A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.

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BEING A BEAST

ADVENTURES ACROSS THE SPECIES DIVIDE

In which an English author, tired of the high street, takes to the fens and burrows to learn how animals live.

What does an otter do? One imagines a life of lolling in a sparkling tidal pool, nibbling on salmon. Is there more to it? Indeed, writes Oxford ethicist and veterinarian Foster. For one thing, there’s a matter of negotiating rivers down to the sea, “Ruskin on acid; all hanging greenery; soft focus from the spray—it’s too much.” Clearly, this isn’t your grandmother’s Ring of Bright Water but instead a daringly imaginative project to see the world from the viewpoints of various animals that wouldn’t be out of place in The Wind in the Willows: badger, otter, swift, fox, red deer. Their world is fraught with danger, not least because of the too-insistent, too-impingent presence of our kind. The project is daring precisely because it courts the two sins of nature writing, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, the latter describing the world as it appears to humans, “perhaps commercially shrewd,” Foster grumps, but “rather dull,” and the former depicting the animal world as being a mirror of the human. It is not: Foster, in inhabiting that world, attempts to get at its essential alien nature, whether routing through badger tunnels whose geography is determined by where the bones of badgers past and passed-away lie or racing against dogs in the guise of a vulpine: “Apart from swifts, foxes were the most obviously alive things I knew.” There’s not an ounce of sentimentality in any of it, but instead good science and hard-nosed thought. Furthermore, Foster has the gift of poetry, and he closes with a meditation on what knowing about the animal orders and the natural world can mean to humans: “If we live in a wood,” he writes, “we acquire the accents of the trees.”

A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.

Pub Date: June 21, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-62779-633-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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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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