Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss interleaves short essays about growing up in Alabama and taking care of her aging parents with observations of the plants and animals in her Tennessee backyard. There are poignant memories of her being afraid that her (still very young!) brother would be drafted for the Vietnam War, loving but frank comments about how hard it is to take care of her mother, who has moved next door, and wonder at the intelligence of the squirrel that raids her squirrel-proof bird feeder. It’s quiet, and slow, and quite beautiful.
As a bonus, each mini-chapter is illustrated by the author’s brother with gorgeous illustrations of wildlife.
Before I read Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes, I had not thought about lakes very much. Sure, they are beautiful and fun to swim in, but I had not really considered the creatures that live in them, or how they may be affected by pesticides and other events outside of them.
The author specializes in lake ecology and takes us to mundane ones, near the university where he teaches in New York State, as well as famous ones including Lake Baikal and Lake Victoria (along with he Sea of Galilee and others “seas” that are really lakes), gently describing ecological risks but also rebirth. It’s a very relaxing book.
The long subtitle of The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife is truth-in advertising for this hilarious, delightful, entertaining, and instructive compendium about all sorts of animals, starting with the sloth. The author is, really, the founder of The Sloth Appreciation Society, and manages to make the reader admire the slow everything of sloths, including very slow bathroom habits — which seem to play an essential role in their not-so-slow love lives.
We also learn about Peruvian pick-me-up smoothies made of pulverized frogs, a slew of amazing scientific errors including fantastical theories about disappearing birds since no one could quite grasp, or observe, bird migration until the 20th century (until a clever man invented the bird tag), the eating habits of vultures, who are so specialized that they need to work together to properly devour a dead animal, and how castoreum is the polite way to talk about beavers’ anal secretions, and is often noted as “natural vanilla flavor” on prepared foods. Yuck!
My favorite story of the book is probably that of the hippos imported by Pablo Escobar (yes, the drug lord) into Columbia, who have since thrived and now terrorize the locals. Apparently they run quite fast. (They also manufacture their own sunblock, fun fact.) A treat for any nature lover.
A true birder would undoubtedly enjoy The Meaning of Birds infinitely more than I did, but it is a charming compendium of stories about various birds, mostly UK birds since the author live there. Some chapters are mostly about science: flying, what birds can see, while others are about our relationships to birds: using the feathers, eating them, shooting them for sport — all lively and full of finely observed details.
My only gripe is that, although the author is aiming at a general public, his idea of general public is one that includes instantaneously conjuring up the picture of a marsh harrier, for instance. (He does provide many illustrations, but not for all the birds he mentions.)
If you ever thought that jellyfish was beautiful (rather than disgusting and likely to sting you), you will love Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Did you know that jellyfish can clog desalination plants? That fishermen in Georgia send their jellyfish catch to China? That many jellyfish have a two-stage lifecycle, and some can actually return to an earlier stage? That box jellies have six eyes, each with specialized characteristics? They are amazing, and still poorly known creatures. I could have done with fewer details on the author’s personal life, but they were written endearingly.
There are plenty of irritants in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World: convoluted writing (or perhaps a poor translation), a meandering structure that generates annoying repeats, and several episodes of pseudo-science, in which bold statements are not justified.
And yet, following the author as he rambles through his beloved forest, as he notes how trees live and die and interact with each other and the rest of their environment, we come to share his love and knowledge of trees. How badly we treat trees when we plant them in isolated patterns, whether on streets or even in gardens. There is much hope in this book, because the forest is smarter than us.
What could be cuter than a baby polar bear? I wanted to love the Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which tells the story of Knut, the very popular denizen of the Berlin zoo — and indeed I thoroughly enjoyed the third part of the book, which is focused on him. The first two tell the stories of his mother and grandmother, both circus performers and (we are led to believe) talented writers. I just was not able to spend disbelief and let myself enter the inner world of those two, which spoiled the fun — although sprinkled throughout are funny and wise comments on the follies of humans viewed from the animal’s perspective.
Biophilia is a series of gorgeous photographs of natural objects, often symertricl as on the cover, always colorful and striking. A beautiful book to enjoy again and again. Scientists should love it!
If you find yourself creating a running commentary in your head on how trees would improve the streets you walk on, read Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, which tells a series of stories about tree planting campaigns and efforts to find various blights and epidemics amongst street trees. If not, the weaknesses of the book may be too much for you. Each chapter seems to have been written in isolation, so facts are repeated across chapters with no effort to cross-reference them, and the succession of diseases makes for a gloomy feeling overall. Still, there are some inspiring stories of individuals who brought about major changes, from the woman who waged a decades-long battle to bring the now iconic Japanese cherry trees to Washington, D.C. to the California college student who convinced the forestry department to deliver 8000 seedlings to his dorm rather than chuck them. It may make you want to launch your own urban forestation campaign.
Animals are smart, even if it takes some ingenuity to tell. The Genius of Birds focuses on birds. Whether we consider nuthatches that hold bark flakes in their beaks to lever bark away and uncover bugs, crows that politely return instruments to the experimenter to speed things up, scrub jays that fake each other when caching the thousands of seeds they need for the winter, or bowerbirds that adapt their displays to the reactions of the females they are trying to impress, these birds are so smart!
And, as bonus, a delightful (Swedish) word: gökotta, the act of rising early to appreciate nature. Lovely, right?