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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)

Review of How Birds Migrate, by Paul Kerlinger

Reviewed by FMN Kristine Lansing

In just a few weeks, nothing short of a miracle will be well underway.

Birds of all sizes and shapes — from the tiniest of hummingbirds to the largest of hawks — will embark upon an incredible geographic relocation, traveling thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands of miles to reach their summer breeding grounds . . . where they will stay for only a few months to raise their young.

How do such fragile creatures survive a journey that would do most of us in — despite all of our modern conveniences — on the very first day? It’s not too late to learn more about the odyssey that is spring migration before it gets into full swing.

In this succinct book (only 216 pages) from 2008, ornithologist Paul Kerlinger demystifies migration by discussing: why birds migrate; factors that trigger migration; how birds prepare for the journey; their navigation across water and vast terrain; why some birds fly at night while others fly during the day; migratory rest stops; and in-flight communications. Dr. Kerlinger’s explanations, accompanied by short case studies and artist Pat Archer’s illustrations, make this book exceedingly accessible to non-birders and birders alike.

So if you’re new to birding (or simply curious), and if you read this book right now, you will never see spring and fall through the same eyes again. If you’re an experienced birder, though, don’t pass the book by; you’ll find yourself referring to it time after time.

Dr. Kerlinger is a former director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

Review of The Secret Life of Flies, by Erica McAlister

Reviewed by Kristine Lansing

“Flies. A nuisance at best, a harbinger of death at worst. Regarded by many as a disease-carrier that vomits on our food, it earns nothing more from us humans than feelings of disgust. The little we know about the fly we don’t like.”*

Now, really, doesn’t that introduction just grab you? As master naturalists each of us probably spends more time around flies than we do around any other plant or animal. And yet, what do we really know about these incredible little creatures?

In a mere 240 pages, entomologist Erica McAlister introduces us to the life cycle of flies and to the many varieties we’re likely to encounter in the field, from the pollinators (some closely resemble bees), to the detritivores, the coprophages (yes, there’s dung!), necrophages (and death!), vegetarians, fungivores, predators, parasites, and sanguivores (and even blood!).

“The Secret Life of Flies” is not only packed with information, but it is brimming with humor. Ms. McAlister’s enthusiasm for her tiny subjects is infectious, and leaves the reader wanting to observe them “flirting with one another in front of a good dung pat,”* or dancing and gifting one another during courtship, or locking horns in competition. And if all of this isn’t enticing enough, just wait until you read about flies’ dining habits.

For all of you bibliophiles out there, this BBC Wildlife Book of the Month is beautifully illustrated and lovingly printed on high-quality paper.

Ms. McAlister is a curator of diptera at the Natural History Museum in London.

*All quotes from The Secret Life of Flies, Erica McAlister, 2019, Natural History Museum.

Review of Tales from the Ant World, by Edward O. Wilson

Reviewed by Don Coram

Edward O. Wilson is perhaps the most famous living naturalist.  He has written more than 30 books on nature, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes.  He is one of the naturalists mentioned in the FMN Basic Course.  

In this book, Wilson describes the fascinating diversity among the 15,000 (known) species of ants (probably twice that number overall).  The study of ants is called myrmecology.  Ants have been around for 150 million years.  Adaptive radiation, in which a few successful ant species multiply dramatically into many species filling specialized niches, started in the Mesozoic era and led to the diversity that we can observe now.   

Wilson describes the characteristics of a variety ant species, including their physiology, behavior, personalities, and social organization.  His list includes common kitchen ants, carpenter ants, fire ants, army ants, leaf cutter ants, and bull ants.  Ants are the most warlike of all animals and the book describes some of the fiercest ones.  But there are also timid ants who disappear when threatened, only to reform the colony quickly when safe. And the society of leaf cutter ants is surprisingly complex.  You must read the book to learn about other astounding adaptations in ant species.

For us amateur naturalists, the book describes Wilson’s life-long interest in ants and nature in general.  As an 8-year-old boy, he began collecting and identifying insects in his backyard.  Between the ages of 10 and 12, he lived in Washington DC, near the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, which were inspiring to him.  By 13, his family had moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he continued observing nature and soon found a colony of invasive fire ants.  His was the first record of these ants in the Northern Hemisphere, and they came to be a serious pest in the South.  The book continues describing Wilson’s field trips over the next 8 decades seeking ants throughout the world.  He finds them atop mountains, in deserts, on isolated islands, and in caves.  The book also describes how Wilson learned to communicate with ants.  He was able to extract and purify a fire ant pheromone and use it to communicate with ants to direct them to follow a particular human-selected trail.   Wilson is a now professor-emeritus at Harvard University.  

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