Posts Tagged 'books'

Ants in Your Stockings

Better than coal, right? Hell, what isn’t?

The Eleanor Spicer Rice series of books about ants are for the younger naturalist, but we can all learn a thing or two about these omnipresent critters in these pages. I perused Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants and Dr. Eleanor’s Ants of New York City; Chicago and California are covered in two other volumes; there’s also a Book of Common Spiders which I’m awaiting.

I’ve always been struck by the kinship between ants, bees and wasps, the main members of the order Hymenoptera. But don’t bees and wasps all have wings, you ask, “membrane-winged” being the translation of Hymenoptera? Well, reproductive ants do have wings. After mating flight, the female or queen discards hers for a life in the colony. The males, who often look even more like wasps than ants in general do, are evidently little studied. Like drone honeybees, they don’t seem to do much besides mate with queens. Nice job if you can get it? Worker honeybees (non-reproductive females) throw the drones out of the hive before winter; unable to fend for themselves, they die.

I’m now happily in possession of this fact: an ant’s abdomen is called a gaster. I think “Aunt Gaster” would make a very fine character name.

The pictures — no easy task when it comes to tiny moving insects — are by Alex Wild. The table of contents has pictures of all the ants, but otherwise it’s hard to compare and contrast the species for identification purposes. I’d like to have seen field marks, however small, highlighted. Also, there’s a bit too much repetition for my taste, both internally and between volumes, and the stories told are too cute for the old curmudgeon class, but I soldiered on.

Your best bet if not in NYC or Chi-town or Cali is to get the Book of Common Ants, which is a bit larger, with 18 species. The NYC volume covers 14 species. A drop in the ant bucket: there are at least 42 species found in the city.

Other natural history book to consider as gifts.

What’s the opposite of anthropomorphism?

I used to follow the rules forbidding anthropomorphism. But this old thought, allegedly “scientific,” has fallen to the wayside the more I observe animals, and the more I learn about them. This, then, jumped out at me in Lynda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent:

“In his observations of seals and caracaras and ovenbirds and earthworms, in his records of their behaviors and his sensing of their thoughts, [Darwin] utterly, and even joyfully, abandoned his privileged human status. He threw his own thoughts and behaviors right into the animal mix, putting all creatures, including humans, on the same continuum of consciousness. Rather than imposing human concepts upon animal behaviors, he animalized consciousness in general. The human “privileges” imparted by advances such as language grew out of this continuum ran than being plopped down on top of it.”

Long-time readers will know I get itchy and scratchy over the inane human names imposed on charismatic fauna. Eagles named George and Martha, that kind of thing. (Nobody seems to name bees, on the other hand, except for Monty Python’s “Eric the Half a Bee”). And don’t get me started on the animal metaphors we use on ourselves.

For we humans are fairly distinct in our monstrousness. There’s no reason to insult, say, pigs, rats, snakes, et al. by comparing us to them. It’s more accurate to describe those creatures who do, on occasion, waste food or befoul their nests, as so human.Yet we’re always — for as long as there are records, including cave paintings — drawing, singing, and emulating animals. We must be jealous. Of course, now that so many people are urbanized and digitized, animals are receding from our consciousness…

Image: Darren Waterston, embossed cover to A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures by Mark Doty & Darren Waterston (Prestel, 2013)


In Raptor: A Journey Through Birds, James MacDonald Lockhart loosely follows William MacGillivray, the nineteenth century ornithologist, from Scotland south, searching for the fifteen species of British raptors.

You may recall MacGillivray from the Audubon connection: he was John James’s ornithological ghost writer. I was struck by this: MacGillivray called his knapsack a “machine.” A quick glance at the OED shows that we’ve much reduced machine’s meanings since then. “A structure of any kind, material or immaterial” is the base definition. Human and animal bodies, siege engines, plots and conspiracies, ships and vehicles…

I’m familiar with most of the UK raptors, for we share several genera and species, but the Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), a rare bird in the UK, is quite new to me. This is a bird that favors feeding on wasp larvae, its feet and bill rather different from the run of the meat-ripping-raptor mill. It will dig up nests to get the grubs. Here’s some video of the wasps’ response.

In the middle of the last century, Lockhart would have found many fewer raptors or none at all. This is the undercurrent of J.A. Baker’s remarkable The Peregrine. Hunters, farmers, egg collectors, habitat-destroyers, then DDT. Today, re-introductions, legal protections, and education mean there are many more raptors British Isles.

“You cannot separate the story of Britain’s birds of prey from the birds’ relationship with man. That relationship is the birds’ story.” For at the edges, the ravening hominid still lurks, the old battle is still being waged between the destroyers hungry for profit and the conservationists. The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)*, for instance, is ruthlessly persecuted by “gamekeepers,” employees of large grouse-killing estates. These bastards kill all the raptors they find, just to be sure they get the harriers. In fact, the Hen Harrier rarely predates grouse, but reality, as you know, doesn’t match up well with belligerent ignorance. And of course, the oligarchical types who blast grouse out of the sky are the same shits assaulting the precarious protections we’ve managed to carve for our only planet and its soil, air, water, and food.

This isn’t a tangent. I didn’t expected Lockhart, in his peregrinations, to discuss the clearances and enclosures that have so brutalized Britain. But there you go. Wandering the land you should not miss them (the same goes for here, where traces of ethnic cleansing and genocide stain the map). “In the end all landscapes tell the same stories,” he says, “Everywhere is layered with the same strata of clearances, displacements, resettlements.” This nasty history is rarely portrayed in the reactionary television soaps about the toffs and their servants, classes created by this violent usurpation of land and justice, that some Americans seem to devour like sticky toffee pudding.

*Just this year, the nabobs of taxonomy split our Northern Harrier from C. cyaneus; our sole harrier species is now C. hudsonius.

Deep Maps

William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth is an close exploration of the place now called Chase County, Kansas. The book is large and sprawling. I read it over several months, usually just a few chapters at a time, letting the details build up like the old prairie soils. Much, as he notes near the end, has been left out, as must inevitably be the case. Yet there’s a richness here that is amazing. You’ll learn, for instance, the 140 different variations of the word for the Kaw, the Wind People; one of these names was used to name the state by those who cheated, robbed, and finally ethnically cleansed the eponyms.

For naturalists, the chapters on cottonwood, osage orange, and wood rats are worth the price of admission. The rats are also known as pack rats and trade rats, since they’re known to swap what they’re carrying home with something nicer they find along the way: “campers have awakened in the morning to find a pocketbook or compass traded for a pinecone or deer turd.”

Melville said “It’s not down in any map, true places never are.” Now, I love maps, but recognize them for what they are: human representations, with all the caveats that implies. Such simplifications and flattenings have reached their nadir in the most commonly used digital maps, where the streets are all that seem to matter.

John Hansen Mitchell’s Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile and Tim Robinson’s two Stones of Aran books of a similar deep-mapping genre. I’ve read Robinson, and highly recommend him, and have Mitchell on deck.

Wild Pigeons

“When an individual is seen gliding through the woods, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone,” so wrote John James Audubon on the Passenger Pigeon, which is of course now long gone. Audubon — who cribbed from Alexander Wilson more than once, including in his famous account of the three days passage of the birds overhead — was spot-on about this. Passenger Pigeons were rarely seen as individuals. They were an aggregate, a swarm. Ornithologists, for instance, hardly paid any attention to the bird until it was too late. There aren’t even that many skins of the birds in collections today.

Rather unexpectedly in the catalog of Notting Hill Editions, an English publisher of handsome editions of the art of the essay, I found John Wilson Foster’s excellent history of and meditation upon the Passenger Pigeon: Pilgrims of the Air. The book was originally published in 2014, the centenary of the very last pigeon to die, and is now being distributed here in the U.S. I strongly recommend it.

By now you probably know the tale: incomprehensible numbers of Passenger Pigeons flocking across the landscape of North America well into the 19th century. Then, in mere decades, literally just about twenty years, dwindling to near nothing. And now, for more than a century, nothing… not a single human-damned one.

Foster’s slim book gives us a very fine pocket history of ornithology in America, with some surprising appearances, such as the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather, FRS. Audubon you probably know, but how about Peter Kalm, who described the pigeons in 1759, and Nicolas Denys, who wrote about them in his 1672 memoir?

Not every year was a “Pigeon Year,” mind you, but they came sporadically, tremendous booms that crushed woodlands with their weight. Of course, they also seeded forests out the other end…. They terrorized farmers and thrilled hunters and overjoyed the hungry, including the pigs that would be set loose on the killing fields and woods. There were, for instance, a dozen years between visitations of the pigeon horde in the Massachusetts colony (1631, 1643), “soe many that they obscured the lighte, that it passeth credit, if but they truth should bee written.” After the Civil War, the slaughter became industrial, aided by railroad, telegraphy, and bottomless urban markets. And when the birds stopped coming to be killed, the pigeoneers made all sorts of delusional excuses to point the blame elsewhere: the birds had all flown to South America; they had all drowned; and so on. Indeed, Foster notes that this nonsense echoed Cotton Mather’s old notion that the birds came from outer space.

Foster writes “early reports betrayed a similar ambivalence about the abundance of wildlife that both stretched credulity and in a disturbing way threatened preconceptions of an orderly world.” Even within the rich context of the New World’s flora and fauna, especially as seen by Old Worlders who came from lands already scoured of species, the Passenger stood out. Foster’s chapter on the overwhelming abundance of life in North America is hard to read, for now, verily, ’tis like we live in the aftermath of a plague… of ourselves: the two-legged locusts.

These birds were wanderers, nomads, opportunists, chasing down food (acorns, beechnuts, maple samaras, fruits, grains), not north-south migratory in the standard sense. Thoreau wrote in September, 1854 about their most famous food, acorns: “These are found whole in their crops. They swallow them whole. I should think from the droppings that they had been eating berries. I hear that Wetherbee caught ninety-two dozen last week.”

Thomas W. Neumann’s thesis was that these enormous flocks were freakish, the post-Columbian result of the removal of competition for mast. That competition had included humans, turkeys, deer, squirrels, etc, all tremendously reduced by the Europeans. Foster introduces this idea on page 108, after approximately 100 pages of evidence of enormous flocks dating almost from the first European contact. In 1634, for instance, when there were an estimated 6,000 Europeans in the colonies, the “Ayerie regiment” of these birds were flying in the “Millions of Millions.”

Benedict Revoil, otherwise quite unreliable, did have this distressingly accurate forecast in 1859: the Passengers “will eventually disappear from this continent; and if the world endure a century longer, I will wager that the amateur of ornithology will find no pigeons except in select Museums of Natural History.”

Well, precisely. I’ve seen ’em stuffed at the American Museum of Natural History. That is all.


Born two hundred years ago today, David Henry Thoreau entered the world some 182 years after Concord was settled by English colonialists. What a half-way point for America! Concord’s establishment was, by the way, half a dozen years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: the Puritans were reluctant to move inland. At first.

In The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Robert M. Thorson points out that HDT (who changed the order of his given names after college; some Concordians continued to call him David) spent far more time on the waters of the Sudbury and Assabet and Concord rivers and their sprawling, sometimes flooded meadowlands than in the more famous woods. But more importantly, he argues that the Anthropocene had already commenced! In 182 years, the landscape had already been radically transformed, disrupted, deforested, depopulated (of its original inhabitants, two legged and otherwise). A local battle between farmers and early industrialists over control of the river waters, something Henry was a part of as surveyor, was a piece of this human transformation of the planet, at local and global levels.

In her new biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls, distilling her own lifetime as a scholar of Thoreau and his times, gives us a majestic life in the round. Her stated aim is a reading of “Thoreau as a writer — for remarkably he made of his life itself an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.” And she notes that the two Thoreaus we’ve invented for our own time (the nature writer; the social justice figure) really are one.* “His social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots.” Indeed, a “knot of roots” (the description is Emerson’s).

A knot of roots! Aren’t we all, out here on our little twig on the great shrub of life? And sometimes we’re all a little prickly, too. (That was a tangle of plant metaphors, wasn’t it?) Thoreau was no saint. Who is? The testimony of his longevity and continued relevance, particularly at this moment of crisis in the Republic — indeed, the planet as we know it — is more than enough.Kevin Dann, in his wonderfully quirky Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of HDT wants to co-opt Emerson’s disappointed comment about his one-time protege as nothing more than a leader of a huckleberry party. (Emerson, meanwhile, wends his way to the nihilistic individualism of libertarianism….) Dann says this is precisely the point: get out there and gather huckleberries, real or imagined, and make it a party. (Lately, I’ve been cooking with sour cherries and making peach ice-cream, so I think I’m on the right track.)

*”Saving the world requires saving democracy,” echoes Carl Safina (quoted in Patrick Lynch’s A Field Guide to Long Island Sound, a book impossible to imagine without Thoreau), “That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy — these combine to make one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.”

All the Thoreau here at B&B.

Swallows and Swifts

Dr. Johnson, in his 59th year, 1768 (per wee Jaimie Boswell):

“He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. ‘That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over the northern countries, is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.”

Note here that Sam. Johnson calls upon eye-witness evidence for the woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) but has nothing to cite for the swallows (Hirundo rustica) except, presumably, common sense. Well, let that be a lesson to us all.

The notion that swallows sleep through the winter goes back quite a way. Aristotle thought they went into holes in the ground. fishingforswallowsSomehow this got translated as meaning underwater. A Swedish woodblock print from 1555 shows fishermen pulling up a net full of swallows from a lake. One of the English language’s earliest naturalists, Gilbert White, who was a contemporary of Johnson’s, believed this.

The pioneering ornithologist Edward Jenner, who revered White, wrote one of the first papers on migration (published posthumously in 1824). He thought it rather improbable that song birds would winter underwater. Indeed, after having drowned a swallow or two, he suggest that it was impossible. He was also one of the first to mark birds, by clipping off claws, showing that swallows returned to the same place year after year. From…somewhere.

Somewhere south of here, that’s for sure. In his case, Africa. In ours, Central and South America.

Well, by now the swallows should have returned to all the Capistranos of the land. Here in NYC, the nesting members of the Hirundinidae are the Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-wing, Bank, and Purple Martin.

I almost never see swallows from my windows on the Harbor Hill Moraine, but most evenings of spring and summer the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are overhead. Their chittering anticipates twilight. I saw my first of the year last weekend both in Upper Manhattan and locally, and heard my first on May Day.


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