Tag: Nature

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

Honest Essays on Blood Sport

by David Petersen

The viewpoints of hunters. From collected essays, and a few book excerpts. They’re really varied. Most of them write about hunting deer or elk, sometimes pronghorn antelope. A few also include fishing and there’s discussions on hunting bears near the end of the book, also whales or seals in the north. Many different opinions and methods, from those who seek trophies and bragging rights, to people solely interested in getting meat to feed their families. The majority are very reasonable-sounding men who value feeling a connection to nature and the land, who recognize that all life depends on other life, and consider that taking one deer for a year’s supply of meat is less harmful to the environement and allows the animal a better life, than buying hamburger meat in the store from a cow that got fat in a feedlot. It almost persuades me to wish I had learned to stalk deer in the woods alongside my father, surely the skill and keen observation and patience needed is challenge enough. Some of the writings featured here are brisk and argumentative, some lean heavily on the side of proving things and get a bit technical or opinionated, many are just describing what a particular hunt was actually like. There’s even a few descriptions of things like men taking shots at grouse that feed on roadsides, taking fish from spawning streams by hand, shooting pen-raised birds released from towers, or quietly and unobtrusively poaching deer. Questionable perhaps, but here clearly pictured with only light criticism. Not all the writer’s voices resonated with me- some I found awkward or dull, but most gave me new things to think about, new ways to look at this topic. It’s getting shelved in my library right alongside Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America– as they seem to compliment each other.

Note on the publication date: it’s when the author compiled the works. Actual publication dates of the individual essays range from 1984 to 1996.

Rating: 4/5
332 pages, 1996

Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

by Karen Auvinen

I’m disappointed to say this book didn’t really get a hold on me in any way. It reminds me of The Salt Path in that a terrible disaster strikes the author near the beginning, leaving her with almost nothing. It reminds me of Fox and I because it’s about a woman who felt she didn’t fit in, who needed to find her own way and much preferred living alone, in wild spaces. But sadly I didn’t get much sense of those spaces, or of her wildlife observations, even though she mentions taking copious notes of them, she never really shares them in detail. The book is more about her difficult childhood, uneven friendships with people in town, a man she briefly dates after being single for over a decade, amazingly delicious food she cooks, her writing, the many ways that snow falls and cold closes in, sputtering attempts at a garden in the brief season (too much shade and wild animals eating things), admiration of hummingbirds, and struggles to deal with her elderly mother’s failing health (which brings up close contact with her estranged siblings). In the few final pages she describes a disastrous mudslide and flood that buried much of her town and finally meeting a man who loved her completely and made her feel safe. She tends to her beloved dog through his final days, and then moves on to live elsewhere. It’s a book about someone’s life, and very much about the dog her close companion- though I admit the cover beguiled me, thinking there’d be a fox. Well there is– in the epilogue. A lovely fox that visits the cabin regularly for a while, and is featured on a handful of pages. I do really like that the cover image, and some watercolor paintings inside the book (reproduced in black and white) were created by the new man in her life. They’re of the actual place where she lived. I’m sorry this book didn’t resonate with me- it’s very nicely written, and is many things, none are quite what I expected though. Could just be wrong place, wrong time for this reader.

Rating: 3/5
302 pages, 2018

Tales from a life without technology

by Mark Boyle

Near the end of this book, the author says “I decided that instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.” He left the city and job behind, built a cabin on a piece of land and committed himself to living without a phone, electricity, plumbing, etc. Doing all his work with hand tools. Living off the land, engaging in a bartering and gift economy with neighbors (though most of them had the usual conveniences). He deeply felt that this would make his life more purposeful, even though without internet or cell phone he soon lost contact with myriad people, remaining close only to those that lived nearby or stayed in touch via paper mail. I have to say I know what he means, feeling like doing things with your own hands and simple tools is more meaningful. I prefer an hour weeding in the garden or trimming shrubs to typing on a keyboard myself. I don’t know if I could go so far as to do without electricity and heating, though. It’s hard to eschew all the easy things most people take for granted, and live in a way that takes a different kind of work. Boyle doesn’t avoid admitting the difficulties, or things he has to do without. But he also waxes long on the rewards, which are of a different kind. Feeling tied into the seasons and close to the land. Paying more attention to the other living things around him- insects and plants. Learning skills that seem forgotten in this day and age.
His book doesn’t have a lot of day-to-day details (which I might have enjoyed) rather it’s a series of vignettes and noted thoughts on varied topics, as the mood took him to recount them. Sometimes he discusses how decisions were arrived at, where he came from, or how his thinking has shifted (he used to be vegan but now fishes and eats venison). Other parts of the book are little stories about things with his neighbors or specific pieces of the work he does around his land- planting trees, washing clothes by hand, cutting wood, building a hot tub (I wanted to see a picture of that!), foraging berries and greens, starting seeds, turning compost, making candles, etc. He also recounts a lot about visiting the Great Blasket Island, quoting from written works by the people who once lived there (in a very sustainable manner) and reflecting on why they eventually had to leave. I didn’t feel as immersed or connected to those parts of the book. Also some segments started to get repetitive near the end. He lives in Ireland, by the way. And now I’d like to read a previous book he wrote, The Moneyless Man.
I did notice, and appreciate, how old-fashioned this book itself feels as a physical object. It’s a clothbound hardback, without the slick plastic cover library books usually have. The paper is a nice muted off-white and has the texture of good recycled paper- or at least so I imagine. It felt like a book in hand I’d usually from a discard sale or found in a thrift shop, not a relatively new book produced just a few years ago! I’d like to think this was a conscious choice the author made in having his book printed- which seems very in harmony with his stated purpose and lifestyle.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2019

by Raynor Winn

After their long hike on the South West Coast Path, the author and her husband finally settled. No longer homeless, but not completely at ease. First they lived in a small apartment behind a church, where Raynor did research into his illness and started writing, while her husband attended university, working towards a degree. He struggled constantly with worsening symptoms, while she had her own issues with anxiety at being around so many other people after their long walk mainly in solitude on the path. The success of her first book’s printing was encouraging and brought them some much-needed income, but it was also stressful for her to deal with the public events and travel for book signings. Well, then someone local who read their book offers them another place to stay- on a farm that had been run into the ground and neglected. They’re supposed to restore it, and do work hard at that. It’s just starting to show signs of recovery when they decide to go on another long walk with two friends- in the barren and difficult landscape of Iceland. I didn’t realize how many volcanoes Iceland has- or at least, in the area where they hiked. This part of the book was a lot more like the previous one- focused on the rigors of the hike, interactions with people on the trail- in this case much younger fellow hikers who seemed to scorn them for their age- and remarkably, another visible improvement in her husband’s condition. The scholarly lifestyle he lead at university apparently was bad for his health, whereas the intense physical exercise on the steep paths soon had him limber and full of energy again. Still no explanation. But convinced by the results, they return to the farm ready to dive into outdoor work again.

It does have a lot more than I’m letting on here- musings on assumptions of strangers, interesting little exchanges, signs of the wildlife on the farm returning, incredible almost surreal landscape in Iceland, where the world seems to be continually coming into being. Also many segments about pieces of their lives from the past, and a very touching, sometimes hard-to-read piece in the beginning on her mother’s death in a hospital where she had to make difficult decisions for her care (which made me think of this book a lot). Somehow it all didn’t feel as intense as The Salt Path, or I’ve just been too busy this past week and a bit distracted from reading. I liked it, I just didn’t feel quite as deeply moved.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278 pages, 2020

translated by Mercer Cook

by Djibi Thiam

A story from Guinea, set in a small village called Koundjea. The protagonist is a man named Bamou, who lives with his wife and young son in a hut. One night a leopard kills their dog, right outside the door. Next morning the man tracks it, confirming the predator’s identity and locating where it is hiding- in a sacred part of the forest. The people are deeply troubled, as the leopard is their tribal totem, they believe the animal is supposed to protect them. Never had conflict with one before. This particular leopard appears to be injured and soon they hear of a hunting party from another village seeking the leopard, that it’s been killing people. Bamou knows the leopard is a serious threat and must be dealt with immediately, but he also feels compelled to treat it with the utmost dignity and respect, because of their tribe’s reverence for the animal. He meets with a village elder for advice, performs sacrifices to appease the gods and spirits, then drinks tea with a special herbal concoction to keep him alert. Then tracks the leopard down. Alone.

Reading this book was an odd disconnect. The style of it reminded me very much of Things Fall Apart (which I read long ago in high school)- simple words and plain sentences, which belie the actual depth of the story. I liked the glimpse into everyday lives in this small settlement deep in the bush, the people’s deeply held superstitions and beliefs, their formalities and kindnesses, supporting each other. The role of the blacksmith was particularly interesting. It’s full of details on the natural surroundings and wildlife Bamou encounters as he follows the leopard- keenly aware of all the animals, their usual habits, what their behavior tells him, and what the leopard herself is doing. A lot of the narrative is the main character talking as if musing to himself or relating what happened to a listener. I found it a bit difficult to connect with, as if I read it all at arm’s length, interested but unable to really sink into it. Bamou does face the leopard in the end, armed with several weapons- including poison-tipped arrows which he doesn’t use, thinking this isn’t fair to the animal! though he well knows the leopard holds the advantage in speed and strength, even with her injury. This book reminded me a lot of The White Puma, and I also kept thinking of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, comparing the two different leopard encounters in my mind, with their contrasting hunting styles and attitudes of men, towards this dangerous and beautiful predator.

Borrowed from a person I know.

Rating: 3/5
205 pages, 1980

by Raynor Winn

This couple was dealt a double blow in their fifties. After raising their children in a farmhouse they’d renovated themselves, they lost it all due to a bad investment with a so-called friend who turned out to be a bad business partner. House taken away, no livelihood, nowhere to go. All their attempts to find a place they could afford to rent with the little money they had left, failed. Public assistance was not really helpful, and the generosity of friends/family letting them stay wore thin quickly. Then in the same month, the husband was diagnosed with a serious neurological disease. He was told to rest and take it easy, but since they had no home, they decided to just take a long hike, on the South West Coast Path of England, from Somerset to Dorset, all of 630 miles. With two packs, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, not much else. So reminiscent of a few books I’ve read about hikers on the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and I also thought many times of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Though this book is really nothing like those. It’s so individual. It was tough. It was wild and beautiful, and the people they ran into were friendly or aggravating, encouraging or unkind in turns. Some just downright odd. They could barely afford food (often went hungry or picked berries, collected mussels on the shore, etc) and rarely pay for a proper campsite, so very soon were dirty and ragged. Fellow backpackers commiserated, but other people they encountered- usually tourists as many of the villages they passed through had long since lost their original occupations of fishing or mining and were now just surviving as tourist attractions- reacted to their appearance in one of two ways. If they said they’d left it all behind and were just walking the path- letting people assume they’d sold their house- they were admired for doing something inspiring. If they honestly said they’d lost it all and were actually homeless, people were immediately uncomfortable or disparaging. If it was by choice they were brave, whereas if by accident, they were pariahs. Why are people so judgmental. I’m sure their version of being homeless- not due to addiction or mental illness but just plain misfortune- is not all that uncommon.

It was a pleasant surprise that I’m vaguely familiar with some of the places they walked through (geography of foreign countries is not a strength of mine). They went through the village where Doc Martin was filmed, along the cliffsides where Poldark was situated, and also Tintagel- site of many King Arthur legends. Also very strange but in the end amusing, was how many people mistook her husband for a poet (apparently famous, but I’d never heard of him). It got to be a running joke between them.

I liked the author’s voice, and look forward to reading her sequel, The Wild Silence. I enjoyed the bits of humor, the interesting encounters along the way, glimpses of wildlife (birds, deer, seals, occasionally a badger), and thoughtful words. Although they’d anticipated the long hike would be a time to figure things out (facing her husband’s illness, grieving the loss of their home, what to do next) for the most part she said they spoke little, reminisced hardly at all, just were. Just surviving. Experiencing the weather, the difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other when tired, hungry and footsore. Finding to their surprise that her husband’s condition improved with the exercise, in counter to the doctor’s advice- I’d really like an explanation for that! And I’m glad that it had a good ending. Just as suddenly as their world fell apart at the beginning of the book, a few things suddenly came together at the end of their hike to put them back in the functional world again. Though- did they want it, now?

Some quotes:

But on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.

After meeting a man who was going blind from glaucoma:

The light grew, prizing the sky and the sea apart. Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole? 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
271 pages, 2018

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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

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