Holiday Books: 2011


(This 1080th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 4, 2011.)


Once again publishers have issued a wide range of fine new books for nature lovers.


Looking for a reasonably priced book for bird watchers? I'll make it easy for you. Here's one that should be in every birder's library: Mike Unwin's The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior and Conservation (Princeton). Two samples of the many things I found interesting in it: "An ingenious mechanism prevents birds from losing their grip [on a branch] while asleep. Each toe is connected to a tendon, which stretches tight when the leg is bent and so locks the toes around the branch."


Shakespeare's Hamlet claims that he has not lost his mind with the oft-quoted: "I know a hawk from a handsaw." Unwin tells us that the handsaw in that claim was not a mechanical tool but a bird. Handsaw is a corruption of hernshaw, the old name for the British gray heron. Hamlet was really saying that he knew a hawk from a heron, to me a less satisfying comparison.


A book that especially older birders will favor is In the Field, Among the Feathered by Thomas R. Dunlap (Oxford). Its subtitle is more informative: A History of Birders and their Guides. I enjoyed this book because it led me back through the bird identification guides that I used over the years, from my mother's copy of Reed's early pocket guide that I used until its bindings disintegrated, through the many editions of the Peterson guides to the modern books by Sibley and others.


Okay, that should take care of the birders. Happily, there are a number of books that should attract those interested in other aspects of natural history.


What I consider the most important book published in 2011 is William DeBuys' A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford). Already teetering on the brink of catastrophe due to a litany of problems, many related to water shortage, the chance of getting out of its fix? "Nil" says one informed scientist. And don't think that the rest of us will remain unaffected if this evil scenario plays out.


A far less disturbing new book represents a different direction for the Peterson Reference Guide Series, which until now has focused on high quality identification guides to everything from moths to stars and planets. The new book is Behavior of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart (Princeton). The authors are wildlife specialists who this book clearly indicates are well informed by their field research.


This book, I suggest, has an important role to play for those whose interest has been tightly focused on listing species. How many wildflowers or birds or mammals you can identify is an interesting aspect of nature study, but it is only the beginning. Beyond this is the more enriching study of how nature works and this book is a fine entre to that kind of study.


Two Oxford books related to evolution take different but equally interesting approaches to this subject. John Reader's Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins takes an historical approach and Sharon Levy's Once & Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us about the Fate of Earth's Largest Animals relates the loss of mastodons and other megafauna to the problems facing lions and polar bears today.


Another historical entry is Edward Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World (HarperCollins). It tells the story of one of the most productive periods in scientific history.


A highly personal collection of insightful essays that I found at once intriguing but difficult to pigeonhole is Jenny Diski's What I Don't Know about Animals (Yale). Journalist Diski approaches serious animal issues evenhandedly.


The hard sciences, physics and chemistry, are also well represented with new books. Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg's thoughtful essays in Lake Views: The World and the Universe (Harvard Belknap) place difficult physics concepts in context as do these Oxford books by less well-known authors: Giovanni Vignale's Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics; Marjorie Malley's Radioactivity; and Peter Atkins, Reactions: The Private Life of Atoms. Of historical interest is a reprint of Michael Faradays 1860s lectures, The Chemical History of a Candle.-- Gerry Rising