A mixed bag that strives to blend science and literature, of some interest to aficionados of Baja and of popular science...

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TELLING OUR WAY TO THE SEA

A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ

A look at what scientists do on their summer vacations, with hurricanes and sea cucumbers to break up the doldrums.

For the last decade, Hirsh and his wife, biologists at the University of Colorado, have led a field institute on the central coast of Baja California, the one facing not the wild, cold Pacific but the comparatively quiet Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez, depending on whether you’re John Steinbeck or not). These handpicked students, Hirsh tells us, are brilliant, but they’re not without quirks that at times make us feel like stranding them on a panga without a paddle. Some are smart-alecky, some nerdy, some neo-hippieish. All are there, as far as this book is concerned, to serve didactic roles toward the students’ project: namely, to tell healing stories about damaged places, “the places we live and know [that] have been scorched and destroyed.” Hirsh and his scientific colleagues tell stories with a hard nose about such things as speciation, the CAM cycle and the tragedy of the commons. Sometimes these tales afford great scientific insight into the nature of things: as for whales, for instance, “the average number of generations we have to go back in time before two individuals share a female ancestor is (most likely) equal to the number of breeding females in the population.” Sometimes the tales are as arid as the landscape, donnish and remedial (“An element, you’ll recall, is a kind of atom, placed on the periodic table according to the number of protons it has in its nucleus”). Sometimes the stories reveal the self-satisfied slipperiness of the academic mind ("Such compression makes certain deviations from facticity unavoidable"). Sometimes—but not often enough—they’re just right, as with one passage that contains a meaningful payoff in the line, “It’s a fucking sea cow.”

A mixed bag that strives to blend science and literature, of some interest to aficionados of Baja and of popular science writing.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-27284-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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