Fascinating work, part of the animal research that has led us to redefine intelligence and reconfigure our notion of kinship...

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TO TOUCH A WILD DOLPHIN

From biologist Smolker, evocative field days on a wild Australian coast and thought-inspiring stories of creativity and intelligence in the dolphin world.

For 15 years Smolker has been studying dolphins, tapping into that “simple, vital, powerful, warm-blooded commonality” that binds us to them, two big-brained mammals that seemingly share much despite being so different. Smolker’s years at Shark Bay in the Indian Ocean off Australia were concerned not so much with “How smart are they?” as with “How are they smart?” Since the scientist’s work started during the early days of dolphin research, such questions as how often they have babies and how they are raised, where they travel, what and how do they eat—what they do the live-long day—were necessarily on the agenda. Thus much of the work recounted here in striking, anecdotal episodes touches upon dolphin behavior, from grand societal configurations on through their mean dark sides and on to simple hypotheses concerning such activities as stunning prey with tail flicks or blasts of vocalization. A fascinating chapter deals with the use of tools by dolphins—as in foraging the bottom with a sponge in their mouths to protect against the spines of scorpionfish, while the latter can be used to poke eels from hiding places for a snack. The passing on of these actions from generation to generation displays an example of the cultural tradition of tool use. Smolker’s writing is mostly in the descriptive vein (though there is plenty of speculation), both graceful and suggestive. It's put to good use on one of her walkabouts, during which she explores the terrain around Shark Bay, the raw howling wild that stole her heart.

Fascinating work, part of the animal research that has led us to redefine intelligence and reconfigure our notion of kinship with other species.

Pub Date: March 20, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-49176-X

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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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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H IS FOR HAWK

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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