In championing a critically important part of the natural world, Kurlansky sounds an urgent alarm that commands our...

SALMON

A FISH, THE EARTH, AND THE HISTORY OF A COMMON FATE

Having written about milk, salt, oysters, and frozen food, Kurlansky (Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, 2018, etc.) turns his pen to an iconic fish on the brink of extinction.

“How many species do we lose when we lose a salmon?” asks the author toward the end of this handsomely illustrated work of natural history and environmental advocacy. The answer is that we do not know for certain, but the salmon is part of a chain of life that ranges from tiny insects to large mammals and birds. Every species, then, unlocks the door to many other species, and allowing any species to diminish is to threaten the whole web of life. So it is with the salmon. Kurlansky covers all the bases, from life cycle and reproductive history to the fact that the salmon is particularly vulnerable precisely because it spends part of its life in salt water, part in fresh water. The author observes that ideal salmon habitat includes rivers that run clear and clean and that are undammed, which are increasingly rare except in very remote places such as the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, which may turn out to be where salmon make their last stand. Certainly it won’t be on the Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark saw a horizon of flashing fins two centuries ago, whereas “by 1975, a total of 14 dams were blocking the main Columbia River, 13 were on the Snake [River],” numbers that don’t begin to take into account the thousands of smaller dams along the tributaries. Kurlansky offers a dauntingly long list of things that need to happen if the salmon is to be saved, ranging from dismantling dams to checking climate change, restoring forests and apex predators, ending the use of pesticides, and removing homes and roads from riverbanks in favor of galleries of trees. “If we can save the planet,” he writes, “the salmon will be all right." And if not, we must conclude, not.

In championing a critically important part of the natural world, Kurlansky sounds an urgent alarm that commands our attention.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-938340-86-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Patagonia

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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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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