Tag: Nature

the Mountain Goat Observed

by Douglas H. Chadwick

This is one book I will always recall vividly- still remember how I came across it at the public library as a high school student (several decades ago) when I had just discovered that narrative accounts about wildlife field studies was a thing. I think the first one I actually read was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which I’d found at a thrift shop. The section of the library (adult books!) that had nonfiction about wildlife became my favorite spot to browse. This book remained top in my mind, and now finally reading it again so many years later, I still find it excellent. I mentioned it once here before, but can now give a clearer picture.

The author spent seven years studying mountain goats, mainly in Glacier National Park. He camped on the slopes and followed them closely, collaring and tagging some but also learning to identify others by slight individual differences, and to tell males/females apart at different ages, which sounds particularly difficult. He describes the animal in all regards- its physical shape which is so perfectly adapted to living on steep slopes, its eating habits, survival strategies and social structure. The terrain it favors and why, the other animals that share its habitat, how it has avoided competition from most other species and also most predators, but is particularly vulnerable to hunting and distubances caused by man. There is a chapter about how mountain goats evolved (they are more closely related to chamois and serow than to bighorn sheep or any kind of actual goat), and another about why their behavior is so different from sheep. The book explains why they are so belligerent to their own kind and how this actually facilitates their survival. There are diagrams and explanations of their distribution across mountain ranges and what happened when they were introduced to new areas. On a more personal bent, there are passages where the author describes his experiences climbing the mountains to follow the goats, his first sighting of a newly-born mountain goat kid, the harshness of winter storms, many examples of how the goats lead their day-to-day lives and how he was finally able to approach a few mountain goat herds closely enough to sit among them and be part of their social interactions (literally- he knew enough of the goats’ body language to maintain dominance among them until one larger male threatened him a few times when he was too close, and then his social standing among the others gradually slipped!) It’s very apparent that the author greatly admired these animals and enjoyed spending time with them in spite of the hardships during his study. His writing about the wildlife and the surrounding landscape is beautifully done. Constant references to the mountain goats as “the white beasts” or “the bearded ones” did get a bit repetitive! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again.

Rating: 5/5
208 pages, 1983

by R.D. Lawrence

The author lived with his wife on 350 acres of forest in Ontario, Canada. He studied the local wildlife and was willing to take in animals that needed care (there was no wildlife rehabilitation center around in those days) so before long people in the area knew to bring him any injured or orphaned creatures they found. The largest character throughout the book is a black bear named Snuffles, that they took in as an orphan when it was the size of a cat, which eventually grew to be several hundred pounds standing taller than seven feet when upright! Snuffles makes repeat appearances through the narrative, gentle and mild-tempered unless denied food he wanted- then he’d fly into a rage and become destructive. The couple had to bar him from the house as he got larger, coax him to den up by himself for winter sleep, and were glad when he eventually made his own way in the wild. The bear was close companions with their malamute dog when it was a puppy- but as the two got older their wrestling bouts turned into serious confrontations and eventually the dog saw the bear as a rival and enemy. Which caused them a lot of trouble until the bear finally went off into the woods.

Among the many other animals they tended to and raised were a skunk, woodchuck, raccoons, porcupine, several squirrels, a lynx, moose, pair of river otters and one small but very lively weasel. They nursed back to health injured geese, ducks, rabbits, owls and a hawk.  The wildlife on their land came to recognize the couple would not harm them, and they had flocks of chickadees and blue jays demanding food on a regular basis, a chipmunk that would feed from their hands, flying squirrels and deer that would come to the yard also for food. Such a wide range of animals, all treated with compassion and respect- but also a heavy dose of caution especially the bear and lynx. The stories about their interactions are amusing and full of interesting details, and there’s close observations on all of them. In many cases the author was particularly interested in answering questions he had about the animals’ habits. One that struck me was his idea that raccoons don’t really “wash” their food- he suggests that the behavior is caused by the stress and boredom of being shut up in captivity (hence often seen by people) and that raccoons in the wild never repetitively handle their food in water. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has made this conclusion.  The tone of this book is very much like Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America. Both authors had a very similar companionship with their dogs, stalking the wildlife together to approach animals for close observations. However they had directly opposite opinions on deer hunting.
Rating: 4/5
308 pages, 1981

by Helen Hoover

     This is a nice little book about whitetail deer in northern Minnesota. The author and her husband lived in a remote cabin in the woods. They habitually put out food for the birds and squirrels in winter and one particularly hard year, a starving deer showed up. They helped the buck survive- cutting cedar branches for it to eat (recognizing that corn would be too rich and a shock on its system). They named the deer Peter and he became very accustomed to hanging around their cabin, even stamping on the porch to demand food if it wasn\’t set out yet. Before long other deer joined Peter in their yard, and then the Hoovers watched fawns appear with the doe they named Mama and grow up, several years in a row. The narrative describes the woods and other widlife- birds, squirrels, a bobcat and lynx that seemed to be companions, a moose that trampled their garden, a groundhog that ate cookies from their hands. A young bear that they were troubled to see tourists feeding (yet they had no qualms about feeding the deer and other wildlife themselves). Mostly though it\’s about the deer, and the social interactions they observed which was really interesting- especially as I was able to connect some details with information I\’d learned in Heart and Blood just prior. Sadly and not surprisingly, it turns out that the deer, now being partially tame, were more vulnerable to hunters who showed up even though it was private land with posted signs. In the end I think they regretting having fed the deer so regularly, and were relieved to see the animals grow more wary of people following the hunting season. The author has published several books with titles including A Place in the Woods and The Years of the Forest, which I\’ll probably pick up if I come across them someday.

Rating: 3/5                        210 pages, 1965

Living with Deer in America 

by Richard Nelson

Marvelous book. It looks at all sides of the relationships deer and people have in this country. The author is a hunter himself but holds great respect for the animals and their environment, which you can palpably feel in his personal descriptions. The opening and closing chapters detail time he spent in the woods with his border collie dog- whom he depends on for alerting him to the proximity of wildlife with her keen senses. He follows deer but also has a close encounter with a marten (riveting scene) and is tailed by a brown bear, and in the final pages tells of witnessing a doe actually giving birth. It\’s incredible. All the other chapters tell about deer, both from his research and personal experiences as he crosses the country witnessing how people live alongside or utilize the cervids. There is a chapter that tells of the evolutionary history of deer (more in brief than Whitetail Tracks) another that explains the difference between North America\’s three deer species, their physiology and way of life. Most of the book is about deer / human interactions, with far greater depth and understanding than I once gleaned from Nature Wars.

Nelson visits many areas in turn: first an island in Alaska where deer are being studied, and discusses the impacts of various types of studies in general- including whether or not their means are considered humane. (Some studies have deliberately allowed deer to starve, others subject wild deer to a lot of stress). He visits an island off the California coast, and another near New York, where deer populations have far outgrown the space, looking at the various methods used to attempt controlling population numbers and why they don\’t work. He goes to an area of Texas that has a very healthy deer population, where the wildlife live alongside cattle on ranches (they eat different plant types) and then are thinned each year by hunters who pay for access- and it\’s very specifically managed.. He accompanies several Wisconsin hunters on public lands, where the control is slightly different, and contrariwise, also goes along with a group of animal rights activists in a different part of Wisconsin, whose aim is to interrupt the hunters (very civilly done, I might add). The varied hunts include stalking deer through the forest on foot, sitting in tree platforms near open areas where deer might visit, and walking with a group of men on a drive across fields and hillsides. Finally, he visits farmland in southern Wisconsin, where deer are also hunted- in this case mostly to protect the crops. Which is a very serious thing- it sounds like not a single crop grown could be brought to reasonable harvest if deer are not fenced out (which is often impractical) or shot.
Overall I felt like this was a really well-rounded look at the deer situation, one approached with admiration for the animal, honest friendliness towards various types of people the author visited and interviewed, willingness to try and understand other points of view, interpretation of the science for laypeople like myself, and finally, a love for the beauty of the land and wildlife. I was struck by how time and time again, occasions were reported where deer that were troublesome in suburban areas were relocated in attempts to control their numbers- and what a failure that is. Some die of shock during handling, and most or all of the rest die within the first year of being moved. And it\’s expensive. Birth control for deer doesn\’t work, which is explained. Natural predators are for the most part missing, so it leaves human hunters to keep the population in check. Otherwise the deer destroy habitat leaving it unfit for other animals as well. Oh, and there\’s a chapter about forest growth, and how monocultures of trees replanted after logging usually don\’t support deer or other wildlife and why. The author himself personally witnessed the state of deer starving in winter in an overpopulated area; it sounds like the misery and suffering of the emaciated animals deeply affected him. He not-so-subtly hints that he disagrees with the animal rights people who assert that starvation is nature\’s way of handling the problem, opining that a hunter\’s precise mark which ends their lives quickly and gives them purpose as someone\’s dinner (for a family, it can supply a year\’s worth of protein) is a far more humane option.
I found that many of his sentiments closely harmonized what I read recently in Braiding Sweetgrass. In particular I marked a few quotes:
Organisms we buy in stores and array on the table are our makers, the creators and nurturers of our bodies, until eventually we die and nourish other organisms in turn. As a society, we could benefit enormously by finding ways to remember, acknowledge, and celebrate this process, to accept with gratitude and respect the plants and animals who keep us alive, who weave us into the living tapestry of earth.
A true ecological wisdom, it seemed to me, is one that keeps people and land together in the business of producing food while they develop a more balanced and sustainable relationship with the natural environment.
This is one of those books I lingered over, then read through the pages of references in the back, to add more to my never-ending, always-growing TBR. Including now several other titles by the author which look just as good.
Rating: 4/5              390 pages, 1997

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants 

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

     The author of this beautiful book has Native American roots, and scientific training in botany and ecology. She deftly weaves science with knowledge rooted in her indigenous culture, expounding on how if we care for the land and treat nature with respect, the earth will shower us with abundance. How the land itself can teach us, can heal us, can lift us up. That simply leaving nature alone to do its own thing isn\’t enough, if we work together in harmony with it, respecting other (non-human) lives (non-human), all will thrive. I tend to think our earth is better left alone after all the harm we\’ve done to it; Kimmerer gently encourages me to see otherwise. Even details a study she did with a graduate student to prove that sweetgrass is more prolific when it is regularly harvested, then when left alone. There is so much in this book about native cultures, social ills, and intricate details on plant life I just don\’t know how to phrase it all. Things about migrating salamanders and the balance of nutrients in a pond. About cedar trees, black ash, and maples known so deeply by the indigenous people who used them well. Strawberries, wild leeks, corn, witch hazel, lichens (most fascinating), blackberries, cattails, pecans, salmon, wild rice . . . The individual and distinctive beauty of raindrops. The cleansing sweep of controlled fire. Personal stories about gardening, harvesting, replanting forests, mothering children, learning the nearly-forgotten language of her people and teaching students to see and feel the land again. Or at least to know it by plant names. Painful stories from of native american history. Wise stories from cultural myths, hopeful stories looking into the future, hopeful to heal the earth together with humankind. I can\’t name all the things. Others have share their impressions, linked below. Now wanting to read her book Gathering Moss

My father gave this book to me, I am grateful.

Rating: 5/5               390 pages, 2013
More opinions:

the Great Smoky Mountains

Natural and Human History 

by Edward Abbey and Eliot Porter

     I liked this book, but was initially confused about it. The photographer\’s name (Porter) is the only one on the spine and prominent on the cover, so naturally I assumed most of the text was by him- especially as some excerpts noted to be by Edward Abbey are in italics at the ends of pages indicating they pair with photos on the following spread. It wasn\’t until I was nearly halfway through that I realized the words I read echoed sentiments of Edward Abbey I\’d read in The Journey Home. So then I thought well, this chapter at least must be by Abbey- however it wasn\’t distinguished from any other chapter as to the author. Not until I was looking at details of the book on LibraryThing did I at last realize that all the main text is Edward Abbey, and Elliot Porter the photographer. There are also many quotes in here by Ivan Turgenev, John Hay, Frank Russell and others, plus several poems by E.E. Cummings.

So it is in turns a picturesque description of the region especially the immensely diverse plant life, a rant against development (Abbey went on for pages at one point on his stance that only foot traffic- no cars- should be allowed into the Great Smoky Moutains National Park- even though he himself visited there in a vehicle), the history in particular of how Cherokee were forced out of their homes, the way hillside farmers make a living and their distinctive local culture and pride- and how it\’s been degraded by strip mining which ruins the land. Maybe it sounds a jumble but really it is very well presented together and my mind moved seamlessly from one aspect to the next. The photographs are beautiful (if a bit aged in appearance after all this book as an object is almost fifty years old) featuring waterfalls, brilliant fall leaves and bright forest floor wildflowers from the region. 
I read this book as an interlude during Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. That one is very much about how native american mindset and living is in close partnership with the land- and there\’s a chapter where the author takes a group of students to survey plant biomes in a patch of the Great Smoky Moutains- and I remembered I had this Appalachian Wilderness on a shelf somewhere, and wanted to see the pictures. It was a perfect pairing.
Rating: 3/5                118 pages, 1973

and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape 

by Lisa Couturier

I can\’t quite put my finger on why this book fell flat for me. It\’s a collection of essays describing the landscape and encounters with wildlife the author had when living in New York City and the area surrounding Washington, DC. Some of the encounters are brief- just a glimpse of a coyote- others are more personal- helping a researcher find and catch snakes in a field, following crows to locate their roosting site. Interspersed with quotes that felt meaningful (and I recognized many of them) but were a bit too frequent- I would have rather heard more of the author\’s own words. Also interspersed with details or asides about her personal life- including what felt like a disconnect with religion while being surrounded by religious people- but just a glimpse of this, never felt connected enough. It always loops around again to the animal the chapter is about, but sometimes in such a skipping, circling manner I didn\’t feel it strongly. She describes a longing to know wild animals better, to know more details about their lives- and shares what she\’s learned from reading (I was interested in the insights about coyotes. For example- I always thought they rebounded from intense \”predator control\” by having larger litters but this book tells me it\’s also because if a dominant pair is removed from an area, all the younger coyotes are suddenly free to breed, no longer held in check by their social hierarchy). This book is full of the type of material I usually enjoy- personal encounters with wildlife and interesting facts about them- but the analogies didn\’t speak to me, the descriptive language often felt too flowery, the wanderings asides left me feeling lost. I shut it at the end feeling disappointed. Maybe it\’s just that this author\’s writing style is not to my taste. 

In case it is of interest, the animals featured in this book include mice, red-tailed hawks, crows, snakes, coyotes, peregrine falcons, canada geese, vultures, a barn owl, gorillas (in a zoo), ants, pigeons, cockroaches, toads, bald eagles, foxes and deer. I just wish I had liked it more.
 Rating: 2/5           160 pages, 2005

by Henry Williamson

This is a book I put on my TBR over a decade ago- probably before I even started blogging. Now I also want to read the author\’s book Salar the Salmon, though it\’s also out of print so that will be happenchance. And whatever else of his I might come across.

It\’s the life of a river otter, though the animal does spend some time on the edge of the sea as well. It\’s mostly the otter\’s rovings, endlessly going up and down waterways, chasing fish with delight and wondrous dexterity, fiercely driving others off his food one moment, playing with them the next. It depicts the otters as very gregarious and friendly to their own kind, while driven off and hunted with dogs by men (the fishermen view them as competition and vermin). Very specific to a place- around the Taw river in North Devon. Detailed descriptions of the animal life, plants, weather, lay of the land etc- and specific local dialect when the otter encounters man. I liked this as it gives a real sense of place, but had to refer to the glossary a few times, which oddly isn\’t in alphabetical order but it\’s not long so easy enough to find a word. I didn\’t know before how avidly otters were once hunted with dogs and guns. From the wild animal\’s perspective it sounds terrifying, to be harassed by the hounds even to death- which is how this otter finally meets his end. Not without pulling a dog down with him. I think what stands out most vividly to me through this reading was how fluidly the otter moves through the water, using the course of rivers and streams to his advantage.
My edition has an introduction by Fortescue (who was a friend of the author), and an afterward by Williamson which is a very personal account of the circumstances surrounding his writing of the book- including how ill his wife and baby son were at the time. It\’s also got a curious feature I only noticed halfway through- each page has a word at the top not a chapter title but naming a place the otter was on that particular page. It\’s distinctive on every page, never saw that before. Also I really liked the illustrations by Barry Driscoll, and the heavy inky smell of the pages- as if my copy, in spite of being so old, had never been opened and read before. I fanned and smelt the pages way more often than I usually do in reading (which is probably at least once per book haha).
One to treasure. It\’s very like String Lug the Fox or Argen the Gull in tone.

 Rating: 4/5              265 pages, 1927

A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution 

by Richard Dawkins 
with Yan Wong

I don\’t think anything I write can do this book justice. It\’s staggering in scope, dense with details, mind-expanding and yet surprisingly readable. The premise bases a look at evolution loosely on The Canterbury Tales– the idea being that we time-travel skipping backwards to points where can meet up with common ancestors (the first is shared with chimpanzees) then on down through the ages meeting up with common ancestors of other primates, smaller mammals, fishes, etc etc on down to the one-celled organisms that arose at the dawn of time (and so many of them are still here on earth with us). Calling each chapter something like \”The Peacock\’s Tale\” or \”The Rotifer\’s Tale\” was a bit of a stretch- these weren\’t narrative tellings of anything, but very brief descriptions of the varied life forms and then lessons on what they can teach us about how we are all related. About gene transfer and how enzymes build proteins, about divergence and likewise convergence of species, about drifting and inheritance and molecular biology and tons more. I admit I did not understand it all, there were plenty of sections I had to read twice, but I didn\’t skip anything. Some of the stuff about molecular clocks and the math and chemistry when you get the end chapters about one-celled organisms that existed before plants converted solar energy into what others could consume- well it felt over my head. But there was so much that made me go wow, or sit and think hard, or feel just boggled by the huge swarms of life that we can\’t even see- like this diagram that shows how all life is related via molecular comparisons? it\’s got about eight branching groups each with five to eight branches in there- the others are all things like algae, slime moulds, amoebas, fungi and things I don\’t even know- radiolarians and pelobionts and so on. Plants are one tiny branch. Animals are another- and we are such a tiny fragment of that it\’s not even visible on the diagram! It is mind-numbing the way that Watchers at the Pond is. One main idea stated here was that we are more closely related- at the molecular level- to some bacteria, than those bacteria are to other bacteria. That\’s how huge and varied the expanse of life really is.

Some things of wonder in this book: this \”brain map\” that shows parts of the body in size difference according to how much of the brain is devoted to sensory input from and control of them. On the star-nosed mole biggest are the nose tentacles and then the digging paws. On humans, it\’s the hands, and only slightly less the facial features especially the mouth (for speaking). Ever wonder why a tiny injury on your hand can hurt so much? well they\’re so dang sensitive and your brain has so much invested in their control and dexterity. So many things I looked up more about: the bdelloid rotifers which have been reproducing asexually- apparently there are no males- for 40 million years. The trichoplax, a tiny organism only a few cells thick that reveals a lot about early life, and I never knew it existed. The tooth-billed pigeon otherwise known as the little dodo- because it\’s the only living relative of the dodo and is on the verge of disappearing now, too. The microorganisms that live in termite guts- without them, the termites could not digest cellulose. To those microbes, the termite is the whole world. Who is serving whom in that regard. I thought of all the little things living in my own gut. I thought much more closely about viruses and bacteria near the end of this book.
It was hard to wade through some of the later chapters about the tiny microscopic life forms, simply because all the terminology about them is unfamiliar to me. But I was wowed by the next-to-the-last chapter. I really liked the explanation comparing the spread of fire, to how reproduction can happen without heredity and why that\’s significant. Also the description of what the atmosphere and basic components on earth were like before oxygen really existed. There were other things that, when a scientist put them all in a vat and left it sitting for a few weeks, turned into a \”soup\” of biological compounds- which with the right catalyst could spring into life. My husband tells me he\’s read of an experiment where basic elements were put together and a living cell was made, unlike any other living cell that\’s existed before. I had no idea. Look up synthetic biology.
And here\’s another big picture idea- Dawkins tells how many times evolution has come up with specific things- eyes for example, or the power of flight. Very few things have happened only once (there\’s one bacteria that created a wheel!) So he posits that if most of life were wiped out, it would eventually all arise again- because the basic pieces would still be here- and just like the dinosaurs had all kinds of animals that filled all the niches- some that ate plants others that ate the grazers, some that climbed or flew or ate insects or used sonar in the ocean- the mammals spread to fill them after the dinosaurs were gone. On isolated islands like Madagascar or the continent of Australia, a slightly different form evolved to fill all the niches (think the marsupials). If an asteroid nearly wiped out all life, it would rise again and proliferate into all the diverse forms- maybe not with humans in it, but eventually with something pretty darn close. It\’s a lot to think about. I will say, I don\’t feel as much dread of us ending everything with our destructive ways- LIFE will recover again, we just wouldn\’t be here to see it! ha. And I\’m also not quite so leery about GMO\’s either, if the commonality of genes between all living things like Dawkins outlines in here, is what I understood from it. We are all interrelated, much closer than you\’d imagine.
No way is this even a fraction of what I gleaned from this book. I borrowed a copy to read from my brother in-law, but I\’d sure like to have this in my own library someday. Maybe the newer edition, which I gather has a few updated chapters.
Rating: 4/5                      671 pages, 2004

by Franklin Russell 

     There is not a single word of dialog in this book. Yet it is overwhelmingly full of sound- the birds scream, gurgle, choke, mutter and mew at each other. They communicate even more strongly with gestures- stretching tall to threaten, hunching down submissively, flattening their feathers in fear. Frequently launching outright attacks with stabbing beaks and flailing wings. Especially the protagonist, a herring gull named Argen who lives mostly around an estuary on the edge of an unnamed ocean. After his short period as a nestling dependent on his parents, and a few years spent exploring the area while learning how to find various food sources, he asserted himself against the other gulls with such an aggressive drive to gain food and live, that he was often described as being full of rage against the other birds. This story is not at all a pretty picture of nature. The gulls are scavengers and hunters- they squabble and steal from each other, smash shellfish, grab herring and smelt from the sea, pull apart carcasses found on shore (the aftermath of storms was a time of plenty for a seagull) and even pillage eggs and hatchlings from rookeries- including their own- in times of hunger. Any opportunity was taken. 

I thought the narrative- all from the viewpoint of one gull as he grows, learns from experience and observation driven by instinct, and makes his way through the world- would have a lot about raising the young, that his strong demeanor would soften when he fed his own chicks- but actually that\’s just a brief thing- it describes the urge he feels to find a mate, return to the offshore island when they breed, and the ceaseless to-and-fro bringing food to the offspring, but not any tender feelings for them. Well, I should have expected that by the time I got so far. Not all his breeding years are successful- sometimes other birds kill his young, or the weather is too cold, and once there is a famine. But there are many good years, and with three different partners he has through his long life, Argen raises many young gulls successfully. 
Overwhelmingly through this book is the power and sensation of the elements, the huge forces that sweep across the shores- changes in weather and currents that affect all the living things in a cascading effect. The swarms of other seabirds, fishes, shrimps and myriad tiny things in the surf and across the sand wax and wane. Argen witnesses a whale being killed by ocras one time, sees ducks dragged down by seals, evades hawks, eagles and falcons, and one year survives an injury to his wing that sends him creeping through the marsh to hide- a strange environment for him. I honestly though at some point I was going to start finding this account a bit tiresome- but at the end of each chapter I would turn another page and keep on reading- wrapped into the tides, the pushing winds, the blinding sun rising over the edge of the winking water. It\’s pretty incredible how well the author conveys the powerful forces of nature, with the life of one relatively small but definitely fierce creature thriving in it- until finally he reaches old age (for a bird) and time stretches differently, things that once filled him with passion simply don\’t anymore, and things wind to an end. It was very moving.

Rating: 4/5                      240 pages, 1964


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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