One of them is surprising: the tree, once little known, “has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth.”...




Nature essay meets true-crime tale.

Canadian journalist Vaillant’s debut begins with a mystery: A beachcombing biologist turns up a broken kayak on the shore of an uninhabited Alaskan island and, lucky day, begins to disassemble it for its parts, only to discover scattered camping gear and other equipment that pointed to either foul play or terrible accident. That suspenseful setup is left hanging as Vaillant switches into ecologist mode, explaining the dynamics of the Northwest’s rainforests, where “there is no graceful interval between the ocean and the trees; the forest simply takes over where the tide wrack ends, erupting full-blown from the shallow, bouldered earth.” On the rainy Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a region of astoundingly tall trees, one stood taller than all others; born around 1700, this “golden spruce” had found a place at the heart of the native universe and had been set aside by generations of loggers who had worked the country. Having provided a history of logging and an appreciation of Haida lifeways, the author moves toward its strange center: the tale of an “upper-middle-class prep school refugee” who had found something approaching refuge in the remote woods and become a master logger, widely praised for the quality of his work. “He was opinionated and eccentric, but he was also a strenuous provider,” Vaillant writes, a sober and industrious fellow who snapped; he now became an anti-logging activist, and somewhere along the way, for reasons of his own, he hit on an idea to commit an act of eco-sabotage that would call attention to the plight of the old-growth forest. Vaillant’s start-and-stop narrative yields whiplash here and there, but he ably covers all the bases: the logger’s actions may have been local, but they had wide-ranging implications, and Vaillant pauses to consider them all.

One of them is surprising: the tree, once little known, “has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth.” Vaillant’s tale of how it got to be so is of unfailing interest.

Pub Date: May 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-393-05887-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2005

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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