LIVING ON THE WIND

ACROSS THE GLOBE WITH MIGRATORY BIRDS

A tidy and, for all its depth, nimble summation of current thinking on bird migration and attendant environmental themes from Weidensaul (Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians, not reviewed). It is estimated that five billion birds take to the air on annual migrations. Most fly, many making those epic flights from the Arctic to South America. A few comedians, like the blue grouse, prefer to walk to their wintering venues and then back to their summerhouses come the spring. Weidensaul makes it clear from the outset that migration is a process of many parts—each bird, after all, has its own agenda—and he serves forth what is both known and conjectured. The book is broken up into three parts: the southern migration from North America in the autumn, an intermezzo that chronicles Weidensaul’s Latin American travels during the migrants’ wintering, and the return voyage north. Weidensaul ably blends specific behavioral material on individual species, atmospheric place notes as he traipses about following the birds, and theories concerning the hows and whys of migration, including navigation, the search for food, photoperiod triggers (though why he avoids discussion of chronobiology and circadian rhythms is a mystery), irruptions, and fallouts. His writing is full of affection for his subject—about the elbow room needed by cerulean warblers, for instance—and his description of the tens of thousands of hawks he witnessed in a churning, updrafting kettle is astonishing, but he can also crank out a painfully empurpled item on occasion: birds on “wings as fragile as a whisper,” or “aloft in the night air, migrant songbirds have the freedom of angels.” Environmental considerations pepper the book, in particular the role of habitat loss and fragmentation on migratory success that requires ample food, safe havens, and quiet roosts, clean water, and a destination left untampered. Intelligent and broadly inquisitive, Weidensaul provides the kind of revelatory anecdote that allows lay birders (and any other reader) to ratchet their appreciation of the avian world up a significant notch. (maps)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-86547-543-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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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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