A well-written and deeply intriguing collection of essays on humans and nature in Alaska.

ENTANGLED

PEOPLE AND ECOLOGICAL CHANGE IN ALASKA'S KACHEMAK BAY

A veteran biologist and longtime Alaska resident explores the region’s Indigenous and natural history.

In this debut volume of nature essays, Sigman applies the ecology concept of “shifting baselines” —essentially, establishing a new sense of normal after a significant change—to her own life and to Homer, Alaska, and the surrounding Kachemak Bay, where she has resided for many years. The book’s pieces draw on the author’s work as a researcher and environmental educator. They focus on the connections between the changing populations of fish, mollusks, and marine mammals and the shifts in the human population, both the region’s Indigenous communities and the waves of settlers who have migrated from the United States mainland to Alaska for more than a century. The essays are both informative and enjoyable reads, as Sigman does an excellent job of conveying scientific topics to nonspecialist readers. “In the Spirit of the Lamp” shows how the prehistory of a location is deeply connected to its present. In “The Silver Horde,” the author makes an effective comparison between artificially breeding salmon and driving a Prius, each solving one problem while contributing to another. The prose is vivid (“Parents exchanged nest duties with courteous butler-like bows before the stay-at-home mom or dad flew off to forage along the north shore”), and the essays provide a clear sense of place and belonging. Readers will discover that Alaska’s environmental problems are complex and layered, with competing interests vying for supremacy and outcomes that are clear only in the long term—halibut overfishing, for instance, or the challenges of managing salmon hatcheries. “The Bidarki Story” is one of the collection’s strongest essays, following a graduate student’s shellfish research that succeeds by treating the Indigenous bidarki harvesters as scientific partners rather than passive subjects. Readers who have never been to Alaska will come away with a clear sense of the landscape and the wildlife and people who inhabit it as well as an appreciation for the work of ecologists.

A well-written and deeply intriguing collection of essays on humans and nature in Alaska.

Pub Date: March 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60223-348-5

Page Count: 250

Publisher: University of Alaska Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2020

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

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LAB GIRL

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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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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