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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.

Earthworms.

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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