Books by John Alcock

Released: Aug. 1, 1997

A spirited primer in Sonoran Desert ecology, cloaked in a memoir of gardening. To judge by this graceful little study of insects and desert plants, Alcock (The Masked Bobwhite Rides Again, 1993), a zoologist at Arizona State University, is a suburban neighbor's nightmare. First, he replaced his Bermuda-grass lawn with gravel, cacti, and succulents to replicate the look of the desert before humans remade it. Next, he festooned his yard with cowpies carefully selected for size, weight, and dryness, ``the cräme de la cräme of termite chow, as far as Gnathamitermes are concerned,'' whereafter that voracious insect would find hospitable quarters in his domain. Then he seeded his property with flowers to attract a flotilla of winged and crawling creatures, ``carpenter bees and globe mallow bees, brittlebush aphids and milkweed aphids, these and many other insects.'' Thus equipped with a back-door laboratory for ecological studies, Alcock spent the next few years observing what happened; his observations provided him with the field notes from which this book is made. Alcock fills his pages with asides on the insects he has studied for so long at close hand. We learn, among other things, that female praying mantises have gotten a bad rap as spousal murderers; rising to their defense, he observes that ``the extent of female consumption of males during copulation had been greatly exaggerated.'' We learn as well that aphids are to be prized, the occasional loss of a rosebush or milkweed plant aside, for their marvelous properties: They reproduce ``without the curious beings we call males'' and otherwise develop and mutate in unexpected ways. Ever original, Alcock encourages readers to view the desert with new eyes through this fine contribution to arid-lands literature. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 19, 1993

Closely observed, delicate vignettes on Arizona's desert spaces. Alcock (Zoology/Arizona State University; Sonoran Desert Summer, 1987, etc.—not reviewed) has for the past 30 years made his special patch hard by the slopes of Usery Mountain. Formally, he's there to study insects and paloverdes, but his curiosity is sweeping and his eye keen and sensitive—so, here, he takes in the greater locale and considers how one component impinges upon another: The army ant on the harvester ant, the starling on the martin, the bovine on the saguaro, the human on the desert. In prose as quiet and spare as his subject, Alcock summons some extraordinarily evocative desert imagery, as in his chapters on Paleoindians and on a dead gnat-catcher. His soul is torqued by some human presences in the desert, from the trash-happy fool to the asphalt-spreading developer, and he goes positively atomic over government-sanctioned cattle-grazing on such a fragile landscape—a policy, he says, that's led to the ruination of rare streambeds and grasslands, resulting in the killing of rare mountain lions (cattle-runners are allowed to shoot predators). Alcock goes so far as to suggest that the number of eco-saboteurs willing to directly address such problems is ``depressingly small.'' A sense of unease pervades the text, an effective counterpoint to the author's desert love song. The desert comes to life here as a glorious and enriching place. Show it some respect, Alcock advises, and it will pay you back in unimaginable ways. (Four illustrations) Read full book review >