Tag Archives: natural history

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

Candlelight Labyrinth and Night Hike

Two years ago, I celebrated Christmas and the winter solstice at a candlelight labyrinth. (See my blog entry of January 5, 2014.) This year I walked another candlelight labyrinth. It was offered on the beach at Brigantine. The weather was cool and windy, and the moon almost full. Lovely!

Two nights later I discovered another activity that offers the same sense of peace and opportunity for reflection. I walked a Pine Barrens sand road at night! It was closer to home and required no coordination of schedules.

What got me out into the Pine Barrens at night, on Christmas Eve, no less? I’m married to a naturalist/ecologist. Happily, he studies LOCAL ecosystems, not the rain forest or tundra, so he has research sites in our back yard (literally) and within a few minutes drive from home. Christmas Eve was warm and wet, so he invited me to join him looking for moths.

As usual, we took the precaution of notifying the property owner. We don’t want to be mistaken for “prowlers”! Then we stepped into the woods.

Finding moths requires the use of flashlights, and we were suitably equipped, but it was bright enough to walk without them much of the time. We were prepared for rain, but the weather was changing and the clouds broke up. We were treated to occasional moonlight, sometimes quite bright. We couldn’t resist taking photos with our cell phones, trying for the artsy black and white effect.

I wore rubber rain boots, which allowed me to feel the path beneath my feet. At a slow pace, I found walking in the darkness comfortable and safe.

What reminded me of the labyrinth was the fact that the paths we followed were sandy and often quite bright. After an hour of rambling, I felt adjusted to the darkness and pleasantly calm.

It wasn’t a great night for moths. My husband collected a dozen or so. But that’s what makes natural history interesting. You don’t know what you will find! We heard peepers (really shouldn’t be there in December), geese (barking like dogs) and other birds we couldn’t identify.

I highly recommend a night hike when you have the opportunity. In the Pine Barrens, if you are lucky enough to be here!

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

“Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon” by John Hemming

“Naturalists in Paradise”

https://nearctictraveller.wordpress.com/2015/08/

This highly enjoyable book was reviewed by another blogger (see link above), so I will limit my comments to the last chapter, where Hemming discusses the lives of the three explorers after their Amazon travels. In particular, he describes their books and other publications, some of which would be worth tracking down. The three scientists made amazing contributions to the advance of science. They also erred. “The greatest error made by…these observers…was to equate luxuriant tropical vegetation with rich soil.” Interesting! Many decades passed before the flaws in this logic were understood.

Hemming summarizes some of the work that the three explorers did outside the field of natural history. Most important were the observations they made pertaining to indigenous and isolated groups of people.

The three explorers knew and corresponded with most of the other great scientists of their time, including Charles Darwin.

Hemming, by the way, adds a few observations from his own contemporary travels in the countries visited. I appreciated this, though it would have interfered if he hadn’t been so restrained. I’m sure he has tales to tell!

This quotation from Richard Spruce clarifies the motivation of these scientists and expresses their passionate relationship to the natural world.

I look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life and after death may adorn my herbarium…(Even if they have no medicinal or commercial value to man) they are infinitely useful where God has placed them… They are at the least useful to and beautiful in themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.

Emphasis added. Scientists are sometimes accused of cold detachment. This makes is clear that they may, in fact, pursue their work out of love.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.