Gift Guide: Best of Science
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 19, 2011
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Jennie Erin Smith put together a gift guide for holiday reading. It’s a nice list, not least because it includes The Species Seekers. (One notable omission, for obvious reasons, was Smith’s own highly praised Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery.) Here are Smith’s recommendations:
What would our lives be like if we were as immersed in nature as we are in technology? Measurably better, says Richard Louv, whose 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” advanced the idea of a “nature-deficit disorder” afflicting young people. In “The Nature Principle” (Algonquin, 317 pages, $24.95), Mr. Louv lays out a patchwork of scientific findings and personal anecdotes to contend that adults, too, suffer from what he defines as “an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us.”The good news, Mr. Louv says, is that it’s never too late to correct your NDD. Set up a bird feeder, join a hiking club, grow food locally, or plant a butterfly garden and you’re on your way to becoming a “high-performance human”—saner, leaner, longer-lived and more enterprising. Mr. Louv’s diagnosis rings true, but his prescriptions can sound shallow and fashionably “green.” Many proven, traditional avenues into lifelong engagement with nature—hunting, fishing, sketching, specimen collecting, journaling—are given little or no attention. There’s something beside the point, too, about Mr. Louv’s promotion of ¬nature-as-therapy, like saying that Zen meditation tones the inner thighs.
Might there be a deeper value in old-fashioned naturalist pursuits, something greater than the sum of their side effects? Several outstanding recent books argue unequivocally that there is.
In an essay collection titled “The Way of Natural History” (Trinity, 204 pages, $45), a group of writers—mostly biologists but also poets, a guitarist, a Buddhist theologian and a former prisoner—discuss why they became naturalists and how they practice their craft. A surprising number got started as adults. One learned the ecology of Big Sur as a soldier, while stationed nearby; another took up birding to lessen the boredom of touring with his band. Most subscribe to the general idea of “nature-deficit disorder,” but the recommendations for reversing it are fairly rigorous compared with Mr. Louv’s.
To become a naturalist—that is, someone with “a working knowledge of a broad slice of the biota, and how the parts fit together with one another and their physical setting,” as contributor and butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle explains it—requires copious reading and long days outdoors, exploring and observing. None of this will necessarily lower your cholesterol or make you a better executive, if that even matters. “Must any sort of practical justification really be invoked?” Mr. Pyle asks. “Isn’t it enough that the pursuit of deep natural history is one of the surest paths toward an entirely earthly state of enlightenment?”
For a sustained dose of inspiration toward that end, a would-be naturalist can fill a Kindle with enough 99-cent natural-history classics—by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Alexander von Humboldt—to last years. Harder to find are the obscure gems of natural-history writing contained in “The Essential Naturalist” (Chicago, 534 pages, $39), a collection of lost or dimly remembered articles unearthed by the book’s assiduous editors.
A pirate, a rural French bug collector, a Soviet mineralogist and a Holy Roman Emperor count among this volume’s contributors. Prince Albert I of Monaco recalls an 1895 whale hunt in which he found himself “gripped down to the marrow” by the sight of the bleeding, suffering beast—until it conveniently vomited up some scientifically valuable giant squid. Ernst Mayer’s account of his youthful expedition to New Guinea in 1928 is studded with jarring references to its “primitive” and “inferior” natives.
The editors have struck many tables and statistics from the original articles, leaving a volume heavy with emotion, surprise and wonder. “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end,” advises contributor Jim Corbett, late hunter and photographer of man-eating tigers. “Open the book where you will, and at any period of your life … No matter how long or how intently you study the pages your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
A fine companion to such a stimulating anthology is Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers (Norton, 464 pages, $27.95), a rollicking group-biography of men and women who collected scientific specimens between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The awful fates of so many of these hardworking field naturalists—shot through with arrows, sickened by parasites, snubbed and slandered by envious museum curators—offer a sobering corrective to Mr. Louv’s prediction that a life engaged in nature will be healthier and more prosperous. And yet, like naturalists today, the species seekers were motivated most of all by “the sense of private joy in small moments of discovery,” Mr. Conniff says, which mitigated the “hunger, loneliness, disease and other hardships of field life.”
If you’re feeling inspired by now, another exceptional collection of essays, “Field Notes in Science and Nature” (Harvard, 297 pages, $27.95), offers practical tips for the born-again naturalist, who, after all, is useless without a notebook. Here biologists, geologists, anthropologists and scientific illustrators open notebooks from all stages of their lives, showing how they record and organize their observations. Some sketch, others paint, some combine graphs and cryptic scrawl making a glorious mess. The point is that their observations don’t go unrecorded and that many seemingly random notations, made during routine or aimless forays, have led to important discoveries. “If there is a heaven,” writes contributor E.O. Wilson, “I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks.”