Books Galore: Natural World

Audubon’s birds, polar bears, fish, sharks — a selection of natural history favorites from terrific writers  such as Dr. E.O. Wilson (author of 28 books!) and  Mark Kurlansky (Cod, Salt, Birdseye). More will be posted during Christmas Week. Check back with us!

Audubon's Aviary (Skira Rizzoli)

Audubon’s Aviary (Skira/Rizzoli)

Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America, Roberta J. M. Olson. (Skira Rizzoli) 10.5 x 13 inch volume, 448 pp.  $85. This is a showcase of 474 watercolors that Haitian-born John James Audubon did for creating The Birds of America. In addition, the book offers the backstory of how the young explorer, naturalist, and self-trained artist painted hundreds of bird images over three decades. A deluxe edition is also available at $200. Watch the video from Rizzoli and article on Audubon’s Aviary

America’s Other Audubon, Joy M. Kiser. (Princeton Architectural Press, $45). It’s a happy coincidence that when Kiser arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for her first day on the job, she spied an exhibition case with lithographs from a book of illustrations of bird nests and eggs. Her curiosity paid off – although her project ultimately took nearly 15 years. The Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, created by native Ohioan  Genevieve Jones, and then by her family, is a remarkable story of a young talent cut short (she died from typhoid fever at age 32) and the commitment they shared to complete what she had begun. It took seven years for them to complete the lithos of 130 birds of Ohio, along with their nests and eggs. While most of the original 100 sets of prints on the finest paper have largely disappeared, this volume reproduces the original art work for the first time. T Magazine story (NY Times) and Review

Bird Song Bible: The Complete, Illustrated Reference for North American Birds is a 536-page reference book that features some 750 North American birds and a built-in digital audio player that brings their songs to life. Edited by Les Beletsky, featuring audio sounds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 750 color illustrations, 750 maps, electronic sound module and carrying case! (Chronicle Books) Hardcover $100-125. Fun video shows demo of the Bird Song Bible.

White Shark Courtesy of Wiki Commons

White Shark Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks, Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon) 295 pp $26.95. Now in paperback. In 400 million years of evolutionary history, sharks have proved to be survivors (remember the dinosaurs, woolly mammoth and saber tooth tiger?). Now their fate is much more problematic, owing to what Washington Post writer Juliet Eilperin calls the insatiable demand for their fins: “…[S]hark fin soup’s amazing secret… is one of the greatest scams of all time, an emblem of status whose most essential ingredient adds nothing of material value.” From 1996 to 2003, the yearly catch was 73 million sharks; now Hawaii has banned shark fishing (along with the Maldives and Palau) but the emptying of the oceans goes on. Eilperin includes historical-cultural text in her book—the Aztecs revered sharks, the Chinese have been eating shark flesh since the 12th century. Kudos too for her firsthand research: she has swum with whale sharks, black tips, lemon sharks and even great whites (as a new mother). Who could be a better reporter-advocate for the ocean’s top predator ? Review and radio interview

Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish, James Prosek (Harper) 287 pp $25.99. Available in hardcover and paper. Most of us are familiar with the genus Anguilla as something smoked sitting atop a nice bed of white rice in our favorite Japanese eatery. There’s so much more to learn – it’s actually fascinating – and Prosek is there to show us through his writing and his paintings. If you are unaware, the eel’s life cycle is catadromy: it spawns in saltwater and migrates to fresh water, becoming a world traveler in pursuit of both. “As adults, some eels will live for a hundred years in a tiny pond while waiting for a storm to come and wash them back out to sea. In the process they may grow until they have ‘heads on ’em like a full-grown Labrador dog,’ as one Maori puts it to Prosek.” Prosek’s travel in search of science and lore takes him from New York’s Catskills Mountains to traditional Maori eeling grounds. Review and Excerpt (must scroll down)

World without Fish: Mark Kurlansky’s meticulously researched books (Cod, Salt, Birdseye) have a shelf-mate  (now in paperback) that outlines how we are destroying ocean life – and, no surprise, how it will impact the whole planet. The illustrated book (Workman, 2011, $16.95) — with a graphic novel by Frank Stockton interposed in its pages – is intended for a young audience too, but Kurlansky’s powerful message and facts are good for all ages. Q&A with Kurlansky

 The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear, Kieran Mulvaney (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 251 pp $26. Native hunters venerate the polar bear, but what about the rest of us? There is an insistent tone in this book, and it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. After all, habitat destruction and climate change are the legacy we have given to the far northern places where the polar bear lives and sits atop the food chain with a very specialized diet (seal fat not red meat protein). The end is coming for the polar bear, and that makes this book a much tougher read.  Commentary and review 

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson at The Exploratorium

The Social Conquest of the Earth, Edward O. Wilson (Liveright, W.W. Norton, 330 pp, $27.95). Although he’s an entomologist, EO Wilson is known for ruffling feathers. Mixed metaphors aside, Dr. Wilson, now 83, has published his 28th book; this one is #27 (he has two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing) and it’s got some in the evolutionary development community (the evo devo crowd) hopping mad as he investigates  eusocial species –i.e. humans and certain insect species exist in communities, live with multiple generations, and perform acts of altruism for each other. While his mid-1970’s work Sociobiology had critics who rejected his premise (species advance through cooperation and collaboration with kin selection), this new work is basically a disagreement with (or repudiation of) his earlier work. No one can say better what’s in EO Wilson’s head than himself. But suffice it to say, if you pick up this book you’ll be intrigued and challenged, and learn more than a thing or two from one of the brightest minds on the planet. Video 

NYTimes Review and Q & A

Horseshoe Crab Mating Encyclopedia of Life/Asturnut

Horseshoe Crab Mating Encyclopedia of Life/Asturnut

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Left Behind, Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf, 332 pp illus $28.95) The “old timers” is what we might call them, the species that have survived multiple mass extinctions. Fortey calls them “messengers from deep geological time.” If you live on the East Coast, chances are you’ve bumped into a horseshoe crab carcass or two  that has floated off a Delaware beach.  Terribly imperiled and probably destined for extinction by the actions of our species, this keystone species lays eggs that are an invaluable food supply for migrating turtles and shorebirds; its blood (it’s blue ) is used for human medical tests. Now retired from the Natural History Museum, London, Fortey has deep writing credentials and the natural curiosity to follow a lot of different survivors (lungfish, musk oxen, sponges, jelly fish) along the way. He’s mad as hell that the human species is hastening the end of many of these things he loves. “There’s no meteorite this time… just us, prospering at the expense of other species.” Fortey multiple video segments . New York Times review

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, Nathan Wolfe. (Macmillan) 304 pp illus $26. Now available in paperback. The New Yorker once called virologist Nathan Wolfe “the world’s most prominent virus hunter.” As director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, he’s usually at work in Central Africa where he’s worked for a decade, trying to identify emerging infections before they turn into full-scale pandemics. Viruses have proved capable of jumping from animals to humans  (HIV’s a good example). Native hunters are butchering bushmeat for human consumption– e.g. our evolutionary cousins (nonhuman primates) as well as bats, wild pigs and monkeys—which puts them in intimate, dangerous contact with blood and organs. In his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Wolfe notes,” There are organizations around the world that we’re in active discussions with on ways we can introduce novel sources of animal protein that will allow people to have different sources of protein so they’re not forced to hunt animal game. But most of our mission is to understand what’s crossing over [from animals to humans] and to catch it early.”  Book excerpt and TED Presentation