Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

In Praise of Geography

Tim and Máiréad Robinson earned a living by making maps. Both passed away in the early wave of COVID last spring. They were in their 80s, but god-damn the eugenicist scum who blithely write off “underlying conditions” as an excuse. (This crowd of filth, the base of a GOP lately heard bleating about how divisive calls for impeachment are, is of the kind that deny that there were victims at Sandy Hook, to the extent of harrying parents of the children killed.)

Tim Robinson wrote books about the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemarra, what he called the “ABCs” of western Ireland. His subject was the “web of placelore,” the cultural encrustation of human habitation of the land, which he teased out by walking, for years, over the terrain.

I’ve read Stones of Aran, in which he details his walk around the edge of Arainn, the biggest of the Aran Islands (volume 1, Pilgrimage), and then through the interior (volume 2, Labyrinth). So good. I’m reading the first volume of his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind, now. It’s better.

There’s a chapter in this latter book about remains that encapsulates Robinson’s method. On foot, he explores the depths of human presence in the land, from the pre-historic to what’s remembered by the old fisherman to what he himself sees, hears, smells, all the while paying particular attention to the names on the land: Irish, anglicized Irish, and English. (“Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree.”)

The chapter, “The Boneyard,” discuses the prevalence of burial sites for unbaptized babies, not allowed on “consecrated” ground because of the cruelty of the Church; the local use of dog welks to make purple dye (albeit on a smaller scale than with the famed murex of Tyrian purple); the prevalence of tiny forams in the oceans, where they’re major players in the carbon cycle, and on the beaches when they die; and the site of a labyrinth made by a “land artist” in 1971, which the artist did not want pin-pointed on the Robinsons’ map. Robinson points out that the stones, like these other bones, hardly belong to the artist now.

In college, I majored in geography, which of course means “earth writing.” It is good to get back to a master of it.

NYRB Classics published the two-volume Stones of Aran here in the U.S.
Milkweed Editions has published Listening to the Wind, the first volume of the Connemarra trilogy. I’m not clear on whether they’ll do the other two volumes.
Penguin UK has the complete trilogy.

“Individually, none of the names I have mentioned is of much intrinsic interest. But if we think of all the place names that humanity has applied to the surface of this planet as constituting a single vast fingerprint, can we neglect even its most minute particularities in trying to identify ourselves?”

The Flying Zoo

The Blue Jay’s “flying zoo” includes “one flea, six species of lice, five types of ticks, and eight species of mites, in addition to being infected by nine kinds of flukes (trematodes), three tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm) and sixteen kinds of roundworms.”

Michael Stock’s The Flying Zoo: Birds, Parasites and the World They Share can get a little gross. Nasal leeches, anybody? Your adorable bird may be laden with parasites externally and internally, fighting off feather-chewers, blood-suckers, and gut-robbers.

A birding friend and reader of this blog (thank you, Janet!) thought I would like this book, and how right she was. The details are fascinating.

A few tidbits: Black swans have black lice, white swans with white lice, good camouflage for the lice. Different species of lice can be found on the wings, head, and body (not unlike the three specialized species that enjoy H. sapiens). A species of soft tick can stay dormant for 18 years, particularly helpful in bleak, isolated, seabird colonies. A nest being a great place to get lice, researchers can find out which bird species fostered Brown-headed Cowbird chicks by identifying the lice.

But beyond the details is the co-evolutionary story between parasite and host. “It does seem clear that intense selection pressure involving the immune system by birds against fleas has promoted flea specialization and likely flea speciation as well.” Eastern Screech Owls transport Blind Snakes to their cavity nests, where the snakes live off fly larvae, beetles, and fleas. “Owl nestlings in nests with snakes grew faster and lower mortality rates.” Fleas in the nests of Great Tits make it too humid for blowfly larvae; blowflie can have a worse effect on nestlings, so the fleas “may actually be helpful to their hosts.”

Using the example of a Black-capped Chickadee, Stock notes that a lot isn’t known about even common birds and their parasites.

This is a book that will make you look at birds with very different eyes.

Book and Flowers and Bugs

A month of summer yet, at least as the calendar goes. But Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers is good the whole year through. You’ll love opening this in early January!

I can’t better the foreword by NYBG’s Robert Naczi: “Gracie seamlessly integrates diverse facets about these plants—history, geography, habitats, human uses, morphology, classification, pollination, conservation, and more. Truly, this book has something for everyone, whether beginner or expert,hikeror gardener, entomologist or etymologist.”

In honor of Carol, who reads this blog (!), here are some interactions with common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. (If you’ve ever wondered why the species epithet means, essentially, “of Syria,” she explains the chain of errors that resulted in that.)
A tiny bee. Perhaps a sweat bee.
Nomada genus bee.
Scirtes orbiculatus, a marsh beetle.
Monarch egg.
That’s a honeybee on the left. I was trying to capture in pixels the pale ant here, but this is a bonus since it shows a yellow pollinarium, the two connected pollen sacs, or pollinia, that milkweed sticks to you in exchange for giving up its nectar.
Bembix genus sand wasp.
Great Golden Digger wasp.
And right next to this patch of milkweed in Green-Wood, a Great Golden Digger digs her nest site. While she sups on nectar, she provisions her young with crickets and katydids.



A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal

“It is clear the political establishment is collapsing in the United States and beyond. Clinging to it makes it possible for reactionaries like Trump to gain more ground the world over and brings climate catastrophe closer. The fundamental issue is this: As the center shrinks and the time for decarbonization tightens, milquetoast climate action on the margins will satisfy hardly anyone. If centrist Democrats spurn the insurgent Left and instead see centrist Republicans [i.e Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar] as their most reliable allies, they’ll pull the planet out of the frying pan–and into the fire.”

For every young person you know.


Nature’s Best Hope

“We need to practice conservation where we live, where we work, and where we farm, because we humans now occupy or have seriously altered nearly all of the spaces outside our parks and preserves.”

Douglas Tallamy, entomologist and ecologist, has been particularly influential. His Bringing Nature Home is a key source for a lot of people in the field(s). His newest book charges us with doing what we can. Chief amongst these things is turning our lawns from sterile water-and chemical dependent dead zones into habitat, into parts of what he calls the Homegrown National Park.

But not every plant is equal. Gardeners and plant-sellers are still pushing an out-dated aesthetic of what makes a pretty yard and garden. They’re still releasing invasives, still contributing to the reduction of carrying capacity, biodiversity, and ecological complexity. Of many examples he gives: most of Portland, Oregon’s street trees are, by far, exotics from abroad or other areas of North America. Everybody ooohs and ahhhs over the tree-lined streets. But these trees simply do not support the insects that feed on native plants (and the insects that feed on native plant feeders); fewer insects mean the birds don’t have anything to eat. In Portland a few years ago, I saw damn few birds until I got up in the hills.

An example Tallamy doesn’t use. It’s new: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is touting its brand new crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) hillside. It’s 2020 and these damn fools, who should be leading the city in education about native plantings and biological complexity, are planting this ecologically useless exotic! And celebrating it! They are actively contributing to the reduction of our insect, and hence bird, carrying capacity. And they are modeling this for gardeners.

Almost unbelievable — but not when you know the recent history of the place. The destructive head of that debased institution — who fired all the scientists, eviscerated the historic mission, tried to ship the herbarium out-of-state, and turned the place into a wedding venue — has finally left town, but the board who let him hijack the garden remains in place. What a dreadful legacy he leaves behind and the board perpetuates.

If you don’t have a bookstore, is a new alternative to paying for Jeff Bezos’s five hundredth bathroom.

Whale Ho

I came across some research that showed a Bombus bumblebee species whose members got physically smaller in competition with the commercial livestock that are honey bees.

I was reminded of this when I read Richard J. King‘s reference to the shrinkage in the size of whales killed between 1900 and 1986, when the international moratorium on whale-hunting finally went into effect. Sperm whales showed the most dramatic declines: ones killed in the 1980s were one average 13.1 feet shorter than those killed in 1905.

The diminishment of whale populations in absolute numbers and size has had ricocheting effects throughout the oceans. Whale excrement was a major source of nitrogen, essential for phytoplankton, before the run-off from farms and suburban laws poured too much nitrogen in. The death of a great whale was an enormous boon to deep sea creatures.

The more whales there were, the more other lifeforms in the sea.

Japanese cast iron whale, paperweight or totem, piloted into our ken by a friend.

Dinosaurs Past and Present

What do we know about dinosaurs now and, perhaps more interestingly, how do we know these things? Michael J. Benton lays it out in Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology . Origins, taxonomy, intelligence, reproduction, diet, locomotion, and, of course, the cause(s) of extinction are topics covered here.

Surely the most notable and surprising thing in our understanding of dinosaurs in the last couple of decades has been the discovery of dinosaur feathers. Colored feathers! (Good gravy, there were ginger dinosaurs!) With the added brain-expander that these feathered creatures were not fliers. They were using feathers for insulation and/or sexual attraction before feathers for flight.

Those scaly toes, those beaks! Most of the dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago. But not all of them.
Birds in Winter: Surviving the Most Challenging Season by Roger F. Pasquier is a compendium of research. From migration to toughing it out, our feathered dinosaurs are no slouches when it comes to the cold. (The absence of cold, on the other hand, is already telling in our warming planet, especially for sea birds who depend on cold currents that enrich the seas at the base of their food chain.) There is no no one size fits all to this, by the way. The great takeaway from this relentless collection of natural history observations —there are thirty pages of bibliography — is that variety is all.

Just one example: American Kestrels cache food throughout the year. In the non-breeding season, they’ll often store food for later in the day, and sometimes even the next day. Vertebrate prey can obviously hold up longer in the cold. Our breeding pair seemed to store food overnight. I’ve seen no winter caching myself. Research suggests that the birds will eat before the long cold night.

And this just in: colorful bird eggs, not something seen in reptiles, are another inheritance from dinosaurs.

Against the Grain

“The founding of the earliest agrarian societies and states in Mesopotamia occurred in the latest five percent of our history as a species on this planet. […] Measured by the roughly 200,000-year span of our species, then, the Anthropocene began only a few minutes ago.”

And look what we don’t that tiny bit of our time here on Earth!

If you’re like me, you learned that the first states, and hence civilization, arose with agriculture and sedentary lifestyles (sedentism) in early city-states. But we now know that agriculture and sedentism predated all this by a couple thousand years.

James C. Scott’s Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is one of those books that overturns stale thinking and makes you look afresh at the world we’ve made. Things like the reluctance, until quite recently, of the great majority of the world’s population (call them barbarians, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, peasants, etc.) to be sucked into cities/states. Cities were places of slavery, disease, and simplification. Nomadic people were far healthier than urbanites, until quite recently. The state is based on the domestication of fire, captives, livestock, plants, and women.

And from a wide range of plant and animal food, we’ve been whittled down to a handful of grains, hard little nubbins that are easy to count, tax, and control.

The book begins with this gut-punch quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: “Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing… The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires; the integration into a political system, that is to say, of considerable number of individuals… into a hierarchy of castes and classes….It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Our oldest story is Gilgamesh. It is not insignificance that the killing of the forest guardian Humbaba (Huwawa) precedes the cutting down of the cedars.

A Reading List

I’m just catching up to the Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America by Jeffrey Glassberg. Glassberg is an old butterfly hand, who’s written a couple of other guidebooks to the subject. (Never enough guidebooks!) He takes a firm stand against amateur netters and collectors (i.e. killers), commercially raised butterflies, and butterfly releases at weddings (I didn’t know this was a thing). This is a photo-based guide with a lot of rarities who show up in the LRGV (took me a second to track this down: Lower Rio Grande Valley, which is, of course, essentially Mexico). A lot of the very similar species are next to each other, which is of course helpful. I’d rank it pretty darn good, so let’s see if the next butterfly season presents me some puzzlers to solve with this book.

Princeton University Press has really gone in hard for the field guide market. A brand new addition is the Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America. They profile over 400 fly species, mostly using museum specimens with some photos of live insects in situ. This is a case where drawings might have worked better, but that would have taken a monumental effort. As in many examples of the varied world of Insecta, some species can’t be identified beyond genus level without the body in hand. Still, a valuable addition to the shelf, not least for telling us how many fly species are out there doing pollination.

Fraud in the Lab by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, translated by Nicholas Elliot, is quite important. This should be read by everybody, but especially people in the science communication business, whose job it is to translate scientific discoveries from the arcana of the literature to every-day language. Media hype over scientific discoveries that may be powered by ambition, prestige, and/or plain old greed are an awful combo. Was interested to see that Charles Baggage’s 1830 Reflections on the Decline of Science in England had a taxonomy of scientific fraud that still holds up.

On the to-do list:

Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby Dick by Richard J. King. King’s two other books suggest this one will be fun.

Tarka The Otter, by Henry Williamson, coming in April. First published in 1927 and never made into Disney codswallop because it makes Watership Down look like a bunny story. It’s really a re-telling of the First World War with an otter and a hunting dog for veteran Henry Williamson and the Hun. Just add a T to Hun and you get hunt: otter hunting used to be a thing in the UK. From 1900-1950, some 200 a year were killed in sanctioned hunts; as these are official numbers, this is probably an undercount. The population was halved during the 1960s. Only about 8 a year were hunted into the early 1970s, before the wretched practice was banned. Fox hunting, meanwhile, that other orgy of upper class sadism, was finally banned in 2002 (Scotland) and 2004 (England and Wales); it’s still legal in Northern Ireland, evidently.

What’s on your natural history to-read list?

All my book notices and/or reviews are found here.

Based on DNA evidence, the Great Auk was in no danger of extinction before humans started slaughtering them. How very Megafaunal.


Alan F. Poole’s Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor

In my half century life, there has been a great recovery of Osprey populations after ruthless persecution and even more ruthless chemical warfare. Luckily, this long-distant migratory bird is highly adaptable. They readily take to artificial nesting spots: 3 of 5 pairs in North America nest on human-made structures, many deliberately placed for them.

Pandion haliaetus is found around the world in four subspecies. The largest concentration of these fish hawks is found (in breeding season) in the Chesapeake Bay region. Driving across the Potomac River Bridge, for instance, is remarkable for sightings of flying birds, and nesting sites. Pandion haliaetus carolinensis is the subspecies we’re familiar with in North America; genetic evidence suggests the birds spread out around the world from North America during the Pleistocene.

Curiously only the Australian/New Guinea population is a southern hemisphere breeder. Others winter in the southern hemisphere (South America, Africa, India, SE Asia) but don’t breed there. Interestingly, not so much is known about the Japanese population. The cover photo is of one of the least populous subspecies, P. h. ridgewayi, found in Cuba and the coast of Belize.

Hazards abound. Fish farmers in winter months take a toll. The birds are a bellwether for toxins; our chemical civilization continuously releases new poisons into the ecosystem, and tens of thousands of the old ones pre-date testing requirements. Eastern Europeans still shoot them; the generally good news on recovery from the UK (over a million people have visited an osprey nest site in Scotland since 1959), France, Germany, and Scandinavia is not seen in Poland and nearby countries. The Mediterranean crossing during migration still bristles with guns.

Osprey’s have 8-9 feet of intestine. Fish make up 99% of their diet. They’ll eat almost any fresh or salt water fish, but particularly like the species that school in shallow waters.

About half of each year’s young don’t make their first birthday. For those that do make it, they usually take an extra year in their wintering areas before returning north to breed. So a bird born this year won’t return until 2021. Adults, of course, return every year, often unerringly to the same nest site. Mates spend the winter apart. Their winter grounds are often very contained, just a few square miles. The trip back north in early spring is faster than the trip south, when they often stop to rest up and eat. (Females in particular are pretty weak after breeding season.) Cuba is the route south of the majority of birds in the east.

Alan F. Poole has spent years studying these birds. He writes a good book. Pictures from a banding I helped out at in 2010.
Another in 2012.
And again.

In 2016, a pair of Osprey nested on a light tower at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, sorta-kinda in sight of my apartment. There were young, but no repeat performance.

Trump reminds us how fragile such victories as the Osprey recovery. An authoritarian party of profiteers-in-death can sweep away the good works of the past. He’s trying to gut science from the EPA and other parts of government at the behest of the plutes, polluters, and future-killers. The Republicans are the party of death for humans, animals, and planet. In a very important action this week, the rape-minded Injustice, B. Kavanaugh, signaled his Federalist Society mission loudly and clearly: to strip the ability of federal agencies to regulate.


Our week of books continues with Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King.

This is a collective biography of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Deloria, who took on the “scientific” racists, eugenicists, ethnocentrists, and anti-immigrant forces of a century ago. It is a fascinating story. They helped to transform how we think about race and sex, but they didn’t kill the reigning monsters off. This has been made all too clear in the excrement-personality, elected by a minority of America, to the Presidency. Trump has expressed eugenicist thinking, supported white nationalists and nazis, and is a misogynist of the first rank.

I’m a pretty close student of that era, but I was surprised to discover that the Married Women’s Act of 1922 stripped citizenship from American women who married non-white foreign men. Paging Stephen Miller, who, of course, would not have been considered white in the 1920s because he’s Jewish. (One imagines the nazis clustering around him as he tries to get credit for concentration camps, baby-kidnapping, and walls at the border: “Guys, we did it!” “What do you mean ‘we,’ Stevie?”)

As King reminds us, the original Nazis were careful observers of the American system of authoritarian apartheid. They modeled their race laws on America, substituting Jews for African Americans. The best-selling eugenicist Madison Grant, the originator of the “Great Replacement” myth in The Passing of A Great Race, and the man who exhibited an African at the Bronx Zoo’s earlier incarnation, was one of Hitler’s heroes. (See also Henry Ford.) The Germans made sure to catch up on the eugenics congresses hosted by Grant’s institutional base, the American Museum of Natural History, whose president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another leading eugenicist, and one of Boas’s detractors.

The American program of sterilizing “morons,” sanctified by a 1927 Supreme Court decision based on lies about the women at the heart of the case, was another model for the Nazis. Lies and bogus science were, in fact the basis of all this horror.

There used to be an attic at AMNH filled with the shelves of busts of the dozens of supposed “races” of humans, taking Johann Blumenbach’s 1777 notion of five races — American (i.e Arctic), Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian — to even more outlandish levels of absurdity. “Caucasian” is the only one of Blumebbach’s terms to have survived. Grant, by the way, changed the name of his top race from “Teutons” to “Nordics” once the U.S was in WWI: we couldn’t have the best race raping Belgians, now, could we?

The cranky, crusty Boas died in 1942. His reputation went south as successive generations of anthropologists took him to task for various things. The “critical studies” crew has been even more critical in the post-modernist, post-colonial era. The academy, after all, works best by eating its antecedents. (King’s second epigraph is from Max Planck, who said science progresses because the opponents of the new eventually die off.) But King makes a very good argument that Boas and Co. are worth revisiting in our ugly times.

Meanwhile, don’t take any b.s. from racist old Uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table tonight. Happy holidays to you!


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