Monday, November 26, 2007

Post-Thanksgiving Plenty

The bird book business has been declared healthy by none other than the November 25 Washington Post. In a review section centerfold flaunting full-color photos of a cock-of-the-rock and other seductive avians, Gregory McNamee introduces a mixed flock of the latest temptations for lovers of birds & books. Titles considered range from an introductory guidebook, National Geographic Birding Essentials, to a biography of birding’s patriarch, Roger Tory Peterson, by Douglas Carlson.
Though McNamee's remarks about each volume are brief, he knows the subject well, remarking in passing, for example, that Scott Weidensaul’s 1999 book Living on the Wind belongs in every birder’s collection. If you’re starting to ponder what new books to bestow on your near and dear ones this holiday, this Post review is a good place to start.

Also consider, in the same Post issue, a review of Colin Tudge’s The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. The reviewer shares my appreciation for Tudge’s preternatural ability to elucidate complex topics, partly through analogies and anecdotes from outside of science. He frequently quotes Shakespeare and Tennyson, notes the Post, “so that reading The Tree is like being in the company of a kindly biology professor who has strayed into a literature seminar.” I’m hoping to wake up Christmas morning to a copy tucked under my tree.

Any other ideas for nature book gifts this season? Do are some books—such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us-- too grim/alarming/depressing to be appropriate presents? What traits make a nature book appealing for gift-giving?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Captain Courageous

Much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous takes place on the Grand Banks, described by the author as “a triangle of two hundred and fifty miles on each side—a waste of wallowing sea, cloaked with dank fog, vexed with gales, harried with drifting ice, scored by the tracks of reckless liners, and dotted with the sails of the fishing fleet.” One set of sails in the 1897 novel belongs to the schooner We’re Here in the months after it scooped up Harvey Cheyne, Jr, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate, after he fell off an ocean liner. The elemental existence aboard a working vessel transforms Harvey’s character from a whining braggart to a stalwart member of the hearty crew. Reading it this week, I’ve ached with nostalgia for the abundance depicted, for cod schools so vast “the deep fizzled like freshly opened soda-water”. Since the fisheries’ collapse in the 1990s, never again may the Grand Banks “long blue skies” be dotted with sails and clamoring with shouts as brim-full nets are hauled above the waves.

Just as lost is the rich understanding of traditions and place mastered by real-life progenitors of Disko Troop, Captain of the We’re Here. While the crew teaches Harvey everything from reefing topsails to salt-curing fish, only the Captain can read the waters themselves. His cabin-boy son relates, “Dad says everything’ on the Banks is signs, an’ can be read wrong er right.” Troop’s unassailable judgment guides his ship around treacherous shoals, through tumultuous storms, and ahead of rivals to ensnare runs of the fattest fish. Kipling, often criticized for didatic prose, portrays Troop unblushingly as “a master artist who knows the Banks blindfold.”

Yet courageous captains still exist. It was heartening also this week to learn about a new portrait of Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain of the Farley Mowat. Award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller accompanied Watson and his all-volunteer crew on an eco-adventure aimed at blocking—by any means necessary—Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Heller tells Watson’s thrilling but often heart-wrenching and even gory tale in The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals. The Mowat’s Captain honed his expertise, as did the fictional Troop, through decades of piloting ships fearlessly across every kind of sea. Called an eco-terrorist by some, the Watson Heller depicts is a dedicated but ethical warrior, proud that none of the ships he’s sunk has lost a human life. Equally dedicated followers express willingness to risk their own necks for a higher good. As one crew member put it, "I don't want to die, of course... But if I die looking to save a whale, that would be OK.”

How does Watson inspire a whole crew of Davids to confront the Japanese whaling Goliath? Peter Heller offers insights in a November 13 radio interview. Especially enlightening are Heller’s responses to phone-in critics, eager to tar Watson as a criminal. To Heller, Watson’s quest to stop illegal whaling may be justified by both the cruelty of slaughter to individuals and the escalating destruction of the ocean ecosystem. Months on the Mowat have convinced Heller that boycotting swordfish and shark, as urged by many mainstream ocean conservationists, is an insufficient response to a deepening crisis. Instead, he advocates eschewing all commercially caught ocean fish and backs other seemingly radical ocean protection policies. As Heller asserts, “If the oceans are dying in our time, and we kill them... we should have committed a crime so heinous we shall not ever be redeemed.” People like Watson prove that much can be done to redeem ourselves, that we have the knowledge and technology and lack only the public will to do the right thing. Perhaps, like Harvey Chaney, we will be rescued by sheer luck from our own arrogance, and even learn to mend our ways. But if we soon need an epitaph for the ocean, we could do worse than Kipling's bitter lamentation: “We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Definitive Giveaway

Three cheers to the purveyors of all things bird at one of my favorite blogs, 10,000 Birds. Not satisfied with offering insightful, useful book reviews along with tales of swashbuckling birding adventures, top-o-the-line nature photos, and avian conservation alerts, now they’re giving away copies of Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide, via a contest they’re calling The Definitive Visual Guide Giveaway.

To whet your appetite for entering, read Mike’s ecstatic review which begins, “I’ve just fallen in love with birding all over again. I owe this renewed ardor for avian observation to a magnificent new volume simply called BIRD.” He recommends this lush visual feast not just to birders but for “essentially anyone with eyes.” School Library Journal concurs, lauding Bird as a “striking combination of copious graphics, elegant typography, and concise text.”

The 10,000 Birds contest offers two ways to enter. The hard way requires an essay in praise of a favorite bird species, while the easy way, which you are currently witnessing, involves spreading the word on your own blog. Even if a vow of nonconsumption requires you to renounce owning a personal copy, consider winning (or buying) one to donate elsewhere. As Mike puts it so well, “BIRD: The Definitive Visual Guide is an unsurpassed ambassador piece for birdlife around the world. . . . .Leave this tremendous tome out where the non-initiated might spy it and you’re bound to win over a few birding converts.” Good luck, everyone!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

One Sky, One Choice

“I’m too busy.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’d have to put my tooth in.”

Those were just a few of the excuses that met my invitations to Saturday’s Step It Up anti-global warming rally. Locally, ours was touted as a gathering of the One Sky movement, an initiative that has identified specific, achievable, science-based priorities for climate change activism—e.g., five million green jobs by 2015, cut carbon 30% by 2020, and no new coal fired power plants. Saturday’s rallies around the nation asked leaders, including the myriad presidential candidates, to step up and commit to these tangible goals essential for saving the planet. Hillary, Mitt, and their ilk were conspicuously absent from the modest event near me, and I haven’t heard yet if they showed up elsewhere. While I’ve not been glued to tv or radio, it seems that most reporters were away covering the crisis du jour—or maybe just wanted to relax at home with their teeth out.

But at least some hometown politicians were there. One talked about how refreshing it feels to be for things, such as alternative energy, mass transit, and simple living, rather than endlessly against oil drilling, highway construction, mindless consumption and the like. ( The positive framing of the issue was the reason I felt comfortable bringing my eight year old with me when other family members backed out. ) But the most inspiring words for me came from a state legislator, one of the greenest pols in Maryland. Liz Bobo captured my attention by praising writer/organizer Bill McKibben, calling the author of The End of Nature a prophet of the climate change crisis (though she didn’t mention his new book, Fight Global Warming Now, a resource-packed guide for individuals and communities).

Then, Bobo talked about a recent poetry reading by Jane Hirshfeld, author of After and other prize-winning collections. Hirshfield’s poems speak of nature’s resilience as well as beauty, offering hope in the face of Al Gore’s most alarming statistics. And her imagery, of the wild animal world watching, perhaps in judgment, as humans despoil our shared planet, resonates with Ms. Bobo as she argues with colleagues in the State House and addresses often-meager crowds of supporters. How grand that a poet’s work strengthens a legislator’s; how fine that together we can achieve the vision of One Sky--if only we decide that we must.