Tag: Nature

In Search of Hummingbirds

by Jon Dunn

Tiny, amazing, brilliantly colored hummingbirds. Birder Jon Dunn takes the reader along as he travels the Americas to see as many species as possible. From the northernmost range of rufous hummingbirds in Alaska, to the southern tip of Argentina to find the endangered firecrown. He’s especially keen on finding rare ones. The book is a seamless blend of travel narrative with vivid depictions of his bird sightings, and a little bit of everything about their physiology and history. I was fascinated by the description of how a hummingbird’s tongue works (it’s not like a straw). Intrigued by how many ancient cultures placed hummingbirds high in mythology and even numbered them among deities. In other places they were considered good-luck charms or curatives- so sadly there are many accounts in this book of how thousands and thousands of hummingbirds became tiny corpses for people to use as love charms. Or to decorate their hats, in the past. So dismaying. There’s also interesting stories about how scientists tried to sabotage each other’s work, to appear to be the first to discover an unknown species, or even made up new species that didn’t really exist (sewing together various parts of different birds to create fakes). In the present, it’s stories of wanton habitat destruction. But lovely, lovely to read about living birds the author saw in person. His writing in their praise is aptly full of wonder and beautiful words. And it’s encouraging to read of local and indigenous people in far-off lands who once took their local hummingbirds for granted, but now protect them, feed them and guide travelers to see them. He goes to Arizona, Mexico City, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Overall I liked this book. Though sometimes it seemed to veer too far into details on the sidelines (I didn’t really need the life history of half the people the author met). So many beautiful birds are shown in photographs in the center spread, but there were many more described vividly in the text I just to go look them up. Like the golden-tailed sapphire. Or any of the spatulae-tails. Just wow.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
332 pages, 2021

Island Biogeography in An Age of Extinctions

by David Quammen

This is a hefty doorstopper of a book that I’d given up on twice before- my last attempt I remember putting it aside thinking it was a pretentious slog. Now I wonder what was I thinking? So glad I reshelved it. Now it feels vivid and lively (as lively as a science book can get while still being very serious). All the asides felt relevant, the dashes of humor actually made me laugh, and the personal stories about the author’s travels to do research or view the animals in question, were a delight to read. It took me about three weeks to get through, reading off and on since I started the latest Maugham collection and then a dozen more. It’s dense material, but also so intriguing, the kind that stretches your brain and fills you with both wonder and gloom (at the end).

Song of the Dodo is about (as it neatly states on the cover) island biogeography- a discipline of study that examines why certain animal species are only found on certain islands. Quammen goes into this in meticulous detail. From the very beginnings of island discoveries, when Darwin and Wallace were figuring out that evolution was real, through later scientists who put together how it actually works, and then the people who studied the flip side of that phenomenon- extinctions. There’s so much in here I hardly know how to tell you about it all- and it’s written so well, crafted so methodically, it all makes sense in a way that fills you with dread. This book is very firmly alongside The Ancestor’s Tale in my mind, with how clearly it helps me understand things. How things fit together. How incredibly complex the nautral world is, and how dismaying that just as we are beginning to understand its complexity, it’s starting to fall apart. Because of us.

The book looks at islands. How islands are populated by plants and animals, why those isolated animals take such strange forms. How other species arrive and fit in. Why some animals become smaller on islands than their mainland counterparts (or larger), loose certain abilities (like flight) and so on. Why their existence can be so precarious. What the tipping points are for them to disappear- and it’s not the same in every case, though many things are now measurable. Minimal population size to keep a healthy gene pool, distance between isolated groups that still allows for animals to move between, how environmental changes or disease outbreaks or other random events can push already-tenuous species over the edge into oblivion. But this book doesn’t just describe how these things are, it explains how we came to understand them, with viewpoints from before they were concepts anyone talked about. I found this fascinating, although the data, formulas and descriptions of scientists arguing ideas via journal articles was a tad tedious (and the author assures us, that reading those original sources- articles, papers and journals themselves is even more so!)

I loved reading all the details about animals, odd and curious and terribly unique species such as the tenrec, indri, komodo dragon, thylacine, bird of paradise, Mauritius kestrel (and the amazing sleight-of-hand performed by researchers to save it). More well-known creatures such as giant tortise, passenger pigeon, grizzly bear, red fox, etc. And of course the dodo. All of it to show how untenable the existence of so many animals has become, or will become in the future- because human destruction and encroachment on habitat has turned many wildlife populations into essentially, island populations. They are separated from each other by obstacles they will or cannot cross, and as the author detailed so painstakingly in the first few hundred pages of the book, animals in populations that have no individuals moving in and out, are eventually doomed to fail. One final section of the book is called World in Pieces, because it really is. It makes me so sad. But I’m glad it closes on a final, partly hopeful note, that some people are working hard to make a difference, with examples of places where those efforts have actually mattered, with animals kept from disappearing altogether, even when their numbers were so low statistics would say they’re doomed. Not always though! After turning the final pages, I looked a few things up. Twenty-five years ago, this author opined that the chuckwalla (a lizard) on Isla Ángel de la Guarda would go extinct. It’s still here!

But still, such a fantastic book and it made me feel glum.

Rating: 4/5
702 pages, 1996

More opinions: Shelf Love
anybody else?

by Jean Craighead George

This is not nearly as good as the first book, but I read it because I have Frightful’s Mountain on my shelf and want to have context for that one. Unfortunately, this was so dull I found myself skimming most of it. The first half of the book is mostly about Sam’s survival skills and things he’s built, complete with explanations of how they work and sketchy pictures (a compass, an oven, a plumping mill to beat acorns into flour, an outdoor firepit with grates for cooking, a smokehouse, a dam (improved by watching how beavers built, when their first attempt failed), even a saw mill! All very clever and a bit unbelievable. You have to admire the boy’s adroitness with tools and skill at building things from the guidance of library books, but honestly just reading about what he made out of what for which purpose, was kind of boring. Through all this we’re filled in with flashbacks from Sam reading his own journal, about what happened after his family showed up at the end of My Side of the Mountain. The father tried to farm on the land for a while, then realized why the original grandfather’s farm had failed, and abandoned the effort. They all left except one sister Alice, who insisted on staying with Sam.

This story really starts going somewhere, when two things happen. A conservation officer confronts him and takes Frightful, because of course it’s illegal for Sam to have an endangered peregrine falcon. He’s worried how he will get enough to eat now, without the falcon to catch game. Then Sam discovers that Alice left the treehouse he’d built for her. At first he thinks she ran away to live by herself, surviving in the wilderness alone like he did, but then he figures instead she’s playing this elaborate game of theirs- where he has to track her by clues she leaves behind. Only this time her track goes all the way across the mountain and beyond. Her clues are left in the landscape, in little notes, and in things she said to people she paused to visit, knowing Sam would stop at the same places and hear about it. She’s got a pig with her too. And Sam has a companion helping him follow her. They’re both concerned about Alice being alone, but she seems pretty resourceful. So this part of the book is all a kind of mystery- where did Alice go? what does this clue mean? and again, I didn’t really find that interesting. Except for the little details here and there about animal communication, and what the pig might have done (that the trackers notice).

The final part of the book rapidly picks up speed and tension, as Sam and his friend finally locate Alice, and also a gang of men from Arabia who are catching birds of prey to sell illegally. They get the law involved and discover what happened to Frightful. Sam has the opportunity to take a young goshawk in place of Frightful, but he decides instead the birds are best left free. It’s a bittersweet ending- but I felt- nothing. I don’t know if it’s from the choppy beginning, with so many flashbacks telling the story, or the long tracking section, with so much about map reading and using a compass- interesting to the right person I’m sure, but that wasn’t me. By the time it got to the end where something was actually happening, I was just ready to be done with the book, honestly.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
170 pages, 1990

My 10,201 Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration

by Sara Dykman

Exactly what the subtitle says. This woman went to Mexico where the monarch butterflies overwinter, got on a plain old bicycle (nothing fancy), and cycled all the way up to Canada, then back again. Along the way she counted monarchs, stopped roadside constantly to examine plants, move frogs or lizards or turtles etc. off the roadway and talk to people about the butterflies. She stayed with strangers or camped in her tent (usually in places she wasn’t supposed to) and gave presentations at many many schools along the way. It’s a travelouge about a bike tour, with all the details of that- dealing with traffic that doesn’t watch out for cyclists, finding her way in unfamiliar cities, fixing breakdowns on the way- and also her personal rant about climate change and human destruction of the planet, and of course a lot about love for nature and small living things- creepy crawlies and amphibians but also and especially, the monarch butterfly. I learned a lot of interesting details about the monarchs and their life cycle (I didn’t know that there are plenty of monarchs living in other parts of the world that simply don’t migrate, for example), about people who are helping them- whether by planting milkweed, making changes to protect habitat, raising monarch caterpillars, or simply teaching others about their plight. I thought I would really like this book, but it really dragged for me. Though I agree with the author on many points, something about the delivery and tone was wearying. The descriptive phrases are a bit overdone, the humor a tad old, the opinions fill in too much space. I hugely admire the effort she made, cycling solo all the way along the migration path and back, advocating for the butterflies everywhere she stopped, but I just didn’t love this book.

I appreciated finding photos from her trip on the author’s website, plus there’s lots more information about monarchs in general, and her “butterbike” project in particular.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
280 pages, 2021

by Murray Bail

A widowed father moves to a large ranch in Australia where he plants hundreds of eucalyptus trees on his land (there are 700 distinct species, I had no idea!) He’s pretty much obsessed with the trees. His daughter grows up into a beautiful young woman, admired by many in town but kept secluded on the ranch. The father announces that he will give his daughter in marriage to the man who can correctly name every tree on his property. Many come with little success- they’re really just there hoping to catch a glimpse of the daughter. Then a man arrives who is a eucalyptus specialist himself; he methodically walks the land with the father, naming tree after tree, in no hurry but looks easily able to finish the task. The daughter watches with growing apprehension- she’d thought nobody would ever be able to name all the trees. She falls into silence and despondency. Meanwhile, another man appears on the property, just sitting under a tree. He starts to show up every day, finding the daughter where she’s walking under the eucalypts, and he casually tells her stories. Odd little stories that don’t really have endings. They catch her interest and she seeks out his company day after day, while all the while becoming more dismayed that the other man will win her hand.

This whole novel feels like a parable. It has a dreamy air of magical realism, though really there are no magical elements, maybe a few slightly surreal things happen in the stories that are told. In some parts the style definitely reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. I thought at first I wouldn’t like this book- it feels like the characters are all held at arm’s length, you never really sink into anything as a reader. The storyline flits back and forth through the multitude of smaller stories- rather like the incomplete shade cast by a eucalyptus, I suppose. I was going to ditch it after the first few chapters but kept going and became more intrigued to see how it ends. It’s one I think worth a re-read someday. There is plenty of information on the eucalyptus trees themselves in the pages, the characteristics of their leaves, what type of soil the different species like, the strength of their timber and its uses, etc. Readers not much interested in plants might find this tedious, but I kind of liked it. Rather similar to how factual chapters about whales are woven through the Moby Dick narrative, another book I was surprised to like. Though many years in the past, now.

Rating: 3/5
264 pages, 1998

More opinions: The Black Sheep Dances
anyone else?

A Very Natural Childhood

by John Lister- Kaye

This author worked in conservation, restoring habitats and saving endangered British species like the Scottish wildcat. His memoir tells about his childhood in a manor house on a huge estate, where he roamed at will looking for bird’s eggs, tracking foxes and so on. I really wanted to like this one, but just couldn’t get into it. There seemed to be a lot of description about everything except the animals in the first few chapters, and then a lot about the grand house of his childhood and while it was interesting and well-written, it just wasn’t what I’d expected. One chapter is mostly about his mother’s poor health. I am sure it all ties together showing how everything led up to his passion with nature and working for wildlife, but I was just loosing attention fast. I’ve put this one back on my shelf to try again later. Perhaps if I’d do better to read one of his other books first.

Rating: Abandoned
336 pages, 2017

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

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