THE RAREST OF THE RARE

VANISHING ANIMALS, TIMELESS WORLDS

Intimate, savory portraits of imperiled animals and environments, by the author of A Natural History of Love (1994), etc. Extinction is a natural part of evolution, often "unmalicious, intentionless, random." We humans too are part of the natural matrix and may wish to explain our agency in the extinction process as such—natural, evolutionary. But it is well to remember, advises Ackerman, that mass extinctions—like what is happening right this minute—tend to wipe out the culprits as well, and that means you and me. Ackerman finds our role in the destruction of creatures and places reprehensible; she states, "As a member of the species responsible for their downfall, I feel an urgent need to witness and celebrate them before they vanish." And celebrate them she does, beautifully, in six finely crafted evocations: monk seals and golden lion tamarins, the Florida scrublands and the Amazon, the migration of monarch butterflies. Ackerman drinks in the whole picture; she went to the remote, storm-tossed island of Torishima, off Japan, to observe the short-tailed albatross ("vibrant white, with radiant yellow heads and coral-pink bills tipped in blue"), but she is just as attentive to the landscape, "a glacier of crushed lava . . . ground singed with bright yellow sulphur salts and hot black scabs." As always, she likes her nature raw, "dizzyingly sensuous and deeply spiritual," reveling in the promiscuity of it all, and as for her oft-mentioned anthropomorphism, she has a neat response to the chiding she takes at the tamarin camp: "As a higher primate female, I'm hard-wired to respond to the young of all mammalian species as cute. . . . Think of it as part of my evolutionary program." Smart and polished and totally entertaining, Ackerman is a pure pleasure.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1995

ISBN: 0679776230

Page Count: 206

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1995

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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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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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