Archive for the ‘Nature writing’ Category

StuffMattersCoverHave you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths.  In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives.  That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik  couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.

My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something.  ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance  aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.

Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.”  It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.

Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.

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SouthernHerbGrowingI have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.

The author Madalene Hill was  the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).

Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.

Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…

Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.

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signatureAlma Whittaker is born into a life of privilege just outside of Philadelphia, PA in 1800. Her mother is a wealthy, practical, highly educated Dutch woman. Her father is an uneducated, unrefined Englishman who rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Together they raise Alma as a highly educated, practical, scientific, and lonely woman. Both fiercely independent in her thinking and loyal to her family, Alma continues in the family trade of botany with her own unique focus of studying mosses. Alma doesn’t sound too interesting, does she? Don’t be deceived.

Alma both anchors and drives The Signature of All Things and as a reader I was vested in her well-being. However, this book is so much more. It is a book about science and faith. It is a glimpse at history in England and the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a fascinating travelogue of Tahiti and adventurous ocean voyages. It is a story of how the world can change so quickly and so slowly all at the same time. It is a story about love, grief, and personal growth. It is a story that is well worth the time to read and moves so swiftly you’ll wonder how you breezed through 499 pages (or listened to 18 discs) so quickly.  I’ll admit that in the middle of the book the plot took a turn that I didn’t expect, and I almost quit reading. I wondered how anything could possibly be resolved in a satisfactory way. But if you persevere, it will all come together, just have a little faith.

Juliet Stevenson narrates the audio version of The Signature of All Things, and her narration brings to life the myriad of characters with authenticity. The characters had distinct voices, and the animation in her voice made you feel like you were right in the midst of the vigorous debates that take place in the novel. I loved her accents and especially appreciated how well she brought the men to life without making them sound too feminine or artificial. Whether you read or listen to The Signature of All Things it will be an experience that you are sure to enjoy.

Check the WRL catalog for The Signature of All Things

Check the WRL catalog for The Signature of All Things audiobook on compact discs or downloadable audio.

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VegetableGardeningIf you are able to make the trip to Colonial Williamsburg (and do pop in and visit us at the Williamsburg Library if you do!) you will notice the beautiful gardens. Like everything in Colonial Williamsburg, they strive to make the gardens authentic to colonial times, which means lots of cottage vegetable gardens grown in old-fashioned organic ways. Whether you can visit us or not Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is a great book for both gardeners and history buffs.

For gardeners Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way offers a wealth of practical advice and techniques, as the author points out, “many gardening tasks have spanned the centuries relatively unchanged”. Coaxing food from the earth has always required the same patience, diligence and skill.

The historically minded can learn about the past of vegetables, for example did you know that “The onion and its relatives–leeks, shallots, garlic, and chives–are among the most ancient and important vegetables known to humankind”? More practically for a modern gardener, it lists varieties of seeds used in 18th-century Virginia and if they are now unobtainable, it lists Heirloom substitutes. To learn how to make their gardens authentic, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation turned to gardening books written hundreds of years ago like Philip Miller’s The Gardener’s Dictionary from the 1750s. Information found in these works had to be adapted to suit local conditions, such as the heat in Virginia summers.

Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is filled with stunning crisp photographs, both decorative images of bountiful garden produce and many showing gardening techniques. As a bonus, spot the colonial Williamsburg staff in their costumes as they work in the gardens – terribly hot in the summer in coastal Virginia’s hot and humid climate!

This book is an obvious choice for gardeners, especially those interested in organic vegetable production. It will also fascinate history buffs with its wealth of information about how people lived and grew their own food over two hundred years ago. If you are a local resident be sure to pop into the library and check out our signed copy.

Check the WRL catalog for Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way.

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SongsofInsectsThings have changed. Even crickets don’t chirp like they did in the old days. If you think the beat of the summer insects doesn’t sound like it used to, you could be right because the high-pitched songs of insects become inaudible to aging ears.

This is where The Songs of Insects comes in. It is a gorgeously illustrated visual guide to crickets, cicadas, katydids and grasshoppers, with each insect photographed on a natural surroundings and also on a white background, making them very easy to see and differentiate. It also promises to “shower you with auditory pleasures untold” and it lives up to this promise very well through the enclosed CD with the songs of almost eighty species of insect. The authors’ system of “electronics and sensitive microphones” that they used to record the insect songs means that we can listen to insect songs that we can no longer hear in the wild.

Before the guide portion of the book there are several pages of enlightening information about the classification of singing insects and the biology of insect songs. It includes some fascinating tidbits, for instance that some insects are left-handed vs. right-handed singers and their handedness (or wingedness?) is determined by species. Although we call them “songs,” insects have no lungs, so most rub wings or bumps or other modified body parts together to produce their chorus. Cicadas are different because their sound producing organs or “tymbals” resonate like drums, which explains how they can be so loud.

Each insect’s page includes sonograms or “sound pictures” for the technically minded. I was delighted to learn that “each species has its own distinct song, which is recognized by all individuals of the same species” and that pulse rates of songs vary by temperature and songs tend to speed up as the temperature rises so you can use the song to estimate temperature! But the best tidbit of all is discovering that there is an insect enchantingly called the Slightly Musical Conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorous).

The Songs of Insects is a must-read for nature lovers, especially those who like to use books to identify the wildlife around them, like Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, or more quirkily, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, by George W. Hudler. If you aren’t on the East Coast of North America you won’t necessarily be able to hear all these insects in the wild, but you can enjoy them on the CD. The authors’ ongoing project can be found at http://www.songsofinsects.com/

The Songs of Insects is also a wonderful book for photographers. The authors explain the equipment they used and how they photographed a living creature that isn’t interested in a modeling contract and may hop away at any moment (the answer is to use a custom made “whitebox.”)

Check the WRL catalog for The Songs of Insects.

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earthOh, get your mind out of a Hemingway novel.  There are more important things to be discussed–like earthmovers that outdo the largest mechanical monsters every hour of every day with no maintenance required.


Some people get creeped out by these denizens of the humus and loam that builds up underground, but to writer Amy Stewart it is plain that few human endeavors would be possible without the earthworm. They are undoubtedly responsible for much of the fertile land that produced crops abundant enough for people to settle into communities and build cities. They are responsible for the gradual settling that preserves so many archaeological sites. And they may be one of myriad ways we can solve our current problems with treating contaminated soils and other human wastes, including human waste.

What’s strange is that earthworms attract little or no serious scientific attention. At the time of Stewart’s writing, one of the few people involved in creating a taxonomy of earthworms supported himself with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a truck driver. Another wants to create a website where people can buy the naming rights to any of the unnamed worm species, much as people used to be able to name stars. The trouble is that, despite the few people making a career of oligochaetology (possibly because your in-laws can’t spell it), a dozen uncatalogued earthworm species can turn up in a single trip, with specimens left sitting in a lab waiting to be analyzed and named by the scientist. How can their impact be assessed if researchers can’t even put a name to the subject?

Yet no less a scientific luminary than Charles Darwin turned his fascination with earthworms into the last book of his career. After observing their habits for decades, even setting aside cataloguing his collection from the Beagle to study them, Darwin finally put those observations in print. He wrote of worms’ movement in the soil, of the castings they leave behind to enrich the dirt, even of the work they do to pull objects from the surface into their burrows. (They like triangular shapes best.) He credited them with intelligence and with a dignity that surprised a world that regarded them as pests.  (And, Stewart notes, they can be. When a well-meaning fisherman dumps his remaining bait worms into a different habitat, they can have an adverse effect on the environment.)

Stewart mingles the history and current studies with her own experiences as a vermicomposter. I can’t imagine anyone publishing a plain book on earthworm history, or earthworm studies, although books about raising earthworms are popular. The way Stewart turns it into a readable, thoughtful, and at times funny book shows how an odd little topic can change the way people view it.  Kind of like an earthworm changes the world.

Check the WRL catalog for The Earth Moved

It’s even available as an ebook and an audiobook.

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A book about molds doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but George W. Hudler manages to be fascinating with fungi and even introduces a little punning humor, calling one sub-chapter “The Wrath of Grapes.”

Hudler is the Professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell University where he teaches a class with the same name as the book.  His enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of his subject shine through.

The book starts with an introduction about the structure, functions, and dispersal of fungi, and then spends a lot of time talking about how fungi have changed human history.  “Mischievous” doesn’t really capture how destructive they have been!

A lot of the historical evidence is circumstantial because the testable food and spores are long gone, but Hudler makes some convincing cases for fungal culpability.  He says the Biblical Pharaohs’ years of famine were likely caused by fungally-induced crop failures because the Middle East used to be cooler and wetter it is than now, and Biblical witnesses describe  being “blighted by the east wind,” which brings rain. These are just the conditions that fungi like.

Unlike the Pharaohs’ famines, scientists know which pathogen caused the Irish Potato Famine, Phytophthora infestans.  The potato blight  caused by this tiny organism killed millions of people and caused millions more to emigrate.

Our food crops are still vulnerable to attack by fungi at any time. He mentions barberry as a host for wheat rust disease.  I suspected these plants were evil after I was vanquished by a ornamental barberry that left me with a painful and unreachable thorn under my skin for several weeks.

Hudler more controversially argues that witch hunts throughout history were caused by fungus-infested rye which produces several alkaloid substances called ergot. Ergotism causes symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, feelings of heat, gangrene leading to loss of limbs and spontaneous abortions.  Significantly for witch trials they are also known to cause seizures, hallucinations and psychosis.  The book says that witch trials in Europe were closely correlated to cooler and wetter springs (from tree ring studies) and cooler and wetter places (such as river valleys).  The Salem witch trials fit this pattern, as it was a cool time and the people most affected lived on damper, swampier land.

But, of course molds and fungi also have positive human uses, from fermenting beer and making bread rise, to medicines.  Alkaloids from ergots are used for several medicines and drugs, including a migraine drug and LSD.  In fact, the known perception-changing effects of these substances lead some people to believe that they were used by Ancient Greek mystics.  Perhaps the most important and well known medicinal use of fungi are the various species of Penicillium, which have forever changed our fear of bacterial infections.

After reading Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, I have gained a new appreciation of of the fruiting bodies, spores, fungi, and molds that I see all around as I walk my dog in the forest (or see lurking in the back of my fridge).  Our library has fungi cookbooks and guides but Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds is unique if you like science writing, especially if you enjoy being grossed out by real organisms.

Check the WRL catalog for Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds.

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LastChanceLast week, Jan wrote about the kakapo, “the world’s largest, fattest, and least-able-to-fly parrot,” and reminded me of this collection of essays by British writer Douglas Adams. Best known for his sci-fi comedy cult classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams actually considered Last Chance to See, a nonfiction work blending ecology and travel writing, to be his favorite work.

In the 1980s, Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine, then working for the World Wildlife Fund, traveled to various places around the globe in search of species that hovered on the edge of extinction. Some, like the white rhinos of Zaire, were being hunted into oblivion or, like the blind river dolphins of China’s Yangtze, were struggling in habitats that changed more quickly than they could adapt. Others, like the Komodo dragon lizard and the kakapo, evolved in fragile island ecologies and were simply losing their fight with natural selection.

With a finely-tuned sense of irony and a Monty Pythonesque way with words, Adams describes not only some bizarre species but the eccentric scientists and volunteers committed to saving them. The subject matter is serious, but the storyteller is not. As the non-zoologist half of the project, Adams brings out the humor in everything, even when the humor is a sort of desperate sarcasm at how human beings have treated the planet. Much of the comedy comes from just getting to the out-of-the-way places where the animals might be found, and the travelers spend a lot of time wrangling with ticket agents and bureaucracies:


“Virtually everything we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true, sometimes almost immediately. The only exception to this was when we were told that something would happen immediately, in which case it turned out not to be true over an extended period of time.”


Each chapter is a quick read covering one of the expeditions, so you can dip into the book at any point and learn something interesting. Say, about the mating rituals of the kakapo (“wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out, and almost totally ineffective.” Or the freelance kakapo tracker (“it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people, you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker”) and his kakapo-tracking dog (“there were major problems in training dogs to find kakapos because of the terrible shortage of kakapos to train them on. In the end, he said, it was more realistic to train the dogs not to track anything else.”)

If you enjoy Bill Bryson’s books, especially In a Sunburned Country, I think you’ll enjoy the combination of history, zoology, and travelogue.

Carwardine reprised the project twenty years later with actor Stephen Fry. Some species–like the kakapo–were doing better. The river dolphins were gone.

Check the WRL catalog for Last Chance to See

Or try the DVD with Stephen Fry.

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Kakapo rescue

Some book titles exaggerate to attract readers, and the subtitle of this book, “Saving The World’s Strangest Parrot,” sounds like hyperbole, but in the case of the kakapo, it is simple fact. The New Zealand Kakapo is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. It is also the heaviest parrot, often weighing eight pounds. Of course, a bird that heavy can’t fly, so it climbs trees using its claws and beak, only to spread its wings and drop to the leafy forest floor like a stone when it is time to get down. To attracts mates in the dense New Zealand forest the male kakapo digs himself a bowl and booms like a drum. And if that isn’t enough, they smell so strongly from a fungus that grows in their feathers that humans can easily pick up their musty, honey-like scent. Sounds like the world’s strangest parrot? It does to me!

Not only is the kakapo strange, but the combination of flightlessness and friendliness mean that it is extremely vulnerable to predation by carnivorous mammals that have been introduced to New Zealand, such as dogs, cats, weasels and stoats. Unwilling to allow the extinction of the bird that once thrived in millions all over New Zealand, the New Zealand government and private charities are scrambling to save it. Kakapo Rescue describes a thrilling story with the bird going from a population of millions in the 1800s to presumed extinction in the 1950s. Over sixty expeditions searched for kakapos in the 1970s, and they found eighteen birds, which was great news for a bird assumed to be extinct, but they all turned out to be male. Finally in 1977 scientists found a surviving population of two hundred on Stewart Island, to the far south of New Zealand. But kakapos breed slowly and they were still struggling, until  by 1995 there were only fifty-one kakapos left. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a remarkable breeding program on tiny Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. Up to fourteen people live in a hut year-round solely to help the birds. The happy news is that according to the Kakapo Recovery website there are now nearly 150 kakapo, although the number goes up and down a little as some kakapo die while some eggs hatch.

In our library, both copies of Kakapo Rescue are shelved in the children’s department. This book is definitely interesting and detailed enough to capture the attention of bird- and nature-loving adults, while being accessible to older children. Every page has dazzling photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Nic Bishop. I strongly recommend Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot for people enraptured by dramatic conservation stories and those fascinated by bizarre birds, such as penguins. It will also grab travel buffs who want to learn about the soggy and windswept beauty of southern New Zealand.

Check the WRL catalog for Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

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sibleySpring is winding down in the tidewater region, and for the last 35 or so years one the harbingers of the season for me has the arrival of migrant birds to the area over the course of the spring. After a winter diet of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, juncos, titmice and chickadees (all fine birds mind you), it is exciting to start to see some of the summer residents arriving or to see the more northerly birds passing though on their way to New England and Canada. The Williamsburg area has lots of places to see birds, many of which are listed in the Williamsburg Bird Club’s Hotspots list. The Bird Club has also been a strong supporter of the library, donating funds to purchase new titles for our bird watching collection.

WRL’s collection of birding materials has something for everyone from the beginner to the long-time birder. Books on calls, on identifying specific species, and on the history of birding can all be found, as well as titles on birding in Virginia and in Williamsburg.

One of the best titles for those interested in taking up bird watching is David Sibley’s Birding Basics. Here, Sibley walks the new birder through the things needed to get started—how to look at birds so that you start to recognize patterns, what sort of optical equipment is best for birding, how to make the best use of field guides, and where to go for more in-depth reading on species. The book is filled with Sibley’s illustrations (he is a superb artist) that illuminate his points and make clear identifying marks and patterns to look for. Armed with this text anyone will be a better birder, and if you want to get an idea of what all those birds around you are, Sibley’s Birding Basics should be your go-to book.

Check the WRL catalog for Sibley’s Birding Basics

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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Night of the GrizzliesHere’s the second of the books that “Bud” found lost in the stacks. Track it down today!

On the night of August 13, 1967 two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, Montana. The girls were not mauled by the same bear; the attacks took place in separate areas of the park miles away from each other. The story of this unprecedented incident ( it was the first time in Glacier’s history that anyone had died by bear attack) is related in the terrific, nonfiction book,  Night of the Grizzlies  by Jack Olsen.

The story starts in the early summer months of 1967 with a series of unsettling run-ins between bears and campers. One grizzly in particular was behaving aggressively towards people, and the bears in general seemed to be losing their fear of humans. The Park Service was not overly concerned with the situation because, after all, no one had ever been killed by a bear in Glacier National Park. In fact, they inadvertently increased the interaction between people and animals by not incinerating all of the garbage that accumulated around the camp sites. At night the bears came to feed off the trash and the campers loved to watch them. Unfortunately, this complacency would lead to disaster on that hot night in August.  The attacks and subsequent hunt for the man-eaters are related in fast-paced, gripping detail.

The story itself is compelling and the author, Jack Olsen, who primarily wrote about true-crime, has a knack for pacing and suspense. The tension just builds and builds to the point where  (yes, I’m going to use the old cliché) you can’t put the book down.  It’s a thrilling read. The attacks are described in all their gruesome detail but the gore is not emphasized. In fact, you come away with a sense of sadness and compassion for both man and animal.

In addition, to the book, the WRL also has a documentary about the bear attacks entitled, Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies created by the Montana PBS.  It’s an interesting follow-up to the book because you get to hear from many of the people involved in the incident and see the actual locations.  Particularly poignant are the Polaroid snapshots taken of the girls the day they died. Both book and documentary are highly recommended with a caveat. If you read it before going on a camping trip in the woods, you’re not going to sleep well.

NOTE:  This story was originally published as a three part article for Sports Illustrated in 1969.  When it was redrafted as a book a 37 page prologue was added that details the history of Glacier National Park and provides some natural history information about Grizzly bears. It’s interesting but not required reading. Starting with Chapter One will get you right into the story.

Check the WRL catalog for Night of the Grizzlies

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Robert M. Hazen’s exciting explanations of how the Earth and its geologic and biologic systems formed and changed had my head spinning with growing knowledge and dawning comprehension. About five billion years ago—several billion years after the Big Bang, which Hazen explains well enough for me to finally grasp, somewhat—an event such as a shock wave from an exploding star caused a cloud of gas and dust to collapse into a star system, our Solar System. “Like a twirling ice-skater, the big cloud rotated faster and faster as gravity pulled its wispy arms to the center. As it collapsed and spun faster, the cloud became denser and flattened into a disk with a growing central bulge—the nascent Sun.” Scientists can’t say for sure how the planets formed, but because all the planets more or less rotate in the same direction and are more or less on the same plane, Hazen explains, most scientists speculate that the planets formed from the same rotating gas and dust as the Sun, and were not objects hurtling through space captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull, as was once thought.

The Earth has gone through many drastic changes since forming. The names of the chapters in The Story of Earth illustrate this: Black Earth: The First Basalt Crust; Blue Earth, The Formation of the Oceans; Gray Earth: The First Granite Crust; Living Earth: The Origins of Life; Red Earth: Photosynthesis and the Great Oxidation Event; The “Boring” Billion: The Mineral Revolution (Surprise: these billion years were anything but boring!); White Earth: The Snowball-Hothouse Cycle; Green Earth: The Rise of the Terrestrial Biosphere. I’ve never really imagined our planet as anything other than a grey ball of rock slowly turning blue and green as life began. This book shows how that view is far from accurate.

The Moon, too, has changed over the billions of years. Did you know that it is moving away from the Earth by about 3.82 centimeters per year? Scientists know this because Apollo astronauts left mirrors on the surface of the moon in the 1960s and 70s, and scientists measure the distance very accurately by bouncing laser beams off them. If the moon is moving away from the earth at that rate, can you imagine how close the moon was to the earth 4.5 billion years ago? It would have looked gigantic. The surface of the Moon was quite different back then, too. According to Hazen, “The early Moon was a violent body of intense volcanism, quite unlike the static silvery-gray object we see now. Its surface would have appeared black, with glowing red magma-filled cracks and volcanic basins easily visible from Earth.” Hazen explains the current theory of how the Moon was formed by what he calls “The Big Thwack,” or the giant impact theory.

4.5 billion years is an unfathomably long time. In 283 pages, Hazen is able to clarify to someone like me, who never took many science classes, the current theories of how Earth and the Moon formed, how life began, how mineralogical forces influence life and how life in turn influences mineralogy, and many other fascinating phenomena. One of the more interesting sections was of the Great Oxidation Event, something I had heard about but had never understood. He writes about how he and his colleagues figured out that many of the minerals we see today—turquoise, azurite, malachite, and thousands of others—could never have occurred without the Great Oxidation Event, and thus how such minerals would never be found on a non-living astronomical body like the Moon or Mars.

If you have an interest in this planet on which we’re living, and you want to know more about how it got here, how it has changed throughout the estimated 4.5 billion years since it formed, and where it may be going, read this book. It’s fascinating.

Check the WRL catalog for The Story of Earth

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Penguins of the WorldThere is no denying it, penguins are cute! They are also intriguing animals. Despite not being able to fly, “the penguin seems to have a greater range of ways to move than any other bird. [They] paddle, porpoise and flipper through the water, rocket and surf to reach the shore, then waddle, run hop leap and toboggan over the land” (p 26).

The author, Wayne Lynch, is a Medical Doctor turned science writer and nature photographer. He describes himself as a “penguin addict” and his passion for his subject shows in this fascinating book.

Penguins of the World is detailed and scientific enough for an ornithologist reader, but is is also written in a conversational and engaging style about a fascinating, but little understood animal which everyone recognizes but few of us know many facts about.

For example, did you know that there are only seventeen species of penguin? This figure may change because some scientists think there are a few more species and some a few less because some lump several species together as one and some split one species into several. Also only seven of the seventeen species ever go near the Antarctic. They range from the Galapagos Islands, right on the equator, to deep inside the Antarctic Circle and are adapted to the greatest climate range of any group of birds.

The book is arranged in informative chapters, some with odd titles like “Sex and the Single Penguin.” They cover everything you might need to know about the biology and lifestyles of penguins. It is filled throughout with stunning photographs by the author, and you can be entertained and learn a lot without reading a word.

Penguins of the World is a great choice for bird lovers who want to find out more about this unusual bird. I also recommend it for people who love great nature writing.  And of course if you cried during March of the Penguins, this book is a must read to fill in the details about the majestic Emperor Penguins and all of their relatives.

Check the WRL catalog for Penguins of the World.

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audubonReaders looking for a writer who can smoothly blend together interesting characters and hard facts will enjoy the writings of Richard Rhodes.  Like yesterday’s author, John McPhee, Rhodes is known for both the quality of his research into the subjects about which he is writing and for an ability to make complex topics understandable.

This ability is most evident in Rhodes’s trilogy on atomic weapons, beginning with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In these books and his other works, Rhodes brings a sense of scale to the broader story by relating the lives of those people involved.  In the case of his works on nuclear warfare, soldiers, scientists, and politicians all have their say, and the stories of their lives ground the science in humanity.

Like McPhee though, Rhodes can also write perceptively about the natural world, and his biography of John James Audubon, one of America’s first naturalists, is an excellent introduction to Rhodes’s writings.  Here, Rhodes deftly captures the a sense of the possibilities that the undeveloped expanses of North America raised for naturalists in the early days of the country.  Through the story of the life of Haitian-born Audubon’s early years  in France, his emigration to America, and his struggles to support his family, Rhodes also tells the story of the early days of the Republic.

Audubon’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive to succeed make him an excellent choice to model the spirit of the young America.  Rhodes does an excellent job at conveying both the details of Audubon’s life and of the broader canvas on which Audubon lived and worked without overwhelming the reader in either case.  Readers interested in the early days of ornithology, in the development of the American republic, or in the development of an artist will find much to enjoy here.

Check the WRL catalog for Audubon: The Making of an American

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MiraclePlanetI imagined it differently. I pictured a warm shallow pool under a friendly blue sky, overseen by a kindly shining sun and gently stirred by a breeze. And in the pool, my far distant slime-mold ancestors were busily evolving into my grandfather. Miracle Planet shows a past that is far more savage and chaotic than my imaginings.

Miracle Planet is a five-part documentary made by a joint Canadian and Japanese team. The first two parts, “The Violent Past” and “Snowball Earth” assert that in the far distant past the entire earth was frozen solid two miles deep all the way to the equator, probably twice. The friendly blue sky that I imagined was, at some points, actually red from the high concentration of methane and then dark from debris from massive volcanic eruptions. And a meteor hit the earth millions of years before the well-known one causing the dinosaur extinction and made the planet so hot that the rocks boiled and melted miles deep. The documentary explains the timing of these events, which were millions of years apart, but I find geologic time hard to keep track of, since the time spans are so unimaginably huge.

But the most amazing part of the documentary (and perhaps the most amazing thing ever) is that life persisted! Scientists used to think that the freezing and boiling catastrophes sterilized the earth and destroyed all life on earth. Then they thought life evolved again.  But now they think that bacteria could have survived, because they know bacteria survive miles deep in diamond mines in South Africa.

I learned many other things such as the greatest volcanic eruption ever in the history of the earth occurred in what is now Siberia and made ninety-five percent of the existing species extinct. Also that dinosaurs were very bird-like, in that they were better at oxygen exchange than the early mammals because they had air sacs. The series moves up in time to early humans.

I came across this series when I created a display on “The End of the World” and it will fascinate buffs of apocalyptic scenarios. Even if I can accept my personal mortality (and less readily the mortality of my loved ones), the extinction of our species is still horrible to contemplate, let alone the extinction of all life on earth.

Miracle Planet has wonderful images and graphics and I also recommend it for those interested in science. The library owns a lot of great science documentaries and I love them because, at their best, they bring an immediacy to a subject that a book can lack, because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Check the WRL catalog for Miracle Planet.

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Did you know that rabies still kills 55,000 people worldwide every year?  And that there are plausible connections between rabies and the myths of werewolves, vampires, and zombies?

Everyone has heard of this disease.  And many of us take our dogs and cats regularly to the vet for their rabies shots.  Why do we bother?  Why are we so scared of rabies?

It could be the 100% fatality rate.

It could be that rabies is one of the few diseases that travels through the body through the nervous system, rather than the blood stream.

Rabies is a singularly frightening disease and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is a great way to learn about it its effects on human history.

Bill Wasik is a journalist who wrote the book with his veterinary wife, Monica Murphy.  The book goes over the basics of the disease, but as its subtitle,  A Cultural History suggests, it goes into depth about what rabies means to people throughout history.  The disease has been known since ancient times and ancient writers like Pliny the Elder described it with some accuracy, although their cures usually weren’t much help.

One reason that rabies is so horrifying is that it attacks the brain and changes a person’s personality in a way that a disease like pneumonia doesn’t.  A person with rabies is often affected psychologically,  including symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations.  Victims frequently become terrified of water, even though they want to drink, so rabies is known as hydrophobia.  Bill Wasik suggests (as others have done) that these changes are what led to myths of vampires and zombies as they are creatures that are human, but not human at the same time.

The book reveals many quirky facts about rabies.  For example, because the rabies virus travels slowly along the nervous system, once a person is  bitten by a rabid animal, the onset of symptoms depends on how far way the bite site is from their brain.  Therefore a person bitten on the face will get sick more quickly than someone bitten on the foot.

Although still a horrifying incurable disease, rabies does provide some hope in medical science.  The rabies virus is unusual in that it can get past the blood brain barrier, which usually prevents viruses and bacteria, but also medicines, from getting from our blood into our brains. This means that theoretically a modified version of the rabies virus could be used to get medicine into the brain.

Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is  a fascinating, but sobering book.  It is not a medical text, but it is an excellent choice for people who enjoy medical and epidemiological history like The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson or Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack.  I also recommend it for people who like science writing, or those who are fascinated with zombies and vampires and other creatures who are frighteninglyaltered humans.
Check the WRL catalog for Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

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In ancient Egypt

We cats were gods

We ruled the heavens…

So kneel before me

ICouldPeeOnThisCoverI have long suspected that cats are utterly self-centered and only interested in their human companions for what the felines can finagle out of them.  I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats proves it!

This little book is told from the point of view of various cats.  The poems often start with an enchanting description of normal cattishness, with a surprising twist:

Sometimes when I lie on your warm chest /  And wonder, ‘Who is that?’

Just in case all the cat lovers out there accuse me of slander (and perhaps even that I may be a dog person) I asked three fat cats of my acquaintance what they thought of the book.  Mushroom and Pimpernel sniffed it hopefully, I suspect for food.  Bandit was a bit more proactive and tried to bite it and then batted it with his paw. But all three are shocked at such a slur on their characters.  Or, at least they would be if they had time to consider it –  if it wasn’t time for food, or maybe a nap, or maybe to chase the long-suffering dog’s tail…

If you need a fun little book to brighten up these winter days, I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats could be just the thing to make you laugh out loud.  It is illustrated throughout with dozens of cat photos, many with extreme awwww qualities.  It may be a bit late to gift this book for the holiday season, but bear it in mind for special occasions for the cat-lovers in your life as it captures the utter and complete, but endearing, selfishness of cats.

Check the WRL catalog for I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats

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