Well-written and superbly reported.

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THE OYSTER WAR

THE TRUE STORY OF A SMALL FARM, BIG POLITICS, AND THE FUTURE OF WILDERNESS IN AMERICA

An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco.

In her debut, Brennan, a contributor to the Believer, the Rumpus, and other publications, describes a lengthy political and ecological battle involving the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and the agricultural community in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a park preserve in Marin County, California. The “oyster war,” which won national media attention, pitted passionate supporters of the wild against equally vociferous champions of organic farming and resulted in the closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which had been raising oysters in a pristine estuary. Brennan, who grew up in the area and worked for the Point Reyes Light, offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy, from the contentious issue of whether the oyster farm was polluting the estuary (scientific and investigatory reports had uncertain findings) to the unusual array of individuals taking part (including Richard Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman and Senator Dianne Feinstein). The author recounts the history of oystering in America; the mixed uses of the biologically rich Northern California seashore by farmers, hikers, and campers; and how the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protected the area. When the Park Service refused to renew the oyster company’s lease to operate within the park—ostensibly to restore the area to its wilderness condition—legal battles ensued. Brennan interweaves the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals. She confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players, leaving readers to share her wonder at the “false dichotomy” between wild and cultivated landscapes. The oyster war, she writes, was “a story about loss…whether it be the loss of nature or the loss of a way of being in the world that feels sane, where men and women pull sustenance out of the lands and water.”

Well-written and superbly reported.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61902-527-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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