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The Great (Unknown) Pet Massacre

The title of this book almost begs incredulity.

The Great Cat & Dog Massacre?

When I first saw the book cover I struggled to imagine what the book was about exactly. One of the pictures features men in helmets carrying animals, so I initially assumed the massacre was the result of bombings.

But, no. This massacre — and it was indeed a massacre — was entirely self inflicted. 

During the earliest days of the war, British citizens killed their pets. Not because the government asked them to. Not because veterinarians asked them to. But because, for lack of a better word, they panicked.

It was September 1939. The bombing was still many months away. But, the people could not know this. They knew only that war was imminent, that bombs would eventually fall, that Germans could wash ashore at any moment. And many people thought it wiser to put their companion animals to death than risk the great unknown that awaited. And, given human nature, a stampede soon developed.

In less than a week approximately 400,000 cats and dogs, bunnies and birds were put to death. The run on shelters was so great that one shelter saw a line of people and their pets a half-mile long. Shelters ran out of chloroform and animals were buried in mass graves. Vets pleaded with people to rethink their decisions but a mania of sorts spread through communities rich and poor. In the end, roughly 26% of all London cats and dogs were put to death.

This book clearly illustrates how the widely accepted narrative of Brits keeping calm and carrying on was not all that it was cracked up to be.

Author Hilda Kean does a thorough job of collecting anecdotes, letters, news clippings that collectively shed light on the many experiences of pet owners, their children, vets, animal rescuers, politicians, and the animals themselves. Because this was not a phenomenon that was widely publicized and, after the war, was quickly forgotten, this book provides an important historical record.

I particularly appreciated the focus on the animals themselves — how their lives were so often an afterthought. How animals became just another element of the virtual war with the Germans, a war that was as much about “civilization” as anything else. At the time, the Germans were vilified for their poor treatment of animals, so it became incumbent upon the English to rise above. How should a civilized people treat its animal companions? This is a question that was debated then — and is still rightfully being debated today.

There are many sad stories in this book. Such as the accounts of children who lost their pets, often for reasons not at all made clear by their parents. And there are stories of parents who took a hands-on approach to killing their pets, which was equally traumatic on not only the children but, in some cases, the parents as well.

Now it is likely that a number of these animals would have died during the years of German bombings. More than 60,000 citizens died during that six-year span. But how much more difficult were those years for the people who so quickly sacrificed their companions? This was a tragedy during a time of so many tragedies. And this book does a service to those animals who gave their lives before their time.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (Animal Lives)

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Where Song Began

Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney

What I most missed after a trip to Australia last year wasn’t the beaches or the local accents. It was the sounds of the birds.

The plaintive cries of the Australian ravens, the laughing kookaburras, and the screeching cockatoos. I realized after I returned home that I never had associated Australia with exotic birds. This is the land of the kangaroo and the koala and so many other marsupials.

But it is the birds that brought me to this amazing book: Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low.

Australia is not some avian backwater,  as early European visitors widely assumed. Settlers introduced starlings and other species in an effort to introduce songbirds to the land. But it wasn’t that Australia didn’t have birds that could sing, it was that the Europeans weren’t fully listening.

Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.

New South Wales has 33 species of parrot — and the Sydney region alone boasts more species than most countries on the planet.

Australia is also home to the largest concentration of honeyeater species. And why? Because the country gave us trees that are actually very large flowers that give off stupendous amounts of nectar. These are eucalyptus trees. In Australia, it’s not just the bees that pollinate — it is birds.

Back to the songbirds, one of the most ancient songbirds is the lyrbird, native to Australia.

I found this video of a lyrebird and it is truly unbelievable to see — and tragic when you hear the final sounds the bird echoes.

This is a dense book that I would advise only for those who are eager to be overwhelmed by bird species (with each passing chapter I realized I knew less and less about birds). But it’s also a beautiful book written by an author who not only loves Australia’s many avian species but is doing his part to help protect them.

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World

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Book Review: Penguins in the Desert by Eric Wagner

As a former volunteer for Dee Boersma at the Punta Tombo Magellanic colony in Argentina, I was especially eager to read Eric Wagner’s Penguins in the Desert, in which he recounts the six months he and his wife, El, spent among the penguins in 2008. Two years earlier, my husband, John Yunker, and I spent a week at Punta Tombo, and we walked through many of the same places, counted many of the same penguins, got to know the colony’s beloved Turbo, and probably stayed in the same trailer Wagner and his wife shared two years later.

Yet Wagner’s six months at the colony was an enviably and admirably longer period of time during which he and El, too, spent fourteen-hour days in the field and got early morning wake-up calls from the penguin living under the trailer. Wagner’s description — “At times, he sounded like he was directly under my pillow, his bill aimed at my ear” — was not only spot-on but brought me back to this magical and complicated place.

I was also eager to read a nonfiction account of a volunteer’s time at Punta Tombo — as fiction writers, both John’s and my experiences eventually ended up being parts of novels, The Tourist Trail and My Last Continent, respectively — and I very much enjoyed revisiting the place and the experience through Wagner’s nonfiction lens. Yet this isn’t a book solely for those familiar with this part of the world; it will appeal to a range of readers, from travelers to penguin lovers to anyone interested in conservation.

Dee Boersma, who holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science at the University of Washington and is founder and director of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, is arguably the best-known penguin expert in the world, her name as synonymous with penguins as Jane Goodall’s is with chimpanzees. Boersma has studied the penguins at Punta Tombo for thirty-five years, and her passion, tenacity, and vast experience come through in these pages. As Wagner writes early in the book, “Her [UW] lectures were memorable for the energetic brazenness with which she could hold forth on the way things ought to be. It was inconsistent with the objectivity I thought the dictum of science, but Dee was unapologetic … ‘You can’t listen to everything I’m telling you and not feel anything,’ she had said.”

This is one Boersma’s many gifts: translating science — and especially the precarious lives of penguins — in ways that all of us can relate to. As Wagner notes, Boersma once described penguins this way in an interview: “These birds are curious. They walk upright. They dress well. They’re highly social. They know their neighbors.”

Getting to know the penguins of Punta Tombo makes it all the more difficult to learn that this colony has declined in population by more than 40 percent and is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world. Wagner details the birds’ challenges in ways that are highly personal — and this is a huge strength of the book. Like Boersma, Wagner makes it impossible not to fall in love with these birds, and to care about their fate in an uncertain world.

As Wagner notes in the prologue, most people think of penguins and “see a cathedral of ice and snow … a forbidding landscape thousands of miles from anywhere.” Penguins in the Desert focuses on those who live among “sand and dust and dirt … blazing heat … a couple of hours from a city, eminently reachable on any old summer afternoon.” And while John and I merely counted penguins as volunteers, and helped measure and weigh a few, Wagner and his wife did all of this and much more, including tagging them and even performing a necropsy. They witnessed a lot more as well: They saw chicks grow up and fledge; they observed one penguin couple adopt another’s egg and raise the chick as their own; and, sadly, they encountered a great many dead chicks (on average, about 40 percent of chicks starve to death; some years it can be as many as 85 percent).

While 40 percent is a staggering statistic, it is still a number, and though Wagner has a scientific background, it is his non-scientific details that are most affecting. “We soon can tell which chicks are not long for this earth … The ones that gain almost no weight between our visits, or even lose a few grams. The ones that beg in raspy, thin voices, while their parent can do little … The ones whose feet become shriveled and translucent, the ones whose thin bones we can feel through the sagging skin of their chests. The ones who lie quietly in the dust, breathing shallowly, waiting for the end.”

Perhaps most engaging of all are Wagner’s descriptions of the birds that can only come from the firsthand contact that researchers must endure. “ … as I wrestle [the penguin] into submission, I realize there are certain things you cannot know about the Magellanic penguin, cannot understand, unless you are trying to restrain one between your thighs…For example: A penguin’s chest all but bursts with thick slabs of muscle, and the flippers … are solid bone. His bill, which is clacking away perilously close to my fingers, is heavy, black, ridged, and very sharp…The red of his eyes, too, can look surprisingly demonic.” Accompanying the text are thirty black-and-white photos, including one of Wagner’s bite-scarred hand.

Despite the many details and stories that bring our empathy to these creatures, the science is not neglected; readers learn about the research being done and what Boersma and her team are learning about penguin behavior — satellite tags, for example, show where penguins forage for food and how far they have to go (from 250 up to 700 miles away from the colony). The bad news is that the farther the penguins have to travel for food, the higher the risk their chicks will starve before they return to feed them. Wagner notes, “If the satellite tags paint a grim picture in some ways, however, then they also point to a way to lessen conflicts between human fishers and penguins, who are often in search of the same species of fish. The more we claim for ourselves, the less we leave for penguins and other seabirds.”

In 2015, a Marine Protected Area was established around the colony, covering thirty-seven miles of coastline and extending three feet into the ocean. It was a victory for the penguins, but “just a postage stamp” of what Boersma and her colleague were hoping for. It’s an example of what conservation can do, and a reminder that it has to begin somewhere and often in baby steps. In the mid-80s, Boersma, along with Argentine students, began to count penguins who were showing up dead on shore due to oil, which causes them to lose their insulation and leads to certain death from hypothermia or starvation because they can’t go to sea to feed. Boersma and her students realized that more than 40,000 penguins were dying each year due to the ballast being released from large ships. Boersma and her students presented their research for years until finally, in 1997, the government of Chubut province moved the shipping lanes farther offshore, out of the penguins’ paths. In the years since, Boersma and her colleagues followed up, counting fewer and fewer oiled birds until one year they found none at all.

Finally, I was thrilled to see so many words devoted to Turbo, famous among Punta Tombo researchers and a little famous to others as well. He inspired the character of Diesel in The Tourist Trail, and Admiral Byrd in My Last Continent — and most readers find it hard to believe that these fictional birds were inspired by a penguin who actually exists. Turbo is an odd penguin who tried to nest under a turbo truck (hence his name) before realizing it didn’t make a good nest — but even though he moved on to nest in bushes like the other penguins, he never found a mate. Instead, he knocks on the door of the researchers’ house with his beak, walks in, and does flipper dances (a courtship ritual) with the humans. He is the rare penguin who not only doesn’t scamper away from humans but who welcomes affection. “It isn’t that he thinks he is a human,” Wagner writes. “Rather, he thinks we are penguins … All the things we wish we could do with all the penguins but do not dare, Turbo lets us do to him. We coo over him and caress the firm pelt of his feathers. We scratch the back of his neck as he closes his eyes in pleasure.”

I’ve been on Dee Boersma’s mailing list for a dozen years now, and the first thing I always look for is news of Turbo. He is now thirteen years old, still a bachelor, and still friendly with all the researchers. (Click here to join the mailing list for updates on Turbo, and to learn more about how you can help penguin conservation.)

Penguins in the Desert may be specific to one species of penguin, but it offers a glimpse into the important work of conservation, with insights that extend beyond this region of Patagonia. It’s also a tribute to Dee Boersma, a pioneer in conservation and penguin studies, and a call to action to protect our oceans before it’s too late to save the creatures who depend on it for survival.

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BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

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Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution tells the terrifying and important story of plastics in our oceans, framed by Marcus Eriksen’s journey aboard Junk, the all-plastic raft he and his sailing partner took from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of our seas.

Eriksen, who would later go on to co-found the organization 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna, writes about the 2,600-mile journey over eighty-eight days and its challenges—among them, structural problems with the raft and bracing storms—interspersing the narrative with facts that all consumers should know about plastic and its effects on the environment, especially the oceans. For example, even if we are among those who recycle, it’s not enough: up to 12 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean.

The statistics are staggering: Plastic production, which was zero during World War II, rose to 40 million tons by 1972, to 311 million tons in 2013, and is projected to reach 1 billion tons by 2050. Yet the recycling rate in the United States is only 9.2 percent (based on the latest study in 2013), and, even more alarming, non-recyclable plastics are exported to countries where environmental standards and workers’ health are unregulated. Of a visit to a processing site in India, Eriksen writes, “After ten minutes, my eyes were tingling and the back of my throat burned. The men [working] in this room absorb the largest dose of volatile plasticizers and pollutants, and according to a local NGO, they give up somewhere around twenty years of their lifespan for two dollars per day sorting our trash.”

India and China are among countries that send the plastic right back to the U.S. via new products created with the plastic sent to them. To tackle the problem at its inception, Eriksen advocates for an end the “throwaway culture” that leads to such waste in the first place. “I’ve witnessed a growing movement to end throwaway living…We need zero-waste and end-of-life design for everything we create; a world in which social and environmental justice becomes part of product and systems design.”

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Ericksen has a unique perspective on the politics of plastic: After the war, while rafting on the Mississippi, he “witnessed a never-ending trail of trash, which had its roots in the petroleum I had been sent to defend in Kuwait. Now I watched it drift to the ocean via America’s greatest watershed.” During some of the quieter moments during his journey onboard Junk, he reflects on the sense of betrayal he felt as a veteran: “I had given everything, a willingness to kill and be killed, for the sake of cheap oil and national interests.”

Junk Raft details the history and contemporary problem of plastics, including their production, the powerful lobbying that keeps such items as plastic bags in the marketplace, and the devastating effect plastic has on marine life. Countries like Germany and Chile are on the forefront of recycling that works—from reducing packaging to requiring producers to recover the waste from their own products—and by contrast, Eriksen writes, the U.S. is the only country of the thirty-five members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not have extended producer responsibility for packaging. Only ten U.S. states have bottle-recycling programs.

When it comes to plastics, marine animals are the biggest losers of all. Various studies have estimated that between 9 and 35 percent of fish have plastics in their stomachs—and this doesn’t even include sea lions and seabirds, and all those animals caught in discarded fishing gear. If today’s plastic waste goes unabated, up to 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. “Even in fish markets,” Eriksen writes, “clams and fish have been found with abundant micro- and nanoplastics in their guts, which we ingest if we eat them whole.” One recent study in the U.S. and Indonesia found that 25 percent of the fish in markets had plastics in their stomachs.

While the statistics are daunting, Eriksen writes with optimism—yet it is only through commitment to change our ways that life will improve for the oceans and its creatures. Eriksen writes, “I have tremendous hope. I am confident that we possess the collective intelligence and will to overcome the course that was set in the last century…Are we capable of replacing the globalization of stuff with the globalization of new ideas to transform our culture of consumption? To rebut Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph for our species—‘Nice try’—I argue: ‘Not done.’”

 

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2017

It’s that time of year again, a time to reflect on the books that have left their mark on us.

Books that will, over time and with luck, leave their mark on society as well.

I polled our contributors to see what books they’ll remember best from 2017. And here we have it — a selection of children’s books and adult fiction and nonfiction — some of which we’ve reviewed and some of which we hope to still.

A word of thanks — to our contributors, for reading and reviewing books that make a difference; to the authors of these books that inspire us to make the world a better place; and to the readers who make what we do worthwhile.

See you in 2018…

 

Anna Monders

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. 2017.

Obe Devlin is a sixth grader who loves being out in the woods, identifying animal tracks, and cleaning up the creek. But housing developments are going in where there used to be fields and trees. When Obe discovers a new animal by the creek—one that eats only plastic—he wants to keep it safe from the new neighbors and his former-best-friend-turned-bully. (Middle-grade fiction)

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas. 2017.

Author and wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas spent three years living on the Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya. While there, she was foster mom for an orphaned serval kitten, raising him until he could survive on his own in the wild. Splendid photographs and good conservation information. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of by Martin Brown. 2017.

This is not an animal book about elephants, tigers, giraffes, or pandas. Instead, readers are introduced to zorillas (stinkier than skunks), banded linsangs (slinky like snakes), sand cats (cats that like…sand), and gaurs (twice the size of an average cow), among others. An unusual—and funny—biodiversity book with great illustrations. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

 

Midge Raymond 

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

It’s difficult to think of a title more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than Jonathan Balcombe’s New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction. Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. What a Fish Knows is a powerful, accessible book that will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again.

 

Jacki Skole

What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns
At the heart of neuroscientist Gregory Berns’ newest book is this question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The answer, garnered through ground-breaking studies of the brains of domestic and wild animals, should fundamentally reshape how we think about—and treat—animals.

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby
If you felt like your life was breaking apart, where would you go to try to put it back together?
If you’re thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, you’d go to the South Pole. For a year. Gosling is the central character in this wry, compelling story of relationships, art, science, climate change, and life at the bottom of the earth.

 

John Yunker

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, And by the end of this book I suspect most readers will as well.

The Dig Tree: A True Story of Bravery, Insanity, and the Race to Discover Australia’s Wild Frontier by Sarah Murgatroyd

The tragic true story of early Australian hubris and the outback. Spoiler alert: The outback wins.

 

 

Center for Humans and Nature

Best Books of 2017

Wildness: Relations of People and Place coedited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer, University of Chicago Press

Published in association with the Center for Humans and Nature, this collection of essays explores how people can become attuned to the wild community of life and also contribute to the well-being of the wild places in which we live, work, and play. With this book, we gain insight into what wildness is and could be, as well as how it might be recovered in our lives—and with it, how we might unearth a more profound, wilder understanding of what it means to be human.

The Driftless Reader coedited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley, University of Wisconsin Press

The Driftless Reader gathers writings, paintings, photographs, and maps that highlight the unique natural and cultural history, landscape, and literature of the Driftless Area—a region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Through texts by Black Hawk, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldo Leopold, and many others, the book reveals the transformative power of the land and its capacity to make our lives more meaningful.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams, W.W. Norton & Company

For centuries, poets and philosophers extolled the benefits of a walk in the woods. Intrigued by our storied renewal in the natural world, Florence Williams sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

Henry David Thoreau:  A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, University of Chicago Press

Thoreau has long needed a fresh portrait that looks beyond both mythology and simplistic myth-bashing and recontextualizes him for our time.  Walls, a former fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and one of our finest interdisciplinary scholars, provides it in this meticulously researched biography.

Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming by Benjamin R. Barber, Yale University Press

A follow-up to his earlier book, If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber’s proposals for transnational governance of climate change have taken on a new importance and urgency now that the American national government is under the control of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. Responsible action now falls to other levels of government and to the private sector. Acting in concert, cities can have global leverage.

Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming by William E. Connolly, Duke University Press

A wide-ranging discussion of advanced thinking in ontology, ecology, evolutionary theory, and more by a noted political theorist. What Blake referred to as “Newton’s sleep” is over. Connolly is a demanding but rewarding guide to the new age.

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton, Polity Press

Vintage Hamilton. Trenchant, widely-informed, unconcerned about stepping on toes. This book shows the danger of interpreting the Human Epoch once more in anthropocentric terms.

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity by Jeremy J. Schmidt, New York University Press

An original and sophisticated study of how thinking about water as a resource to be managed was constructed by the disciplines of geology and anthropology beginning in the nineteenth century. His critique offers a new philosophy of water and a rich way of understanding the formation of knowledge-systems more generally as well.

Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene coedited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, University of Minnesota Press

There are many ways to read this graphically and intellectually innovative book. It offers creative tools for living in a more-than-human Anthropocene. One half is devoted to landscapes injured by humans in the modern age—Ghosts of the Anthropocene. One half is devoted to essays on interspecies and intraspecies entanglements—Monsters of the Anthropocene.

 

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Book Review: Wildlife Spectacles by Vladimir Dinets

 

Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors by Vladimir Dinets is a gorgeous book that takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the lives of some of our planet’s most magnificent creatures, from muskoxen to moths, with spectacular photographs and incredible stories.

Wildlife Spectacles is divided into three major sections: Great Migrations (migrating animals on land and in air and water), Spectacles of Love (breeding habits and mating rituals), and Everyday Spectacles (how animals hunt, play, and otherwise spend their days).

Author and photographer Vladimir Dinets has focused Wildlife Spectacles on the wild animals of North America, noting: “Some of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the world, such as mass migrations, mating dances, and predator-prey interactions, occur in North America, but the information on them is often scattered and difficult to find, and many are virtually unknown to nonspecialists.” Dinets not only offers information about and insights into these incredible events—such as the section “How Do Birds Know Where to Fly?”—but he also includes “Viewing Tips” at the end of each section for readers who wish to seek out and witness these spectacles for themselves. The tips include such details as location and the best time of year to visit.

As Dinets notes in his introduction, “North America has seen its share of horrible abuses of the environment, and there are still powerful political forces bent on sacrificing every last living thing to so-called business interests, which is a politically correct euphemism for greed.” In so many ways, this book makes a powerful argument for protecting the wildness we still have left. The desolate beauty of many of Dinets’ photographs make it possible to imagine “a time when the world was free of fences, highways, sprawling cities, pesticide-laden farms, shipping lanes, dams, and miles-long driftnets”—and certainly will inspire readers toward conservation, if they are not conservation-minded already.

In the first section—alongside photographs and maps showing the migrations of animals by land, sea, and air—are fascinating facts and anecdotes about various creatures. Once, Dinets witnessed a pack of orcas attempting to attack a sea lion herd when they were interrupted by humpback whales who surfaced between them, trumpeting and spouting—three different times, the whales interfered as the orcas tried to attach different packs of sea lions. In addition to such stories are the more depressing facts of human impacts on wildlife, beginning with the very first humans and gaining momentum in the eighteenth century, when “modern technologies and market-oriented hunting arrived in North America, and massive slaughters of everything that moved began anew.”

From the oceans (whose animals, even though better protected from overfishing, are still killed by boats, fishing gear, plastic, and climate change) to the plains (where only fifteen thousand years ago roamed such animals as mammoths, mastadons, camels, giant sloths, and wild yaks) are stories of species gone extinct and otherwise suffering at the hands of humans—and perhaps this is what makes those creatures who still exist so important to witness. Dinets photographs and writes about the migrations of animals from bison and elk to the tiny Mormon cricket and the montane vole. His descriptions add so much to the photos, as if to invite readers into the scene; of the sounds of caribou herds, he writes, “They make a lot of noises, but the most unusual and persistent one is the loud clicking of their knee and elbow joints.”

No animal is too small to be included here. Among the more unusual migrations covered are those of butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, and ladybugs. No book on waterway migrations would be complete without mentioning salmon, but also mentioned here are grunion, turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, eels, and crabs.

Similarly, in the next two sections of the book, Dinets showcases not only the mating and predatory rituals of large animals like seals, sea lions, and elk but also those of termites, ants, and fireflies. The book is peppered with wonderful details about courtship rituals; for example, birds are not the only species to sing while courting: so do insects, whales, alligators, and crocodiles. Among those to use dancing to attract mates are birds, fish, butterflies, spiders, and slugs.

And despite the challenges of living in today’s world—“Diseases, predators, and particularly parasites often make it totally miserable…the amount of innocent suffering in nature is impossible to fathom”—animals do play, and “watching them can be pure joy.” Polar bears, elephant seals, crocodiles, fishes, and even insects are among those who have been observed in play—and species have even been seen mingling in play, such as fox cubs playing with domestic kittens, or an alligator with a river otter. Crows and ravens are “uncommonly playful.”

Wildlife Spectacles opens our eyes to the worlds we don’t see often enough, if ever, in North America, and it’s a book that engages not only visually but emotionally and intellectually. A wonderful gift book for anyone who loves animals and nature, it’s also a book that we should all have on our shelves to remind us how precious—and how vulnerable—our wild places are.

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Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

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Looking for a new ecolit book to read? Here are 20 from which to choose…

I’m happy to be participating on a unique promotion, organized by Margi Prideaux, that showcases 20 environmentally themed eBooks on Instafreebie.

And, yes, these book are free to download. All you have to do is sign up for the author’s email list.

To see the full list of books, click here.

The promotion goes from today until June 15th.

And I think I speak for all authors by saying that if you enjoy the book we welcome your reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. These reviews really do matter — and not just to our egos.