as something like Tom Sawyer or Lord of the Flies and I heartily agree. It also reminded me a lot of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages. Bevis is the son of a landowner in rural England- and he pretty much runs around doing whatever he pleases. When the story opens, it drives straight into his efforts to build a raft out of odds and ends- I was baffled for a few pages wondering who this kid was, where he lived, what the heck he was doing, but then caught up in his unwavering intent to find items that would work to make what he wanted- because I’m a bit like that myself, when building something or other for the garden. After making the raft he goes on to rig a little (and very awkward it sounds) sailboat, he and his friend carve a boomerang, make a matchlock gun (!!), practice with bows and arrows, shoot targets with their various weapons, learn how to swim, roam around hunting rabbits and birds with their dog, stage a battle with a bunch of other boys- taking sides and planning strategies the whole nine yards, and so on and on and on.

The part I remember best is middle to the end, where Bevis and his friend Mark build a camp on an island in a lake near home, lie to their parents that they’re at someone else’s house for a visit, and live rough for a week or so. They fish, hunt small game, make pitiful attempts at cooking over a fire (with supplies filched from home like flour, potatoes, matches etc), construct a sundial, track animals pretending everything is exotic- the other kids trying to find their secret place are ‘savages’, the rabbits are ‘kangaroos’ the wood doves are ‘parrots’ you get the idea. They have to solve a little mystery of what is coming into their camp when they’re away stealing food, and another about what animal makes a wave just under the water’s surface (I thought it would be the otter but it was a type of diving bird). I was very sad when they shot the otter. It really is a story from a different time- the kids live in casual abundance- the pages are swarming with beautiful descriptions of nature, lush plant growth, myraid small wild things- which the boys delight in tracking, chasing and killing. They shoot birds for their feathers with no remorse, and are really proud of the otter skin. When they finally go home everyone praises their accomplishments and the father teaches them how to improve their shooting skills (this went on for way too many pages in my opinion). I was rather fascinated by the descriptions of sailing, though. Amazed at how ingenious the kids were at making things from observation and experiment alone. Appalled at how often they beat and kicked their dog to make it behave, and how they ignored the abject poverty the workmen’s children lived in, right alongside them on the farm but their suffering unseen.

It’s lively, full of adventure, boy’s squabbles and petty cruelties, and the richness of nature. I found it a compelling read, even though some things bothered me.

Some quotes I marked- the boys’ explanation of hindsight: “That’s just the thing”, said Bevis. “You sail forty thousand miles to find a thing, and when you get there you can see you left it at home.”

Their surprise at seeing a yellowed fern leaf, where they were sure it was an animal in the grass: when intent on one subject the mind is ready to construe everything as relating to it, and disallows the plain evidence of the senses.

The father’s appraisal of how important it was for them to learn things by experience:

He considered it best that they should teach themselves, and find out little by little where they were wrong.  Besides which he knew that the greatest pleasure is always obtained from inferior and incomplete instruments. Present a perfect yacht, a beautiful horse, a fine gun, or anything complete to a beginner, and the edge of his enjoyment is dulled with too speedy possession. The best way to learn to ride is on a rough pony, to sail in an open ill-built boat, because by encountering difficulties the learner comes to understand and appreciate the perfect instrument, and to wield it with fifty times more power than if he had been born to the purple.

I have a copy of this book on my e-reader (it was a pleasure!)

Rating: 3/5
465 pages, 1882

A Year of Keeping Bees

by Helen Jukes

Lovely book that came into my hands at just the right moment- I could not put it down, the past few days. Thoughtful memoir by a novice beekeeper. After accompanying a friend on visits to tend hives he keeps around a city, the author decided she would like to keep one herself. Friends pitched in to buy her a colony as a surprise gift, and feeling uprepared she started reading up on the history of beekeeping. So the book is part memoir, part information about bees, honey production, and how knowledge of them was gained slowly over the past centuries. It’s all seamless woven together with musings on the nature of relationships, between friends, between humans and wild things (I thought of falconry), and touching a bit on the influences mankind is having on the Earth’s ecosystems. There’s also a love story in here- an unexpected one, that she wasn’t really looking for when asked to meet a friend of a friend she thought was a beekeeper (he wasn’t, but they found a connection). There’s visits to natural history museums, dinner parties with friends, quite moments sitting in the back garden watching the bees travel to and fro, wondering where they go. Hoping they’ll stay in her hive, find it a suitable home. The final harvest of golden honey and the friends she shares it with. This wasn’t a deep dive into all things beekeeping, it’s more a personal account of how the first year keeping bees touched this woman’s life. I liked the way she shared her thoughts, her words resonated with me and I want to turn back to them again.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
234 pages, 2018

by Rachel Sussman

The living things featured in this book stagger the mind. How ancient they are, yet still living and growing- albeit very slowly– the map lichen in Greenland only grows one centimeter each hundred years, for example. It’s 3,000 years old. That’s in the middle range, for what’s in these pages- ranging from the baobabs, welwitschia and brain corals that are 2,000 years old to a sea grass meadow in Spain that’s 100,000 years old and the Siberian actinobacteria colony which is estimated to be 400,000 – 600,000 years old! And here I thought the age of giant sequoias or olive trees was mind-boggling, but now I’m in awe of moss, creosote bushes, and a unassuming-looking box huckleberry that’s at least 8,000 years old (maybe up to 13,000 years). The bristlecone pines look suitably weathered, the huge banyan figs and Japanese cedar are impressive, but I was most wowed by the unexpected, plants I’d never heard of before that are so curious- such as Parinari capensis or the underground forest- a plant whose mass is mainly below the soil, with a small group of leaves poking above ground. And especially the Llareta in Chile- a plant of tiny leaves massed so tightly together it looks like weirdly rounded blobs- I’ve never seen anything like that. I’d sure like to go see it in person someday. That plus Pando, the quaking aspen grove in Utah (80,000 years old) and the Chestnut of a Thousand Horses in Sicily (3,000 years old).

This book is the work of a professional photographer, who spent ten years travelling the world- she literally visited every continent- to view and capture images of the oldest things. Sadly two of them died by the time the book was published, succumbing to activities of humans- and others are threatened by encroaching development or climate change. Several of the species in this book are so rare the author was only allowed to view them from a distance, or to see propagated cuttings, not the original individual itself. When this was written she had a second book in mind, I hope to peruse it someday too. That all said, it felt a tad disappointing: I did wish for more actual information on the organisms in the book. The text is mostly just brief descriptions of the author’s travels and efforts to visit the sites of ancient living things, her emotions on finally seeing them, and a little bit of info gleaned from scientists she contacted or met with. Left me wanting to know much more.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 2014

by Mervyn Cowie

Subtitled: The Story of Africa’s Great Animal Preserves, the ROYAL NATIONAL PARKS of KENYA, as Told by Their First Director. It’s pretty much what that says. The author grew up near Nairobi, when it was just the tiny beginning of a town. His father was a big-game hunter and Cowie learned the same skills, but as he got older he started to feel that killing wildlife for mere trophies or to get rid of threats to livestock was incredibly wasteful. He became imbued with a desire to protect wild lands that he saw being overrun by cattle, plowed for crops or razed to build houses. This book is about his life’s work to protect the animals, thwart poachers, influence public opinion and people in power in order to get land set aside for national parks. Then there was the effort to staff the parks, manage visitors, instill rules (early on it was common for people to approach lions and other wildlife far to casually on foot- for a better view or photographs). The author admits to his own errors early on- for example habituating a lion family so they could impress a dignitary by taking them to view the animals. End result was the lions became so used to humans they were finally deemed dangerous and had to be shot. There are many small stories about encounters with rhinos, hippos and buffalo, hyenas stealing things, the importance of vultures to the ecosystem and more. There’s also a lot about local politics, warfare that interrupted the work on establishing the park system (two world wars and a local rebellion), and the difficulties with managing everything that had to do with such an endeavor. Of course I found the parts about the animals more interesting, but the rest shows just how hard it is to change people’s minds, and what a significant difference this man’s work had.

Rating: 3/5
245 pages, 1961

by George Schaller

A much better read than The Serengeti Lion, this book details what the field work was like on a personal level. Schaller describes the difficulties he encountered, from getting vehicles stuck in ruts, to loosing track of animals (radio-tracking was in its infancy). One chapter is about how his family handled living in the bush and their various wild pets (at different times, a warthog, mongoose and lion cub). There’s a chapter about dealing with poachers and examining the significance of that problem, listing man right up there alongside the prominent predators. I enjoyed greatly the chapters on wild hunting dogs, cheetah and leopards, but of course it is mostly about lion prides. It has all the same information as The Serengeti Lion (some of the sentences repeated word-for-word) but with far fewer statistics and more inclusion of personal descriptions and interesting incidents. Especially Schaller’s own feelings and perceptions about the work, the animals’ individualities, and the landscape around him.  It’s very palpable through his words how much the author loved the land and admired the animals he studied. Very interesting is a final chapter where he and a companion roamed the landscape to see how many opportunities they would have of scavenging food or finding weak prey they could easily tackle- once he laid hands on a sick zebra foal, another on a blind giraffe calf- in order to estimate how well primitive hominids could have lived in the area. I don’t know how well his assumptions stand up to modern anthropology, though. These words very nicely state his feelings about it all:

Many people seem content with the anonymity of modern life, subverting themselves by restlessly searching for ever more powerful stimuli- louder noises, faster cars- until their inner selves shrivel, their existence looses awareness, while their bodies race on. Others abhor life in the city. They strive to return to the elemental complexity of the wilderness; they seek the touch of earth and wind and rock. I am of the latter type, and throughout my life I have tried to heed the ancient call that demands contact with nature, foregoing security for pleasure. I prefer a life of quiet, of consciousness with beauty around me, a life where my scientific endeavors are enriched by a sense of unity with the animals I study.

Also this sentence near the end really struck me. I think it applies to many things, not just the persecution of hyenas and wild dogs: Man is always quick to condemn, but slow to gather facts, and, if some are available, even slower to accept them.

I highly recommend this book over the prior one. It’s just the kind of work a casual reader like myself can appreciate, enjoy and learn from.

Rating: 4/5
287 pages, 1973

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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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