Life has become so topsy turvy the past few months that I keep devouring titles without taking (making?) the time to write about them. While it’s satisyfing to see my stack of completed reading grow higher, it’s also a constant reminder that this working mother of a two-year-old tyrant doesn’t have enough time to write thoughtful, deep reviews of each. As an author myself, I know how much time, effort, and middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks is channeled into creating a published book, so I feel an obligation of sorts — throbbing with a deep vein of empathy — to give the following books praise and recognition.
To get through the lastet tomes, this post will do something new. Instead of writing an in-depth review for each, I’ve summarized the works in a few paragraphs. I’ve tried to keep things simple and sweet. Enjoy! Hopefully you’ll find some science reading inspiration for your New Year!
Relicts of A Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World
This is a beautiful, sensitive, and intellectual book about the fragility of water-bound desert species in the Inyo Mountains of Death Valley. The illustrations and cover make it aesthetic enough to be mistaken for a decorative coffee-table book, but this work is filled with detailed and poignant insight from a working biologist who observes the land and its inhabitants with a poet’s sensibilities. Author Christopher Norment easily imparts facts and knowledge of the desert environs and its most precarious inhabitants, but he cloaks these tidbits in sensitive, literary language which makes his work a delight to read.
While many naturalists are drawn to the desert to study its diverse plants, birds, herps, and insects, its amazing water-bound inhabitants often go overlooked. In Relicts of A Beautiful Sea, Norment explores the habitat and habits of one rare salamander, four pupfish, and a toad — all of which persist in a precarious desert environment. (The species are: the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, the Owens pupfish, Salt Creek and Cottonball Marsh pupfish, Devil’s Hole ppupfish, and the black toad.) Deserts are defined by their lack of water, and yet the water-loving species he writes of have persisted across millenia and long spans of geological time. They are holdovers from another, wetter time; a time when the current desert floor was the submerged bed of an inland freshwater lake 600 feet deep and 80 miles long, a lake which spread from the Panamint to Funeral Mountains.
Norment uses the rarity of these organisms to pivot away from an ecologist’s view of speices abundance and distribution and wade into a philosophical landscape where he ponders whether these animals can teach us something about loneliness, the tenacity of life, and trascendence.
Who should read: lovers of natural history and philosophy, people interested in species extinction and conservation, and all who love deserts and the creatures they nurture.
(Disclosure: I was a reviewer for this book, hired by UNC Press to offer comments when it was completed but had not yet been typeset. Some changes have occurred to the text since then, all of which have enhanced its literary value and strengthened the final product. My blurb appears on the back cover.)
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Wolves in the Land of Salmon, by David Moskowitz
Author David Moskowitz is not only an accomplished nature writer, he’s also a wildlife photographer and a skilled wildlife tracker. The result of his triple skill set is a mesmerizing literary journey through coastal British Columbia, the Cascades, and the northern Rocky Mountains as Moskowitz chases the trail of wild wolves.
His writing style weaves first-hand observations and experiences with natural history, biology, ecology, along with a sharp assessment of how our society values wild wolves and the places where they dwell (or dwelled long ago). Moskowitz’s color photographs are interspersed throughout the tome, which also has multiple maps marking the location of different wolf packs he tracked. His writing is so vivid however that in many cases I felt the photos worked to reinforce the scenes he’d already rendered so beautifully and full of verve, rather than to be the focus themselves.
Wolf lovers, however, will want to linger over his many candid portraits of wolves, which seem to convey aspects of lupine personalities while also capturing them in their natural habitats. The photos alone may make a browsing reader mistake this book for an aesthetic treatise on wolves, but once you begin reading the text it’s astonishingly apparent that this book encapsulates a unique body of knowledge curated by someone who has spent a copious amount of time tracking, watching, photographing, appreciating, and researching wild wolves.
Who should read: Wildlife lovers, wolf lovers, and anyone interested in the natural history and modern reintroduction of wolves in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains.
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Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self , by Jennifer Ouellette
This book is an intriguing and intimate voyage into the worlds of human genetics, neuroscience and psychology led as a “tour of the self” by author and science writer Jennifer Ouellette. By posing the question, “What makes us us?” she uses herself as the main subject of a quest to understand what makes humans so different from one another, even though our genes are almost exactly alike.
This is Ouellette’s most personal book ever, and though some writers encounter folly when bringing themselves into a story, her personal revelations enrich the book’s narrative with meaning and touching substance. She candidly shares remembrances of her childhood and being raised by adoptive parents, recounts to readers her ambivalent relationship with acohol, and even writes analytically about her first trip on acid — all in an attempt to understand how our genes, brains and experiences make each of us the unique person that we are.
When mixed with the motley variety of research she covers (not to mention inteviews with edgy scientists!) the overall effect of inserting herself into the narrative is humanizing, humorous, and highly effective. Ouellette’s book is deeply researched, entertainingly written, and lively throughout. Though she delves into technical aspects of genetics and neuroscience, Ouellette’s writing is known for presenting complicated concepts and findings in a way that laypeople can understand — and in this vein Me, Myself, and Why is a complete (and enchanting) success.
Who should read: Anyone interested in what makes people the individuals that we are.
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Wolf Country: Eleven Years Tracking The Alonquin Wolves
This book offers a detailed treatment of the first exhaustive field studies of the wolves in and around Algonquin Park, Canada. The one caveat is that it is sixteen years old, having first been released in 1998, and it therefore should not be soley relied upon for a current understanding of the genetics of wolves of eastern Canada. But take this caveat with a grain of salt because in terms of the history of wolf field studies, Wolf Country has retained a rich historic value over the years. It also remains an important work with regards to the history of wolf conservation science.
Much of the material that comprises this book is based on the field notes and observations of famed wolf researchers John and Mary Therberge. As such, the work offers readers an unparalleled sense of what it feels, sounds, and smells like to be up all night in the cold woods listening for wolf howls — or what the cascade of emotions is when a valuable study animal is discovered caught in a neck snare, dead.
The authors provide detailed accounts of the life and habits of individual wolves and packs in Algonquin Park over time. But they also document, sometimes in glaring detail, the bureaucratic policies of Canada’s governmental agencies tasked with managing the environment, and the cultural obstacles to wolf conservation posed by hunting and trapping special interests.
At the time this book was published it was pivotal for providing a detailed picture of how the wolves of Algonquin Park, despite being legally protected, were actually under immense stress from humans in the form of trapping. The authors also revealed that the wolves were showing evidence of hybridization with coyotes. While the latter element was interpreted as a threat to the small population, more recent scientific interpretation has argued that eastern Canadian wolves may have always shared some degree of genetic ancestry with the lineage leading to coyotes, as well as some degree of gene flow with modern coyotes. The question, of course, is what this historic composition may have looked like and how today’s wolves differ from it.
Who should read: Wolf and wildlife lovers, people interested in large predator studies, professional field biologists — or those who are in training.
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The Wind-Up Girl
This is the first time in the history of Wild Muse that I’ve posted about a fiction book. Hear me out. A few months back I learned there was a growing genre of fiction known colloquially as Cli-Fi, which is short for climate fiction. After listening to this review of The Wind-Up Girl on NPR, I felt the pull to pick up a work of fiction for the first time in twenty years. (Okay, that’s not entirely true, my mother introduced me to the Outlander series in the mid-1990s, and I admit to eating those up for the brain candy they are.)
In the Wind Up Girl, Bacigalupi has imagined a post-modern world where unfettered capitalism led to destabilization of Earth’s climate. New York and New Orleans are underwater, while other cities have developed sea walls to protect themselves. Governments as we know them have fallen, and new societies have adapted to the aftermath of a hotter, disease-ravaged world and swamped coastlines.
People everywhere fear ingesting food corrupted by pathogens which can make one “cough up the meat” of one’s lungs or die in other unfathomable and uncomfortable ways. Modern medicine and agronomy as we now know it is a luxurious memory, for there are little to no defenses against the blights and plagues running unfettered through the plant and animal worlds. Agricultural companies own the patents to genetically-modified foods which are disease-free, and they are forever on the ruthless lookout for disease-resistant plants to lock up under their patents and profits.
In this world where energy is the most basic, fundamental unit, people walk, ride bikes, and row boats. Companies and wealthy individuals invest in wind-powered ships. Driving a gasoline-fueled car is unthinkable except for the wealthiest crooks and most corrupt government officials. With a cap on carbon emissions, a great industrial effort is being enacted to find new sources of energy — and new sources of undiseased food.
Springs, it turns out, very, very, very tightly wound springs are the most cutting-edge source of energy, and the book’s main character manages a factory which produces proto-types of a new type of spring coated in special algae which renders it even more powerful. Except, he’s not a factory man at all, he’s a “calorie man,” sent to Thailand to spy and uncover new sources of fruits and vegetables that his company can snap up for profit. I won’t reveal the machinations of the plot, which was interesting enough but not believable enough for me to truly suspend my disbelief. What did capture me, however, was the world Bacigalupi envisioned. Cli-Fi, it turns out, just may be the siren which draws me back to fiction.
Who should read: Anyone interested in surmising what the future might look like in a world where governments and cultures have been toppled and reborn by destabilizing climate change and unfettered capitalism.