Posts from January 2014
January 9th, 2014
Our book today is a sweetly contemplative 1947 nature classic, Speaking of Animals by Alan Devoe, who for many years in the mid-20th century wrote his charming “Down to Earth” column for the old American Mercury and eventually bought a cute little estate in upstate New York called Phudd Hill, where he soon came to know every tree, every little dell, every mood of weather, and especially all the wild creatures who made their homes in what he always referred to as “the woods-world.” Phudd Hill generated two other Devoe classics, Phudd Hill (about which no less a figure than John Cowper Powys wrote “I regard it as second to hardly any ‘nature studies’ ever written”) and Lives Around Us, which was praised by such hard-to-please book critics (now entirely forgotten, of course) as Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Lewis Gannett.
Speaking of Animals is likewise among the best natures studies ever written, although Devoe is likewise now entirely forgotten. In this book’s thirty chapters, virtually all the archetypal Northeastern American animals get their loving examinations, from the great blue heron to the naked-faced possum to the oblivious beaver to the humble meadow mouse. In all these pieces, Devoe’s signature emapthy is on full display, as in “Inside Chipmunkdom”:
In the quiet earth-darkness, blind and tiny, the baby chipmunk stirs and frets a little, and knows what he must know. He raises his infant muzzle, kneading and nuzzling the furry warmth that is the belly of his mother. He seizes upon a small teat, and sucks a drop of chipmunk milk, and now an enormous peace, a quiet fulfillment, possess him utterly. He lies wholly tranquil now. There is warmth, there is darkness, there is the smell of an enwombing earth, there is the taste of milk. He falls asleep.
This is the texture of the chipmunk’s infancy, in the warm security of the grass-lined nest.
Like virtually everybody who’s come to know a patch of northeastern woods and scrubland well, Devoe has had his share of raccoon encounters, and he’s done his share of coon-watching, which is always just inordinately fun – and evocative, since raccoons seem to bring that out in their human observers:
Bear-footed, slow, he lumbers along the brook-banks and the marsh-edges. It is in his coon blood to love darkness, and the damp exhalation of sedgy places and the sound of flowing water. Slowly, placidly, he investigates the shallow pools. His forepaws are as agile and dexterous as little hands, and very gently he explores with them in the dark water, feeling for the touch of the cool body of a frog or crawfish or even a darting minnow. His clutch, when he has touched prey, is quick and clever, and it improves with practice.
And no ‘nature study’ would ever be quite complete without the occasional digression into philosophical inquiry. In this as in all other things, Devoe keeps his wilder flights under solid control, and the results are more impressive for it, as in his fantastic, thought-provoking chapter “When Animals Die”:
The human world has many tombstoned graveyards. The evidence of our dead is persistingly visible. In the woods-world the dead vanish quickly. Vultures take them. Foxes take them. The spotted-winded burying-beetles, scenting death, come scuttling quickly to inter them as food for their burying-beetle maggots. There is no memorializing of death in the woods-world. No memorializing but the blossoming flowers, growing out of death-rich soil … the soaring birds and eager animals, whose aliveness is made possible only by the deaths that have gone before … the green and flowering and fecund tumult, populous and glad with breath, that is earth-life’s testimony to the endless cycles of a kind of immorality.
It’d be nice if some version of that “kind of immortality” applied to books as well, somehow keeping charming little gems like Speaking of Animals from disappearing completely. But then again, that magic might just very well be book-blogging, right?
November 5th, 2013
Our book today is the late Stephen Jay Gould’s 1995 essay collection Dinosaur in a Haystack, but no matter which of Gould’s dozen essay collections I revisit, the little pang of that “late” is always the same: even after more than a decade, there is no settlement with this man’s death – the present-day intellectual world needs him as exigently as ever, and so a part of my mind always uses that “the late” with a lick of irritation: not dead, but “the late” as in we’re impatiently waiting out his temporary absence.
Alas, not so. This warm, voluble, disarmingly erudite man is gone, and his books remain to catch faint echoes of the rapid-fire brilliance of his talk.
The essays that comprise Dinosaur in a Haystack were all written on Gould’s monthly deadline for his berth in Natural History magazine, an extremely happy partnership that lasted for years and gave Gould a schedule of production that did his writing and even his thinking a world of good. That regular deadline forced Gould, in between his duties teaching at Harvard and consulting deep in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History, in between all the other demands on his time, to mentally organize a new discourse every month. Such deadlines were a boon to those essays – almost all of them are impeccably shaped and controlled (the control is especially welcome when even favorably-inclined readers behold with horror the sprawling bagatelle that is Gould’s 2002 magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory).
And they’re so various! You can find everything in a book of Gould essays. Due to random timing, some of the essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack spin out their span under the huge shadow of Stephen Spielberg’s cinematic hit Jurassic Park, which caused Gould no end of minor irritation, since anybody who knew anything about him knew he was “in dinosaurs” and so assumed he must have lots of opinions about the movie. And he did, of course:
For paleontologists, Jurassic Park is both our greatest opportunity and our most oppressive incubus – a spur for unparalleled general interest in our subject, and the source of a commercial flood that may truly extinguish dinosaurs by turning them from sources of awe into cliches and commodities. Will we have strength to stand up in this deluge?
Predictably – wonderfully predictably – Gould takes the opportunity to point out that the truth of dinosaurs will always be more amazing than the fiction of dinosaurs:
Our task is hopeless if museums, in following their essences and respecting authenticity, condemn themselves to marginality, insolvency, and empty corridors. But, fortunately, this need not and should not be our fate. We have an absolutely wonderful product to flog – real objects of nature. We may never entice as many visitors as Jurassic Park, but we can and do attract multitudes for the right reasons. Luckily – and I do not pretend to understand why – authenticity stirs the human soul. The appeal is cerebral and entirely conceptual, not at all visual. Casts and replicas are now sufficiently indistinguishable from the originals that no one but the seasoned expert can possibly tell the difference. But a cast of the Rosetta Stone is plaster (however intriguing and informative), while the object itself, on display in the British Museum, is magic. A fiberglass Tyrannosaurus merits a good look, the real bones send shivers down my spine, for I know that they supported an actual breathing and roaring animal some 70 million years ago.
And depending on his mood, Gould could also frequently turn from the playful to the darkly profound. In one of this collection’s best and most moving essays, for instance, he finds himself thinking about the infamous Nazi leadership conference held at Wannsee in 1942 and how the “Protocol” of that conference laid out very specific guidelines for Nazi racist practices (“What can be more insane,” Gould asks, “than madness that constructs its own byzantine taxonomy – or are we just witnessing the orderly mind of the petty bureaucrat applied to human lives rather than office files?”). The part of this Protocol that most tortures Gould is the part closest to his own passions – the Nazi formulators held that those few Jews who managed to survive the longest in their slave labor camps would no doubt be the strongest in terms of natural selection – an assertion which causes an entirely different shiver down Gould’s spine:
Perhaps you do not see the special horror of this line (embedded, as it is, in such maximal evil). But what can be more wrenching than the violation of ones’s own child, or the perversion for vicious purpose of the most noble item in a person’s world? I am an evolutionary biologist by original training and a quarter-century of practice. Charles Darwin is the resident hero in my realm – and few professions can name a man so brilliant, so admirable, and so genial as both founder and continuing inspiration. Darwin, of course, gave a distinctive name to his theory of evolutionary change: natural selection. This theory has a history of misuse almost as long as its proper pedigree. Claptrap and bogus Darwinian formulations have been used to justify every form of social exploitation – rich over poor, technologically complex over traditional, imperialist over aborigine, conqueror over defeated in war. Every evolutionist knows this history only too well, and we bear some measure of collective responsibility for the uncritical fascination that many of us have shown for such unjustified extensions. But most false expropriations of our chief phrase have been undertaken without our knowledge and against our will.
Every chapter in Dinosaur in a Haystack works against those two life-long adversaries of Gould: claptrap and bogus Darwinian formulations, and it’s always bracing to dip into his prose for just that reason: here’s cheerful rationality in ascendence, here’s fun poked at intellectual phonies, here’s a Queens-style nose thumbed at every conformist bully who’s ever browbeat a champion of thought and fact. In Gould’s essays, the nerdy kids, the brainy dinosaur-fanciers, the kind ones, are always on the winning side, and the best of all possible teachers and allies is, for the length of these fantastic essays anyway, not late at all but right on time.
December 19th, 2012
The news of the world has never shown a grimmer picture of the war on Nature than we saw in 2012 (compensated only slightly by Nature’s increasing proclivity to make war on us), but the superheated, winterless, waterless blight hasn’t been reflected in the beauty of nature-related books hitting stores. Here are the 10 best from 2012:
10. Natural Histories from the American Museum of Natural History Library – Certainly the most visually arresting nature volume of the season, this oversized slipcased item is a treasure-house of archival-quality reproductions from the holdings of the American Museum’s Research Museum, featuring long, loving passages on dozens of rare 19th Century works of natural history and dozens of separate prints suitable for framing. It’s a celebration perfectly in keeping with the puissant nerdiness of the American Museum.
9. The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett
8. Of Moose and Men by Jerry Haigh
7. The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell
6. The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause – The sheer unending variety of the animal kingdom is most fascinatingly expressed in the sounds it makes, and that inadvertent orchestra is “bio-acoustician” Krause’s subject in all its glory. The book’s lively narrative is accompanied by a disc that will change forever the way you encounter the natural world – a world of excited, passionate whoops, calls, songs, and plain old conversation, ten billion of a day.
5. The Complete Dinosaur (2nd edition) edited by James O. Farlow and M. K. Brett-Surman
4. The Black Rhinos of Namibia by Rick Bass
3. Spillover by David Quammen
2. Comet’s Tale by Steven Wolf – Wolf was a go-getting lawyer when two things radically chanted his life: he was stricken with a crippling spinal disease, and he adopted a retired racing greyhound named Comet, whose sweet nature he gradually freed from trauma and on whom he gradually came to depend for both physical and moral support. It’s a familiar dog-saved-me setup, but it’s beautifully done.
1. The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce - The best nature book this year (and also the best dog book) is immeasurably also the saddest: Pierce writes about the aspect of dog-ownership most dog people don’t want to think about – the end, when the light dims in the eyes and the muscles get stiff or give out and old joints can’t become warm enough. I’ve live through that last, most heartbreaking stage more times than I can count (except that like all dog-owners, I have counted), and I’ve never seen it more intelligently, more searchingly explored than Pierce does in these pages. This great little book is not a happy reading experience – but for dog-people, it’ll be a massively cathartic one.
November 6th, 2012
Our book today is William Hamilton Gibson’s lovely 1891 nature-book Sharp Eyes, one of half a dozen such books he wrote and illustrated in the course of his relatively short life, starting with 1880’s utterly wonderful Pastoral Days (anybody who’s ever enjoyed any time out-of-doors in New England should own a copy) and including Highways and Byways and Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine- the latter of which brought him an unprecedented amount of fan-mail, most of it from very serious, very studious young boys and girls who’d been given the book for Christmas or as a school prize and had fallen under the gentle spell of Gibson’s infectious, unpretentious curiosity for going out and seeing the natural world. Gibson was fond of complaining about this “battalion of boys” who bombarded him with letters and breathless accounts of their own adventures out exploring nearby parks and streams, but he wouldn’t have missed the camaraderie, and he never failed to write back to anybody who asked him questions about nature – or who sent him some oddity plucked from the forest floor. Gibson was a perfectionist (and what we would now call a workaholic), often crafting and re-crafting his sketches and engravings half a dozen times before he was satisfied with them – but he could always be convinced to put down his pencils, pick up his hat, and head out on a ramble … not forgetting his spectacles, of course:
He’d been in love with nature from his earliest childhood, and even when twenty years or more had passed and he was a busy columnist and illustrator (he was also much in demand as a lecturer, possessing that rarest of lecturer strengths, the ability to be extemporaneously funny), that love of rambling never dimmed in the slightest, as he explains in our present book:
Sharp Eyes is, moreover, a plea for the rational, contemplative country ramble. It is a messenger to that thoughtless host to whom Nature is a closed book – not only unopened, but with leaves uncut – to those who would take a “walk,” perhaps, but to whom, it would seem, the only virtues of a walk are comprised in the quickening pulse, the expansion of lung, and the cultivation of brawn. To such, a walk may be an exhilaration and a positive benefit, but scarcely the means of grace which is implied in the stroll or ramble. I woul lay open a few, a very few, of these uncut pages, which I have learned by heart, that a “little may be read,” even as we run. I would give at least one worthy motive for a stroll for every day of the year – storm or shine, summer or winter – conscious that in thus seeing through my spectacles my proselytes will surely rejoice in their conversion.
His books often follow a year through those courses of storm, shine, summer, and winter – the better to let him point out specific wonders that are often as evanescent as they are fascinating – like the phenomenon at hand on August 11th:
Can we really claim to know our evening primrose? Night after night, for weeks, its pale blooms have opened, and shed abroad their sweet perfume in the darkness in every glen and by every road-side; and yet how few of us have ever stopped to witness that beautiful impatience of the swelling bud, the eager bursting of its bounds, and the magic unfolding of the crinkly yellow petals?
This book, like all Gibson’s books, is an exquisitely beautiful reading experience. The chapters are mostly short enough to be the very thing they most resemble: dashed-off letters to science-curious boys, and on every page the words and the images skillfully support each other:
There’s a great deal in Sharp Eyes about insects and plants, those two easiest ramble-trophies to collect and examine. But Gibson’s walking welcome (like that of his hero, Emerson) extends to all the living things he might encounter, even on January 26th in what used to be the heart of a snowy Connecticut winter:
One of the most welcome occasional companions of the winter walker is the gray squirrel. On almost any genial day we are sure of him if our eyes are sharp enough, and our manner sufficiently decorous. His eccentric doings are written in his footprints everywhere upon the new-fallen snow, connecting tree with tree and keeping one’s eye ever on the lookout for the whisking tail.
We may never know how many future naturalists, when they were still eager little boys and girls, learned all about that decorum from so gentle and friendly a teacher as Gibson. Certainly his lovely books outlived him, if only for a few seasons, and bookish children have long memories for the bestowers of their first enchantments.
October 5th, 2012
Our book today is Wild Nights, the winning little work of urban natural history Anne Matthews wrote in 2001, a smart, informed book that follows in the natural history footsteps of such works as Cathy Johnson’s The Nocturnal Naturalist (and act as precursors to great books like Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark) by turning a naturalist’s eye and notebook to the close-focus: the wildlife that, as Matthews’ sub-title puts it, “returns to the city.” It’s a popular subject, especially for what Matthews calls “confirmed urbanites” who are alternately entranced and appalled by the thought of sharing their space with wild things. In other words, the book is about Manhattan – although our author is willing to expand that prejudice to include all islands, which, for their isolation and idiosyncrasy, she characterizes as nature’s Petri dishes:
A dead island pig left at roadside simply isn’t there in the morning. The other island pigs devour it. Nothing is left but a stain. On an island, Darwinian processes are distilled and magnified. There is nowhere else to go. This is it. Work it out, or die.
“Islands intensify,” she tells us. “Islands also accumulate. Once something is on-island, whether artifact or life-form, you can’t get it off without enormous trouble.” And while a little of this goes a long way (hobbyist naturalists like Matthews have a tendency to talk about Manhattan as though it were as isolated as Tonga, when in fact a third of this particular island’s school children don’t even know it is an island), it serves one of the author’s purposes, which is to remind readers that nature is all around them, whether they choose to see it or not.
Matthews covers a wide spectrum in writing about that resurgent natural world, but since this is at heart a New York book, there’s one member of the animal kingdom who’s of course waiting impatiently to step on-stage – and Matthews doesn’t disappoint:
Rats like to socialize, just not with us. Lords of the night city, with territorial maps as precise as any falcon’s, they avoid humans whenever possible. In the country, rats may life in packs of up to two hundred, capable of killing piglets or lambs. In cities, they form smaller but even more aggressive gangs. One New York rat population traditionally summers in Central Park but invades East Side apartment buildings when the weather cools. Another tenacious pack defends the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, terrorizing pedestrians. Morninside Heights, near Columbia, is a famous rat zone; park your car on the street overnight, and by morning the local rats may have built a nest in the engine.
After regaling her readers with satisfyingly blood-curdling mentions of New York sewer rats that measured seventeen inches long, she extols the ingenuity of the little bastards:
Rats are smart: although a fast-forward version of natural selection has made rats in many big cities immune to nearly all conventional poisons, they still may press one pack member into service as a taster; if the test rat dies, the others resolutely avoid the bait.
Of course there’s a good deal more to Wild Nights than rats – there’s a multitude of birds as well, and foxes like the one on the book’s cover, and coyotes, and wild turkeys, and innumerable mice and squirrels and pigeons … and there’s the vanishing night sky as well, swallowed by buildings and light pollution. And all of it is presented in enormously vivacious prose – Matthews has written a nature book that even her confirmed urbanites will love.
October 1st, 2012
Our book today is Theodor Rosebury’s fantastic, hideous, nightmare-inducing 1969 classic, Life on Man, which is broadly a study of dirt in all its incarnations and minutely a study of Rosebury’s speciality: the horrifying, squirming, chewing, crawling, infinitely reproducing bestiary of tiny creatures that live on the human body. Anybody who read the pertinent chapter of Cheryl Mendelsohn’s magnificent 2005 Home Comforts will no doubt recall the stomach-churning sensation of queasy elevator-drop that accompanied her every turn into similarly nauseating subject matters (why turn down your sheets in the morning? To give the pint of sweat you ooze every night a chance to evaporate). But whereas Mendelsohn takes us to creepy-crawly land and then quickly takes us elsewhere (to curtain fabrics, or toilet paper), Rosebury takes us there and then makes himself at home amongst the whole warring phyla, the groping, chewingcivilizations that live, eat, procreate, spread, and die in your stomach, on your skin, and hoo-boy, in every micro-inch of your unmentionables.
Ted Rosebury’s life-long speciality was microbiology. He literally wrote the book on creatures whose indigenous habitat is the human body, the biosphere of homo sapiens. And since he was a dedicated, professional scientist, he was also necessarily something of a crackpot, as evidenced in the opening salvo of this, his most popular (and prize-winning!) book, in which he rails against a TV commercial advertising a household spray that kills millions of germs:
If you are healthy and your teeth are clean, unless you have been eating onions, your mouth doesn’t smell. If it does you should see a dentist. Perfectly healthy young adult mouths contain germs by the billion – which means, of course, by the thousand million. No mouth is without them. Even if something really did kill them by the million it would be doing only one-thousandth of the job. But as it kills a few germs it also damages the cells of your mouth an interferes with other things provided by nature that need no help in keeping your mouth healthy – including some of the microbes, which destroy other microbes. Not only are you wasting your money on this beautiful rubbish, but it would not be worth using if you got it for nothing. It does harm without doing good. At best the harm is not noticed, and you may settle for a clean sensation. You may mask an odor, but if it didn’t come from something you ate, the odor should be treated, not masked.
Only a human – with the typically vestigial human sense of smell – could assert that the human mouth in its natural state doesn’t smell bad (he makes the same outlandish claim about other human locations), although like most crackpots, he has a point: commercial products promising germ-free cleanliness are usually promising the moon and all its riches while delivering nothing of the kind. Rosebury’s beloved microbes are, in the end, an invincible part of human life:
A verse I remember from my youth, called “an ode on the antiquity of microbes,” tells us that
Which puts it succinctly, if metaphorically. We abandon all pretensions to the contrary. They are all over our skin, burrowing under what we see as the surface. They nestle in every fold and crevice. They penetrate the nose and the moist urinary-sexual orifices, but not very deeply. The lungs, bladder, and uterus normally have no microbes. The eye has very few. But the alimentary tube from inside the lips all the way down is pretty densely settled; and down at the nether end of it are the largest numbers of all. We are not born with microbes. They come to us from outside, mainly from other people. It looks as though we get them through the same intimate loving contacts that we need to grow on, that we could least afford to do without.
Our author was a lifelong passionate reader, and Life on Man is liberally sprinkled with literary allusions and germ- and dirt-related quotes from the Western canon. There’s a playful erudition in these pages that’s almost never seen in popular science-writing of this caliber (although a watered-down joviality is nowadays the lingua franca of the whole enterprise), and that’s damn lucky, because if our guide weren’t making us smile on a regular basis through this ghastly tour, I doubt there’s a lay reader in the world who’ have the (heavily-populated) stomach to finish it.
Still, the readers who do finish it will have an utterly fascinating experience to show for their troubles. “Thus are we populated,” Rosebury says, laconically – and you’ll never thereafter forget it.
August 24th, 2012
Our book today is 1994’s gorgeous, harrowing Witness by photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, in which they take high-resolution, background-free pictures of 100 of the living American species listed as ‘endangered’ according to the guidelines laid down by the Endangered Species Act. Every single page of this beautiful oversized book is a glimpse of another nation, another world, and Middleton & Liittschwager unerringly capture the carefree uniqueness of those worlds, the offhand millennial perfection of everything from a pearly mussel to a jaguarundi to a Chinook salmon. The big show-stopping animals are here – the grizzly bear, the American crocodile, the swamp cougar, the bald eagle – but there are snails and weeds and beetles too, all lovingly photographed and given a quick but comprehensive description in the book’s back pages.
We learn the details of the shrunken habitats that now support these life-forms, and we learn when each was listed under the Endangered Species Act (we also learn a good deal about the Act itself), and we learn the (then) current state of conservation efforts made on behalf of those life-forms. The news is seldom encouraging, although our authors make a point of always striking a hopeful note, and the legendary E. O. Wilson, who provides an Introduction, strikes something of the same note, at least when it comes to the inherent resilience of so many of the species humans have come to think of as ‘fragile.’ He reminds us that no species dies of old age:
Every species that disappears is killed and it dies young, at least in a physiological sense. We still occasionally hear someone call the California condor a senescent species whose time has come. Don’t hold on too tight, the prescription follows, let it go! That opinion is based on a false analogy with organisms, which compares an endangered species to a terminal patient in intensive care too expensive for society to prolong. The truth is that the great majority of such species are composed largely of young, healthy individuals, just like other, more fortunate species that are still widespread. The condor disappeared from the wild not because its heredity declined but because people destroyed most of its natural habitat and shot or poisoned the dwindling remnant. When only a dozen individuals remained in the wild, they were captured and placed with a confined breeding colony near San Diego. Given protection and food, they and their offspring are now flourishing. If the condor habitat were somehow restored across the prehistoric breeding range and the species left alone within it for a few decades, Gymnogyps californianus would return as an abundant bird across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the American landscape.
As need hardly be pointed out, the nearly two decades since the book’s publication were not kind ones to non-human forms of life on Earth. In the U.S., the lackluster environmental record of the Clinton administration was followed by the active cataclysm of the George W. Bush administration – a 21st Century version of Witness would likely be a very different, even sadder book. These life-forms – the ones with faces and the ones without – are, in the long, long history of life on this planet, the crucial losers: when the immense wheel of chance stopped spinning, they (and their many thousands of since-vanished coevals) were the ones who ended up sharing the globe with humans and so faced a fight they couldn’t hope to win. The survival of these alien nations now depends entirely on worst bet in the known universe: the goodwill of mankind. Books like Witness are slender, flickering things, gestures of hope in that goodwill. They nudge charity into motion by showing the faces and wriggling forms of their siblings. Maybe books like this are the only real hope – to show with perfect clarity the cost of indifference.
July 25th, 2012
Our book today is Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss, a 1988 masterpiece of natural history that I’ve handed to dozens of people over the years but have barely even mentioned here on Stevereads, despite it being one of my favorite nature-books (and despite having had some extremely memorable encounters with elephants myself). Moss studied the elephants of the Amboseli National Game Park for many years, and right at the start of her warm and passionate book, she’s frank about how her work moved her: “Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful, and funny,” she writes. “I consider myself immensely fortunate to have spent so much time with them.” The straightforward simplicity of such a declaration is, in fact, quite elephantine, and Moss follows it up throughout Elephant Memories with encounter after encounter with the extended families (ruled by matriarchs) she came to know so well, every observation based on countless hours of careful observation:
The social bonds among family-unit members were obviously very strong, and one of their manifestations was the frequent greeting of one another. Often after they had been spread out feeding and the group coalesced, individuals would greet one another with a special posture and rumble. The greeters would first raise their heads, lift their ears and spread them, tuck their chins in, and then rumble loudly and throatily while flapping their ears.
Moss was among the first animal behaviorists to document and fully explain the nature of those family-unit social bonds among elephants, and one of the most pleasant aspects of reading and re-reading Elephant Memories is how the constant accumulation of all this eye-witness empirical data makes the reader thoroughly trust Moss. Her deductions are always grounded in solid fact, and her suppositions are never fanciful. And just as important, her prose is clear and compelling. You feel like you’re in the jeep with her, watching scenes unfold:
By now Slit Ear and Teresia were about 50 yards away, coming down to the water’s edge for a drink. Lions cannot kill an adult elephant, but they can kill a baby, and in general elephants are intolerant of lions. Teresia in particular was antagonistic toward lions, probably because of an unpleasant experience somewhere in her long life. The elephants had seen the running wildebeests and zebras at the edge of their vision but had not yet seen or smelled the lions. When they got closer, the wind shifted slightly and they picked up the lions’ scent. Under certain circumstances the elephants might have just altered their path and drunk at another spot, but their choice of drinking places was limited by the Maasai, and in any case Teresia was not in the habit of letting lions change her plans. She came forward from her usual position at the rear and walked directly and quickly toward the lions, with her head held high and ears spread. The lions were busy feeding, growling and slurping and in general making a considerable amount of noise. Teresia was almost upon them before they noticed her. They took one look and scattered in every direction, and then skulked into the reeds to hid. Teresia swung her trunk at them as they ran away and blew down through her nose. Her family came up behind her. Less self-possessed than she in the face of five lions, they, especially the younger females, were clearly excited. They flapped their ears, gave sharp shakes of their heads, and let out shrill trumpets. They all milled about, rumbling and greeting and reassuring one another with trunk touches.
Throughout the book, she reproduces the jottings she made in her field notebooks and then elaborates with her later observations and reactions, as when she observes a normally-reserved female elephant suddenly take part in some of the weird and often elaborate goofing off that elephants so often do. First she includes her notes of the moment:
Even Grace is playing now. It’s an amazing sight. Grace comes racing out, frightens herself when she almost runs into me, really trumpets and scares everyone into running off. Gloria and Gladys and others ran toward her when she trumpeted, then they go tearing off running and play trumpeting all across the open stretch of the arm of the swamp.
Then she expands along whatever lines move her:
I knew elephants well enough to by then to realize that this was not true fear or aggression. When elephants are frightened they are usually silent. Everything about their postures, gestures, and vocalizations on this afternoon indicated high spirits and playfulness. I drove home smiling and feeling lucky that I had witnessed such a scene.
Elephant Memories has dozens and dozens of such recounted moments (and of course its share of sadness – stories of poachers or local Maasai teenagers hurling spears into these animals to prove their ‘mahood’ are ten times harder to read once you feel like you know the elephants involved), and the after-effect of all of them is the same: we, too, feel lucky. Moss has written an immortal book about an all-too-mortal species. Her elephants are stranger and more wonderful than we had ever guessed.
July 19th, 2012
Our book today is A Conscious Stillness, a beautiful and gently sad little masterpiece of natural history from 1982, written by Ann Zwinger and Edwin Way Teale and chronicling their separate and shared trekking over the riverways and wilderness first chronicled in 1849 by Henry David Thoreau. A Conscious Stillness began in 1976 as the slimmest of ideas and grew gradually over the years as Zwinger, a naturalist from Colorado, and Teale, by then a legendary and universally revered natural history writer with a string of bestsellers to his credit, realized not only that they were entirely alike in their happy reverence for the natural world but, more importantly, that if they were confined to the same canoe for any length of time, they wouldn’t end up killing each other (a very important matter, that). Through correspondence and personal visits, they brought to fruition a simple idea: to replicate the trip Henry Thoreau made along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849 with his brother John. The book that resulted from that trip, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is by a wide margin Thoreau’s most bearable, a controlled exposition of wonder without any of the excessive mannerisms that so often mar his other books.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a pretty thing built on a silting of sadness: Thoreau wrote it in memory of his brother, who died (of tetanus, treatable now with a quick injection in any hospital in the world) before he could read the finished product. A Conscious Stillness is likewise an undercurrent-sad thing, since Edwin Teale died before he could read the finished product. And yet, both books are essentially happy – filled with that peculiar happiness that is only achieved after hours of contented paddling-time with a friend on quiet waterways. Thoreau and his brother knew their full share of that happiness (as have I, sometimes when canoeing these same Sudbury, Assabet, Concord, and especially Merrimack currents), and by a pleasant miracle, Zwinger and Teale came to know it too. Teale was a boyish, bouncy soul (and a passionate preacher of the novels of Anthony Trollope) who was open to fascination at all times, and in these pages Zwinger has the same gift. Her portraits of the two of them lost in rapture are unfailingly charming:
One summer’s day, Edwin and I lean on the bridge railing, tree branches arching above us, woven together like tiercerons, leaves flickering as the water flickers below. Basketball-sized boulders piled up in the stream for riprap create tiny waterfalls, and we stand hypnotized, watching the water froth and pour in the shadowed reach or out in midstream, where it pillows up and falls lacy with bubbles, constantly changing, constantly moving, constantly spellbinding. It is obvious why this was the site of an early mill. Water velocity is good, the steep banks high enough for safe building. The earliest corn mill was built here by Oliver War in the winter of 1724.
There are many passages in A Conscious Stillness that quietly sound with Teale’s characteristic prose-tone, and it’s bittersweet to read them knowing there will be no more. His odd, off-point rhythms are products of long experience, longer than Zwinger’s and wider, although the most amazing thing about the book is the ultimate compatibility of their voices:
The Assabet is a rock river, often rushing and noisy as it plows through obstacles, often a difficult river. The Sudbury is Emerson and Thoreau, afternoon tea, the Concord Social Circle and erudite conversation, canoeing on a summer evening. The Assabet is the industrial towns of Maynard and Hudson, Matthew Boone’s bloody ambush, the roaring filth of an iron smelter, Brown’s farmlands covered by Damon’s mill complex, plain names and undistinguished people and too many dams and too many wastewater treatment problems. But with, nevertheless, moments of brightness and beauty to gladden anyone who takes the time to find them.
Neither Penguin nor the Library of America nor Harper Collins has seen fit to bring out the writings of Edwin Teale in the pretty, permanent edition they deserve, nor has anybody thought to keep A Conscious Stillness in print for a new generation of river- and marsh-lovers to discover. Everything either of these authors wrote is worth searching out, as is this gorgeous, quiet book they finally wrote together. And we’ll always have Thoreau, downloadable at a moment’s notice.
June 30th, 2012
Our book today is Richard Schweid’s repulsive 1999 tour de force, The Cockroach Papers, a slim, viscous natural history of the most hated creature on the planet – or rather, the most hated creatures, since there are dozens of thousands of species of cockroach known to modern science. This wonderful, awful book tells you everything you might ever want to know about these creatures, concentrating mostly on the two main kinds found in the United States but ranging far and wide in search of all-star ickiness from all part of the world – and from all times of the world, since cockroaches are one of the oldest life-forms extant on the planet, pre-dating mankind by over 300 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs by 150 million years. As Schweid points out over and over in the course of his book (often with a detectable note of involuntary appreciation), cockroaches are “built for survival” – as evidenced by the fact that in ancient fossils from millions of years ago, they look pretty much exactly the same as they do today: evolutionarily speaking, they’re about as effecient and adaptable as they can get.
A big part of those adaptations center around protecting cockroaches from the natural consequences of how instantaneously loathsome they are: they need excellent danger-detectors. Before reading Schweid’s book, I just naturally assumed those detectors were the very long disgusting antennae cockroaches wave suggestively over everything all the time. But no, it turns out the real answer is even more disgusting: the primary sensory organs of the cockroach are the cerci, a pair of feelers located next to the creature’s anus and covered in hundreds of impossibly thin hairs. The cerci are primed to detect the smallest changes in air pressure or current (hence the cockroach’s uncanny ability to be already in motion when you turn on the kitchen light), and they’re wired directly to what passes for the cockroach’s autonomous nervous system – which is why a decapitated cockroach exposed to sudden light will still attempt to scurry away.
Schweid takes his readers through a whole list of revolting details just like these (interspersing them with poignant and often hilarious vignettes from his life and past associations with his infernal little subjects) and anticipates every lurid bit of curiosity we might have. How cockroaches mate, their unholy fecundity, their legendary hardiness (they can live for weeks – months even – without any food, their bodies lined everywhere under their armor plating with a thick layer of nitrogen-rich fatty tissue that can sustain them for long stretches), etc. Schweid even confirms the single thing that can make them even more hateful than they already are: cockroaches are indeed capable of biting – in fact, they’ve been known to venture out in groups at night and nibble on sleeping humans. Their preferred delicacies? The lips and eyelashes of sleeping children. Charming.
Still, even such unholy abominations as these are not beyond the reach of Stockholm Syndrome, and long before his book is over, Schweid is giving the strong impression he would never semi-curl that book and use it as the Hammer of God on an errant cockroach that happened to interrupt his reading time. The picture he paints of peaceful co-existence is almost Edenic:
Normally, a domestic cockroach carries on its life in a world parallel to ours, behind wallpaper, hidden in the cracks of kitchen cabinets, under the refrigerator, or near the toilet where the pipes pass through the bathroom floor. It comes out in the dark to work for its daily bread, to find food, water, and a mate. The instances are few when its path will cross with that of humans, and whole generations may be born, live, and die without ever being seen by a human eye, even though their worlds occupy the same space and they may be only inches apart as they move through their respective wakings and sleepings.
This passage – and all those like it – almost says it: to know all is to forgive all. Against which we might place a quote from one of the greatest movies ever made: the only good bug is a dead bug.