February 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The World Outside

When it comes to getting outside, the Victorians really set the standard. These are the folks that developed the whole fabulous “cabinet of curiosities” craze, turned museums into places that were full of cool stuff, and made rock stars out of people like Charles Darwin (not that he needed much help in that department). While scholars have heaped tons of praise on the individuals who crisscrossed the globe uncovering all sorts of historical artifacts, it’s no surprise that the early women archaeologists have often been overlooked. Amanda Adams (author of A Mermaid’s Tale) provides seven short biographies of some names you should know, and their contributions to their field in her latest book. The fact that these women had fascinating personal stories as well makes Ladies of the Field a truly riveting read, and one that any lover of kick-ass heroines is going to love.

In short, erudite chapters Adams writes about Amelia Edwards on the Nile; Jane Dieulafoy who famously cross-dressed her way with her husband into the Middle East; Zelia Nuttall, “Mexico’s Archaeological Queen” (I have never read about her anywhere -- how is that possible?); Gertrude Bell (of course); Harriet Boyd Hawes, who was inspired by an Amelia Edwards lecture and defied harsh gender politics of the day to discover the famous Gournia site in Greece (and also love with fellow archaeologist Charles Henry Hawes); and Dorothy Garrod, who suffered the trauma of World War I, conducted fieldwork all over the world, and yet left so few records, she has remained a mystery.

And then there’s Agatha Christie, whose life story is as thrilling as any of her novels -- and way more interesting. (She was “Archeology’s Big Detective,” writes Adams, but I have to say it is the impressive way she bounced back from a colossal heartbreak that is most admirable.)

It is clear from reading these biographical sketches that Adams is as much a fan of the work as she is the women who accomplished it. Quoting Amelia Edwards in 1842, she writes “archaeology is that subject where ‘the interest never flags -- the subject never stales -- the mine is never exhausted.’ Archaeology never stales because it keeps reinventing the big story of us.” This will not be news to any fan of Indiana Jones, but the effort exerted by the women of Ladies of the Field just to be allowed to pursue their chosen subject is mind-boggling. It is particularly galling that women had to prove themselves over and over again -- that Harriet Boyd Hawes should be turned away because she was a woman even after Edwards, Bell, and so many others had already provided ample proof that being a woman had nothing to do with being an archaeologist. (Sigh.)

Modern readers will find the chapter on Bell to be especially interesting, in light of the Iraq War and her deep involvement in forming that country. But really these are all characters worthy of many biographies, novels, and big screen biopics. It is Dorothy Garrod, the first female professor at Cambridge, that has stayed with me. After losing three brothers and possibly the man she loved in the Great War, her accomplishments on the field were significant, but in the ivory towers of learning, she struggled and became unhappy. “University life was oppressive to Garrod,” writes Adams. “She stayed on as faculty until 1954, continuing her fieldwork and research when possible but at the age of sixty she retired, happily, and like some bird that had once been caged, she bolted, wings spread, toward her ‘years of fulfillment’ back in the field.” I’m so glad she made it and that, perhaps, is the biggest message of Ladies of the Field: these women all took a chance on seeking and learning and they found it in the most unlikely of places and careers. (More on Garrod, from the scholar who located her long lost papers in 1997, can be found here.)

James Prosek is best known for his nature memoirs such as The Complete Angler: A Connecticut Yankee Follows in the Footsteps of Walton and Fly-Fishing the 41st: From Connecticut to Mongolia and Home Again: A Fisherman's Odyssey, which both include the gorgeous artwork he first debuted in Trout: An Illustrated History. Prosek has carved out an interesting niche for himself as a wildlife (primarily fish) artist, but now couples that with extensive research on his chosen subjects. He is a writer who blends deep thoughts and images on the outdoors and outdoor life in a way that I think is particularly appealing to teen readers. (A large part of the appeal will also be due to his age -- he was only 21 when Trout was published.)

In his new book, Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish, Prosek takes on not only the history and biology of this unique fish, but also delves deeply into its mythology and cultural impact. In perhaps his most personal title to date, he travels to distant locales to study eel behavior and talk to people who know them best. On this quest he finds himself immersed in the Maori traditions of New Zealand, and uncovers how an animal can not only represent physical nourishment to a people, but spiritual sustenance as well. This is also where he runs up against a clash between science and soul as he hears the first challenges to just why all the eel’s secrets must be known:

Don Jellyman, probably the most famous ichthyologist in New Zealand… was delivering a paper on their attempts to track large migrant eels from the river mouth to their spawning ground with tags. He explained that the ten satellite pop-up tags attached to ten large female eels had provided very little clear data about where the spawning was located. When Don sat down, Kelly Davis… got up to represent the Maori point of view. He addressed Don directly, in front of everyone. “Our ancestors have known for thousands of years that the glass eels come up the river in the spring, and the adults migrate out in the fall. Why do you need to know where they go? What good will it do the fish to find the house where they breed?” Of course, there was very little Don could say.

Prosek seeks that “house” as well -- in the Sargasso Sea and other places. While he can see the significance of knowing more about the eel in order to protect it (freshwater eels are declining due to all the usual suspects: dams, overfishing, pollution, etc.), it is the powerful way in which so many different people connect with the eel, from New Zealand to the Catskill Mountains that ends up intriguing him far more. In a lot of ways he has bridged a gap with Eels, creating a nature title that is as much about the animal as the people, as much about place as heart and mind. He has managed to write a thoroughly scientific title (you will learn more about the eel than you ever imagined you would want to know), but also a lyrical memoir as well. And he doesn’t cut himself any slack either, pointing out his own foibles and preconceived notions when meeting eel enthusiasts. I’m not sure if I would consider Eels a travel title or personal memoir (and it’s certainly nothing like the trend started by Eat, Pray, Love), but this is a story that only Prosek could tell. Another naturalist would not have approached it in the same way, or included the same personal interactions, or considered so much what eels mean to those who know them. He’s not like any other nature writer out there, and his frankness and curiosity makes him very teen-friendly. Plus he gets out there -- wherever he needs to go -- in pursuit of his subject. First trout and now eels: James Prosek doesn’t pick the subjects you expect to care about, but once he makes them his own, they are irresistible. This is a very cool book.

If we’re going to talk about seeing the world, then we have to mention the ultimate traveler (or at least one of my top ten): Charles Darwin. Niles Eldredge, and Susan Pearson have a new biography out on the naturalist, Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries. While it covers familiar ground (pretty much every aspect of his life has been studied to the thousandth degree at this point), the format here is very teen-friendly, and the authors’ head-on challenge to those who deny the theory of evolution is refreshing. This is a straightforward account of Darwin’s life and work, and an excellent choice for reluctant older readers. I found it enjoyable to read -- it's filled with interesting sidebars that frame Darwin’s life in his times and also exploring a variety of subjects tangential to his research (such as Galapagos turtles, who unfortunately were easy to keep alive onboard ship, and thus became the best “takeout meals” any sailor could wish for). (I hated writing that, by the way.)

What really made Mystery of Mysteries rock for me, though, were the final pages where the revolutionary nature of Darwin’s work is addressed. The authors write, “…he could explain how species can change: by natural selection. Natural, not divine selection. No mention was made of a Creator; Darwin’s evidence showed that natural processes produced changes in species.” The shocking nature of Darwin’s conclusions have reverberated to this day, especially in America, and this is where Mystery of Mysteries leaps from standard historical text to something much more powerful:

Sometimes people object that evolution is “only a theory,” as thought there is a scale of credibility with “fact” on top, “theory” somewhere in the middle, and “lie” at the bottom. In science, however, all the important ideas are theories. Scientific theories never become facts, they explain facts. This is an important distinction that many people do not understand. Facts do not change. Theories that explain how and why the facts are what they are can change.

The conclusion, the book’s final sentence, makes the only point you need to know: “Evolution by natural selection is a theory, yes -- but it is one of the most powerful theories ever proposed in modern science.”

For older readers, Darwin’s Garden: Down House and the Origin of the Species by Michael Boulter looks deeper into the home that nurtured Darwin’s creative spark and helped him pull together his notes and theories. A lot has been written about Darwin’s relationship with his family (especially his wife) and his friends, but considering where he lived and worked is an interesting new approach. It’s also very cool that you can still visit Down House and soak up the atmosphere and envision Darwin on his daily walks.

Budding naturalists are going to find more here than just the story of a man at work in his home, however, as Darwin relied on the Down House grounds as a sort of real-life laboratory that carried an enormous impact on his conclusions. Boulter painstakingly recalls years of research as Darwin witnessed changes over time on the landscape. (The research detailed in the final pages is exceedingly well done.) He explains, "Darwin’s careful observations of the commonplace along the Sandwalk and in the garden at Down and in the fields of Kent and Sussex told him about the distribution of closely related species."

While the things he saw on the Beagle voyage were paramount to his theory of evolution, it was watching small change over time that provided crucial support to Darwin’s suppositions. Boulter makes clear that he needed the quiet country respite as much as the grand voyage, and the combination of the two was what allowed him those careful leaps of logic. Of course, it is also Down House that gave Darwin the necessary grace as he struggled against debilitating illness and family tragedy; one can not help but wonder in fact if he would have produced anything without that place to shelter him. This might be the biggest lesson for readers as it shows science does not happen in a vacuum; life gets in the way for everyone and reading On the Origin of Species without acknowledging where it was written is only telling half the story.

If you want to emulate Prosek or Darwin, then a title like Chris Packham's The Practical Naturalist from DK Books and the Audubon Society is a great way to show you how. With DK’s trademark full color photography and exemplary layout, The Practical Naturalist takes readers from what they need (cameras to field notebooks to boots) to the variety of different environments you might explore and what to look for there. This prevents the book from being limited in any way -- from forest to coast to tundra, every region is covered. The authors have closeups on plants and flowers, an excellent section on what you will find in your own backyard (birds, butterflies and bees), and there are even unexpected exploration suggestions like flowers that flourish alongside railroad tracks and bird feeders that see wintertime activity. It’s a perfect package, an excellent introduction to the subject, and the sort of guide to being a naturalist that any outdoor loving kid (or teen) could embrace. I love a title that delivers on its promise, and The Practical Naturalist does all that and more.

Robert B. Haas uses his unique perspective as a National Geographic photographer to showcase some stunning aerial shots in I Dreamed of Flying Like a Bird: My Adventures Photographing Wild Animals from a Helicopter. This is a very pretty book -- the pictures are alternately surprising, humorous and always affecting and coupled with the text, which explains each shot, it can only be considered the most inspiring sort of title for any would-be outdoor photographer. Haas is rather self-effacing (don’t expect daring tales of hanging out windows or nearly being eaten by crocodiles), and makes it all seem remarkably possible, as if capturing the “miracle of flamingos” isn’t rather, well, miraculous. I Dreamed of Flying will work for the youngest of readers who will delight in the action-packed photos, while teens will be intrigued by the life Haas has led. The text is brief but interesting (it would be nice to see a longer book by Haas in the future), but the pictures are what you come for here -- and they don’t disappoint.

The Scientists in the Field series had two recent entries of folks at work in the great outdoors that I think introduce interesting situations to readers. Both Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery (with photos by Nic Bishop) and Project Seahorse by Pamela S. Turner (with photos by Scott Tuason) have the trademark writing style and illustrations that readers of the series have come to expect, and both are excellent additions to any library (personal or public). They are no-brainers for classroom study. What I really liked about them, though, was that they went to unexpected places, and showed just how far a writer (or scientist) can go in pursuit of their own natural curiosity.

Montgomery will be familiar to readers for Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia and The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea, as well as her many titles for adult readers. As usual, she immerses herself in a relatively offbeat subject by following the massive effort to save New Zealand’s Kakapo, the “world’s strangest parrot.” Project Seahorse goes one step further, however, showing not only how the founders of the organization came to study the seahorse and become concerned about its habitat, but also how their organization has literally changed the world. From working with local people to change fishing methods, to advising governments on how to create marine protection areas, Project Seahorse illustrates how a “bottom-up” strategy to handling an environmental crisis can often be the best and most successful method. The title is full of photos of college students hard at work in the water, studying the reefs, making it clear that young people can have a powerful and long-ranging impact on a problem. While other Scientists in the Field titles have gotten more press, for my money there are few better than Project Seahorse. It's an excellent blueprint for how to make a difference, and the positive results catalogued here can not be discounted. Turner and Tuason are not just showing what scientists do, but what anyone can do in order to effect positive change. This series just keeps getting better and better, and is by far one of the best ways to show young people why outside is the place for this generation to find its way.

COOL READ: Since I’ve mentioned Darwin so much in this column, I couldn’t overlook Jay Hosler’s latest graphic novel, which is quite Darwinian. I was impressed with his earlier titles, Clan Apis and The Sandwalk Adventures (a Darwin title for kids), but Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth is really a treat. With illustrators Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, Hosler takes readers into the royal classroom on another planet (where the aliens are blobs worthy of classic Saturday morning cartoons), and provides the whole history of evolution on planet Earth. All the classics are here, from the primordial ooze to the dinosaurs to Darwin (of course!), but between Hosler’s sense of humor and the Mr. Peabody and Sherman-esque depictions of the curious aliens, this is the most unexpected book on evolution that you may ever come across. You get the half-life of uranium explained in a way that your earth science teacher would never occur to use (or at least mine didn’t -- thanks for nothing, Mrs. Moen); the sad saga of the Moa, lost forever; and a little Edgar Allen Poe and “The Raven” thrown in to really make the whole tragedy that much more tragic. And funny. If you think snarky ravens are funny (which I do).

There is nothing new in Evolution but it should be the go-to book for anyone with a sense of humor who is curious about the subject, but unsure of how to approach it. Every reluctant teen reader needs this one to be assigned (whether in high school or college), and the smart-asses in the seventh grade will be over the moon about it. Science books (especially these days) aren’t known for making readers laugh, but Hosler and crew accomplish that. They inform, educate, and crack us up all at the same time. Evolution is something special, and further proof just how gifted this author is. Check out all his stuff -- you won’t be disappointed.