Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Holiday gift books from 2005: Nature, Environment and Science

Encounters with our given world
by William S. Kowinski

by Mark Tredinnick.
Trinity University Press.

Mark Tredinnick calls them “encounters,” with the kind of care for parsing both words and experience that characterizes this author’s approach to what others might just call profiles of four prominent “nature writers” (another troublesome term, especially to these writers): Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin.

In a lovely essay called “The Job is To Pour Your Heart Out,” Edward Hoagland writes, “I believe, incidentally, that those of us who care about bears and frogs haven’t much time left to write about them, not just because---among the world’s other emergencies---a twilight is settling over them, but because people are losing their capacity to fathom any form of nature except, in a more immediate sense, their own.”

These four writers grapple with both problems, which pushes them to more public roles as advocates and activists. They (and the author) also rebel against the usual notion and sometimes past practice of nature writing as being pretty and ornamental, or even as separating humanity from the active context of nature. They are all engaged in “Encounters with Nature” (the title of a collection of Paul Shepard essays.)

Tredinnick’s style is recursive and meditative. He burrows into his subject. But he is also journalistic enough to keep the magazine-fed reader focused on the issues that concern him and the writers involved. The result is a thoughtful book of pith and moment, a good winter’s read, with the emotional seeds of a regenerative spring.

It’s too bad that Tredinnick couldn’t include his planned profiles of Native author Linda Hogan and anthropologist Richard Nelson, with his intensive experience in one of the last remaining indigenous peoples still living close to their traditional lives in nature, because the Native perspective is too often missing from nature/environmental writing. Still, including Peter Matthiessen, with his books on contemporary Indians of the American West and his experience and practice in Tibetan Buddhism as well as his exemplary books on birds and other naturalist subjects, covers a lot of good ground.

These are writers, insistent on literary encounters in the context of their lives with nature, who produce novels and poetry as well as memoir and nonfiction, which these days is often categorized with the redundancy, “creative.”

“A writer’s job is to pour his heart out,” Hoagland concludes, "and whether his immediate concern is the death of whales and rhinos or the death of civilization, there will be plenty of chances…to do so.” These writers, including Tredinnick, do just that.

TERRA ANTARCTICA: Looking into the Emptiest Continent
by William L. Fox.
Trinity University Press.

It’s the Ghost continent, not only because its peculiarities induce hallucinations and its solitudes inspire humans like Peter Hillary to converse with the dead (as he relates in his recent, peculiar book on an Antarctic trek, “In the Ghost Country”). Besides its forbidding yet beckoning white immensities where explorers have died, and the tantalizing sense of its own brilliant mysteries at the heart of things, this continent gains new notoriety as the place where civilization’s fate is sealed in the ice: if this eternally frozen fastness were to fail, the ice thundering down will rush instant Armageddon to most of the world’s seaside capitals.

Even with Greenland’s ice melting and the Arctic threatening to dissolve, the major fear for global heating’s instant cataclyism is if the Antarctic’s mighty Ross Ice Shelf were to split and partly drop into the ocean, immediately raising the global sea level high enough to drown the coastal cities of the other continents.

But even before this possibility started to sink in, Antarctica existed for most people as stories and images, changing over time. So vast and strange was this continent that mid-19th century explorers didn’t even try to capture it in primitive photographs, Fox writes---only the scope and perspective of drawings could hope to convey a sense of the place. Even with today’s technology and the resulting mountains of information, Antarctica resists being captured. It still slips away like a phantom. Yet we know better than ever that it is not a dead place, even without penguins marching.

William L. Fox brings formidable credentials to this huge place. He’s won institutional approbation as a writer and scholar, but he also walks the walk, as a climber and Himalyayan guide, and a scout in the Arctic for NASA.

It all pays off in this book, which is at once an account of three months spent in several areas of the Antarctica, the lives and work there of other researchers, and a survey of the history of human exploration and other encounters with the Antarctic, physical, scientific and artistic. For once the adspeak cliché is appropriate: if you read only one book about Antarctica, you won’t go wrong choosing this one.


EVOLUTION IN FOUR DIMENSIONS: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral
and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
With illustrations by Anna Zeligowski
MIT Press.

BEFORE DARWIN: Reconciling God and Nature
By Keith Thomson
Yale University Press.

Darwin's theory of evolution remains the most socially important and scientifically generative theory in the 21st century so far, as it was in the 20th and 19th. These two excellent books that advance knowledge of Darwinian evolution and Darwin himself. Full reviews HERE.

by Carl N. McDaniel
Trinity University Press.

So it's been 35 years since the first Earth Day and the world is still a mess. It's not that we haven't learned a lot and done a lot, just not enough. How far we've come in understanding the extent and nature of the problems, in devising and carrying out solutions, and especially in communicating that understanding and getting politicians and the public to listen, can be gleaned from this book consisting of profiles of eight environmental visionaries. Full review here.

by Gordon M. Burghardt
MIT Press

Professor of psychology and ecology Gordon M. Burghardt examines and analyzes the "mysterious" and "enigmatic" phenomena of animal play. A fascinating way into the realities of our fellow animals, and inevitably a comment on ourselves. Full review here.

AFTER THE ICE: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC
by Steven Mithen
Harvard University Press
Among other things, Mithen skillfully sums up the various discoveries and controversies over the settlement of the Americas. This wideranging approach to the latest research updates in an engaging way a broad overview of how humans became human and engaged the whole planet.
Review here.

BIG BANG: The Origin of the Universe
By Simon Singh
Fourth Estate/Harpercollins.

Despite its title, this book is not about the Big Bang or the origin of the universe. It is a history of some of the major discoveries, theories, personalities and controversies that contributed to the basic Big Bang explanation and its present acceptance. It is essentially a textbook on cosmology in Western science from before Copernicus, and a conservative one (in a scientific sense) at that. Simon Singh, best known for his TV documentary ("Proof") and best- selling book ("Fermat's Enigma"), has written a decent chronicle of the making of this theory,with an interesting through-line is the story of how science works in the real world context of personalities, professional relationships and political, economic and religious interests. Good choice for high school and college students. My SF Chronicle review here.

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