Friday, August 1, 2014

On a Lesson from a Pigeon

Though the species vanished a century ago, passenger pigeons are hot. Essays, books, films, museum exhibits, and art installations are commemorating the demise of a bird that once darkened North American skies, many heralding their extinction as an object lesson on how even abundant wildlife can wink out if conservationists fail to act in time.
The essential hub for heuristic memorialization of Ectopistes migratorius is Project Passenger Pigeon. Website visitors can explore the animals’ taxonomic relationships, ecological needs, and the surprising role of transportation technology in their extermination. Testimonials from novelists, filmmakers, poets, and scientists reveal how a defunct creature can continue to inspire creativity and stimulate research. Perhaps most satisfying, the site provides resources and tools that help everyone get involved in telling the birds’ story, from downloadable PowerPoint presentations and exhibit posters to available speakers, children’s activity suggestions, and an origami tutorial so groups can fold their own paper flocks. And please consider contributing to all these efforts by donating to the project in general or the forthcoming film, ”From Billions to None.”
Yet Project Passenger Pigeon is only the leading edge of the honorific wave. There’s a children’s book, Passenger Pigeons: Gone Forever by Vic Eichler, a once-there-were-billions>Smithsonian exhibit (“Once There Were Billions” at the Natural History Museum), and articles in Audubon,Living Bird,and the Guardian, to name a few. Many of the pieces at least mention efforts to revive the species through genetic engineering, as discussed in a TED talk by researcher Ben Novak, ”How to Bring Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back.” To Novak and others, re-creating the species could help revive not only their forest ecosystems but also our dwindling faith in human benevolence. Books also abound that tell the birds’ tragic extinction tale, including Elizabeth Kolbert’s riveting best-seller, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and the moving elegy to multiple avian lossesHope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, by Christopher Cokinos. But for those who want to delve deeply into the historical and cultural relationships between pigeons and people, the authoritative work is Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Greenberg’s decades of dedication to unraveling ecological and cultural mysteries (photos of the birds, living or dead, remain elusive) enables him to explain the here-to-for inexplicable destruction of such a vast population in only about 40 years.
Too often, the details provided are sickening—the scale and techniques of harvesting adults and squabs are unfathomable unless perhaps you’ve witnessed industrial fishing. But gloom is relieved by contemporary naturalists’ accounts of the breathtaking flocks and stories of quirky and inspiring characters such as Etta Wilson, whose regret over childhood complicity in pigeon hunting led to a distinguished career in ornithology. Even if you lack the time to absorb the whole book, you’ll want to listen to the author talk here about flights that once blocked out the sun for days and the message they’ve left for future conservationists.
But most agree that the finest tribute was penned in 1946 by eminent ecologist Aldo Leopold. “We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds,” wrote Leopold in an essay that graces his classic work, A Sand County Almanac. “On a Monument to a Pigeon” encapsulates the many worthy, more recent arguments online and in print seeking to link the cavalier demolition of one species with our accelerating assault on the whole planet. The last word on passenger pigeons and what they mean to us today still belongs to Leopold: "Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot alre also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry we bring us more comforts than pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”

Friday, July 11, 2014

E.B. White's Only Book

"Walden is the only book I own, although there are some others unclaimed on my shelves. Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine. It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest, and I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief — for relief in moments of defluxion or despair."
Lovely. Makes me, as always, wish I had known E.B. White--maybe well enough to give him another book, A Sand County Almanac, of course.
What is your one book?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Field Guide to Reading Discoveries

There’s lots for nature lit lovers to enjoy in a new anthology of book reviews, commentary, and interviews called Washington Independent Review of Books: A Sampler. Natalie Wesler critiques a new biography of Thoreau’s editor and sometimes-friend in Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall; Susana Trapani examines the breakdown of a fictional utopian community in the face of climate change and human nature in Arcardia, by Lauren Groffl; and Grace Cavalieri celebrates Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea and other outstanding poetry collections that explore our world—natural and otherwise.

All of the selections first appeared in the insightful and often-surprising online publication Washington Independent Review of Books (WIRB). In 2011, even as traditional media cancelled book review sections, and shuttered bookstores curtailed browsing for new titles, WIRB launched its daily postings of pithy fiction, nonfiction, and poetry reviews, plus features about literary figures, trends, and controversies. David Stewart, president of WIRB, says each posting represents the site’s efforts to “poke your consciousness” and “tell you about ideas and adventures you’ve forgotten or never knew.” WIRB board members Kitty Kelley and Ken Ackerman, along with Stephanie Eller, have put together their favorite tidbits from WIRB online to create the appetizing print anthology, Sampler. In some ways, paging through the collection feels like falling down a rabbit hole—each brief piece opens up a world of reading possibilities beyond your wildest imagination. In fact, if you tried to read every work of the creative minds featured therein, you would go mad as a hatter.
As a regular reader of the website, I was pleased to see some of my favorite reviews made the cut. Carrie Marden’s review is how I knew to put Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist on my husband’s birthday list (Marden aptly notes that Stewart “makes the reader feel like a friend perched on the next bar stool”). The late Donald Carr’s review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science is so tantalizingly detailed that I want to write about the erudite and flawed Agassiz myself.
My review of Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World is one of the selections in “Science and Culture.” By eminent historian William Leach, Butterfly People profiles leading lepidopterists and butterfly collectors of the 19th century, revealing aesthetic as well as scientific drives behind their obsessive acquisitiveness. Thinking about those zealous naturalists in the context of WIRB’s anthology reminded me of similarly obsessive book collectors. Just as butterfly enthusiasts know they cannot scoop up every iridescent winged insect, book lovers realize their reading time and shelf space are limited. But like a good field guide, WIRB’s Sampler and daily web reviews can be a lodestar in a literary universe with almost too many paths to follow and wonders to discover.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Geurilla Gardens of Nature Books

Free books? They’ll make your day if you happen upon them as I did yesterday morning. Free books in public places can promote literacy and build community too, according to Little Free I was delighted to discover that one of their charming boxes has popped up in my neighborhood.

Peering inside, I noticed only about a dozen books—a Dan Brown novel, a classic children’s book, and other popular fiction, not my usual fare. But then I spotted Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, by Michael Pollan. I started reading Pollan with An Omnivore’s Dilemma, his best-selling examination of our tangled and troubling food industry. But before becoming the leading critic of industrialized agriculture, Pollan was known as an adept, even dazzling, gardening writer. What more delightful way could I encounter his earlier work (which one reviewer says “is to gardening what Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler is to fishing") than in a neighborhood garden’s free library?
This particular little library is next to “The Other Barn,” a facility offering a safe place to hang out for teens after school. In contrast, our actual public library seems less then welcoming to youths' sometimes-raucous presence. A police officer guards the entrance at school dismissal time, and all couches have been removed to prevent loitering. Once, as I entered the library branch, a librarian warned me in a whisper, “Don’t stay long. Schools almost out!” The Little Free Library motto is “Take a Book, Return a Book,” and I went back today and tucked in a copy of a favorite teen book from my house--Megan Whelan Turner’s riveting historical fantasy, The Thief. I’ll be checking back, too, to see if it’s taken—and what surprise replaces it.
Wouldn’t it be tremendous if Little Free Libraries welcomed people of all ages in all neighborhoods? LFLs have been created for all sorts of reasons—memorials, anniversary celebrations, recipe and seed sharing—so why not to spread the word about nature protection and even climate disruption? Wouldn’t this be a great way to pass around our extra field guides, essay collections, Rachel Carson biographies, etc? Every nature center should at least have a Little Free Library with a copy of A Sand County Almanac, free for the taking. Think of the riches that would be returned?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Happy World Penguin Day

April 25, 2014

If you can’t celebrate World Penguin Day with a visit to Antarctica, a satisfying alternative is reading first hand accounts of Adelie colonies by an adventurous young ornithologist. Just out of college, Noah Stryker braved the world’s coldest, windiest continent for 3 months in 2009 to get to know some of the world’s most intriguing birds. Also a photographer, artist, and BirdBoy columnist for WildBird Magazine, Strycker impressed an editor at Oregon State University so much that she asked him to write a book, too. Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica deftly explores the intimate lives of penguins and the interns set out on the ice to study them. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review and extolled, “At the age of 24, Strycker has already studied birds on six continents and his evocative writing reveals enough wit, meticulous description, and passion to satisfy any nature writing enthusiast (particularly young ones.)”
Strycker’s passion for penguins remains unabashed, and the birds feature prominently in his new book as well. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human is a look at bird behavior as peripatetic as Strycker’s bird-chasing lifestyle. Topics range from social dominance hierarchies in barnyard fowl to the olfactory capabilities of vultures. Penguins knew the author well enough to untie his shoelaces, one indicator of the affable personality that Strycker says helps explain their star appeal. Even after being wrestled into submission so that adhesive tags could be applied to their backs, says Strycker, “They maintained their good-natured curiosity toward me despite my interference.” Yet, in examining their more complex behaviors, Strycker ponders seemingly incongruous fears. Why, for example, would birds that can chase fish in dark ocean waters avoid sunless winter habitats, even when teaming with prey? Following Strycker’s reasoning as he teases out what terrors may lurk in penguin imaginations is one of the chief pleasures of the book. To read my full review of The Thing with Feathers, please visit the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Have You Been Reading?

The long story of why I haven’t been posting may unfold by and by, but suffice it here to say the reasons have been more about family than about books and pine trees. At least I’ve read some fine works in the interim. Here are a few reviews of favorite titles, written for a fine online publication, The Washington Independent Review of Books, which endeavors to make sure there are still book reviews even as more and more traditional journals stop publishing them.

Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, by Paddy Woodruff (University of Chicago Press, 2013). In engaging and spirited prose, [author Paddy Woodruff] deploys his finest investigative skills to address the book’s central question: “how successfully can we restore degraded ecosystems, and our own damaged relationship to the environment?”
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 2013). By examining these towering scientists through the high-powered lens of their worst lapses, Livio illuminates not just the individuals but also the vital process of discovery.
Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, by William Leach (Pantheon Books, 2013). . . . . a literary cabinet of wonders packed with scientific discoveries, historic artifacts, and artistic revelations to delight scholarly and casual readers alike. What have you been reading?