A thoughtful, refreshing book with a simple but powerful message: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring...

A journalist explores the relationship between nature and human well-being.

In this upbeat, brightly conversational account, Outside contributing editor Williams (Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, 2012) travels widely to track down the best science behind “our deep, cranial connection to natural landscapes.” Nature restores us, making us “healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other,” she writes, echoing the thinking of writers over the centuries, most recently biologist E.O. Wilson, whose concept of biophilia posits a bond between humans and nature, and Richard Louv, who wrote the important Last Child in the Woods (2008). Williams draws on interviews with psychologists, neuroscientists, and others, as well as experiences on wilderness field trips, in search of credible evidence of nature’s benefits. Her stories of scientific findings are fascinating: how leisurely forest walks have led to decreases in cortisol levels in one study and, in another, to increases in immune-boosting killer T cells in women with breast cancer after two weeks in a forest. In the stress-ridden, rapidly urbanizing Asian nations, the author encountered, with skepticism, “healing forests,” whose smells are said to alleviate disease; the author notes, “the power of belief is hard to overestimate.” In outdoor and nature programs in Finland, Scotland, and elsewhere, she finds much encouraging anecdotal evidence of nature’s benefits. Former military members suffering from PTSD describe the therapeutic effects of a wilderness trip along the Salmon River; adolescents with learning disabilities appear to benefit from outdoor activities. Many scientists are convinced of such benefits, but their studies, however suggestive, have been small, and they leave unresolved the importance of other factors (exercise, social contact, etc.). “These are difficult things to quantify by science,” says one researcher of “the power and mystery of the great outdoors.” Nonetheless, there is no doubt that nature is good for us, concludes Williams.

A thoughtful, refreshing book with a simple but powerful message: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24271-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016



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



Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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