Learning To Appreciate Wasps

Wasps are one of the least appreciated creatures on the planet, but we have always suspected they deserve some respect. We just never investigated why that might be the case. So, our thanks to the Guardian for bringing this book to our attention in an article titled Why we should all love wasps:

Wasps have always had a bad press. But Dr Seirian Sumner, who has spent her life studying them, argues they are sophisticated, socially complex and essential to the environment

In The Wasp Woman, a 1959 B-movie directed by Roger Corman, the owner of a failing cosmetics company becomes the test subject for a novel anti-ageing formula manufactured from the royal jelly of wasps. Continue reading

Camping, The Book Review

A recent book by the historian Phoebe S. K. Young explores what, exactly, camping is, and how the pursuit intersects with protest culture, homelessness, and identity. Illustration by Sally Deng

We have not featured much on camping recently, but some old favorites come to mind when reading this book review titled The Confounding Politics of Camping in America by Dan Piepenbring:

For centuries, sleeping outside has been embraced or condemned, depending on who’s doing it.

By the eighteen-seventies, the society pages of Scribner’s Monthly could no longer hide it: the “American pleasure-seeking public” had run out of places to seek their pleasure. Summer after summer, vacationers resigned themselves to “broiling in a roadside farm-house” among the “odor of piggery and soap-suds.” Or they visited costly resort towns, finding “more anxious swarming crowds than those left behind.” Continue reading

Sensory Loading, Overloading & Unloading

Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell
In early August, 2007 we arrived in a leafy suburb on the north side of Atlanta. We had spent the previous year living on this island, where doors did not have locks and during the daytime the only man-made sounds tended to be those of fishing boats coming and going. At night on that island there were no noises other than nature’s, including small waves hitting the shores and in summertime the crickets. On the first night in Atlanta I opened the window to let in the night air, and the sound of the superhighway, a mile or so away, was distracting enough that I had to close the window to sleep. It’s not that I had not appreciated the quiet of the island, but I was surprised by how much I had adapted to it. The opening of this book review, for these reasons, resonates with my own experience:

Sounds Wild and Broken review – a moving paean to Earth’s fraying soundtrack

David George Haskell’s often wonderful book explores some of the lost frequencies of nature – heard clearly again during Covid’s initial human hush

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. Continue reading

Convivial Conservation

Click on this image to go to the page where the illustrative video about convivial conservation is embedded

New to me, but not new, is this pairing of words that have a magical ring to them when said together:

Convivial Conservation

Convivial (literally: ‘living with’) conservation offers a new and integrated approach to understanding and practicing environmental conservation. It is a Whole Earth vision that responds to the major ecological, social and political-economic challenges facing people and biodiversity in the 21st century

Click on the image above to watch a short video introducing the concept, and click to the right to read more about the book. Click here to read more about ongoing research on this topic. Anyone following our posts on this platform for the last decade+ will have seen a different pair of words frequently used–sometimes related to biodiversity and other times related to culture. Now that I have let this other word pairing have some space in my day, I expect to see the words more frequently in these pages.

Meat Me Half Way

Changing the way we eat to improve our lives and save our planet has been a common theme over the years on this platform. In case you missed yesterday’s post, this new book by Brian Kateman was mentioned in the newsletter:

We know that eating animals is bad for the planet and bad for our health, and yet we do it anyway. Ask anyone in the plant-based movement and the solution seems obvious: Stop eating meat.

But, for many people, that stark solution is neither appealing nor practical. Continue reading

Letters To Strangers

This book looks like a must-read for multiple reasons. At least 65. That is the number of writers musing on a simple question: how can an “ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?” As someone whose life story hinges on a chance encounter in an airport, and so believes that strangers can make great co-adventurers, I am in. If you want a taste of what is in store, this essay by an author we have appreciated in these pages several times over the years, titled To My Lost Trishaw Driver, is excerpted from it:

Yangon, Myanmar, via Creative Commons.

Pico Iyer on decades of letters to a man he met, once, in Myanmar.

Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life’s most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the “City of Kings.” Continue reading

Writing About The Banda Islands & Nutmeg & Us

Around the time we shared a book review of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work he gave a lecture about the Banda Islands, explaining the relationship between nutmeg and our current challenges related to climate change. It includes conversation with his host, a professor of creative writing, who draws out of Ghosh on his writing process.

The best part of the lecture is about half way through, when Ghosh talks about the agency of botanicals, a topic that many of us first encountered in the writings of Michael Pollan. Thanks to Rhoda Feng for giving Ghosh’s book another review, which led me to find the video above:

A SMALL BUT INCREDIBLY VALUABLE NUT

At the end of Amitav Ghosh’s SEA OF POPPIES (2008), a character reflects on how her life has been governed not by the sign of Saturn but by the poppy seed. Offering a seed to her lover, she says: ‘Here, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.’ SEA OF POPPIES is part of the Ibis trilogy by Ghosh – followed by RIVER OF SMOKE (2011) and FLOOD OF FIRE (2015) – about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In London

Museum number: BP.1079
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Do you have the inclination of switching from city life to rural? I, for one, made the switch and have no inclination to ever live in a city again. Occasional visits are fine. But as the theme song from a tv show of my youth had it “…keep Manhattan, just give me that country life…”.

My reason for thinking about this today is related to the book on the right. Whether or not you are a fan of her books, you might find the case of Beatrix Potter’s life choices worthy of consideration. Rizzoli has published this book to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Our appreciation to Anna Russell for describing both, and adding plenty of detail about the author’s life, in this article:

The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

A new book and an exhibition on Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” use letters, sketches, and a coded journal to capture an author who delighted in the detail and humor of the natural world.

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Continue reading

Technically Food

We instinctively favor real food, but this author’s book has our attention:

The inside story of the paradigm shift transforming the food we eat, and the companies behind it.

Eating a veggie burger used to mean consuming a mushy, flavorless patty that you would never confuse with a beef burger. But now products from companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Eat Just that were once fringe players in the food space are dominating the media, the refrigerated sections of our grocery stores, and, increasingly, the world. With the help of scientists working in futuristic labs––making milk without cows, and eggs without chickens––startups are creating wholly new food categories. Real food is being replaced by high-tech. Continue reading

More On, And From, Kim Stanley Robinson

“The Ministry for the Future” displays Robinson’s anti-anti-utopianism: its prognosis is both heartening and harrowing. Illustration by Deena So’Oteh

Thirteen months ago I first became aware of this author and this book. Four months ago Robinson showed up on my radar again. I still had not made time for his book. And two weeks ago, another reminder of how my time has and has not been employed, this time posed as a question: Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality? I already feel quite awake to that reality, but the question is still of considerable interest.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels envision the dire problems of the future—but also their solutions.

Robinson at home in Davis, California. Much of his sci-fi could seem like nature writing, with the Sierra Nevadas—his “heart’s home”—recast as Mercury or Mars. Photograph by Jim McAuley for The New Yorker

Last summer, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson went on a backpacking trip with some friends. They headed into the High Sierra, hiking toward Deadman Canyon—a fifty-mile walk through challenging terrain. Now sixty-nine, Robinson has been hiking and camping in the Sierras for half a century. At home, in Davis, California, he tracks his explorations on a wall-mounted map, its topography thick with ink. He is a devotee of the “ultralight” approach to backpacking and prefers to travel without water, instead gathering it along the way, from lakes and streams. Arriving at the canyon, with its broad, verdant floor cradled in smooth slopes of granite, he planned to fill his bottles with meltwater from the seven glaciers buried in its headwall. Continue reading

Aesop’s Animals Reviewed In Undark Magazine

An illustration from “Aesop’s Animals” by Hana Ayoob.

The fables attributed to Aesop were mentioned twice in posts in our pages during our first year. Again the following year. And plenty of times since then. But there is plenty more to say about the menagerie, and a new book takes on that task. Dan Falk offers this Book Review: The Science Behind Aesop’s Menagerie in Undark Magazine (click the image above or the title below to read the entire review at the source):

Aesop’s Animals coverIn “Aesop’s Animals,” zoologist Jo Wimpenny provides a guided tour of animal behavior drawn from the classic fables.

SEVERAL CHAPTERS into “Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables,” zoologist and science writer Jo Wimpenny explains that, as a very young girl, she sometimes wanted to be a dog. (In a footnote she credits growing up in Wales for encouraging her “to think outside the box.”) This childhood fantasy, as the reader can readily imagine, involved crawling along the ground on all fours. But that only gets one part-way toward doghood, as the grown-up Wimpenny would come to realize. Continue reading

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Land acquisition, for the purpose of conservation, is a subject that we touch upon from time to time. The bigger arc of land acquisition’s history, as well as its future, helps with perspective. The book to the right (linked to an independent bookseller’s website), potentially important for such perspective, is reviewed by Francisco Cantú in Human History and the Hunger for Land, as excerpted below (you can listen to the review by clicking the start button here):

From Bronze Age farmers to New World colonialists, the stories of struggle to claim more ground have shaped where and how we live.

Territorial expansion once meant conquest, but other modes are being explored. Illustration by Vincent Mahé

The final piece of terrain to be incorporated into the contiguous United States was an oddly shaped strip stretching from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yuma, Arizona. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, the area was obtained from Mexico in 1854 for ten million dollars, adding nearly thirty thousand square miles to a nation still drunk with Manifest Destiny expansionism. The motivations for acquiring the land were many—it contained huge deposits of ore and precious metals, held vast agricultural potential in the soils of its fertile river valleys, and, most important, had an arid climate that could allow a rail route to connect the coasts while remaining free from snowpack year-round. Continue reading

Arctic Heroes

The book is not new, but it is new to us. Ben Taub has brought to our attention this stunning portraiture that, like most great photography, makes you wonder how the artist got the composition just so:

Ragnar Axelsson

The Fading Ways of Indigenous Arctic Hunters

Ragnar Axelsson

Ragnar Axelsson’s portraits from Greenland reveal the effects of climate change on ice floes, sled dogs, and a traditional culture.

During springtime in the far, far north—when the sun breaches the horizon, after months of total darkness—indigenous Greenlandic hunters head out to frozen inlets and get lost in ice and time. By day, the hunters might move miles in one direction, while the ice under their feet floats gently in another. Continue reading

The Nutmeg’s Curse, Reviewed

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
by Amitav Ghosh
Hachette
352pp
Published October 2021
ISBN: 9781529369458

Amitav Ghosh, appearing in our pages only once before, has a new book. The title of this review of the book, A Dazzling Synthesis, says plenty, as does the endorsement from Naomi Klein:

We have been aware for centuries that we are responsible for the earth’s denudation: its ‘cold staring spaces’, as English writer John Evelyn called them in 1706, mourning the trees chopped down on his estate.  Around a hundred years later, the Prussian explorer Alexander Von Humboldt worried over ‘mankind’s mischief’, conjecturing that if humans ever ventured into outer space, they would carry with them a tendency to leave everything ravaged and barren.  (The closer they resembled man, he also observed, ‘the sadder monkeys look’).  ‘Are the green fields gone?’ asked the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published fifty years after Von Humboldt’s 1801 diary, as he watched his fellow Manhattanites staring dreamily out to sea.  Continue reading

Diet For A Small Planet, Five Decades And Counting

Moosewood has been mentioned, along with its cookbooks, and we have featured plenty of other stories about veg-forward diets and related cookbooks; so it is odd that neither this book nor its author have featured in our pages before. Just in time to celebrate five decades, a fitting tribute to its author:

Frances Moore Lappé’s last hamburger was in 1971, the same year she published “Diet for a Small Planet,” her hugely influential book about food and sustainability, which virtually created the publishing category of food politics and turned Ms. Lappé into what she once self-deprecatingly called “the Julia Child of the soybean circuit.” Continue reading

Quirky, Old-School Enterprise Versus Doom

Powell’s anticipated that every part of its business would need to be closed, but then quickly realized that it could continue operating the warehouse. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

We have used the word doom in a post title on four previous occasions, most recently this one. Doomsaying is not our goal here, but when it comes to the environment, particularly climate change, sometimes no other word will do.

A customer in Powell’s flagship store downtown. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

On this fifth occasion I use the word just as seriously, but without reference to environmental challenges.  This book retailer has been on the front lines of one of the other big dangers I have had my eye on, and I am thankful to Peter S. Goodman for this account of their approach to survival:

Powell’s Books Survived Amazon. Can It Reinvent Itself After the Pandemic?

As much as any city, Portland, Ore., has been through hell. Its landmark store, Powell’s Books, must finally build a viable online business while recapturing its downtown success.

Powell’s anchors a once dicey neighborhood now dotted with glass-fronted condos and furniture boutiques. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — Over its half-century in the heart of Portland, Powell’s Books has survived an unending array of foundational threats — the oft-anticipated death of reading, the rise of Amazon, the supposedly irretrievable abandonment of the American downtown.

None of that provided preparation for the tumult of the past two years. Continue reading

The Dawn Of Everything

Occupy Wall Street never showed up in these pages until now, which is maybe too late. I recall visiting Zuccotti Park in late 2011, to observe more than to occupy. I remember a box of books, many young people and some my own age, and a palpable sense of purpose combined with a pretty straightforward logic. Also, tranquil. That ballerina meant something. But I could not stay. I was in New York on a very brief visit. I have the opposite of anarchist beliefs and my understanding at the time was that the animating philosophy had something to do with anarchy.

I shared views with Occupy Wall Street in opposition to historic inequalities that I could see as a ticking time bomb. But my time that day was limited. I had to leave. No regrets. Until now, perhaps. Maybe I should have stayed. This book, which I have now read several reviews of, gives me reason to wonder. That protest was the brainchild of someone who then spent a decade producing a book to offer a very different view of human history:

…The Big History best-sellers by Harari, Diamond and others have their differences. But they rest, Graeber and Wengrow argue, on a similar narrative of linear progress (or, depending on your point of view, decline). Continue reading

Scientists At Work

This book, about a scientist who has featured in plenty of posts on this platform, is introduced by one of our favorite writers with some juicy gossip from the halls of academia. I had no idea that the biology department at Harvard divided along the lines described here; the how is the juicy part and the why makes some sense–all for the best–knowing what we know now. As an aside, having taken my first calculus course as a doctoral student at age 30, with undergrads as classmates, I had a jolt of painful memory that made me even more respectful of this biologist’s determination.

Silent EarthThe second book reviewed in this essay is one we have pointed to previously, and the research that led to it was also featured much earlier. The backstory presented in this essay brings the science to life, so do read through to the end:

Where Have All the Insects Gone?

Scientists who once documented new species of insects are now charting their perilous decline—and warning about what it will mean for the rest of us.

In the summer of 1942, Ed Wilson, age thirteen, decided that it was time to get serious about research. He had already determined that he wanted to be an entomologist, a choice made partly out of interest and partly out of injury. As a child, he’d been fascinated with marine life. One day, he jerked too hard on a fish he caught, and one of its needlelike spines lodged in his right eye. The lens had to be removed, and, following the surgery, to see something clearly he needed to hold it up near his face. Insects were just about the only animals that submitted to this treatment. Continue reading

Nathan Myhrvold On The Splendid Table

When we posted on his book a few weeks ago the title of our post suggested that it was a frivolous offering. Not so. Surprisingly we have not posted about Nathan Myhrvold before, but the best profile on him was written before this platform launched. Then his dinosaur obsession and invention workshop were his primary talking points. In recent years those have made room for food.

And in case you do not have time for his book, you can get a sense of those talking points on this episode of The Splendid Table podcast:

Episode 741: Pizza: Origin, Culture and Making It with Nathan Myhrvold

This week, we take a deep dive into pizza with the co-author of the voluminous Modernist Pizza, Nathan Myhrvold. We get into the history, culture, and techniques behind great pizza. We hear stories from his worldwide travels and deep dives into pizza cultures and traditions. Plus, we hear about the culinary lab research devoted to making the best pizza ever, and he sticks around to answer your pizza-making questions. He is the founder of the Modernist Cuisine Lab…

Bewilderment & Richard Powers In Conversation

When I first linked to the work of Richard Powers it was when his previous book was being reviewed. Now he has a new book out, and from the conversation that follows it sounds like this one is a very good bookend to that one:

Richard Powers on What We Can Learn from Trees

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author asks whether we can reimagine our relationship with the natural world before it’s too late.

There are certain conversations I fear trying to fit into a description.

Continue reading