The author of Underland: A Deep Time Journey explores caves, quarries, the Paris catacombs, abandoned mines, storage caverns for nuclear waste, sinkholes, and more, some with legit guides and others not so much. He’s interested in prehistoric art, the health of the ice cap, war crimes, and plant mutualism. The book strongly reminded me of Being a Beast for its maverick feel and ability to describe the feelings of being in very odd places.
I just could not warm up to Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West, a meticulously researched biography of George Grinnell, stockbroker turned environmental activist, founder of the Audubon Society and proponent of the Endangered Species Act. Why? For one, the pace of the book is glacial, recounting, day by day, Grinnell’s travels in the West, along with all kinds of less relevant stories such as the amount of money he sent to his mother in law. Also, having read The Fair Chase, I already knew parts of the story. But the main obstacle was Grinnell himself, a rich New Yorker who, granted, did not spend his money on parties and cars, but still acted as if Yellowstone, once protected as a national park, should be his own playground and not shared with the hoi polloi. And while the writer defends his pretty racist views of Native Americans (always called “Indians” in the text!) as enlightened for the time, that’s a pretty low standard.
Fun fact: in Grinnell’s days, freshmen at Yale studied algebra and geometry. Not too taxing, right? They did study Latin and Greek, however, presumably not to be lumped in with the aforementioned hoi polloi.
Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear retraces the life of a grizzly sow and her two cubs, as they are drawn to a valley filled with apples and corn, and where the mother will eventually be shot, orphaning the cubs. The best parts of the book describe the life of wild animals, and the beautiful setting of the Montana valley where they live. The author’s aim is to illustrate how farming ultimately puts animals at risk, and indeed he spends a big chunk of the book describing his efforts to build an electric fence to protect a farmer’s corn field. His recommendations, that we stop farming in grizzly territory, seem both logical and impractical.
Written by a biologist, Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees starts with arthropod fear (clearly not a problem for the author!) and covers how wasps became vegetarian, hence bees, the vast differences between honeybees and wild bees, and how bees of both types are used in agriculture, with intriguing descriptions of hand-pollination of data palms and attempts to attract more local bees for California almond trees. But the sweetest moments may be his descriptions of looking for bees, whether at home or at a “bee camp” on the US/Mexico border.
Like a good mystery? You will enjoy the very real story told in The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, bringing together a brazen museum theft, a close-knit community of fly-fishing nerds, and a dedicated amateur detective who uncovers not the theft itself (that was done by the UK police) but the network of buyers who took advantage of it. It’s a thrilling entry into a world where possessing rare feathers blinds otherwise respectable people to not only thievery but also evasion of international law and willful destruction of scientific specimens. Fascinating even if you don’t care about bird, let alone fly-making!
Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree is a book with modest aim, pitched towards young readers but highly enjoyable for adults, of the science and politics behind the revival of the American chestnut tree. After a fungus infestation, scientists identified the issue and painstakingly crossed the species with others to create a resistant tree. Inspiring!
Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity takes us to various corners of the world to examine projects to restore wetlands (and thereby revitalize cities along a previously dried-out river), to preserve natural filtration basins instead of costly water-treatment plants, to remove dikes to (counter-intuitively) lessen floods, to manage cattle grazing to restore farmland, and to reuse wastewater that would otherwise pollute oceans. Lots of good ideas, and we hope that government officials and city planners are listening…