A powerfully original study of bears.

OUT ON A LIMB

WHAT BLACK BEARS HAVE TAUGHT ME ABOUT INTELLIGENCE AND INTUITION

Independent researcher Kilham (Among the Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild, 2002) shares what he has learned over the decades about black bears and their society.

The author is a state-sponsored researcher whose work with the black bear population in northern New Hampshire is safe, methodical and sanctioned. Since he does not currently hold a doctorate—he’s now working on that—much of his fieldwork has been discounted by the scientific community. On the other hand, his outsider status has allowed him to go his own way and trust in his natural skills rather than bemoan his shortcomings revolving around his dyslexia. Despite his condition, he is blessed with the ability to recognize patterns and see systems where they are not self-evident. The tone of his presentation allays criticism or hostility with its frankness and generosity, as he plunges into what he has observed: how bears use scent and body language, how they compete and cooperate, how they enforce house rules and exhibit a social code of justice and punishment, and how they communicate. “They use ear, eye, eyebrow, and facial expressions,” writes the author. “They also use a wide array of emotional vocalizations, which they emit at different levels of intensity, such as when they are reacting to danger.” Though he has interacted with hundreds of black bears, one in particular—Squirty, whom he adopted as a cub and released into the wild—has allowed Kilham to experience an intimate association with him, from comfort to anger and many other emotions in between. The author presents a solid case for bears as primal actors of social exchange—cooperation, altruism, morality—and their study, a “gateway” to understanding “how surplus fitness and an increase in population density have affected human behavior.”

A powerfully original study of bears.

Pub Date: Nov. 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-1603583909

Page Count: 244

Publisher: Chelsea Green

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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