Science Books for the Holidays


(This 1133rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 9, 2012)


The dreary days of winter bring the prospect of cabin fever and, only second to getting outside to enjoy whatever conditions prevail, the next best response to that threat is a good book. Here are my recommendations for holiday giving.


Spillover by David Quammen (Norton) is a remarkable tour de force. It is at once an often tragic real-life medical thriller full of both human and animal death, and on the other hand a series of stories of bravery on the part of those who are defending us against these killers. His subject is zoonotic diseases -- that is, diseases transmitted across species lines, thus the book title. We have long known some of them - for example, rabies, flu and malaria - but today's list encompasses Hendra, Ebola, SARS, Herpes B, Marburg, psittacosis (parrot fever), Q Fever, Nipah and the lowly but dangerous Lyme Disease. Your respect for and appreciation of science will skyrocket as you read this important and valuable book by arguably our finest contemporary science writer.


The 872 pages of editor Donna Naughton's The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (University of Toronto) provide a remarkable amount of information about each of the 215 known Canadian species, a major proportion of which occur here on the Niagara Frontier. Beautifully illustrated with both photographs and drawings, this handsome book provides deep insights into the lives of these interesting animals. You can mine delightful details from every page. Here is just one of my favorites: "Beavers, like humans, can leave a footprint visible from space."


Two important books explore world resources. The first is Unquenchable (Island), Robert Glennon's identification of our water crisis together with his recommendations about what we should do in response. He identifies 35 of the 48 contiguous states as in crisis mode today. Sadly, his first recommendation is that we convince the public that there is a problem. We are very fortunate to live here within the Great Lakes basin, but we too face long-term threats.


The second is Gary Dabhan's Where Our Food Comes From (Island). Dabhan stresses how important it is for us to maintain the genetic sources of our food plants. For example, most of us know that corn is a genetic ancestor of maise, but there is a still earlier source, teosinte. These source plants acclimate well to harsh climate and poor soil conditions whereas the "managed" derived varieties do much worse. Seed banks are repositories that collect and preserve such genetic origins. Dabhan's argument is made against the background story of the heroic Nickolay Vavilov, the acclaimed Russian scientist who spent his career collecting source plants and seeds only to be rejected in favor of Lysenko and the Five Year Plans that led to starvation for millions of farmers.


Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman's Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt) is a worthy competitor for the Reader's Digest North American Wildlife. Although it covers a smaller region, it has the advantage of smaller size.


My friend and local waterfall aficionado Scott  Ensminger is at it again. Together with David Schryver and Edward Smathers he has now written The Waterfalls of New York State (Firefly), which describes and illustrates over a hundred of our most beautiful and interesting falls.


Former Cornell President Frank Rhodes has brought a lifetime of geological background to his Earth: A Tenant's Manual (Cornell). There is a great deal of basic information in this text but I found myself put off by his (presidential?) fence-straddling on policies. Surely Frankenstorm Sandy should tell us something about his recommended policy of accommodating to climate change.


Oxford is publishing dozens of books each with the subtitle A Very Short Introuction. I recommend Klaus Dobbs' The Antarctic in this series: it crams a great deal of interesting information into 141 pages.


Finally, two stocking stuffers: the angels of Martin and Susan Tyner's Healer of Angels (Amethyst Moon) are golden eagles and the healer is falconer-rehabilitator Martin Tyner. I hope to write more about this remarkable book in a later column. And my own The Nature Watch Collection: Book One (William T. Parks) is now available as a paperback as well as an eBook. It brings together a year of my favorite early columns.-- Gerry Rising