Posts Tagged 'books'

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?

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.


Rare Birds of North America is a very interesting book, but it’s definitely for the advanced birder. The front matter, however, includes an excellent discussion of vagrancy and the question of how these birds show up here, through drift, disorientation, overshooting, dispersal… which should be of interest to all nature-literate folk. It’s a much-noted fact that most vagrant birds are juveniles; we humans have an awful lot to learn about migration (if we ever can), but it is safe to say that experience counts as well as innate ability for the birds.

I have seen 3 of the 262 bird species in this book in North America (I’ve run into a few of them in their home territories, but that’s not the point).

*There was the Gray Hooded Gull on the Coney Island beach in the summer of 2011. That’s one of precisely two recorded instances of this tropical bird in North America.

*The Western Reef Heron in Coney Island Creek in 2007 (the book says “Brooklyn Co.” but of course the Borough of Brooklyn is actually coterminous with Kings Co. Nobody pays for copy-editing anymore.). This species in particular has a sentimental value for me, since I was working as a cub reporter on Nantucket in 1983 and learning that the Front Page was correct about how newspapering makes you cynical as a philosophical dog, when another of these African herons showed up there; I didn’t cover the bird beat, then, but I did pen a snarky column about the faithless abandonment of the Herring Gull as result of this interloper’s celebrity. Someone was not amused, making it a job well done by my lights.

*Northern Lapwings: my U.S. view of them was on Nantucket in 2012, too late for a cited inclusion in this volume.

Parkman’s Unending Buffalo

“The country before us was now thronged with buffalo,” wrote the young Bostonian Francis Parkman at the beginning of “The Chase” in The Oregon Trail, his book about his adventures out in the west in 1846. (I was immediately reminded of the similarly titled chapters in Moby-Dick, published five year later; turns out Melville read and praised Parkman’s “true wild-game flavor.”)

Parkman writes that “we waged an unrelenting war” against the bull buffalos. While his small party ate a lot of buffalo meat – dried, it was a major component of their diet on the trail – that was usually from the cows. When they were well-supplied with meat, they would sometimes just take the tongue. For the bulls, it was just the tail, as a trophy. He and his friends were still using muzzle-loading rifles, so the damage they could do was to a certain extent limited. A very skilled hunter could kill “five or six cows in a single chase” loading each shot on horseback, often by holding the rifle balls in his mouth.

“Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species,” wrote Parkman, about the male buffalo. Uh-huh. Hasn’t every fisher and hunter said something similar since time immemorial? There’s just too many of ’em for us to do any damage… they’ll always be here. Didn’t the Canadian cod-fishers say it? And before them, didn’t the people who crossed over Beringia say that about what we now call the extinct megafauna? This stuff’ll last forever, boys! And the peoples who made it to Australia? These animals will never end, mates.

By the 1880s, there were just a few hundred bison left from the millions that had been there two generations earlier.


SerengetiHeading towards ‘Sconset on the Milestone Road will take you past the Middle Moors, which are nicknamed “the Serengeti” on Nantucket.SerengetiThis nickname is probably the result of too many nature documentaries and the lesson that they usually teach: nature exists somewhere else and is exotic, something to sit back and enjoy from your living room without having to put up with foreigners and suspect plumbing. In fact, though, these 400 acres are maintained in coastal heathland and sandplain grassland, both rare habitats on the island and elsewhere. This landscape is exotic enough and doesn’t need external referents, thank you very much.

Once sheep grazed this area, making sure nothing ever grew very high. Left untended by those Mesopotamian herbivores (bought in after whaling lost its preeminence for the island economy in the mid 19th century) or, now days, human wielding mowers and fire, the land would quickly become a dense scrub thicket. Habitats are always in flow. Why should we stop them? In this case it’s largely because of the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and some other invertebrate and plant species that make this rare habitat home. 9780226205557Did you catch that reference to “Mesopotamian herbivores”? I picked that up in George Monbiot’s Feral, where he rages against sheep as the “white plague,” an invasive species which has devoured the British Isles and remains the main obstacle to re-wilding. Monbiot argues persuasively, because he calls up the science, that the British Isles, particularly the wet western edges of Wales and Scotland, used to be lush rain forest. Temperate rain forest, like our Northwest, which often takes second place to the glories of tropical rain forest, but are just as rich and wonderful. (The skirts of Dartmoor felt like rainforest when I trod under them last year.)

This is a very interesting book. I will admit to be bogged down in the initial chapters where the author seemed to be in the midst of mid-life crisis and an urge to find his inner animal and challenge the elements. Written very well, but I can take that or leave it. But his ultimate point kept me through to the far more exciting later chapters: we need to re-wild, largely by letting it alone, our world.


Bookmark and Share

Join 373 other followers

Nature Blog Network



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 373 other followers