Overall, a readable but distinctly ancillary account.




A study of birds, beasts, fish, and plants that have undone a paradisiacal New World.

Todd, a Montana-based writer, knows well that the true culprits are not rats, starlings, and “Hessian flies,” but the humans who knowingly or unwittingly introduced them into North American ecosystems. Lampreys, once blocked from entrance by the natural barrier of Niagara Falls, now swim in the western Great Lakes because humans built canals to bypass such impediments; nutrias and parakeets now fill the southern swamps and national skies because pet lovers were careless about their charges’ whereabouts; brown trout fill rivers and lakes because wildlife managers put them there. Even so, Todd profiles not thoughtless humans but such dangerously pesky critters as the pigeon, which came to dominate the American cityscape in the 20th century (as she notes, an 1883 article on bird life in New York’s Central Park “curses the flocks of noisy sparrows but doesn’t mention a single pigeon”); the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, which displaced native pollinators (and is now itself being displaced by hybrids); and the mosquito, which, Todd notes, augured the extinction of countless Hawaiian bird species, the victims of avian malaria and other diseases. This study amounts in the end to a skillfully written series of natural-history sketches, but little more. In the face of the ever-quickening destruction of native ecosystems through the introduction of alien species—rabbits in Australia, pine trees in South Africa, kudzu in the southeastern US—Todd is curiously dispassionate. Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America, now 40 years old, is in many ways more urgent, as are more recent books like Jason and Roy van Driesche’s Nature Out of Place and Harold Mooney and Richard Hobbs’s Invasive Species in a Changing World. All are far more useful, too, for readers concerned with environmental issues of the sort Todd touches on.

Overall, a readable but distinctly ancillary account.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-393-04860-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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