Informative, provocative, and engaging, if somewhat out of date.



A debut that blends personal essays and natural history to describe a mountain range in California.

Belli has explored the small group of mountains called the Diablos, located southeast of San Francisco, since he was 3, when his family moved to the nearby foothills. As an adult, he earned a degree in conservation biology at San Jose State University and worked for the National Park Service, surveying the land, animals, and plants in the area. He therefore brings plenty of experience to the 25 essays here. Despite the title, the author offers much more than a diary, competently weaving engaging accounts of his own experiences with information about biology, history, literature, and politics. In “Searching for Dan’l Webster,” for example, he begins by referencing Mark Twain’s 1865 story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Belli infers that Twain’s frog was a California red-leg because “no other frog in the state could jump like that.” He goes on to describe the reasons for the decline of the red-leg population as well as his own six years surveying Coe State Park to track the frogs’ remaining numbers. In “Of Mice and Man,” he relates a tragicomic story of his personal battle with deer mice and tells of the threat of hantavirus. And in “The Harder They Fall,” Belli describes the California condor with such passion and beauty that readers will feel compelled to look up photos of the bird. Most essays focus on animals, but several look at plants, waterways, and native peoples, showing how they’re all connected. His love for the land provides the writings’ main overtone, but a deep anger—sometimes tempered with sardonic wit—lies not far beneath: “One of the cruel truths about developing an appreciation of nature is that you come face-to-face with the stark reality that so much is in peril.” As noted in the introduction, Belli wrote most of these essays 10 years ago or more, often about events that took place earlier. As such, some details are no longer as relevant, but a newer version, perhaps with references, would likely be essential reading.

Informative, provocative, and engaging, if somewhat out of date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5169-0944-5

Page Count: 278

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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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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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.


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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