Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Owls In Culture

athenaDid you know Florence Nightingale had a pet Little Owl? She rescued it and named it Athena, after the Greek goddess, who was ssociated with owls (so much so that the binomial for this European species is Athene noctua). When Nightingale — the first person named after the English version of Firenza, by the way, where she was born; her sister’s middle name was the less fortunate Parthenope — had to go off to become famous during the Crimean War, she left Athena to fend for herself (?) in the family attic. Florence and others thought the bird would feast on the mice infestation there. But it was so tame it starved to death, knowing only that spindly pale creatures entirely overdressed in non-feathers fed it regularly by hand. A moral for keeping wild things wild, even if they would otherwise die?

I gleaned this anecdote (but added the moral) from Desmond Morris’s Owl, one of the Animal series by Reaktion Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the U.S.), which I found recently at the Strand. The picture above is from the book: Athena was stuffed and is on display at the Nightingale Museum in London. I enjoyed reading this book on Superb Owl Sunday.

I’ve read about half a dozen of the Animal series. Each book concerns itself with a different species. They’re more about the human culture of animals, in art, mythology, medical quackery (eating owl eggs to cure drunkeness, for instance) and so on, not so much the natural history of the animals themselves. Owl has, however, a quite good summery of natural history at the later end of the book. With a different writer for each book, they’re uneven productions, but certainly worth a look. The illustrations are small but give a good sense of being curated in the best sense. There’s a Botanical series now as well, but I haven’t seen any of them.Chauvet Morris, who came to fame with the The Naked Ape in the late 1960s, starts his short survey with the typically large-eyed oval face of owls, which look surprising human-like, at least for birds. The owl scraped into the wall in France’s Chauvet cave 30,000 years ago, pictured above, is his first example of a prehistoric owl.

Because they’re nocturnal and make some wonderfully strange sounds, owls have long been assigned ambivalent meanings: they are witchy, harbingers or messengers of death or bad luck, but sometimes also good guys, the wise old owl. (In fact, while owls are excellent nocturnal hunters, and have amazing hearing, with a big chunk of brain power devoted to it, corvids are wiser if you consider smarts to be about problem-solving.) Reading a litany of these associations from around the world, and the quack uses of owls, it’s a wonder that any owls have survived our narcissism. Ah, well, another species to escape, somewhat, our primitive grasping for significance and meaning. elk owlThis is a tee-shirt of mine, btw, a gift. I call it the Elk Owl.

Turf and Owl

I’ve been reading Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, a deeply thought-provocking work even with its sprawling and superficial, in the best sense, scope. I wanted to make a note of Dürer’s famous rhinoceros, highlighted in a chapter on the master, in these pages of blog, but a pebble dropped into the mines of memory made me wonder if I’d done so before. I had, on the occasion of reading MacGregor’s earlier History of the World in 100 Objects.

In this new book, MacGregor writes that so powerful was Dürer’s image that 215 years later, the makers of Dresden’s porcelain menagerie modeled their rhinoceros on it, even though Europeans had a pretty good idea what rhinos actually looked like by then.

So instead of Dürer’s rhino again, I present his Das große Rasenstück, the Large Piece of Turf, a 1503 watercolor. Although he never saw a rhino, you can imagine what a fine job he would have done with a representation of the actual animal, instead of just a written description. He was a very close observer of nature.800px-Albrecht_Dürer_-_The_Large_Piece_of_Turf,_1503_-_Google_Art_ProjectAt least nine plants have been identified here.

Of course, one can easily go on and on with AD. I also favor his Klein Eule, Little Owl, another watercolor (for someone so well known for his copper plate work) of 1508.the-little-owl-1506.jpg!Blog

UPDATE: It turns out that the authorship of the owl painting is quite contested. It is certainly attributed to AD, but controversially so. Fritz Koreny’s Albrect Dürer and the Animal and Plant Studies of the Renaissance, the catalog of a 1985 exhibition, is quite sure it isn’t. The monogram and the date being added later, the brush strokes different, etc. Still, a lovely piece. Let me know if you have further information.

Last Ocean

Weller_Antarctica031The Last Ocean by John Weller, published by Rizzoli.

This year, I’m going to try to be systematic with my natural history reviews. I begin with a remarkable book of photography.

Darwin knows, there’s a lot of nature photography out there on-line, in print, and on TV (and DVD etc.). A lot of it is lovely, but as this blog hopefully argues overtly and covertly, such exotica shouldn’t keep you from exploring the local with your own eyes. Of course, Antarctica is a place few of us will probably visit. And these photographs by John Weller are rather jaw-dropping. There’s a slide show on his webpage to give you an idea; the book itself is oversize and worth looking at in its paper format, a very different experience from the screen.

This is predominately a picture book, but the text is definitely worth reading. I was particularly struck by the passages on the mechanics of very cold water and the importance of the southern ocean to the world’s deep ocean currents; the explosive sound of Weddell Seals, nearly strong enough to burst human eardrums, and evidently used to stun prey; and the transformation of the region by climate change and resource exploitation, for in the Ross Sea the toothfish industry is doing the same thing fishing fleets have done for ever, stripping the world of a particular species. The Dry Valleys, a Martian-like region usually kept clear of snow, were a revelation: in this near lifeless zone, the mummified bodies of seals which wandered in centuries ago still influence the delicate balance of the microbiota.

The Martian analogy is telling: we spend a lot of time and enthusiasm looking into space, but we don’t know enough about, or care enough for, the life surrounding us here.

Be Thankful

tulipEnjoy this Liriodendron arching up towards the sun, and be thankful that I am not reviewing David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces today, although it should be on everyone’s reading list. After all, “farm-to-table” is not nearly the complete cycle….

Happy Thanksgiving!

White’s Selborne

Have you read Richard Mabey’s rousing defense of nature writing? You should. I’ll wait here until you return.

Mabey quite rightly marks the beginnings of nature writing in English with Gilbert White (1720-1793), the British country parson whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne I’ve finally come around to reading. Mostly: I picked up a Folio Society edition of 1963 which eschews the Antiquities section. This copy was only a little musty — that perfume of bibliophiles — and I found it with my nose in Barter Books, in Alnwick, UK, earlier this year.

It’s said that White’s book has never been out of print. I can report that it is entirely readable, which you can’t say about every 18th C. classic. It is epistolary, a series of letters to two correspondents. One evidently pillaged White’s work for a tome of his own. He has some felicitous phrases that I can’t get out of my head: “a gentleman, curious in birds”; “the generation of eels is very dark and mysterious”; worms are “much addicted to venery”; “happening to make a visit to my neighbor’s peacocks”. I, too, after all, go about “in pursuit of natural knowledge.” And his “annus historico-naturalis” is what my blog has been about for five years now.

White was of course a product of his time and place. A lot of birds and other animals get killed in these pages by White or his neighbors. Before the availability of good optics, this was often the only way to see a wild animal up close. But even the rarities are blown out of the sky, and, boy, does this gets wearisome for the soul, particularly now that so many bird populations are at historic lows.

White was curiously obsessed with the question of where the local swallows and martins went in the winter. He knew that some bird species migrated, down through Spain at least, but he was pretty sure the local swallows took cover underground nearby, hibernating through the cold months. This was an old idea; I think it was Aristotle who bottled it orgininally. This line of thinking wasn’t completely wrong: at least one species has been found to hibernate in this world, but it isn’t a swallow, nor found in Europe (it’s the the Common Poorwill, a North American species). Young Swifts can go into a state of torpor during short cold spells, powering down body temperature and metabolism, but Aristotle and White were way off on the swallow hibernation thing.

But then, that’s the glory of science: it can change as new evidence is discovered. This is why it’s different from belief. White of course came before the banding (or ringing, as they say in the UK) of birds. He reported what he saw, and he makes a good case within the limits of his observations.


Pinus palustrisI’m becoming obsessed with Pinus palustris, the longleaf pine that once covered 92 million acres of the southeast from Maryland to Texas, but now exists in only a handful of preserves. I’ve not seen it in its natural state, only as old lumber repurposed. That’s a piece of it above, one of the benches at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I wrote about the strange coincidence of that wood being in my neighborhood for Humans & Nature. Here, with more pictures, are a couple of things I wrote when the picnic tables were new (again): Grain of the Universe and Against the grain.
UnknownA friend lent me her copy of Longleaf As Far as the Eye Can See where I learned much more about the trees and their world. Longleaf savannah is some of the richest habitat in the world: one survey at Fort Bragg (vast military bases have preserved the habitat, first by default and now by recognition that they couldn’t have a better place as a training ground) found 500 species of flowering plants per square kilometer. A square meter may hold 50-60 species. Some 30 genera are endemic to longleaf forests, which are really meadows, savannas, prairies. In comparison, the entire Appalachian province, with all its magnificence of trees and wildflowers, supports a (known) total of 2 endemic genera.

This longleaf savannah woodland is an evolutionary adaptation to fire — the region has some of the highest concentration of thunderstorms. The trees can grow for centuries, through firestorm after firestorm (since long before indigenous Americans used fire as their preeminent technology). They do not grow as massively as hardwoods, though: one profiled tree, for instance, nearing its 400th year, has a diameter of 14″. And it is still growing: according to the tale of its rings, it put on more girth between 1917-37 than it had in its previous hundred. These are trees that just get into their stride after a century or more.

It’s the older trees that have red heart fungus, which softens the heartwood. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers favor these for their cavity nests, which take a while to make and which they re-use. The destruction of over 95% of the wooded savannah has consequently meant these birds are on the Endangered Species List. Another fascinating connection is the high incidence of carnivorous plant species that make their home in bogs within the longleafs. “There are few other places on earth where so many plants have, in so many wonderful and diverse ways, restorted to the consumption of meat.”


Home_ground-cov-210Kame, karst, kettle, key, kill, kipuka, kiss tank, knob, knoll, krummholz, kudzu. These are all the entries under the letter K in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, put together by a team of 45 writers and with an introduction by Barry Lopez. What a treasure trove! Sometimes, I’m down on the ol’ species H. wish-it-were-more sapiens, the home team no less, but we’re awful fine with language.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, just published in the UK, is something similar for those islands across the sea. In this article, which has the flavor of being a variation on the book’s introduction, Macfarlane notes that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled a passel of nature words, namely “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Doesn’t it seems as if the heart of the British landscape has been obliterated from the dictionary? The backlash to this b.s. was vigorous.) He also cites two writerly heroes of mine, for whom he was written introductions in the NYRB Classics editions: J.A. Baker, whose The Peregrine is one of the great immaginative works of nature writing, and Tim Robinson, who has taken the geography of place to new levels in the two volume Stones of Aran.A book he mentions that I don’t know, Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, seems most worthy of searching out.

What word-hoards about planet Earth are you reading lately?


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