HORN OF DARKNESS

RHINOS ON THE EDGE

An object lesson in field research hazards—both the physical and the political. Consider the black rhinoceros, fearless, scattering lions and elephants as it motors along at 30 mph. Now consider that in less than 100 years its numbers have shriveled from 100,000 to 3,000, cut down by machine-gun-toting poachers desirous of their horns, made of a keratin-like substance similar to fingernails that brings huge sums in Hong Kong; it is valued for its medicinal qualities in China, Korea, and Taiwan and as dagger shafts in Yemen. Cunningham and Berger, of the University of Nevada, Reno, spent four years in the Namibian Desert, studying in particular the effects on the rhinos of dehorning, which had come into vogue as a means of harvesting the horns' wealth while saving the animals themselves from poachers. In alternating chapters, the two authors plait their days afield into a delightful memoir: how they learned to track, to dodge rhino charges, to set up house in a Land Rover with their toddler daughter, to overcome all the logisitical problems of cameras and auto mechanics and night-vision equipment and life without a tossed salad. Berger gets in a few volleys condemning the treatment of the local population by European imperialists, and he appreciates the simple fact that starving people will understandably kill endangered species to survive. But rhinos were his preoccupation. Perhaps too much so; when he wrote a paper with his wife questioning the value of dehorning (he raised the issue of calf mortality as a possible consequence of dehorned mothers left unable to defend for them), he ran hard against national pride and the fact that legally cut horns could be sold by the state for hard currency. Namibia gave Cunningham and Berger the bum's rush and told them not to return. Consider the black rhinoceros, and pity him too; without Cunningham and Berger in his corner, his future gets that much dimmer.

Pub Date: March 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-19-511113-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1997

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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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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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