A brief, intense, and entirely enjoyable tour of nature.

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HOME IS THE PRIME MERIDIAN

ALMANAC ESSAYS IN SEARCH OF TIME AND PLACE AND SPIRIT

An almanac provides meditations inspired by encounters with the natural world.

“When I go too far out, I need to gather my landmarks of home around me,” writes radio broadcaster and veteran almanac author Felker (Poor Will’s Almanac for 2018, 2017, etc.) in his short, aphoristic new work of reflections on nature. “Distant locations only make sense against my local gauge.” The more he understands where he is, he tells his readers, the more he understands himself. Consequently, he lavishes extraordinary care and attention on his small plot of field and woodland in Yellow Springs in southwestern Ohio, often characterizing the locus of home as the “prime meridian” in even the most far-ranging voyages. In the long tradition of nature diaries, he anchors dozens of short pieces on explorations of the seasons of the year, the moods of the weather, and, most of all, the characters and behaviors of all the animals he spots, particularly birds. Several of the architects of this kind of writing, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Burroughs, are quoted or paraphrased with obvious affection, and Felker’s animal portraits are warmly enhanced by what he freely admits is a liberal amount of anthropomorphizing. His birds and woodland creatures are often as metaphorical as they are material. He’s a careful and meticulous observer who nevertheless seldom falls into the trap reserved for scrupulous spectators: being tedious. He’s saved from this because he commands a light-footed prose style and he keeps his vignettes very brief. Felker has been crafting these almanac-style entries for many years, and his experience shows not only in the smoothness and economy of his storytelling, but also in the winning combination of humility and poetic insights he’s clearly mastered. He’s delightful company on the page, in everything from his subtle, sensory-heavy evocations of the seasons (winter being a specialty) to his accounts of the stars and his lush descriptions of the natural world’s various inhabitants, captured even in a quick list of the region’s bird life: “The sparrows, like starlings, staying tight to the motions of the flock; the acrobatic chickadees swooping in and out, remaining only seconds to grasp their sunflower seed and fly off; the wary, fluttering titmice; the blue jays, harsh and bullying; the hopping, syncopated nuthatches exploring upside down.” These passages are often layered with musings about the author’s moods—the immediate and sometimes-odd ways his feelings intersect with the flora and fauna he stumbles on (one of the book’s closing scenes, involving a group of pantry-raiding mice, is an especially touching example). The tone throughout remains highly personal, almost confessional, which often adds to the charm of the work. The author’s knowledge of the plants and animals in his realm is encyclopedic but never comes across as pedantic, and the resulting almanac is a tightly focused and wonderfully executed example of small-bore nature writing.

A brief, intense, and entirely enjoyable tour of nature.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5441-3462-8

Page Count: 110

Publisher: Green Thrush Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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