Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey

Find in catalogMy background is not adequate for this book, so I struggled through most and skipped a couple of chapters. But what I did read is so fine that I give it a highest rating. It has all the information, of course, about the origins of life and the creatures that emerged over time. What kept my interest was Fortey’s delightful descriptions of his travels to find these creatures and those organisms themselves. Who could resist a scientist who explains that stromatolites are built up “layer by layer – a little like those giant stack pancakes an unwary visitor gets offered in New York for breakfast.”


My Backyard Jungle by James Barilla

Find in catalogHaving fought off nutria that devoured my lovely garden lettuces, I particularly appreciate a book that helps me understand the wild beasts that share our urban environment. Humans and wildlife in our cities have a fraught relationship: we may love deer and value honeybees, but even they present problems. The author ventures out – and often in and down – with pest control experts who remove raccoons, squirrels, and rats, all creatures searching for our leftovers.

Barilla’s book is a fine example of creative nonfiction, as he manages to make an entertaining personal story out of material that can be distressing, scary, and often creepy. He starts out planning to create a wildlife habitat in his yard, a “quiet and harmonious refuge from the fretful roar of urban existence.” But “what I am coming to see as typical urban wildlife habitat,” he writes,”is what I might call the landscape of neglect, an unclaimed and untidy swath of urban decay.” That may be charming when it’s a patch of wildflowers serving as bee forage, but alarming when bears discover the opportunities of swampland near an industrial park. My take: whatever we build, they will come.

The Good Rain by Timothy Egan

Find in catalogAn older book, but well worth reading, especially for those in Oregon, and still relevant. Egan takes many small local stories of the Pacific Northwest, and without blending them creates an overall impression of a region. These are personal stories, not an account of scientific research or a policy study. He travels from the upper reaches of the Columbia down to Ashland, looking at the geography, history, the character of each place and listening to the residents. What emerges is his sense of sorrow at the loss of sweeping forests, the destruction of clean rivers, the degradation of Native American tribes.

The battles Egan recounts are still being fought, and the consequences even more apparent. But Egan is fair-minded and a touch hopeful. While the book came out twenty-five years ago, his epilogue seems prescient: he considers that we may be entering “the polyglot future of the Pacific Rim,” offering a chance for renewal.

Besides, the man has a sense of humor, Discussing tree plantations, Egan comments: “Their trees, green-housebred for maximum growth, are to the rest of nature what silicone-filled breasts are to a beauty contest. They stand out, but there is something…odd…about them.”

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

Find in catalogRobert Sapolsky knew that he wanted to be a primatologist when he grew up. He volunteered at the Museum of Natural History, wrote fan letters to Jane Goodall, and badgered his high school principal to let him study Swahili to prepare for travel in Africa. Sapolsky spent 20 years studying a troop of baboons in Kenya and discovered that their behavior and social structure is quite different than previously believed. His stories are both fascinating and hilarious and the reader will learn a lot about both the animals and the people of Africa.

What are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry

What are people forWendell Berry is such a marvelous writer. His writing style is clear and very personal and his care for the natural world is evident in everything he writes. I checked this book out when I wanted to see what he had written about the biography of Ned Cobb (“All God’s Dangers” – previously reviewed). I found that and other essays, all thoughtful and mostly of interest to me. A theme here is the place of the writer in the world. I especially enjoyed “Style and Grace” about Hemingway’s and Norman Maclean’s writings about rivers. (I love Norman Maclean and enjoyed reading Berry’s observations.)

This is another wonderful collection of Wendell Berry’s careful considerations of nature and culture and meaning.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Earthly Pleasures by Roger B. Swain

Earthly PleasuresThis is enjoyable just as a set of straightforward, often charming, essays on natural history. Beyond that, Swain has taken his personal observations of everyday nature and used them as seeds to develop a discussion of the underlying science. He considers the environmental value of woodchucks, the growth of duckweed, how nut trees may have evolved to reduce predation, and how rot occurs in foods. In these commonplace examples, Swain examines adaptations and how evolution might have shaped that feature or behavior. This is a readable book, encouraging us to think more deeply about what surrounds us.

Reviewed by sarav

Wild Nights: Nature returns to the city by Anne Matthews

My review below considers the entire book, but much of Matthews’s research focuses on the New York-northern New Jersey area.  Eugene readers not familiar with New York City might particularly find more interest in the chapters, “The Shores of Brooklyn,” “The Old Neighborhood,” and “The City of River Lights,” with their more general discussion of ecology and urban planning.  And these are relevant to the issues we deal with here.

For most urban dwellers, encounters with nature are a mix of wonder: a glimpse of a peregrine falcon swooping down on a pigeon; frustration: deer wrecking suburban gardens; and loathing: rodents carrying plague vectors.  Matthews examines the history of wildlife in our cities, and the ways we have encouraged or damaged species.  Migrant songbirds often find city towers fatal, but the striped bass is coming back to a cleaned-up Hudson,

Who wins, who loses?  We continue to crave contact with the green and the wild. Incentive zoning attempts to maintain small public spaces, hopefully with shaded seating, maybe a water feature.  Matthews observes high school boys in baggy pants carefully feeding gray squirrels.

The research is detailed and fascinating, but the topics meander and I was often unclear as to her point.  The last chapter offers a fearful vision of the consequences of global warming.

Reviewed by Sarav

American Nature Writing 2002 by John A. Murray

American Nature WritingThis offers a varied set of ruminations on nature experiences, starting with the search for eagles soaring on the Orkney coast. I live in the city, though, and was delighted to find that many of the essays explore nature closer to my experiences. There are pergrine falcons in Manhattan, spring coming to am Arizona desert suburb, finding beauty on the streets of (again!) New York city.

My favorite is ”On the Contrary,” an account of a couple who move from Los Angeles with the goal of living in a responsible and environmentally correct way, with a garden and sheep. Of course, they assumed, living close to nature would not prevent them from meeting friends for dinner in Beverly Hills, although the sudden discovery of a morbund sheep one day did make those plans a bit difficult. The author reflects on the gap between the dream that city dwellers often have of rural life, with our naivete about what living in the country really entails- floods that wash out roads, prolonged electrical outages, and the question of what to do with that troublesome sheep. Charming, but also provokes thoughts about our relationships with nature.

Reviewed by Sarav

Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities by Luke Dixon

Keeping Bees in Towns and CitiesWe don’t plan to keep bees, but we would like to host a hive through our local non-profits, Beyond Toxics and Healthy Bees = Healthy Gardens. This book served as an excellent introduction to bees and the habits of their keepers. It helped me to identify five questions to ask the beekeeper to ensure a good fit for our neighbors and for us.

Dixon covers the essentials: choosing a hive; choosing a nucleus of bees; the life cycle of bees, and caring for the hive through the year. He has a valuable chapter on plants that bees love and the colorful pollen they collect from them, as well as twenty-three short examples of beekeeping in a variety of settings in mostly English speaking places around the globe. His book ends with a list of international web resources.

Dixon mentions that he began to explore beekeeeping when he needed “something quieter, more peaceful, more ‘natural’ in [his] life.” The peace he has found is evident in the pace of the book. It has just the right amount of information and an engaging balance between words and pictures.

Reviewed by Lily

The Thoreau You Don’t Know: what the prophet of environmentalism really meant by Robert Sullivan

The reader looking for a detailed  biography of Thoreau might look elsewhere, but Sullivan offers something different, more akin to a series of essays. His subtitle lets us know right away what he’s up to: “What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant.”  The author has crafted a sketchy biography of HDT (meaning that every part of HDT’s life isn’t accorded equal attention), and then examines details of his writings and experiences and  connects those to current topics: Abu Ghraib, taxes, mortgages, the environment, work. And at the end of the book, Sullivan walks to Walden Pond (I don’t want to say more in case you havn’t read the book yet). He finds, and we see, new and unexpected relationships between the past and the present, between nature and the city.  Our worship of pristine, wild spaces, Sullivan suggests, may in fact fool us into missing a clearer vision of what surrounds us. Highly recommended – and being a Thoreau fan is not required.

Reviewed by Sara V.