Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Some Books

Francis Hallé’s Atlas of Poetic Botany is delightful. It’s a botanist’s record of encounters with remarkable life forms, tropical plants that walk, listen, mimic (like a chameleon, yes), among other things.

I hadn’t known that rubber trees were native to the New World. However, they can’t be grown plantation-style in the Amazon because if they’re too close together a parasitic fungus takes them out. The trees need to be separated by at least 300 meters. The great rubber plantations of Asia — Thailand is still the world’s main producer of natural rubber — don’t have this problem. Hallé says the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is going to reach them someday.

We don’t even know why rubber trees produce latex? It’s not an insecticide? Do we really need to go to other planets when we’ve hardly gotten to know this one?

This book would make a wonderful gift for a friend who cares nothing for plants or doesn’t bother to notice them. Yes, it is all exotica to those of us in the temperate zone, but it may very well plant some seeds of curiosity.

Or spores. For instance, in a woodland near you, there may be plants whose ancestors reach back hundreds of millions of years, who survived two mass extinctions, and almost got shut out by the shade-stealers angiosperms. Robbin C. Moran delves into A Natural History of Ferns and lycophytes, spore-bearers all. (Consider all the pollen, microbes, spores fungal and pteridophyte, you breath in through the year. Fresh air? Times Square! By the way, it’s the proteins on the surface of pollen grains that are causing your immune system to fire off. Fern spores don’t have surface proteins and don’t make you sneeze.)

Fern reproduction — which has sexual and asexual generations — was figured out late in the game, in the 1840s… I mean, we humans figured out how ferns went about it. The plants have obviously known a very long time. Moran begins with Shakespeare referring to the common belief that ferns reproduced by invisible seeds, fair enough since you need a microscope to get a good look at the spores. The invisible seeds were thought to make you invisible if you managed to get a hold of some.

A perfect pendant to Moran’s collection of essays is Lynn Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way . This slides into cargo-pants pocket with ease. And it works very nicely.


The Old English word unweder means bad, bad weather, a storm or tempest “so extreme that it seems to have come from another climate or time altogether” writes Robert MacFarlane in Underland. Exploring the rapidly shrinking ice of Greenland near the end of his new “deep time journey,” he’s in the thick of this uncanny weather.

“A ‘glacial pace’ used to mean movement so slow as to be almost static. Today’s glaciers, however, surge, retreat, vanish. The recession of Himalayan glaciers threatens the livelihoods and lives of more than a billion people in Asia, who depend on the water that is seasonally stored and released by these ice rivers.” India is already experiencing crushing heat. As is Europe, which saw all its records (the longest climate history in the world) shattered late last month.

There’s an awful lot in this book. The section on fungal tree interactions and communication is particularly fine. It will make you sad to see a street tree, which is basically an orphan. The section on nuclear waste, and efforts to warn future life-forms AWAY from it, is particularly horrific. The nuclear industry and its acolytes still push more power plants, but the problem of radioactive waste remains. They are trying to figure out a warning systems that needs to understood for as long as the human species exists… and beyond. The nonhuman needs to know, too. But by what right do we poison the future?

MacFarlane has an eye for the telling quote, too. “Are we being good ancestors?” asked Jonas Salk in the early 1990s. “What we excrete comes back to consume us,” wrote Don DeLillo in Underworld.

Wind At The Back

Just next month, a new edition of Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind.

The title is iffy and I question its dependence on the Gaia hypothesis for its overarching theme. This seems par for course of Watson, who was a prolific popularizer of science who verged into the paranormal and New Age foolishness, where he seems to have confused curiosity for credulousness.

But, the woo-woo aside, there’s much to be gleaned in this encyclopedia of fascinations. By all means take a ride in its swirling currents.

The book originally came out in 1984, which perhaps explains why, for something about the thin but all important layer between rock and space, it takes its time getting to the greenhouse effect. Watson was… optimistic about the coming climate shift: “This is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world — one worth getting excited about all over again.” Like many a peppy prognosticator, he is no longer around to check his opinion.

What I most take away from the book are the pages on aeroplankton. The air is its own ecosystem. It’s absolutely packed with lifeforms. Insects, of course. Tons of them. What else are the swallows and swifts gobbling up overhead? And spiders, lots and lots and lots of spiders, although I’ll wager less than in Watson’s day. Ditto the other insects. (Windshields used to be covered with dead bugs after night drives, but no more, cf: Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm.) There’s pollen, too, as your nose knows, from ten thousand species of wind-pollinated plants.

And there lots of bacteria and viruses. Also spores, of fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, ferns. Then there’s the dust, from plowed field, desert, volcanoes.

From more recent research: 56 million metric tons of dust per year crosses the Pacific to North America, and that’s just one pathway; “the earth’s atmosphere is like a conveyor belt for microbes”; “it is now understood that even dead cells can play a functional role in weather and climate as cloud and ice condensation nuclei.”

Don’t forget the pollution which settles on the ice of the poles, reducing its albedo, meaning less reflection and more heat in the atmosphere.

“”…the latin root anima, meaning both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ — which leads ultimately to animus the ‘soul,’ animare to fill with ‘breath,’ and ultimately ‘animal.’ And the root spirare to ‘breath,’ from which comes ‘spirit,’ ‘aspire,’ and , in the end, ‘inspiration.'” [Not to mention ”conspire,” to breath together.]

A dictionary of wind blows through the final pages of Watson’s book. Oe, Halny, Williwaw, Waltzing Jinn, Chinook. I remember the latter from my year in Calgary: sudden thaws would pour down from the Rockies in winter. Spring came early, for a day or two.

Hey, fun for the kids: how the world has warmed, down to the local level, and predictions on increasing warming in the place where you live.

Two Degrees

“What happens if one changes a systems’s parameters — the temperature, the weather, the climate? What will collapse and what will endure? Who will live and who will die?”

A two-degree rise in global mean temperature, which now sounds optimistically low for the results of global warming this century, may be compared with effects of the two degree drop during the Little Ice Age. Nature’s Mutiny, by Philipp Blom, details how, in the words of the subtitle, “the Little Ice Age of the long seventeenth century transformed the west and shaped the present.” The entire socio-political fabric of western civ. was ripped to pieces. Millions died of war, disease, and starvation from Spain to Russia. Irrationalism became triumphant with messiah-mountebanks running amuck. Some 50,000 people were burned or otherwise executed as witches, often blamed for crop failures, earthquakes, hail storms.

Feudalism was obliterated. Capitalism was born along with it’s eviler twin colonialism. In 1607, the first summer at Jamestown (Virginia) was the driest in nearly 800 years. The colony was reduced to cannibalism before reinforcements arrived from England.

The past is not prologue, of course, but using this model, we should think hard about massive demographic transformation, profound changes in political economy, and a radical up-rooting of everything we’ve known — in one-two-three generations. Of course, all this has already begun. The news from the Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, the Himalayas… New Orleans, is all bad.

In these pages, I discovered William Shakespeare doing some script-doctoring for the play Sir Thomas More. He wrote this speech for More’s character. This fictional (the real More was fairly awful) More is confronting an anti-immigrant mob, asking them to put themselves in the place of strangers in a strange land — say someplace of virulent nativists, for-profit concentration camps, fascist thugs in uniform, orange pancake makeup-wearing ogres:

Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Recent Books

Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History is hard to put down. He’s a determinist, arguing that our species have been ruled by Milankovitch cycles; climate change; plate tectonics; and geology, among other physical factors. Some of this is probably too superficial and glib, but it sure makes for fascinating reading. By the way, you’re reading this on a screen controlled by microchips made of silicon dioxide, which is also the basis of glass, and, back in the Stone Age, a major component of the kinds of rock (chert, flint, obsidian) used to make tools. The more things change…?

Speaking of geology, Sandra Herbert’s Charles Darwin, Geologist reminds us that young Darwin went out on the Beagle as a geologist. In fact, he wasn’t even the ship’s naturalist initially. He shipped as the gentleman companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy (who later turned fundamentalist), who couldn’t socialize with his crew and needed someone of his own class to dine with. The ship’s official naturalist (and surgeon, the two tasks often went together) was Robert McCormick, who quit after seeing Darwin in action. Darwin also paid his own way, or rather his father did: £600 for outfitting for the journey and £1200 or so during.

Everybody remembers “Darwin’s finches,” except Darwin, who bollixed his collecting of these birds on the Galapagos. Ornithologist John Gould sorted out the bird specimens, realizing the mixed-up birds from the islands were all finches. In the Galapagos archipelago, it was different types of mockingbirds (and turtles) that got Darwin seriously wondering about transmutation. For four decades now Peter and Rosemary Grant have been documenting how the islands’ birds evolve in real time in relation to the climate.

With Extinction Rebellion making headlines, Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism may be premature.
Sprout Lands by William Logan.

What are you reading in natural history (writ large) lately?

A.C. Bent & Co. on Raptors

Arthur Cleveland Bent published twenty-one volumes in his Life Histories of North American Birds between 1919 and 1968. The last two volumes were posthumous. They originally came out in the U.S. National Museum Bulletin. Later they were republished by Dover. There’s an internet edition now.

The Dover paperbacks are a standard sight in used book store natural history sections. But I’d never seen the volume(s) on raptors until last month. Turns out Bent produced two volumes on diurnal and nocturnal raptors, originally published in 1937 and 1938. The Dover edition I purchased at Oasis Books in Gloucester Court House, VA, came out in 1961. One Frank Schoff put his name and “1962” inside Part 1. “3/62” is written in Part 2, but seems to be in a different hand. These covers, though….

Bent’s method is to cite the literature, his own (evidently extensive) notes (dating back to the 1880s), and many correspondents. There are a fair number of collaborators, too. For instance, the Eastern Sparrow Hawk (what they used to call American Kestrel) chapter is written by one.

It’s all wonderfully anecdotal stuff. There is some great material in these things. But if you’ve never delved into them, beware! Bird-people were a bloody bunch back in the day. Egg-collectors, bird shooters, stomach content turner-outers (to see what the birds ate) galore.

Bent goes to subspecies level. It was also an era of “splitters,” meaning rather more species than are now accepted.

Here, for instance, is how I use such archaic material. Driving south, we saw a good number of Ospreys. More recently, I counted five kettling together over Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. I’ve often wondered how many of these fish hawks a habitat can contain. Bent, writing before DDT, speaks of regular colonial breeding. E.g.: in 1911, Gardiners Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, had an estimated 200 nests. The island is about 3000 acres. Through the magic of ebird, I thought I’d check out how many Osprey have been reported there recently. However, there’s not a single report from the island! The island, rather remarkably, has been privately owned by the same family… for nearly four centuries. There are no ebirders in the current crop, evidently.

It seems to be World Horseshoe Crab Day… I’ve written quite a bit about these creatures.

Wright On Sparrows

The big book of little brown jobs is here at last. The enviably erudite Rick Wright has written a very readable reference guide to the LBJs, sparrow division. It’s not a field guide: the hardcover large format precludes that. (I presume a paperback will follow; there’s also an ebook version, but you know those are bad for you, right?) And, as the beginning of the introduction states, it’s not the typical birder’s book. “Most bird books treat their subject as one entirely separate from the cultural world that humans inhabit, focusing exclusively on what for the past 2.500 years we have called “natural history”: identification, behavior, and ecological and evolutionary relationships. But birds have a human history, too, […].” Yes, each of the 76 species of Passerellidae family sparrows covered here has an entry that discusses field identification in depth, range and geographic variation, and subspecies. The photographs are excellent (each is noted to place, month, and photographer). But the heart of the book is made up of the stories of the birds and the bird people. “Everything we think we know, someone had to learn,” writes Wright, who’s blog also testifies to his deep familiarity with earlier ornithological work. “A fuller awareness of the slow evolution of ornithological knowledge over the centuries can inspire modern birders both to greater ambition and to greater patience with their own development. If scientific ornithology is still debating the status, indeed the very existence of, for example, the Cassiar Junco a century after its discovery, we field observers can be more comfortable in our own uncertainties.”For instance: the Little Sparrow, Fasciated Finch, Ferruginous Finch, or the Shepherd. These are all old names for the Song Sparrow, now known biologically as Melospiza melodia. Virtually cosmopolitan in my experience, by which I mean they turn up in most habitat I visit around NYC, Song Sparrows were the first birds I noticed having accents in their song. The ones on Nantucket don’t sound the same as the ones here. (They do peculiar things with their “r” — ahh — up there….). Turns out they’re “one of the most geographically diverse birds in the world.” In the past, ornithologists have counted up to 50 subspecies; today it’s about two dozen.Very much an addition to your hardcore natural history bookshelf.

(Sparrows from my blog archives, from the top: Field, Chipping, White-throated, Fox, Song, Olive, Grasshopper — the latter two photographed in Texas)


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