Category Archives: IYOBChallenge

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

If I remember correctly,  I first heard about this on NPR.  It sounded chilling and fascinating.  I had read and enjoyed John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce and looked forward to reading his newest book.

The Tiger is a mystery that involves an Amur tiger, known to most as the Siberian tiger,  and the people who live and struggle to survive in a remote forest on the border between Russia and China. It is a mix of regional history and natural history, with lots of cultural anthropology thrown in.

The story takes place in a region so marginal and wild that it defies categorization.  The people that live there are very like the land, struggling to survive the collapse of communism and the impact of open borders.

Because so much of life here is governed by a kind of whimsical rigidity – a combination of leftover Soviet bureaucracy and free market chaos – even simple interactions with officialdom can leave you feeling like you have wondered into an insane asylum.  To this day the Russian Far East is a place were neither political correctness nor eco-speak have penetrated, and patriotism is vigorous and impassioned…from page 22.

In Primorye, the seasons collide with equal intensity: winter can bring blizzards and paralysing cold, and summer will retaliate with typhoons and monsoon rains; three-quarters of the regions rainfall occurs during the summer.  This tendency towards extremes allows for unlikely juxtapositions and may explain why there is no satisfactory name for the region’s particular ecosystem – one that happens to coincide with the northern limit of the tigers pan-hemispheric range.  It could be that this region is not a region at all but a crossroads: many of the aboriginal tool that are now considered quintessentially North American – tipis, totem poles, bows and arrows, birch bark canoes, dog sleds, and kayak-style paddles – all passed through here first.  From page 23.

An Amur tiger is killing men.  A squad of  agents, whose job it is to solve crimes in the forest, especially those involving tigers, is charged with finding this animal and destroying  it.  These attacks do not appear to be random, this tiger is hunting down his victims, waiting patiently for them to appear.  They meet a grisly end.  Why?

Vaillant writes beautifully, weaving the history of the people with the history of the place .  They can not be separated.

When Russians wax eloquent about their homeland, they will often invoke Mother Russia, but Mother Russia is not the nation, ands She is certainly not the leadership; She is the Land.  The deep Russian bond to the earth – specifically, the soil – transcends all other affiliations with the exception, perhaps, of family.  Likewise, the forest and its creatures – plants and animals alike – have a significance that most of us in the West lost touch with generations ago.  From page 79.

Tigers are struggling to survive as a species.  Vaillant includes information on the decimation of tiger populations around the world and the efforts being made to save them.  He also includes many theories on how we humans have evolved right along side these and other large predators and how we may have developed the abilities to avoid being prey.

All of us, whether predator or prey, are opportunistic and creatures of habit.  Thus, if a leopard or a pack of hunting  hyenas failed enough times in its efforts to capture us, or was effectively intimidated, its menu preferences would shift accordingly – perhaps to baboons, where they remain today.  Once this new configuration was stabilized, the offspring of such “reformed” predators would presumably reflect these dietary changes.  There is good reason to suppose that, like the !Kung among lions, and the Udeghe among tigers, early man became an active, if cautious, cohabitant with these animals rather than their chronic victim.  From page 187.

Well-researched and wonderfully written, this is the kind of nonfiction book that I love.  Filled with history and nature,  the narrative form pulled me in like a great mystery.  Vaillant has made every effort to probe the minds of the people living in this remote area and the mind of the tiger who is hunting them.   I couldn’t put it down.

Other reviews:

Amy Reads

An Amur Tiger - Photo by John Goodrich - WCS

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Filed under Animals, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser

Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution

by Caroline Fraser

Metropolitian Books, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Rewilding is large-scale conservation based around the idea of cores, corridors and carnivores.  This means restoring and protecting large areas of wilderness, like national or state parks,  providing connectivity between these areas through corridors or checkerboard grids and reintroducing and/or protecting top predators and keystone species.

Fraser’s book is an excellent introducing to this method of conservation biology.  Starting with a description  of the Yukon to Yellowstone initiative,  she traveled the world in search of  rewilding projects.

A wildlife crossing structure on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, Canada. Wildlife-friendly overpasses and underpasses have helped restore connectivity in the landscape for wolves, bears, elk, and other species. Image from Wikipedia.

Some are working and some are not, ofter due to politics and too much burocracy.  These are all exciting projects but the one that most intrigues me is the European Green Belt which is being built along the former Iron Curtain.

European Green Belt. Photo by Klaus Leidorf.

Interestingly the projects that seem to be progressing and expanding are those that stretch across boundaries and borders.

Because this book  was due back at the library I had to rush through the last half of it.  I intend to search for a used copy to add to my personal library, reading about all the attempts to bring things back into balance definitely lifted my spirits.


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Filed under Animals, Earth, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Science Books 2010

Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Tresholds by James Hamilton-Patterson

Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

by James Hamilton-Patterson

Europa Editions, New York,  2009

Borrowed from the library.

I first read James Hamilton-Patterson in Granta, one of my few literary indulgences.   It was years ago, an article about the sea and it stayed with me.  When I saw this book on the “New Book” shelf at the library I had to grab it.  Since reading it I have purchased my own copy.

First published in 1992, Seven Tenths is a survey of the ocean world written by someone who treasures it and who has spent years exploring its depths.   Beautifully written, it is a  mix of poetry and science, fact and myth, filled with superb imagery.

It was whale song which mariners heard filtering through their vessels’ resonant wooden hulls and which they took for Sirens’ voices, beckoning them to disaster..  To have lain in one’s bunk at night and heard on the other side of a few inches of oak and copper sheathing those directionless, distanceless cries must have been to feel the chill of utter melancholy and dissolution–also to have felt one’s nakedness.  This is the effect of listening to reef sounds at night, too.  It is more that just the nakedness of wearing next to nothing, and it is more than vulnerability.  It is the sensation of animal messages passing through one as if, being seven-tenths water, one’s body were transparent.  From page 138.

Broken into sections, it speaks of  measurement and control, mysterious islands, unknown boundaries and the deep.  Each section contains stories of our misconceptions about the oceans,  about our fears and our need to understand the unknowable.  It is filled with unusual facts and the interesting people who work on and under the sea.   Hamilton-Patterson writes with joyous excitement and great love.

That night I go to bed with my head full of marvels.  In the course of the evening I also learned that the sea levels at either end of the Panama Canal are different by nearly half a meter, and the same went for the sea on either side of the Florida Peninsula.  This was caused by such things as the heaping effect of the wind and the Coriolis force.  But I am most captivated by the idea of the earth’s crust vibrating at an ascertainable frequency since it could theoretically be possible to calculate the precise note.  True, it probably would not be a pure tone because there would be all sorts of harmonic interference from irregularities such as mountain ranges.  Yet, it ought to be possible to determine the fundamental note of the planet, the music of our spheroid.  From page 33.

I have never seen phosphorescence as bright as on that night.  Leaning over the edge of the bangka I could follow every move of the searchers below.  Only, the whirligigs of sparks, the flashings and showers of cold fire were at depths which could not be determined.  Just as the glints and refractions in the best opals can appear deeper than the thickness of the stone itself or else closer than its surface, so the divers movements excited discharges of light which were either a few feet away or in a universe beyond.  It was vertiginous to gaze down because the view was more what one normally expected to see overhead.  On nights as dark as that, it is always hard to define the horizon, to separate black sky from black sea.  From page 325.

All of these sections are bound together by the description of a swimmer lost at sea.  This description expresses the feelings of fear, loss, loneliness and wonder felt by a person floating in the middle of the ocean.

I found myself awestruck reading about our historic misunderstanding of the sea’s great depths, and our desire to make sense of it.  The very human need to mark and measure, to claim some mastery, and if we couldn’t master it to at least have some semblance of control.  I could go on quoting passages of fine text for pages and pages.

Hamilton-Patterson has written a meditation on the sea, and a warning to all those who seek economic and political gain from these waters.  There are descriptions of the mapping of Economic Enterprise Zones around islands and continents, the destruction of a small Indonesian island for the enjoyment of wealthy tourists and the rampant overfishing by factory trawlers.  This is a study of  human effects and, in this time of oil spills and acidification, I am glad that Europa has chosen to republish it.

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Filed under Earth, IYOBChallenge, Ocean, Review, Science, Science Books 2010

The Grail Bird By Tim Gallagher

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

By Tim Gallagher

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2005

Borrowed from the library.

It pains me to think about all of the animals that reach the point of extinction every year.  I am glad that humans have finally come to realize our hand in this destruction.

Tim Gallagher’s book covers much of the history of the search for a bird most believed died out in the 1940’s.  The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilis principalis) lived in the forests of southeastern United States, an area that has been decimated by logging and agriculture since the civil war.  Its last known siting took place in 1944.

Then, in February 2004, a kayaker named Gene Spaulding spotted an unusual bird in a bayou in eastern Arkansas.  Word reached Gallagher, the editor of Cornell’s lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird Magazine, and he was off, traveling to the south, hooking up with his friend Bobby Harrison and beginning a search that continues to this day.

The Grail Bird is an interesting read, mostly about the connections and camaraderie between the searchers, the destruction of Ivory-Billed habitat and the struggle to set up and maintain the search teams.  There are some nice passages about observation, about having to sit still in a swamp.

An hour passed.  Then another hour.  And another.  And another.  And these were not quick hours.  It’s amazing how slowly time can pass when you’re deep in the swamp.  It’s a fluid kind of place;  all of your visual references are gone.  Most of the time you can’t even tell the position of the sun in the sky, so your sole clue to the passage of time is your watch.  The only way to cope is to give in to it.  From page 195.

The existence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has not been confirmed but there are people out there, in different places, sitting and watching.  There are audio recorders and cameras hanging in trees.  There is always hope.

For more information about the Grail Bird and a wonderful resource on birds from all over the world visit the Cornell lab of Ornithology.

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Filed under Animals, IYOBChallenge, Nature, New Authors 2010, Science Books 2010

The Tree: A Natural History by Colin Tudge

The Tree: A Natural History of  What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge

Three Rivers Press, New York, 2005

I own this one.

I have a thing about trees.  I climbed them as a child and wanted to live in one particular Dogwood that stood outside my bedroom window.  I can’t help touching them when I walk by them.  I sit under them, listening to them,  almost becoming part of them.  Once, in the Redwoods of California, I felt the redwoods were so angry at us humans that I had to leave, hanging my head in shame.

Weird, I know, but I feel like Colin Tudge and I would understand each other.

Colin Tudge has written a book that is wordy and at times it grew tedious.  It includes so much information about trees that I had to take it in small bits.  I am still reading about our future with trees if, in fact, we have one.  It is a book I will keep close at hand.

Tudge covers what trees are, the kinds of plants they evolved from and how scientists attempt to differentiate species.  His approach is deeply scientific but also reverent in a way that is spiritual.  I understand this, and appreciate it.  Humans would not be here without  these  amazingly diverse and important members of the living world.  We must learn to value their presence instead of considering them just an economic resource or something that stands in the way of agriculture or development.

Coast Redwood

Cherry Trees on the farm.

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