The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds is a highly idiosyncratic compendium of, well, clouds, from cumulus to cirrus, with all the species and varieties thereof. It mixes science, some quite serious, with art and even a visit to a fish market (you will have to read the book to understand that one), so it’s never dull. But there are problems. The first one is serious. It turns out that the taxonomy of clouds is very complex but the book’s organization (one cloud per chapter) and its small format and smaller yet pictures make it very challenging for uninformed readers to conceive of the differences between cloud types, let alone remember them. The other problem is geographic. The author is British and, of course, takes most of his examples from British clouds. California just does not have the same clouds!
The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation takes an unusual and refreshing take on invasive species. It turns out that they can be good for everyone, people, other species, and the ecosystem in which they arrive. The author give plenty of examples of lovely settings that are composed in great part (and, sometimes, solely) of non-native species, as well as entirely native ecosystems that went extinct. Along the way, he questions what “native” really means (not much, at least with a long enough time view) and whether human intervention is ever required to referee competitions between established and new species. Sure, we need to clean up our mess, but messing with species balance seems to be a fool’s errand.
The Wallcreeper is the funnily told story of not very much: a confused young woman who follows her husband to Europe and simultaneously expects him to support her from his decidedly corporate job and expects herself to save the birds and the rest of the environment. When he decides to join the environmental fight, she balks. And they sleep around. Despite the score of unusual hangers-on, I had difficulty forming any kind of attachments to the main characters, so the story did not work well for me.
American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is organized in a series of chapters focused on various types of seafood, from salmon to oysters to shrimp, and the author tells many interesting stories of, for instance, the revival of the New York oyster and the way Alaskan salmon is processed. The thesis of the book is that Americans should be eating our own fish and shellfish — but that does not necessarily make sense. Sure, there’s no reason to tolerate dire water pollution that kills shrimp or oysters to instead import shellfish, but I see nothing wrong in exporting Alaskan salmon and importing farmed fish if that is what consumers prefer, and can afford.
A very interesting book with a somewhat flawed approach.
Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale is the sober tale of how extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of the title (in Pennsylvania and New York state) was conducted as a real-time experiment, from the “land men” who convinced hard-up farmers to sell their rights to mine the land to the various mishaps of drilling and production, including exploding toilets, heavy trucks at all hours on what was a quiet landscape, and, more worrisome, the enormous impact of an extraction process that needs vertiginous amounts of water and needs some place to dispose of the used water, laden with the mysterious chemicals required for the fracking. It’s the classic tragedy of the early adopters not realizing what they signed up for, both for the individual farmers who just needed a little income supplement and did not foresee the monster drills in their backyards, and for the local and state governments whose regulations were designed for standard wells, not the newfangled kind.
Written by a journalist with a deluge of facts, figures, and dates so on the tedious side as the story develops.
Rambunctious Garden takes up the theme of habitat preservation and exposes the troublesome contradictions of many projects that aim to restore a pristine environment — but what is pristine? Humans, animals, and plants have been reshaping the world since the beginning so it’s very difficult to decide what should be kept, reintroduced, or removed, and the author does a great job of providing examples of unfortunate decisions. Her view is that we should stop pretending that we know the way that things “should” be and take a much more relaxed approach to environment efforts. What I liked about the book was its overall optimism about nature’s ability to bounce back from even dire circumstances, and also its focus on small-scale projects, including urban projects, that show that individuals and small groups without specialized knowledge and without much funding can make a surprising impact in their immediate surroundings.