Book Review by FMN Debbie McDonald: Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park, by Marie Winn

Review by FMN Debbie McDonald

Among the wonders of spring, watching the soaring, graceful courtship of red-tail hawks high above the trees has no doubt, brought awe and joy to many of us. Observing love blossom between birds and animals along with the trees and flowers is a ritual and gift that never grows old. Red-Tails in Love by Marie Winn is a true story which follows these rituals in a unique and personal way. It is a beautiful and moving novel that weaves together the lives of Pale Male, a red-tail hawk, and a band of nature loving human friends who watch for him and over him, his mates, nests, and hatchlings through the years.

The author transports the reader to New York City and Central Park where the journeys of the hawks and their human guardians are shared as they pass through many seasons, relationships, and adventures. Activities that resonate with bird watchers and nature lovers, such as the Christmas Bird Count, the spring return of warblers, or spotting a species new to the park add warmth and realism throughout the tale. But Winn’s engaging storytelling is appealing for a wide range of readers and interests.

The story of the hawks, what can be learned about them, their loyalty to each other and their little families is quite compelling and rewarding. The band of bird watchers reminded me how lucky we are to have our Virginia Master Naturalist community. This is a book to read more than once and to pass along. Enjoy!

Red-Tails in Love by Marie Winn, 1999, Vintage Departures, 352 pages.

Review of Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis

Article by FMN Marilyn Schroeder
Dan Schwartz, Soil Science and FMN Instructor extraordinaire, knew what he was talking about when he recommended Teaming with Microbes.  With a conversational style and lots of pictures, Teaming is the perfect naturalist guide to soil structure and the organisms living in it.  I couldn’t wait to read each succeeding chapter – Bacteria, Archaea, Fungi, Algae, Protozoa, Nematodes….  There’s so much I didn’t know about what’s happening under our feet – even after taking the wonderful Master Naturalist soils class and field trip.
But wait, there’s more!  The book’s subtitle is The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.  The first half of the book lays the groundwork (ha,ha!) covering the science  – soil structure, chemistry, biology, microbiology…the whole ecosystem.  Then, for gardeners, the second half describes how to foster a healthy, active food web to nourish a bountiful garden.
Teaming with Microbes (Timber Press, 2010, 220 pages) is available in the Fairfax County Library.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle

Photo:  Barbara Saffir

Reviewed by FMN Kristina Lansing

After a cold, grey winter, spring once again is on our doorstep. If you’re chafing to get outside but are finding conditions still a bit less than hospitable, try curling up instead with “Spring in Washington.”

“In the year the atomic age was born, a young man on a bicycle appointed himself monitor of spring in the nation’s capital. Starting before sun-up each morning, he pedaled miles and saw much before his workday began at the offices of the State Department. That the year was 1945 is of no importance, for the events he chronicled could have taken place in 1845 or 2045. The rites of spring are eternal.”*

Consider traveling back in time to experience what Washington was like back in 1945. Join author Louis J. Halle on his daily forays to the the Tidal Basin, Rock Creek Park, Dyke Marsh, Theodore Roosevelt Island, and the C&O Canal. Rock Creek was less visited back then and Dyke Marsh, lacking a boardwalk, was essentially off limits to all but the hardy and adventurous. A passionate observer of nature, Halle documents in detail the migration of birds, the awakening of foliage, and the changeability of the wind and the local weather. Written in the style of Aldo Leopold, but speaking very much with his own voice, Mr. Halle reflects not only on nature but on foreign affairs and the human condition. It’s a timely read for many reasons.

This book, which numbers just over 200 pages, is no longer in print but copies can readily be found in the Fairfax County Library system or for purchase via Amazon and Alibris. If at all possible, do try to snag a copy that features the illustrations of American artist Francis L. Jaques, as his drawings truly are delightful.

Louis J. Halle was born in New York City and educated at Harvard University. In 1979 he received the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Paul Dartsch Award for outstanding contributions to the field of natural history.

*“Spring in Washington;” Louis J. Halle; Johns Hopkins University Press; 1988; Forward by Roger Tory Peterson.

Review of Storm, by George R. Stewart

Review by FMN Kristina Lansing

When was the last time you read a “thumping good read” about nature? If it’s been awhile and if you’re looking for something to really sink your teeth into, do give George Stewart’s “Storm” a try. First published in 1941, this book is considered by some to be one of the first eco-novels ever written. Roughly a decade after its publication — and influenced by its publication — the National Weather Service began naming all major storms.

The protagonist in Stewart’s narrative is Maria (pronounced “Ma-rye-a”), the storm herself, “born of a dalliance between northern and southern air off the coast of Japan. After a rapid gestation, she quickly begins to grow, devouring atmosphere.” A junior meteorologist at the Weather Bureau names her, then watches as “the baby eats and sleeps and makes babbling noises. But [she] does not stay cute for long and soon grows teeth. By the time she debuts on the Pacific Coast, she has left her youth behind.”* This captivating description in the Introduction aside, the book is deeply rooted in science.

People and organizations of course figure prominently in this book, and their stories rival the tale of the storm herself. For animal lovers, even an owl, a hog, and a coyote play important roles. “Storm” is a tale of dispassionate natural forces and of cause-and-effect. It’s also a tale of efficiency, of leadership and teamwork, of bravery, and of humanity.

In writing this novel, George Stewart collaborated with at least 15 organizations, to which the book is dedicated: he became a storm chaser; he rode locomotives, flatcars, even an engine snowplow. If you decide to read this splendid book, do try to crack it open on the eve of a big, local storm. Just make sure you have extra batteries for your flashlight in case the electricity goes out! The book’s not long, just under 300 pages.

George Stewart received his PhD in English literature from Columbia in 1922 and joined the English faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1924. He was a sociologist, toponymist, and founding member of the American Name Society, and he wrote over 20 books.

“Storm;” George R. Stewart; New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics; 2021; 304 pages. Introduction by Nathaniel Rich, p viii.

Review of Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater

Reviewed by FMN Kristina Watts

Water: A Natural History is not just about water. As naturalists, we understand that everything is connected. I teach my students that streams are like the veins and arteries of the Earth, transporting nutrients and wastes; and we all know that water is necessary for life. I picked this book up thinking it would focus on hydrology, chemistry, and provide some details on the water cycle that would be fun to share. But instead, it was deeper than that: it’s the story of relationship, of activities and consequence.

Using aquatic resources as common thread that ties it all together, Alice Outwater takes the reader on a journey through time, showing us how humans have impacted the region that is now the United States since before European discovery of the continent. Starting with the beavers and eventually wrapping her narrative around buffalo, prairie dogs, mollusks, and alligators, she emphasizes how plentiful the animals were that lived on this land throughout pre-colonized history and how their behaviors shaped the ecosystems around them. We talk a lot about keystone species and their role in food webs, but this book highlights the direct connection between animals and the shapes of streams and rivers, ground water recharge, and water quality. Then she describes how human activity has reduced the populations of animals (and plants), and the resulting effects. She takes us through the human side of each story too, explaining for example the demand for fur in Europe during the 1600s, farmers’ naïve understanding of soil structure in the grasslands, and the U.S. government’s endeavors to engineer rivers for transportation and electric power needs.

All of the changes she describes through water’s “natural history” paint a picture of loss – loss of diversity and ecosystem health. She ends with a chapter on wastewater treatment (her specialty, as an environmental engineer by profession) and hope inspired by relatively recent environmental laws (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, etc.). She indicates that balance can be restored, if only we allow nature to take its course, well, more naturally. This book was published in 1996; my only complaint about it is that it is “old” – almost as much time has again passed as since the 1970s statutes and when the book was written. I’d love to see an update.

At 224 pages, this book is a pretty fast, colorful read and provides long-term, holistic perspective as well as interesting stories to enhance any discussions you may have involving water resources and our impact on them.

Water:  A Natural History, by Alice Outwater, Basic Books, Reprint edition (1997), 224 pages.

Review of A Most Remarkable Creature, by Jonathan Meiburg

Review by FMN David Gorsline

Musician, traveler, and nature writer Jonathan Meiburg begins his book with a mystery: who — or what — killed bird G7? Eventually, he answers that question. Along the way, into his story of caracaras living and extinct, he packs 16 pages of excellent color photographs, a magpie’s collection of 50 pages of end notes, and a challenging trip up Guyana’s Rewa River.

We naturalists of the mid-Atlantic rarely encounter caracaras on our home turf. Only one species of these birds of prey, Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus), has a range that extends into Texas and Florida (older authorities recognize this population as C. cheriway). But the group is extensively represented in South America by five genera, occupying a variety of habitats. Meiburg describes the general body plan as “ten separate attempts to build a crow on a falcon chassis, with results falling somewhere between elegant, menacing, and whimsical” (p. 9); caracaras share with (not closely related) corvids intelligence and curiosity. In short, an engaging subject for Meiburg’s equally engaging book.

The book’s coverage of these ten species is a bit uneven, with emphasis on the wild birds found where Meiburg was able to travel. Readers might regret the material devoted to captive birds in aviaries in the United Kingdom, but with a bird so adaptable to living with humans, perhaps these are pages well spent.

The book’s strengths are that trip up the piranha-laden Rewa to see “bush auntie-man” (Red-throated Caracara, Ibycter americanus), involving a waterfall portage, columns of army ants, and crab-sized Theraphosa spiders; a visit to minor islands of the Falklands archipelago to find “Johnny rook” G7’s killer; and Meiburg’s introduction of 19th-century Anglo-Argentine naturalist William Henry Hudson. Hudson was closely observant, and more than a bit romantic.

Depending on your taste, your reaction to Meiburg’s anthropomorphizing may vary; it’s mostly endearing, and maybe unavoidable when a Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) peers at you with affable opportunism.

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg, Knopf, New York, 2021, 336 pages

Review of World of Wonders, In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and other Astonishments, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Review by FMN Janet Quinn

A collection of 28 essays on topics ranging from catalpa trees to fireflies, reading this book did indeed fill me with wonder! I Googled a photo of a Southern Cassowary, listened to the call of the Potoo, and researched more about the delightful axoloti. Nezhukumatathil‘s prose is full of fascinating particulars about the creatures and plants of which she writes. For example, migrating monarch butterflies flying over Lake Superior still veer around a specific place where a mountain previously, but no longer, rose out of the water thousands of years ago. Anyone who has ever wondered about the natural world will learn from and appreciate these essays.

The double delight in this book is the beautiful, poetic writing of Nezhukumatathil through which she weaves stories of her childhood, growing up as a “brown girl” in western Kansas, meeting her husband, and sharing nature with her two sons.

She likens her friends who played outside with her in Arizona to the Cactus Wren, which lives in the saguaro cactus. “We were tough. Each of us so thin and small boned with spines strong and ready for a fight in case we ever needed to stand and face a shadow lurking over us.” She recounts the time when she moved between her sophomore and junior years of high school and was the new girl. She called it her “cephalopod year” when she would disappear as quickly from social situations as the vampire squid could from danger.

She knew her husband was “the one” when he did not shy from her description of the corpse flower and actually volunteered to take her on a road trip to see one with her. She ties their wedding to the colors of the Superb Bird of Paradise when her Indian relatives dance the “Macarena” with her husband’s relatives from Kansas.

Oh! I could go on and on, but you would enjoy it and learn so much more if you read it yourself.

Illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura
Milkweed Editions
184 pages

Review of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why they Matter, by Ben Goldfarb

Reviewed by FMN Susan Martel

Ever since my close encounter with beavers while canoeing the Bow River in Banff, Canada, I have had a soft spot for the furry critters. So, when I came across Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I thought I would learn a bit more about Castor canadensis. The read turned out to be a revelation!

Described as having impacts on a continental scale and history-changing in scope, beavers are championed by passionate “Beaver Believers” as the salvation to many environmental ills. Author Ben Goldfarb has written a compelling account of the beaver as one of the ultimate keystone species. He describes how the landscapes of western states, such as Oregon, California, and Nevada, once boasted a complex network of streams, ponds, and wet meadows. Formed by beaver colonies, these wetlands supported a diverse array of plants, insects, fish, amphibians, and mammals. Goldfarb chronicles how trapping beavers to near extinction both in the United States and abroad devastated the natural landscapes and had far reaching effects across trophic levels.

Helping beavers recolonize their former habitats just might hold the key to revitalizing devastated areas and benefit us as well. For example, the book lays out how the restored habitats could be a solution to water shortages and pollution, if we let the beavers do the work for us. Goldfarb’s description of successes stories, cautionary tales, and conflicts associated with beaver reintroduction are populated by an array of interesting characters, both human and castorid.

Even if this account doesn’t convert you into a Beaver Believer, the story will appeal to the naturalist in you. It reinforces the importance of understanding the interconnections of nature, of making thoughtful and science-based environmental management decisions, and of learning “to coexist and thrive alongside our fellow travelers on this planet.” (p. 25)

(2018, Chelsea Green Publishing, 304 pages)

Review of Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Reviewed by FMN Kristina Watts

If you ask my family, they’ll tell you that I’m now obsessed with moss. “Tell us just ONE fact about moss at dinner today.” My husband challenged the other day. Last week, I took a walk with my son out in the woods where he spends his spare time, and he offered to show me all the mossy spots he was aware of. (We were able to observe at least three different species on one tree root, to our untrained eyes.)

It started with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses). Though I consider myself a pretty avid naturalist, I’d never really paid attention to moss before. But Kimmerer opened up my eyes to a whole new world in the miniature.

Kimmerer isn’t just a PhD bryologist and university professor, she is a gifted writer and storyteller. She brought these plants alive in my imagination through her vivid descriptions of mosses’ fascinating reproductive cycle, their importance in creating and maintaining whole habitats (who knew their ability to contain moisture was so critical?) and the lessons they teach ecologists about concepts from succession to the very meaning of what “life” is. And all this was woven together with tales of mosses’ use to humankind throughout history, as well as Kimmerer’s own personal adventures in studying these surprisingly diverse organisms.

In each chapter, Kimmerer illustrates her chosen theme by treating an individual moss species like an old friend, with a distinct personality to portray it. In this way, she has made me very curious about the moss species that inhabit my backyard and the surrounding woods. I can’t wait to find a patch to examine under a magnifying glass and crack open my new moss identification guide. Given her comparison of the living moss turf’s structure, function, and composition of inhabitants to that of a lush rainforest, it’s exciting to think about how much there is to explore in a small area. While the book is very much grounded in science, the almost-spiritual appreciation that Kimmerer demonstrates for the interconnectedness between mosses and insects, trees, and all layers of the forest has inspired me to never take mosses for granted again. Maybe soon there will be a dedicated moss garden in my yard!

Whether you’re looking for a new hobby in bryology or just a well written book that reflects on what we can learn from one tiny yet practically ubiquitous part of nature, I highly recommend Gathering Moss.

(2003, Oregon State University Press, 168 pages)

Review of Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Reviewed by FMN Stacey Remick-Simkins

(2009, 229 pages) This is a masterpiece that I recommend to all, but particularly those grappling with the most difficult questions of how to live meaningfully in this challenged environmental milieu. Crows are the purveyor of the wisdom and carry us to the places of wonder that Haupt seeks to take us.  Specifically, she portrays her relationship with the injured crow Charlotte. 

Crow science and lore engage us to consider our humility and courage as we live out our life of responsibility and care for the wild world.  Haupt uses references to some of the great known writers and scientists, including Leopold, Thomas Eisner (Cornell professor and biologist), and Rachel Carson, that offer us ways and tools to challenge many of our naturalist assumptions and potentially revising our thinking. She suggests tools for further exploration such as nature journaling, Buddhist practices of Mindfulness, the Benedictine Rule of Life and Lectio Divina, as they can be transformed for our observations of nature.  She recognizes science as critically important to understanding where we are now, but demands that we do not lose our ability to see the wonder that exists quite apart from data gathering and naming only. She provides us the tools, the questions and the insights that challenge us all to be reverent co-inhabitants and all the profound responsibility that entails.

I have made it part of my life library which contains books that have had an extraordinary impact on my thinking or influenced me in ways that are life-changing. 

(Included is a reading group guide which includes an interview with the author, study questions and her list of must-read texts)