Tag Archives: Nature

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Vintage Books, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.

One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost.  From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost.  Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.

Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.

You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds?  The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification.  You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe.  Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc.  Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features.  In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.

I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it.  The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it.  You don’t.  Sometimes all you have is a single datum.  The name.  In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.  From page 39.

This is  nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries.  It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours.  It is a place  shared with a multitude of other creatures.  If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them


Filed under Birds, Corvids, Natural History, Review, Science, TBR Double Dare

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?

1 Comment

Filed under Animals, Corvids, Nature

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.


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.


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


Filed under Animals, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

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.


Filed under Earth, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Science

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes

0375507299.01._SY190_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Snow Geese:  A Story of Home

by William Fiennes

Random House, New York, 2002

At the age of twenty-five  William Fiennes fell ill.  His parents welcomed him home to recuperate.  He hoped to be back at work in three weeks but it took much longer. In the hospital, out again, in again, always returning home, back to his childhood room.

As a change of scenery his mother suggested a stay at hotel on the Welsh border.  There, in the library, he found a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose”.  He remembered  hearing the story in school at age ten.  He remembered the classroom with high windows  and his teacher, Mr. Faulkner.

Fiennes’s father had always loved birds but William had never had the patience to learn about them.  When they came back from the hotel he couldn’t get “The Snow Goose” out of his head.  Gaining strength he grew restless.  After seeing a map of bird migration routes he decided to undertake a journey.   He would follow snow geese from their wintering ground in Texas to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic.

The day before I left for Texas, I took the train home from London.  In the afternoon, my father and I went for a walk.  A pink kite was snarled in the churchyard yew tree; there were clumps of moss like berets on the corners of the headstones.  We climbed a gate and strode out across Danvers Meadow, heading westward, leaning into the slope, last year,s sere beech leaves strewn through the grass.  My father was wearing tan corduroy trousers and an old battered green waxed jacket; in one pocket he kept a matching green waxed hat in case of rain.  We walked at a steady pace, talking about the journey ahead of me, the rhythm of the walk going on under the words like a tempo. Page 16

Thus begins a magical story of migration and homecoming.  The Snow Geese is a record of a very personal journey filled with precise observations of birds and of people.  Fiennes writes wonderfully about bird migration, behavior and physiology.

The swifts come back each year, in the last week of May.  These were common swifts, Apus apus, sooty black all over save for a pale chin, known variously as skeer devils, swing devils, jack squealers, screech martins, shriek owls, or screeks–names that alluded to the bird’s fiendish screaming fight and diabolic black appearance.  Swifts like to nest in the nooks in the stonework of high walls, under eaves, even among rafters, and show a high degree of philopatry (from the Greek words philein, “to love”, and patria, “homeland”), with generation after generation returning to favored nesting sites.  The advantage of this behavior are clear: if a bird is familiar with its environment, it is likely to be less susceptible to predators and more efficient at finding food.  Philopatry tends to develop in species that nest in stable, reliable sites such as cliffs or buildings, rather than in species that use unstable sites like river sandbars.  There’s  no point in returning to a place if you can’t rely upon its qualities.  Pages141/142

His descriptions of visits with people along the route are perfect snapshots of  North American culture as well as of human nature.  He does not hesitate to turn the spotlight on himself.

I lay awake, thinking of home.  Not just of the ironstone house–my mother’s evening viola scales coming up the stairs–but also of the London flat in which I had been living, the streets around it, the faces and voices of friends, the things we laughed about.  Such images had occupied my mind with increasing frequency ever since my stay in the white motel in Aberdeen.  In that room my curiosity, my appetite for the new seemed to tire or slacken, perhaps because I was lonely, or because I felt for the first time that my journey north with the snow geese was not quite the shout of freedom I had presupposed.  I was aware of another impulse that, if not the opposite of curiosity, was certainly resistant to the new or the strange and sympathetic to everything I could remember and understand.  This wasn’t the acute longing I remembered from the hospital, that desperate nostalgic desire to return to the circumstances  of childhood.  Lying awake on the train, what I felt was no more than a mild ache, bittersweet, an awareness of separation from the things I loved, an almost corporeal inclination towards familiar ground.  It was as if I existed between two poles, the known and the new, and found myself drawn alternately from one to the other. Page 176/177

The Snow Geese is a delightful book, lively and bright, filled with wonderful facts about birds.  I love Fiennes’s writing, it is clean, vivid and intensely detailed.  I can not wait to read his new book, The Music Room.

Other reviews:

dovegreyreader scribbles


At the age of twenty-five  William Fiennes fell ill.  His parents welcomed him home to recuperate.  He hoped to be back at work in three weeks but it took much longer. In the hospital, out again, in again, always returning home, back to his childhood room.

As a change of scenery his mother suggested a stay at hotel on the Welsh border.  There, in the library, he found a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose”.  He remembered  hearing the story in school at age ten.  He remembered the classroom with high windows  and his teacher, Mr. Faulkner.

Fiennes’s father had always loved birds but William had never had the patience to learn about them.  When they came back from the hotel he couldn’t get “The Snow Goose” out of his head.  Gaining strength he grew restless.  After seeing a map of bird migration routes he decided to undertake a journey.   He would follow snow geese from their wintering ground in Texas to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic.  The Snow Geese is a record of that journey.


Filed under Animals, Challenges, Memoir, Nature, Science, Science Books 2009

Weekly Geeks – Passions – 1/30/09


This mini challenge found here.

This week’s Weekly Geek is inspired by Dewey’s Knit-a-Long, a mini challenge of Dewey’s Reading Challenge. Dewey had other passions besides reading and blogging. Knitting was one of them. This made me think, what are the Weekly Geek’s other passions?

#1. What are you passionate about besides reading and blogging? For example, are you crafty (knitting, woodworking, scrapbooking, model building)? Do you cook? Into gaming (computer or board)? Sports (player or spectator)? Photography? Maybe you like geocaching, rock climbing? Or love attending events like renaissance fairs, concerts? Music? Dancing? You get the idea.

Tell us why you’re passionate about it. Post photos of what you’ve made or of yourself doing whatever it is you love doing.

When I first read this mini-challenge I thought about several things that I like to do.  Gardening, art (mostly playing around with watercolors), learning new recipes.  None of these things struck a cord so I figured I’d wait or skip this one.  It was late so I read for a while and fell asleep.  I woke up early, my mind going a zillion miles an hour, thinking about what I love.

The beach at Shilshole

The beach at Shilshole

All my life the place where I live has been extremely important to me.  By place meaning I mean the actual place, the land, the natural environment. I am very lucky. I live in Seattle and we are blessed with a huge body of water known as the Puget Sound.  Years ago a dear friend told me about a volunteer program she helps organize.  It’s called the Volunteer Beach Naturalist Program and it’s run by King County, The Seattle Aquarium and several other agencies.My friend dragged me to a meeting and I was hooked.  For several weeks during spring and summer volunteers staff 7 beaches on Puget Sound and talk to the public about the beaches and the animals that live there. I get out to the beach and talk to people about the place where I live.  I am, by nature, a hermit, so this is very good for me.  It hones my social skills.  I believe if I can convince one person to stop using chemical fertilizer on their lawn or take their car to a car wash instead of washing it in the street I have done some good.

This summer will be my eighth year with this program and every year I learn something new.

Ocre Seastar

Ochre Seastar

Moonglow Anemone

Moonglow Anemone

I know the animals that live along the tide line, the fish that live in the near shore, the importance of the near shore and beaches for our salmon.

I know about our local Orca pods and am slowly learning about the birds of Seattle.  When I travel I make sure to visit beaches or parks or nature centers, to stay connected to where I am.  This program is one of the things that keeps me sane.

L pod

L pod

#2. Get us involved. Link to tutorials, recipes, Youtube videos, websites, fan sites, etc, anything that will help us learn more about your interest or how to do your hobby. Maybe you’d like to link to another hobbyist whose work you admire or tell us about a book or magazine related to your interest.

Inlets in Puget Sound

Inlets in Puget Sound

If you love where you live, get involved.  Most communities, even very  small ones, have local environmental programs that need volunteers.  Check out local parks, museums, schools.  If being out side and maybe getting wet or mucky is not your thing how about a local history museum, art museum or food bank.  Do not feel intimidated by your lack of knowledge, the volunteer programs will give you what you need and are grateful for your help.

There are guide books written about many things that can you help out , Beach Naturalists  rely on several when we’re on the beach.



#3. Visit other Weekly Geeks. Link in your post to other Geeks who’ve peaked your interest in their passion. Or maybe you might find a fellow afincionado among us, link to them.

What wonderful posts!  I could get lost in them for hours.  I love the music Nymeth wrote about and Ali’s playlist.  Claire posted some great art, hope we get to see some of her own work sometime.  More art at The Dark, creepy thought, watch out for sharp objects!  There are so many others, just go here and go through the list! Oh, and I love Lydia’s pups!


Filed under Weekly Geeks