I discovered Janet Lembke when her book River Time (1989) turned up on a relative’s coffee table. I read several more of her books after that, especially enjoying Dangerous Birds (1992) and Despicable Species (1999). Recently, Looking for Eagles turned up on my guest room bookshelf. Very appropriate, as I’ve sighted more eagles in the past four weeks than the previous four years.
Looking for Eagles is subtitled Reflections of a Classical Naturalist. What is a classical naturalist? “The classics” are the ancient Greek and Latin texts that reflect the Greek and Latin worldview, often considered to be the foundation for Western civilization. (No, I’m not getting into the arguments about Western civilization here.)
I’m assuming we can agree on the definition of a naturalist, and to be clear, Lembke is the kind of naturalist who is outside much of the time, wandering in the woods, getting bug bitten and muddy, and sometimes fishing or gardening, but mostly just looking at everything.
In understanding ecology, Lembke depends on the usual academic fields (ornithology, entomology, etc.) but also searches classical mythology to find out what the Greeks and Roman thought about the creatures and ecosystems they observed. (They often got things wrong.) She examines scientific nomenclature, which relies heavily but not exclusively on the Greek and Latin languages.
The result is a book full of interesting observations and comments. I especially like her chapter “The Wind-Egg”, about birds and their eggs and nests. I’ll spend more time looking for nests this Spring. The river in River Time and the location of Looking for Eagles is the Neuse River in the North Carolina coastal plain. The river and its surroundings are threatened by sea level rise and increasing storm activity.
Lembke’s literary output was broad ranging. She produced several important translations from classical Greek and more than a dozen works of non-fiction, including a (soup) cookbook in 2001. I’m particularly curious about The Quality of Life: Living Well, Dying Well (2004) and her last book Chickens: Their Natural and Unnatural Histories (2012).
I really wish Lembke had lived to finish her memoir, I Married an Arsonist.
As climate change presses itself on us more and more intrusively, the reflections of naturalists increase in importance. I recommend Janet Lembke’s books to everyone concerned about the impact of climate change on ecosystems.