Category Archives: Nature

I Heart Corvids

I’ve seen this video on several of my favorite websites and had to pass it along.  I think the language is Russian.  Can anyone confirm?

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Filed under Animals, Corvids, Nature

Monster of God by David Quammen

Monster of God: The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003

Borrowed from my local library.

A wonderful book by one of my favorite science science writers.  Quammen has given us an in-depth report on a  great struggle in human history.  What do humans do when they find themselves becoming prey and how do we learn to live with those animals who, like us, find themselves at the top of the food web?

…For as long as Homo Sapiens has been sentient-for much longer if you count the evolutionary wisdom stored in our genes-alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world.  They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we’re just another flavor of meat…

…While we humans may be the most reflective members of the natural world, we’re not (in my view, anyway) its divinely appointed proprietors.  Nor are we the culmination of evolution, except in the sense that there has never been another species so bizarrely ingenious that it could create both iambic pentameter and plutonium.  (from page 13)

By focusing on four top predators, visiting their home territory and interviewing local scientists, hunters and others about  human contact with those predators, the author reminds us of things we may have forgotten.  What it is like to live in a place where we fear being attacked, injured and possible eaten by the animals that live around us.  How have people managed to live in balance with those animals?  How can we insure their survival as more and more of their territory is destroyed by our need for control?

Asiatic Lions that manage to survive in a tiny area of Western India, Salt water crocodiles in Australia,  Brown Bears in Romania and the Amur Tiger in the wilds of Eastern Russia are featured in a book that blends the history, biology, politics and culture of human-big predator interaction.  One of my favorite parts is Quamman’s explanation  of human exploration and colonization, the “taming of the wilderness”.

     Achieving military victory over the indigenous tribes, whoever they are, is sometimes the easiest part of the whole process.  The land itself, the ecosystem, must be defeated too – or so the invaders think.  The foreign wilderness must be mastered, made tractable, if not utterly subdued and transformed.  That requires, at the lower end of the size scale, coping with pestiferous local microbes and parasites, which sometimes present the fiercest resistance of all.  Malaria certainly slowed the white conquest of Africa.  At the upper end of the scale it means rooting out those big flesh-eating beasts that rule the woods and the rivers and the swamps, that offer moral peril to the unwary, and that hold pivotal significance within the belief systems of the natives.  Kill off the sacred bear.  Kill off the ancestral crocodile.  Kill off the myth-wrapped tiger.  Kill off the lion.  You haven’t conquered a people and their place, until you’ve exterminated their resident monsters. (From page 254)

Another thing I enjoyed about Monster of God was the author’s inclusion of religion and mythology.  All of those monster stories, all of the tales of heroes conquering ravenous beasts and fire-breathing serpents came from somewhere.

Anzu, as know from Babylonian poetry, was a furious lion-headed eagle.  Polyphemus, son of sea god Poseidon, was the cyclops who ate several of Odysseus’ men, scarfed them like shucked crawfish, before Odysseus paid him back with that archetypical affliction, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  The Chimera was a fire-snorting goat-lion-snake.  The Sphinx was a sadistic woman-faced lion, who devoured people after teasing them with her stupid riddle.  The Labbu, another formidable Babylonian monster, was 630 miles long, with huge eyelids.  It’s high protein diet included fish, wild asses, birds and people, until Tishpak or some other heroic intervener (the sources are patchy) vanquished it.  The original meaning of the word labbu, by the way, was lion.  (from page 262)

I love this stuff.  And I appreciate the author’s sense of humor when dealing with an issue that have terrified humans since before we stood upright.  Monster of God is a joy to read  and a sobering reminder of our place in the world.

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Nonfiction, Science

The Hopes of Snakes by Lisa Couturier

The Hopes of Snakes & Other Tales from the Urban Landscape by Lisa Couturier

Beacon Press, Boston, 2005

Borrowed from my public library.

This is one of those books I discovered while browsing the shelves.  This collection of  essays written about Couturier’s time spent in New York City and the Washington, DC area, reminds me that the city is, in fact, part of nature and that our ideas of nature are human constructs.  I know this, but it is easy to forget in my day-to-day living.

In essays that range from searching for Canada goose nests on an island in the Arthur Kill to hunting for Coyotes along the Potomac River through Washington D.C., Couturier drew me into her world and reintroduced me to the snakes and crows and foxes that live beside us in our urban habitats.

Her words convey deep respect for the “natural” world, they are filled with hard truths about human behavior.   I found these essays speaking to me, summing up my spiritual philosophy, my personal religion. I loved this wonderful collection.

What if God is the hawk, is the fish in the ocean, the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth?  What if God is the grass the hawk sat in and the breeze the hawk flew through?  from page 17.

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Filed under Animals, Essays, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2011

Dr. Aronson sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his book.  I jumped at the chance, so he had the publisher send me a copy.

Dr. Roy Aronson is a veterinarian living in Capetown, South Africa.  Besides his normal work with dogs, cats and other more exotic pets he has had many opportunities to treat African wildlife on  farms, ranches and private game reserves.  Along the way he has met and worked with very special vets and wild animal experts.

This small, quiet book is filled with tales of  treating different kinds of animals, from wolf-dog hybrids to lions, snakes and elephants.  Each chapter describes the ranch or reserve where Aronson, sometime with his wife Kathy, also a vet, does this difficult and dangerous work.  Sometimes it involves sedating a lioness to facilitate an operation on her eyelid, at other times it involved rangers rescuing a baby elephant from a mud hole, finding a home for him and raising him by hand.

Aronson’s tone is clear and direct.  He writes about the problems African animals face in the wild, hunting, poaching and human habitation being some of them.  He also describes the good work many people do to mitigate these problems.  It is heartening to read that wildlife habitat is actually increasing as people who own land choose to turn it into wildlife parks and reserves.

…There is a clear line between human habitat and the wild area occupied by animals.  It is a line that is often crossed.  We venture into nature, and sometimes wild animals enter into our domain.  Whenever there is a clash between wild animals and us or our pets, there should be respect.  With respect there can be coexistence.  Without it, there can only be tragedy.  We are the intruders here.  We have occupied the mountainside.  We are also the so-called intelligent species.  It is up to us to set the example of how to cohabit with other species.  If we do this with sensitivity, then we will all survive.  If we do this without it, then our fellow inhabitants of this planet will be harmed, and we will be the poorer for it.  From page 162.

I was happy to receive this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I would love to pass it on to someone in the US who would like to read and review it.  If you are interested please leave a comment with your email address.

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Filed under Animals, Memoir, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

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

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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Filed under Earth, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Science

The International Year of Biodiversity and a Reading Challenge!

If I stopped to think about what is happening to our planet I would never get up in the morning.  So instead of allowing myself to wallow in the knowledge of the stupidity of much of our human behavior I get excited about events like this,  walk the beach at low tide and introduce people to animals like this,

Burrowing Anemone

and try and learn everything I can about animals and plants that live in my neighborhood.

This year I am going to focus on birds.  How about you?  What trees share your block?  What birds visit  your backyard?

It turns out that there are other readers out there who get as excited about the earth as I do.  Thanks to Eva at A Striped Armchair I learned that Sylvia at Classical Bookworm has created a challenge to celebrate the IYOB.

Here is her discription of the challenge:

As a biologist, I naturally couldn’t let this international year go by without putting together a reading challenge for it! By learning more about biodiversity we can better appreciate its value and do more to ensure its protection at home and around the world. To that end I’ve put together a selection of reading challenges for this year:

Basic: 3 books on any biodiversity topic.

Biomes: 3 books about major world ecosystems: open ocean; coral reefs; lakes and rivers; arctic tundra; boreal forests; temperate forests; tropical forests; savannah; grassland/steppe/ deserts.

Branches: 3 books on different life forms: plants; fungi; invertebrates (including insects); reptiles and amphibians; birds; mammals.

Bye-bye: 2 books about endangered or extinct species or about extinction or conservation.

Back yard: Buy 2 or more field guides to your local flora & fauna and get to know your neighbours.

Biodiversity Bonanza: One of each of the above!

I’ve also devised some “field trips” to get you closer to your subject:

Level 1—Indoorsy: Visit a natural history museum or watch a documentary series on biodiversity (e.g. Planet Earth)

Level 2—Outdoorsy: Take a guided walk or hike in a local park. Check park system websites for schedules.

Level 3—Full Granola: Design your own field trip to go birding, botanizing, field-journaling, or whatever you like. Alternatively, join a local natural history club, or take a course in natural history online or at a college or community centre.

To make all this easier I’ve gathered together some helpful resources here, and will be adding to them throughout the year as I make more discoveries.

I’m signing up at the bonaza level.  How about you?

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Filed under Animals, Earth, Nature

Grayson by Lynne Cox

0156034670.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Grayson by Lynne Cox

A Harvest Book, New York, 2008

Borrowed from a friend.

Grayson is the true story of  a seventeen year old swimmer’s meeting with a baby gray whale.  Lynne Cox trained along Seal Beach in Southern California.  She often swam between the pier and the jetty at the mouth of the San Gabriel River.  One early March morning in the mid 1970s she had a very special encounter.

Very early one morning, as Cox is training, she becomes aware of something large swimming near her.  A friend on the dock tells her not to swim to shore because the animal, a young gray whale, will follow her, and, if beached,  will suffer and die.  Lynne is determined to help the whale and swims with it until it rejoins its mother.

This is a sweet little book.  Cox knows the ocean so well she could be part fish and her descriptions of moving through the water are quite wonderful.

As the sun rose higher it turned tangerine and pushed the band of ruby red higher into the sky.  The ocean resonated with color and warmth as I rolled back onto my stomach and swam across converging pools of red, orange, yellow and gold.

Energy and warmth flowed across my back and shoulders.  I was moving fast and free, feeling the power and lift in my arms  and the strength deep within my body.  My breathing was back to normal and finally this was fun again.  From page 28.

She writes poetically about her observations, what she sees and hears around her.  She has a naturalist’s understanding of the animals that live along this part of the southern California coast and her compassion and determination to help “Grayson” are an inspiration.  A colleague of mine plans to read this book aloud to her elementary students.  I think it would be great as a read-aloud book for parents.

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Filed under Animals, Nature, What An Animal II