Posted on

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

In 2012, on assignment in Bangladesh researching a story on the world’s longest border fence, journalist Elizabeth Rush “inadvertently” became interested in sea level rise. By 2015, she’d become obsessed. Now, after immersing herself in the subject, Rush is out with Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a tour-de-force of literary reportage.

Rising takes readers on a graphic tour of coastal communities in the United States that are already grappling with the devastating effects of climate change. From Maine to Miami, the Gulf Coast to the Bay Area, Rush reveals how lives, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems are undergoing irrevocable changes that are destined to leave many of these communities uninhabitable.

Take the southern edge of Louisiana which is experiencing some of the fastest rates of land loss on the planet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1932 and 2000, Louisiana lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastline, an area about the size of Delaware. In another fifty years, scientists anticipate another 1,750 square miles will be under water.

Rush visits what is, perhaps, the hardest-hit of the state’s coastal communities: the Isle de Jean Charles, the long-time home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Over the past sixty years, tribal members have watched as more than ninety percent of the island’s land mass has steadily disappeared. Rising sea levels and powerful hurricanes are to blame—but only in part. So, too, Rush reports, is erosion triggered by the channels that oil companies cut but never filled, and by the mismanagement of the Mississippi River, whose sediment-rich waters replenished the wetlands before dams and locks, levees and floodwalls impeded the river’s flow.

The result of this perfect storm, islander Chris Brunet tells Rush, is that Jean Charles is “a skeleton of its former self.” And so, too, is his tribe. Today, Rush writes, for every house on the island that sits on sixteen-foot-high stilts, “there are two abandoned ones. For every person who has stayed, two are already gone.” Gone, too, is much of the flora and fauna that made the island home.

To help Rush visualize the vast transformation the island has undergone, Brunet hands her a 1959 photograph of his father tilling soil. Standing where Brunet’s father stood, Rush adeptly contrasts what is and what was. “The cypresses are all in the same places, but their leaves have vanished. Some of the land where gardens once sat remains, but salt rests in the soil; the plants won’t grow, and the land lies fallow. And what was once a wetland rich in fowl is now open water. In the photo Chris shows me, his father stands surrounded by pastures. You can even make out a black cow in the upper right corner. In the sixty years since, the meadows where the cattle used to graze have all slipped beneath the surface of the sea.” 

Rush says she considers those who have fled the island “some of the world’s first climate refugees.” By 2050, she writes, “there will be two hundred million of them worldwide.”

Rising intermingles chapters on vulnerable communities, like the Isle de Jean Charles, with powerful first-hand accounts of life—and lives lost—inside them. It explores the science behind rising sea levels and wetland degradation, and explains why climate change is an existential threat to neighborhoods that hug the shore. Of course, the residents most at risk are those living not just near the water’s edge, but on the financial edge. For them, every storm, every flood, ushers in the starkest of choices: “retreat or perish in place.” As one Miami resident tells Rush, “I used to have a nice garden here, and now you see how it is. The water comes in and sits. And everything dies because of the salt. It’s not rain that floods this place. It’s the ocean… I wanted to leave this house to my kids, but soon it’s going to be worthless.” On his stoop, Rush notes, “sit two pairs of rubber boots, ready for the flood that is already here.”

With Rush’s keen eye for detail and prose verging on poetry, Rising is a powerful meditation on threats posed by the varying effects of climate change. It is not an uplifting read, but it is surely an important one.  

***

As I write this review, Hurricane Florence heads steadily toward the Carolinas and Georgia. Forecasters say it could be the most severe storm to hit that area in more than 60 years. One of the reasons for its expected ferocity: climate change.

Welcome to hurricane season 2018.

This season follows 2017’s historic year, when ten consecutive storms became hurricanes. They are the title of Rush’s Afterword: “Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katie. Lee. Maria. Nate. Ophelia.”

In that Afterword Rush writes, “What might currently seem like an anomaly—the “record-breaking,” “game-changing,” “unprecedented” 2017 hurricane season—will soon become all too common. Recent research shows that events comparable to Sandy (once considered a four-hundred-year flood) could happen as often as every twenty-three years by century’s end. And I would be willing to bet that in the future this figure, like so many others in the world of climate science, will only continue to rise.”

Having read Rising, I wouldn’t bet against Rush.

 

Posted on

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

In 2006, a wolf was born in Yellowstone National Park. Named O-Six, she would grow into a fierce fighter, doting mother, and merciful leader. She’d be beloved by the park’s wolf watchers and a favorite of tourists who flocked to the park hoping to catch sight of her. Upon her death, she would be celebrated in the New York Times as “the most famous wolf in the world.”

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by award-winning journalist Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of O-Six’s life and untimely death. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

The backdrop of American Wolf is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the mid-1990s. It was a move heralded by scientists and conservationists and loathed by the hunters and ranchers who hunt and farm in the communities surrounding the park. In a case of unintended consequences, the reintroduction project was made necessary by a campaign begun in the 1800s, to kill off the country’s wolves, a campaign so successful that by the 1920s, the wolf population in the continental United States had been decimated. The last two pups believed to be born in Yellowstone were killed by park rangers in 1926.

This mass slaughter occurred in the name of wildlife management, a science that, Blakeslee writes, was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Park officials believed—inaccurately it turned out—that killing the wolves would preserve the park’s prey population. “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster… The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

With wolves absent from Yellowstone, the park’s ecosystem was thrown off balance. “[The] ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Over grazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease.”

The goal of the Wolf Project was to restore the park’s ecosystem, and it has—beyond even its most ardent advocates’ expectations. But through the years, the debate over the wolves’ presence hasn’t abated. It has grown more vitriolic as wolves, wandering beyond Yellowstone’s borders, prey on ranchers’ livestock and kill the elk hunters prize. Wolves, Blakeslee writes, had become “one of those polarizing issues like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country [can] not seem to reach a consensus.”

It is in this hostile environment we meet O-Six and the wolf watchers who, dawn to dusk, 365-days a year, chronicle the lives of Yellowstone’s wolves. Among the watchers is naturalist Rick McIntyre, the park’s unofficial wolf expert and the person who has likely watched more wolves than “anybody in the history of humanity.”

McIntyre, along with several other wolf watchers, shared with Blakeslee more than a decade’s worth of notes on generations of Yellowstone’s wolves, notes that capture every aspect of wolves’ lives from their personalities to their way of life—a way of life that, McIntyre has come to believe, makes wolves more like humans than any other species on earth. From these notes, and dozens of interviews with people on every side of the issue—including the hunter who would come face-to-face with O-Six in 2012—Blakeslee has crafted a sweeping multigenerational narrative that will have readers holding their breath, reaching for tissues, and rooting for the wolves.

***

Readers who would like to see photographs of O-Six and many of the wolves whose stories are recounted in American Wolf, are encouraged to visit the website of award-winning wildlife photographer Jimmy Jones.

Posted on

Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.

Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.

For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.

Berns and his rescue, Callie.

It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.

Callie in the MRI machine

Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)

At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.

What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”

Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.

Posted on

Book Review: Fragment

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment. When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

Posted on

Book Review: South Pole Station

Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, South Pole Station, takes readers to the bottom of the earth for a wry, multi-layered story that tightly packs art, science, polar history, climate change, politics, humor, and human relationships into a vivid tale of courage and redemption.

The novel’s central character is thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, whose life has hit its nadir. Cooper’s art career is going nowhere, her relationship with her parents is strained, and her twin brother’s suicide has left her emotionally unmoored. Seeking something—there’s an ambiguousness to what that might be—Cooper applies to the National Science Foundation’s year-long Artist & Writer’s Program at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, “the most remote research station on the planet.” (Vetting includes 500 questions—a “pelvic exam of the mind,”—that includes such queries as “How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? A day?” and “Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?”)

At the station, Cooper establishes an easy camaraderie with her fellow “Polies,” an eclectic group of scientists, support personnel, and artists whose defining characteristic is that they “don’t fit in anywhere else.” This commonality of sorts is what sustains the station’s fragile ecosystem. But cracks begin to emerge following the arrival of Frank Pavano, a scientist in the pocket of climate change-denying politicians and their allies in the fossil fuel industry.

Pavano’s presence at Amundsen-Scott—he’s out to prove global warming is a hoax—infuriates the station’s scientists and puzzles many of the non-science personnel, including Cooper, who befriends Pavano, and Pearl, a cook with Machiavellian ambition. When the scientists seek to undermine Pavano’s every activity, Cooper agrees to travel with him to the “ice-coring camp,” on the fringe of the polar outpost. It’s there that a freak accident will change Cooper forever, imperil the station, and ignite a global controversy.

This climate thread, one of many plot lines woven into South Pole Station, is what givethe novel its tension and an unexpected timeliness. (The book is due out in July.) In a recent article for Slate Shelby writes:

In 2010, I began work on a novel set in a time I was certain would be looked upon as one of the most embarrassing periods of the climate change “debate”: the George W. Bush era. The novel, set at South Pole Station and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, … is, in part, a dark comedy, and it was a fun story to write—mostly because Obama was in office and the absurdities of politicians trying to legislate climate change out of existence had begun to fade away.

But as the opening scenes of the Trump era began to play out, these gremlins are springing back to life.

How much will Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and his administration’s claw back of Obama-era environmental regulations energize “these gremlins”? How much might they slow, or even reverse, progress made over the last decade? My hope is very little. But “hope,” as Shelby sees it, is, ironically, what climate deniers often prey upon. Thus, this exchange between Cooper and two scientists—Sal and Sri—following a well-attended climate lecture by Pavano:

“No, she’s right,” Sal said, still looking at Cooper. “Pearl is the test case. She was buying last night. She was feeling guilty about participating in a consumer economy that is leading to the destruction of the earth. Remember what she said? ‘I don’t want the earth to be warming.’”

“So? None of us do,” Sri said.

“But when Pavano told her it wasn’t, she said that made her feel better. She was relieved. Pavano gave her the out she was looking for.”

“Pearl is Everywoman,” Cooper said, through a mouthful of pancake.

Sri looked from Sal to Cooper and back again, his black unibrow furrowed. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “And it took Pavano two-thousandths of a second to plant doubt in Everywoman’s brain.” He stared at the wall. “Shit. People are dumb.”

“Pearl’s not dumb,” Cooper said…

“The problem isn’t brain power,” Sal said. “It’s hope. They’re hopeful. Deniers provide hope. We don’t. We’re doom and gloom, and that’s what makes it so easy for Pavano to convert.”

Shelby likely didn’t intend for South Pole Station to be a call to action, but in the age of Trump it may become one. That would be a good thing. But I’d be remiss not to emphasize that South Pole Station is a solid read for any era. Shelby’s quick wit and journalistic eye for detail ground a story that will appeal to readers of environmental literature, polar enthusiasts, and anyone who loves a story with complex, quirky characters and a compelling plot.

Posted on

Book Review: Just Life

When I read a New York Times story about a New York City neighborhood grappling with a rare animal-borne disease that killed one resident and left at least two others seriously ill, it was, for me, a tragic case of life imitating art. You see, I’d recently finished Neil Abramson’s Just Life, a fast-paced fictional tale in which a mysterious and deadly zoonotic disease is spreading through a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the Times’ story, medical officials concluded the disease—leptospirosis—was being spread by rats. In the novel, Abramson challenges readers by asking this: What if an animal-borne disease isn’t transmitted by rats or squirrels or birds or raccoons? What if the carrier is the family dog?

Dogs are the whole of veterinarian Samantha Lewis’s life. Her mother is dead, she’s estranged from her father, and she has little time for friends, lovers, or her shrink, whose diagnosis—that Sam has undealt-with-anger issues—she terms a “load of crap.” Sam devotes all her energy to running her New York City shelter for abandoned and abused dogs. It’s thankless work that keeps her questioning the humanity of her fellow humans, keeps “her expecting the people out there to care and being disappointed when they didn’t, of the flow of the unwanted and the rejected, of all the goddamn cages[.]”

Now the city is threatening to shut down Sam’s shelter—whether or not she can find homes for her dogs. And she doesn’t know why.

It’s during Sam’s campaign to save the shelter that an unidentified virus begins taking the lives of children in Riverside, the Manhattan neighborhood in which Sam’s shelter is located. When tests point to dogs as carriers of the deadly virus, New York’s politically-ambitious governor orders the NYPD and the National Guard to quarantine the neighborhood. Sam fears the quarantine is just the beginning. She knows that government-imposed responses to zoonotic-based diseases always follow the same trajectory: Quarantine. Cull. Kill.

Sam’s mission is now not only to save her dogs, but all the dogs in Riverside, and to uncover what’s making the local dogs sick. Sam gets help from a motley crew of fellow dog lovers, all of whom, like Sam and her shelter dogs, are seeking sanctuary from their own troubled pasts. There’s the local police officer mourning the tragic death of his K-9 partner, the homeless teen emancipated from the city’s foster-care system, the elderly priest fighting the onset of dementia, and the psychologist whose drug addiction ended her career.

While Just Life offers readers a page-turner of a plot, the novel’s strength lies in Abramson’s depictions of the human-canine relationship at its most beautiful and enduring, and also at its most ugly—in the abuse and abandonment of hundreds of thousands of dogs each year, in their euthanization in crowded shelters, and in their callous treatment as subjects in research experiments.

It’s through mining this ugliness that Abramson brings forth the novel’s heartfelt message: that too often “…we refuse to acknowledge—[humans and animals] are all the same in the most material ways; we are all just life.”

Posted on

Book Review: Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell

being-a-dogNo matter how quietly I screw off the cap on a jar of peanut butter, within seconds of its opening, I will feel my dog’s dark brown eyes drilling into me. I’m here, those eyes say. And I’m waiting. Waiting, that is, for a spoonful of her favorite treat.

If dogs can sniff out bombs and bedbugs, cancer and orca poop (more on that in a moment), I shouldn’t be surprised that Galen can sniff out peanut butter. And now, having just completed Alexandra Horowitz’s newest exploration of doghood, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, my appreciation for a dog’s olfactory skills has grown tenfold.

Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and the author of Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is an exceptional guide into the science of smell as it pertains to both dogs and humans. Inspired by her work at the lab and her own rescue dogs, Finnegan and Upton, Horowitz explores not just the physiology of the canine and human olfactory systems, but how both species use their noses to experience the world. As an explorer, Horowitz is a skilled investigator; as a writer her prose is clear and often poetic.

“Have you toured the dog nose?” she asks. “Ridden on a corkscrew of air into the dark vault, bumped along its curves, caught a breeze up to the chamber where a molecule will settle into the wetlands and begin to tickle the nerves to the brain?

I have—at least near enough for my liking.”

As anyone who has walked a dog knows, most dogs prefer the casual, lots-of-time-to-sniff stroll over the fast-paced, this-is-about-exercise hustle. That’s because dogs understand the world through smell, not sight, as we, humans, do. This, of course, has everything to do with biology. “Architecturally,” Horowitz explains, “our noses are children’s block towers next to dogs’ modern architecture: made of similar stuff but in a much simpler, more brutalist formulation.”

For scientifically minded readers, the anatomical design of both species’ noses is deconstructed in detail, yielding takeaways such as the fact that dogs’ nostrils, unlike ours, work independently and ipsilaterally (odors entering the right nostril are processed by the right side of the brain; odors entering the left nostril are processed on the left) and dogs have two-hundred million to one billion olfactory receptor cells—millions more than the six million we have. What this means in practical terms, Horowitz writes, is this:

… let’s think of an aroma pleasing to our noses: cinnamon rolls cooking in a home kitchen. The average cinnamon roll has about a gram of cinnamon in it. Sure, the human nose is on it, from the moment we open the door of the house. Now imagine the smell of one trillion cinnamon rolls. That’s what the dog coming in with us smells when we enter.

It’s because of their remarkable sense of smell that dogs are being trained to sniff out explosives, drugs, malignant tumors, diabetes, truffles, mangoes—the list goes on and on, and even includes that orca poop I mentioned earlier. To discover how such specialized training is accomplished, Horowitz crisscrosses the country visiting the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington, and several scent-research sites in between. It’s in Seattle that she learns about Tucker, the black Labrador retriever mix who detects the “slimy scat”—or poop—left by the orcas who live in Puget Sound. That scat, like the scat of all animals, provides researchers with a gold mine of information, from the health, sex, and reproductive status of an individual animal to how large the population is and how widely it ranges. Scat-detecting dogs, as they’re called, can be trained to track up to twenty species. But what’s perhaps most amazing is that when tracking one species, the dogs ignore what Horowitz calls “the universe of nontarget scat around them.”

Horowitz infuses Being a Dog with her belief that dogs have a lot to teach us about smell. That’s because over millennia, she says, humans “unlearned how to smell.” The good news—for those interested in reversing this trend—is that we can train ourselves to reclaim our sniff. Horowitz has begun to reclaim hers by, among other things, getting down on all-fours and smelling her New York City neighborhood as her dogs do. Fortunately for readers, that’s not her only suggestion. But the meaning behind it couldn’t be any more clear:

The world abounds with aromas,” says Horowitz, “but we are spectacle-less. The dog can serve as our spectacles.”

Posted on

Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab Girl

I approached Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, with a bit of trepidation. You see, Jahren is an award-winning geobiologist who studies plants, making her area of expertise one in which I’ve never had much interest. (Confession: I can’t tell an oak from a maple or a peony from a petunia.) So when The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote that Lab Girl “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology,” I was persuaded to pick up the book. I’m glad I did, for Lab Girl is as much a paean to self-discovery and enduring friendship as it is an illuminating introduction to the life of plants.

Hope Jahren grew up in rural Minnesota. As a young girl, she spent her days with her mother, the two immersed in literature and poetry as her mother worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She spent her evenings with her father, playing in his laboratory at the community college where, for more than four decades, he taught introductory physics and earth science. The lab was her father’s sanctuary, and it became Jahren’s, too. So strong was its pull that, even as an adolescent, she knew that one day she, too, would have a lab of her own. Today, that lab is in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii, where Jahren is a tenured professor.

Jahren interweaves the story of her coming of age as a research scientist with chapters on the life-cycle of plants. These latter chapters—devoted to trees and flowers, seeds and soil—are as information-rich as they are engagingly written. I will likely never forget this discussion of the relationship between trees and mushrooms, which, Jahren writes, are “the best—and really only—friends that trees have ever had.”

“You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man. Every toadstool, from the deliciously edible to the deathly poisonous, is merely a sex organ that is attached to something more whole, complex, and hidden. Underneath every mushroom is a web of stringy hyphae that may extend for kilometers, wrapping around countless clumps of soil and holding the landscape together. The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants. They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water into the trunk. They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper, and phosphorous, and then present them to the trees as precious gifts of the magi.”

Jahren relays her personal story through prose that is just as evocative. With brutal honesty lightened by moments of humor, she reveals her complicated relationship with her mother, her battle with manic depression, and the challenges facing research scientists who are forever seeking the funding that is the lifeblood of their work. (“Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.””) For Jahren, though, there is the additional challenge of being a female in a male-dominated field. When she becomes pregnant and is banned from her lab, she breaks down—and then fights back the only way she knows how: “After five o’clock when everyone in the building has gone home for the day, I … sneak into the lab. I cannot do anything productive, but I instinctively resist the cruelty of my department chair’s order by staging a sort of one-woman pregnant sit-in.”

Always in Jahren’s labs—at times, literally, living in them—is Bill Hagopian, Jahren’s best friend and lab manager. The two cross continents together, rummaging for plant life in places as far away as the North Pole. It’s Bill, himself brilliant and carrying his own emotional baggage, who helps Jahren through her manic episodes and who relocates with her as she moves from university to university trying to secure tenure. Theirs is a love story without sex or sexual tension, for their relationship is grounded in an almost religious devotion to the science they do in the laboratories they build.

If Lab Girl has a purpose beyond being an educational and engrossing read, it is to raise readers’ awareness of the natural world in all its beauty and strength and fragility. “As a rule,” Jahren observes, “people live among plants but they don’t really see them.” She “can see little else.” And she is concerned about their future. So, Jahren closes her book with a plea to readers to plant a tree, to care for it, and to watch it grow. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Posted on

Book Review: The Dog Merchants

The Dog MerchantsMost dog lovers consider their canines loyal companions, best friends, or beloved family members. (Count me in that last category.) The American legal system considers them property. Journalist Kim Kavin, in her new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, suggests that we view dogs in a more provocative way—as products, not unlike the chicken and steak, veal and pork, that line “that big case of meat in the supermarket.” After all, she tells readers, some thirty million dogs are bought and sold each year, in what is estimated to be an $11 billion-a-year global marketplace.

The Dog Merchants is not Kavin’s first foray into the business of dogs. She began digging into the issue for the book Little Boy Blue, which focuses on America’s taxpayer-funded animal shelters and the burgeoning rescue movement. What she learned doing that research inspired her to look beyond shelter dogs to the myriad ways dogs are sold worldwide, be it by breeders, pet stores, animal shelters, rescue groups, or dog auctions. In all of these transactions—whether they are called purchases or adoptions—dogs are exchanged for dollars. And all those dogs exchanged for all those dollars add up to an industry the scope of which is larger than most dog lovers realize and that goes virtually unregulated—too often to the detriment of the dogs.

In researching The Dog Merchants, Kavin’s mantra was follow the money, so among the places she takes readers is the largest dog auction in the United States, where both breeders and rescues bid on purebreds. The breeders, of course, bid for dogs they want to breed and sell. The rescues bid for dogs they want to keep from being bred. In the end, their bidding drives up the cost of each dog.

Kavin also goes behind the scenes of the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Sky, the winning Wire Fox Terrier, is “a dog in whom wealthy people owned shares, like a corporation.”

In the introduction, Kavin says she’s not on the side of the breeders or the rescuers—“I’m on the side of the dogs”—but breeders and buyers of dogs bred for shows like Westminster, where judging focuses solely on appearance, receive Kavin’s harshest scrutiny. That scrutiny, however, is well deserved. Modern dog breeds, which date to 19th century England, were bred for looks not temperament. The ramifications of that kind of breeding, which continues today via the breed standards propagated by kennel clubs, leaves dogs at risk for birth defects and genetically inherited health problems. Indeed, Kavin reports that a British study found inbreeding in ten popular breeds, including Boxers, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. And then there’s this striking factoid: The 2003 winner of Britain’s version of the Westminster dog show, a Pekingese named Danny, suffered so badly from a breathing problem common to dogs bred to have flat snouts that he’d undergone surgery to help him breathe and to cool himself. Kavin writes, “Anyone who looks closely at some of [Danny’s] winning photos … will see that he had to be placed on an ice pack while posing next to the trophy, so he wouldn’t overheat before the photographers were done making him a star, one who would now be in demand worldwide as a stud to breed more dogs just like him.”

The idea of dogs as products—and dog owners as consumers—may strike some as objectionable, but Kavin, herself a long-time dog-lover and dog owner, says it shouldn’t. Rather, she argues that viewing dogs through an economic lens gives dog lovers the clout to force the multi-billion-dollar industry to raise standards. “I believe that no matter how much all of us love our pups, thinking of them as products—just like so many of the sellers do—is the only way we can truly change the dog industry for the better.”

To help consumers make smart decisions about future pets, Kavin includes questions want-to-be-dog-owners should ask before buying from a breeder or adopting from a shelter or rescue. She’s also created a companion website, dogmerchants.com, where dog owners can research and review breeders and rescues.

Kavin’s bottom line is this: Dog lovers don’t need to be involved in dog rescue to make a difference in dogs’ lives. (Though, of course, if you have time to volunteer, shelters and rescues are always looking for the extra help.) What dog lovers need to be is smart shoppers, because only through the collective power of our purchases can we begin to demand the kind of treatment all dogs deserve.

Posted on

Book Review: Only the Animals

A Russian tortoise launched into space during the Cold War. A Lebanese parrot abandoned on the doorknob of a pet store during Israel’s 2006 bombing of Beirut. A US Navy-trained dolphin called to serve in the Second Gulf War. These are some of the protagonists in Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey’s captivating collection of short stories that explores the many expressions of the human-animal relationship.ResizedImage600906-onlytheanimals2

The narrators in Dovey’s fictional tales are animals—not their live selves, but their souls—and it’s this convention that sets up the tension in each story, along with the settings—human conflicts dating back to the late nineteenth century where the animals, directly or indirectly, meet their end.

In addition to the tortoise, the parrot, and the dolphin, readers hear from a blue mussel whose life begins in New York City and ends attached to the hull of a battleship docked at Pearl Harbor; a Germanic wolf-dog exiled to a Polish forest by his master, Heinrich Himmler; a black bear starving in a Serbian zoo during the siege of Sarajevo. Still other storytellers include a camel in colonial Australia, a female elephant in Mozambique, an ape in Germany, and a Parisian cat on the front line during World War I.dolphins-pixabay

This premise—animals’ life-stories divulged in their afterlife—might seem gimmicky, but Dovey succeeds in both craft and content. In so doing, she gifts her readers stories that are at times amusing and quirky, at times sad and haunting, but always richly imagined and thoroughly researched.

Indeed, the research Dovey has done, allowing her to authentically build the scenes in which she lets loose her imagination, is expansive. Beyond studying wars of the past hundred-plus years, Dovey, a Harvard-trained social anthropologist, also delved into the literary works of writers who have populated their stories and poems with animals. Many of these writers—some well-known, some less so (Google may come in handy)—have cameos in the stories. Thus, the Navy-trained dolphin writes letters to Sylvia Plath and disdains the animal poetry of her husband, Ted Hughes. The nomadic mussel speaks with the voice of Jack Kerouac. And the Russian tortoise endears himself first to Tolstoy’s daughter, then to George Orwell, and finally to Virginia Woolf, who, Dovey tells us, believed that throughout history, great writers have turned to animals to speak for them when they “could at one stage find no way to say what they wanted to say.”

At its heart, Dovey’s collection of stories probes how humans and animals encounter one another in a fraught world, and how humans encounter each other. “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals?” the dolphin asks. “And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as human?” Dovey provides no answers to these questions or to questions about the human capacity for empathy and the futility of war. What she’s done in Only the Animals is focus her anthropologist’s eye on the interactions and interconnectedness of all beings as a means of illuminating human nature.