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A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.

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 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Usand its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorkerare being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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