Lovely science writing, and a smart look into where the work of ecological restoration is headed. For oyster-eating and...

THE LIVING SHORE

REDISCOVERING A LOST WORLD

Jacobsen (Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, 2008, etc.) presents a science-rich yet lambent investigation into the fate of the Olympia oyster.

The Olympia’s story is another woeful cautionary tale that humans seem incapable of digesting. Though a rather delicate, slow-growing, high-maintenance creature, the Oly (rhymes with holy) once occupied huge swaths of the intertidal zone from California to Alaska. Its “coppery, smoked-mushroom sweetness” was prized by oyster-lovers across the country. Around the time of the gold rush in California, the first major dent in the oyster populations was recorded. The onslaught of overharvesting and habitat destruction—mostly through pollution, though episodes of freak weather also took a toll—nearly wiped out the entire population. Jacobsen is an artful storyteller, giving the oyster’s story an aching bite. He is also a fine explicator, drawing clearly the pivotal role of the oyster in estuarine health, wherein “oysters are ecosystem engineers” that transform “estuaries from algae factories into the most productive protein factories on earth.” With a small band of researchers—including a member of the Nature Conservancy, which has made the gratifying switch from buying up last great places to preserving ancient, functioning habitats, “maps to the world in its becoming”—Jacobsen took a field trip to Vancouver Island to find patches of Oly that could be used as guides to restoration projects. The author ruminates on some fascinating ideas, from prehistoric clam gardens to the role of shellfish in tool-making to the shoreline-based theory of human origins, which holds that inhabitants of the coast benefited from the easy harvest of brain-enriching fish and shellfish.

Lovely science writing, and a smart look into where the work of ecological restoration is headed. For oyster-eating and other specifics, see the author’s James Beard award winner, A Geography of Oysters (2007).

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59691-684-5

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

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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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