Posts Tagged 'books'


The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte is a good introduction to recent dinosaur discoveries.

Chief amongst these, surely, is that birds are dinosaurs. T. H. Huxley called it 150 years ago, but it took more recent evidence to nail this notion down. And here’s another: feathers, including colored feathers, preceded flight.
And our dude here, illustrated for Brusatte’s book by Todd Marshall, fossil evidence of which was first found in Bavaria in 1861.

Mining their own bones for calcium for eggs is another dinosaur trick you find in birds today. Something I didn’t know is that dinosaur (and bird) lungs are quite different from most other types of lungs. We get our oxygen when we inhale. Birds, and their dino forebears, inhale air into their lungs and air sacs; exhaling means a second flood of oxygen through the lungs.

Each breath is essentially doubled. That’s where these little flibbertigibbets get all their energy and are so hard to photograph.

Insect Books

Princeton Nature is going strong these days. Eaton‘s book is a slim compendium of insect lore. Just a few of the entries: Amber, Delusory Parasitosis, Killer Bees, Seed Dispersal, Snow Insects, Xerces Society. I could, frankly, handle a lot more of it. Two things really jumped out at me. On the subject of insect decline, there is much anecdote and debate, but one hard piece of evidence is a study of Whip-poor-wills that shows they are eating smaller insects than they used to; there just aren’t enough big ones any more. And how high do insects fly (or get wafted along)? Specimens have been found at 19,685 feet (6000m).

Piper’s book, as its cover suggests, is much more pictorial. “Richly illustrated” is a worthy description here. A lot of ground is covered, but the category “insects” is mind-blowingly vast, so, like the Eaton, this volume also leaves you wanting more. Here’s a taste: venom has independently evolved at least 14 times in insects; memories formed by the larva are retained in the adult; the dung of introduced cattle in Australia was of no interest to native dung beetles, who evolved with marsupials. The result was a continent plagued with furies of flies breeding in the cow pats until the introduction, starting in the 1960s, of numerous species of dung beetles.

And this, practically just off the printing presses, is a massive field guide to hundreds of species of spiders. I’ve literally just started looking at it…


Before Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote three books about the sea, which have now been brought together in a single Library of America volume. Some of the science is dated, but these are still delightful and worthy books, and any beach-comber, actual or metaphorical, would do well to have this volume in hand.

Catchy title, very interesting book. “Algae certainly will plague us in ever-increasing numbers, but still they are a source of hope. We already know they can be harnessed to create fuel, plastics, animal feed, vitamins, protein, edible oils, and other useful products.[…] they can remediate the waters we pollute.” And some day, long after all of us are gone, they may help cool down the planet as they’ve done before in Earth’s long history.

The current edition of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society (149.2; April-June 2022) is devoted to “The ecology of Quercus-dominated forest in the eastern United States.” There should be a subtitle: “On the Importance of Fire.” As you may know, our oaks are not doing great. They aren’t replacing themselves. More shade-tolerant species like Red Maple are thickening our forests. Oaks need large herbivores (driven to extinction by early humans in North Americas) and/or fire (once used by indigenous peoples to clear land for agriculture and deer parks) to open up the space and light they need. But the last century, following a century of cut-over of old growth, has been one of fire-suppression. Smokey Bear turns out to be hell of a landscape engineer and habitat-master. The disastrous effects of fire suppression are more readily apparent in the West than here in the East, but they are no less profound here.

Sunday plate passing...


The cover of this book grabbed me like a raptor’s talons. This is Georg(e) Forster’s watercolor of a Striated Caracara, a species confined to the Falklands, made during Cook’s second voyage (1772-1775) in search of the southern continent. There are nine other species of caracaras, birds found almost exclusively in South America. There are also some extinct species–and the Striated may well be heading that way.

Only the (Northern) Crested Caracara gets into the United States, with populations in Florida and Texas, and the occasional aberrant one getting as far north as Seattle and, on this coast, Bear Mountain in NY. (Bones of Pleistocene caracaras and California Condors, which used to range the continent, have been found near Bear Mountain, so the bird is, perhaps, coming back.) I saw a few near the Rio Grande.

Caracaras are falcons, but they seem closer to their parrot cousins than, say, Peregrines and American Kestrels. Inquisitive, communal, exploratory, able to learn and seemingly able to teach, with a wide latitude for what they’ll eat–practically anything and everything, including carrion and excrement (evidently seal poop is rich with partially digested gifts of the sea)–they’re rather like corvids. In fact, they take the place of corvids: until reading this, I hadn’t realized there are no crows or ravens in South America.

In addition to evolution, this book necessarily discusses geology and the reason for South America’s uniqueness, as well as its gifting of marsupials northwards into our backyards. There’s also much appreciation for Anglo-Argentine naturalist and ornithologist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), who was born in the land of caracaras to English immigrant parents. Hudson is probably best remembered for Green Mansions, a 1904 novel that was more successful in the U.S. than the UK, but he wrote a lot of books. There are 24 volumes in his Collected Works. Unmentioned here is his A Shepherd’s Life, which much influenced James Rebanks recent (and recommended) The Shepherd’s Life. I’m going hunting for Hudson’s Long Ago and Far Away: A History of My Early Life, praised by both Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, an unexpected combination of admirers.


More reading: this review/dismemberment of a book by one of the new eugenicists is important. These racists (and classists) have returned with a vengeance, peddling the same old bullshit of century ago, now wrapped up in willful misreading of DNA and genetics. They even come claiming to be “progressive.” (A nice nod to the dark side of the Progressive Era.)

The Social Wasps

Chris Alice Kratzer’s guide to The Social Wasps of North America is out and about. If you’re interested in the social wasps, and I know you are, you should really look this one up. Kratzer uses an interesting digital graphic style of illustration: it’s generic, or should I say platonic, packing a lot of information into the image. Remember, each species may have three castes: queen, workers (female), and male. (A field guide using photos is going to have a lot problems covering all these variations.) And among these there may be more than one color form — melanic, ferruginous, xanthic, etc. — often based on regional distribution, but with some inevitable geographic overlap. To represent this, individual illustrations of the wasps are divided in half; the author suggests using a small mirror to get a whole body sense. Have never seen this trick before.

Kratzer also rates the species with a “field ID rating” from easy to cryptic. Identification can, indeed, be tricky. As an example: Polistes fuscatus, which iNaturalist calls the “Dark Paper Wasp.” (Above is one of my pictures from early June, spotted in Princeton, NJ.) Well, they’re pretty dark around here, but they’re not all dark across their large range. Kratzer goes with the name “Imposter Paper Wasp” because they look like several other species. There are 8 pages on this one species in this book. (Below is another of my sightings from the Bronx, NY, from late June.)

Because it covers North America, the majority of the species in this book are south of the U.S. Tropics win when it comes to insect species diversity.

Coral Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans), which iNaturalist calls Guinea Paper Wasp. Rare around here. I’ve seen two of these in Bush Terminal Park (July)and this one in Green-Wood (early October).

The social wasps make up a tiny percentage of wasps, but because they may sting to protect their nests, they’re the ones most often noticed. They’re the ones who give wasps a bad name. But remember, it’s our blundering upon them that causes the reaction.

Yellowjackets streaming in and out of an underground nest is a sign. Heed it.

I do so by observing from a few feet away. They’ve never bugged me.


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Cuckoo, Cuckoo!

Sumer is icumen in,/ Lhude sing cucu, begins one of the oldest songs in English. The distinctive call of the male Common Cuckoo, just returned from winter in sub-Saharan Africa, has long marked the return of spring to Europe. People used to write to the Times to report the date they first heard it for the year. 

In studying the curious life history of the Common Cuckoo, Nick Davies asks many intriguing questions about brood parasitism and co-evolution. Moralists have, of course, been appalled for centuries about the Cuckoo’s way of doing things. The more interesting thing is how they do it—including careful observation of the host’s nest and the lightning fast laying of “forged” eggs—and what the host species do to defend themselves. 

There seem to be a lot of advantages of brood parasitism. Female Common Cuckoos are, for instance, well on their way back to Africa while other species raise the next generation of Common Cuckoos. Yet only about 1% of all bird species are brood parasites. Why should this be so? Not even all cuckoos do it: only 59 of the 141 cuckoo species in the world, in the family Cuculidae, are brood parasites. 

For instance, the cuckoos found in the Northeast U.S. are the Black-billed and Yellow-billed. Both are parental, meaning they build their own nests. They will occasionally lay their eggs in each other’s nests. And the Black-billed female will sometimes lay her eggs in the nests of other bird species. But this isn’t their usual way of reproducing, and any hatched young of theirs don’t dispose of the host’s hatchlings, as the Common Cuckoo does. 

Of the other brood parasite species, best known to North Americans is the Brown-headed Cowbird. I’ve seen Chipping Sparrow parents feed the enormous cowbird chicks here in Brooklyn. It’s quite amazing to see.

You should definitely explore along with Davies, his co-researchers, their fake eggs, stuffed birds, and decades of experiments in the fens. For those who want the audiovisual version, he presents his research at the Royal Society.

Orwell’s Roses

“It is only very rarely, when I make a definitive mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines,” wrote George Orwell of shoveling coal into the fire to keep warm in London. He wrote this The Road to Wigan Pier, his reporting on the horrific condition in northern England’s coal mines in the 1930s.  

Rebecca Solnit’s new book Orwell’s Roses is a meditation on keeping body and soul together in dark times. Orwell—shot by fascists, hunted and blacklisted by Stalinists, maimed by TB—knew some dark days indeed. Candide famously retires to the garden, but Orwell gardened in between his work. This was his re-creation. (Note how the word “recreation” has been tamed.) The titular roses are the ones he planted and tended, some of which may still be around today. They are also more symbolic: the roses of the famous “bread and roses,” the things we fight for. Sustenance for both body and soul.

Solnit calls the “invisibility” and “obliviousness” of where things come from and the price some people pay for this—which is different from the cost to those who buy the things— “one of the defining conditions of the modern world.” 

The paradigmatic historical case is sugar in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. The sweetness came from slavery. Abolitionists boycotted it, but most people slurped it up in all its bloody horror. As it happens, sugar production today is often a very grim affair, with brutal working conditions in fields as close as Florida, where the industry also insists on burning the fields after harvesting to the detriment of health of Floridians and the earth. M&M’s recent rebranding hides the child labor behind the empire of chocolate. 

Exploitation of people and planet undergirds us all. 

Just think of the supposedly effortless “one-click” ordering that the internet gives us as an option. It’s like magic, isn’t it?  I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, so I was surprised to learn that the wizarding world is based by the slavery of the elves. So much, indeed, for magic. 

Consider the steps it takes to get that thing to one’s door, all that is hidden in the SHOP or BUY button. The extraction of the raw materials. The manufacturing of the components and/or the whole. The transportation and distribution and sub-distribution—like from a warehouse built on wetlands in Staten Island, say— and the UPSFEDEXAMAZON truck parked dangerously at a crazy angle in the crosswalks below at the T-intersection. 

In a book very much about bread and roses, the twin necessities of life, Solnit travels to Colombia, where most of the U.S.’s cut roses come from. The rose factories, which is what they are, ringing Bogota grind up workers (“Roses for lovers, thorns for us” say workers who must work 100 hour work weeks in advance of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day) and massively pollute the land, water, air, soil with pesticides. 

Humans have extracted rose scent since the thirteenth century BCE, but today most commercial cut roses have no scent. 

The violence of mining; the brutality of the factory; the virtually lawlessness of international shipping; the frantic domestic trucking system; the prison-like warehouses of constant surveillance . All the violence and the pain, all the soul-crushing—too many people have decided it is worth it without even thinking about it all.

“Nature itself is immensely political, in how we imagine, interact with, and impact it.” (RS)

“Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.” (RS)

“Our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.” (GO)

The Golden Age of Field Guides

Is it? Well, there sure are a lot of them now. This new one covers 125 of the most commonly seen bees in our area. The same authors did the The Bees in Your Backyard, which is not a field guide.
This is brand new. Lichen identification is mostly rather difficult.
Quite good, but too big for a field guide, and I wanted more images. The Social Wasps book below uses illustrations (but only covers social wasps; most are solitary, like our bees.)

Coming next year:

The Social Wasps of North America

Princeton Field Guide to North American Spiders

Let’s face it, birds, which are where I started, are ridiculously easy when compared to lichens, spiders, bees, beetles, flies (forget it), wasps, etc. And plants are a hell of a challenge. Oh, the chlorophyl crowd looks easy with those pretty flowers and all, but, oh, boy! There are innumerable field guides to plants–in this house, at a conservative count, we have at least two dozen of them. Sure, your Empidonax flycatchers all look the same, and there are a lot of warblers (Peterson’s “confusing fall warblers” was spot-on), and Accipiters can be tricky (female Sharp-shinned being as large as the male Cooper’s, for instance), but birds are mostly pie. You start getting into the rest of life, though, and look out.

E.g. you distinguish Woodsy Thyme-Moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) by the microscopic marginal teeth on the leaves: they run less than half way down, whereas in the very similar P. ciliare, they go all way along the leaf margin.


“Some enthusiastic entomologist will, perhaps, by and by discover that insects and worms are as essential as the larger organisms to the proper working of the great terraqueous machine […] The silkworm and the bee need no apologist; a gallnut produced by the puncture of an insect on a Syrian oak is a necessary ingredient in the ink I am writing with, and from my windows I recognized the grain of the kermis and cochineal in the gay habiliments of the holiday groups beneath them.”

George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action of 1864 is a milestone of environmentalism. One-time Congressman, long-time diplomat, something of a serial disaster as a businessman, scholar, traveller, Marsh looked at the environmental desolation of the Mediterranean and suggested that humans can quite effectively spoil the nest. His book was a warning to his fellow Americans. The book, contemporary with On the Origin of Species, was highly influential in its day, part of the intellectual support for the national forest system and the New York Forest Preserve (of which Adirondack Park is a piece). It still has much to say.

Trouble is, Marsh doesn’t say it very well. Even William Cronon, in the foreword to the U Washington Press edition I have, admits it can be a chore to read through. Marsh is no Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold when it comes to “plainsong style.” Marsh might be better likened to out- of-tune baroque…. not everyone’s cup of hemlock. Cronon recommends a secular variation of the Sortes Vergilianae, picking and choosing sections in any order opening at random, jumping about. Recently, I opened to the quote above.

Something jumps out on most pages, actually, often in the footnotes. (The footnotes, and I am a connoisseur of footnotes, are glorious: why, for instance, do we call winds after the direction they blow from rather than the direction they blow towards?) Marsh is already at ease with the phrase “climate change”; he uses “consumption” in its modern sense (which I don’t think has completely lost its diseased, burning-from-within etymology).

I’ll be fishing in here for a while.

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?”


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