Posts Tagged 'books'

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.

Book Gifts To Keep On Giving

Have you reached the anti-gift stage yet? Most of the crap that will be given with the best of intentions this holiday season will be thrown out soon, adding yet more to the garbage we so heedlessly produce and litter the entire world with. And this after the production of that needless junk has caused wanton environmental damage. Coming or going, the unnecessary, indefensible, effluvia of consumption (once a disease, always a disease): you’ll feel so much better when you just say “no!” to what are essentially “gifts of death.”

The best things in life, after all, aren’t things, but if you must give things, the hand- and home-made gifts are the ones that count. And books, the best food for the mind. Here are a few that have inspired me this year:
Beyond-Words-Jacket-for-WebCarl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel may well be the natural history book of the year. It has certainly challenged and enriched me and made me think differently. I saw Safina lecture this week in person, and you can see a version of his talk, which I highly recommend, here.

If you think I can get a good rant going, you should try Joy Williams’s Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. She is particularly incendiary about hunting, or killing as she prefers to plainly call it, and has no truck with the likes of Ducks Unlimited, which works to conserve land and water… only to kill more ducks. 93% of us don’t hunt, and yet we’re held in thrall (as are all the federal and state agencies dedicated to helping hunters kill more animals) by this subset of the gun-nut psychosis.

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is several years old now but evergreen. This would make a great one for someone younger on your list, as well as an excellent refresher for everyone else.

(Speaking of what’s old being new again, here are all the books I’ve mentioned in these posts over the years for more inspiration.)

Akenfield_1024x1024Slightly off track, Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village is back in print. It’s an excellent antidote to too many Miss Marple mysteries and postcard-cute English villages.

After serving as a nurse during the Civil War, Walt Whitman suffered a stroke. His recovery included watching the natural world go by. Specimen Days, his collage-like collection of notes and reminiscences, moves from remembrances of New York and Brooklyn in the early 1800s to the bloody horrors of the war to the consolations of nature. “Literature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But that is part of our lesson.” The Library of America Whitman should be in every American’s library. Melville House’s Neversink Library edition is another great option.
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It would, perhaps, not hurt to give the gift of my blog posts to someone you hold dear. Like Walt, I find much consolation in observing and learning about our world and trying to convey my discoveries to the public. And people have told me they enjoy getting my posts by email in the mornings. It’s often the first thing they look at before the onslaught of the day. That is as fine a gift to me as is imaginable.

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.

Longleaf

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.”

Word-Hoards

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?

Arctic Longing

UnknownWhat an amazing and awe-inspiring book. I’ve long heard about Barry Lopez‘s Arctic Dreams but have only just got around to reading it. I was nudged by a fellow conspirator, Erin of the Familiar Wilderness on the other end of the Long Island. And now I want to read it again. Combining human and natural history with beautiful prose, Lopez’s subtitle “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” captures his mission. Originally published in 1986, just a couple years before James Hansen testified before Congress about global warming, the book now reads like a premature elegy. Lopez was already noting the radical transformation of landscape and indigenous culture under the onslaught of – well, what can only be called, from the perspective of the far north, southerners. But the Great Melting was on very few people’s minds then. Indeed, in the 1970s, a mainline scientific assumption was that, based on historical patterns, we were cruising along in an interglacial era, and the Ice Age would return, oh, some time in the future. (A formidable story of my youth was A.C. Clarke’s “The Forgotten Enemy,” about the return of the glaciers.) So by default, in the whiplash-rapid Anthropocene, Lopez’s book is becoming a record of a lost world.

King Carbon still hungers to devour the North Slope; circumpolar nations are now jockeying to strip what they can from the de-iced Arctic Sea. The ignorant and/or mendacious still mouth nonsense about the “wasteland” of the tundra, and celebrity sociopaths like Sarah Palin whip up the lynch-mob-minded cretins who enable her with her fascist porn about executing wolves from helicopters, but the human story of the north transcends all these enemies of the planet, and hence, inevitably, humanity.


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