Impressive and stimulating: an enticing exploration, from the artist’s perspective, into the largely unanalyzed subject of...

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WHY BIRDS SING

A JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF BIRD SONG

An intriguing exploration into the science and art of birdsong, from musician and professor Rothenberg (Philosophy/New Jersey Institute of Technology).

“The more science reveals nature’s wonders, the more we train ourselves to resist the old intuitions that used to guide human understanding of nature,” writes Rothenberg (Always the Mountains, 2002, etc.) in his well-mulled study. Science has given us some hard data to back what we may have already suspected: Birds sing, partially, to attract mates and protect home places from competitors. But what about those instances of birds singing when the imperatives are not at play? What about the starling tinkering with Mozart’s piano concerto or the blackbird’s song developing long after evolutionary needs are met? Where is the link—or is there a link—between rational and rhythmic, magic and meticulous, indifferent and essential? How about those marsh warblers, with their peaceful, off-duty singing, like an impromptu gospel group? Rothenberg conjectures whether a cross-species sensibility enables singing simply for the beauty of it: an idea, though maybe too anthropocentric, that speaks to Rothenberg’s observation that “science has not evolved to the point where it is able to calculate joy.” The author uses sonograms and musical notation (readers of music will have a foot up regarding much of this material) to address questions of rhythm, pitch and form, and he takes up aspects also of timbre and tone. He scours poetry to find influences of birdsong, and he delves into the complicated world of avian bioacoustics. He’s also thrilled by the opportunity to jam—fully appreciative that the characterization may be presumptuous—with a lyrebird in Australia, or with the whole choral body at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

Impressive and stimulating: an enticing exploration, from the artist’s perspective, into the largely unanalyzed subject of birdsong. (A CD will be available on the author’s Web site: http://www.whybirdssing.com.)

Pub Date: May 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-465-07135-X

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2005

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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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