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: Univ. of Alaska

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2020

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

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: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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