Summer Books 2014


(This 1214th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 29, 2014.)


For summer reading of science books you have many choices again this year, but for those active in regional natural history and conservation matters I cannot speak too highly of Larry Beahan's Beyond the Adirondacks with the Adirondack Mountain Club. I know Larry as one of the few individuals who come close to filling the shoes of my former News colleague Paul MacClennan. In this book he travels away from this region, mostly with fellow ADK members, to exotic places like Greenland, Peru, Alaska and Czechoslovakia. You will find it comforting reading this book at the beach, letting Larry worry about whether their Zodiak will make it through the waves off Greenland or the Alaskan grizzlies will attack or the Utah mineshaft will collapse.


Another local author, my University at Buffalo colleague Jim Bunn has written The Natural Law of Cycles, in which he associates physics principles like angular momentum and rotational symmetry with natural history in thoughtful and interesting ways. In doing so he demonstrates how the same biomechanical principles can affect local activities like bird flight and large scale actions like global streams of wind and water.


Two excellent guides have been published this year. Arthur Evans, Beetles of Eastern North America provides beautiful photographs of 1406 species that illustrate all of the 115 beetle families occurring in this region as well as extensive introductory material about this order that comprises one out of every four animal species. Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams and others takes on a more restricted group, a genus comprising only 46 species on this continent, 24 in our region. Related to this, Dave Goulson's memoir, A Sting in the Tale, is about a life with British bumblebees. I agree with reviewers who call it "hugely entertaining" and concerning insects that are "rather loveable."


An opposite approach to insects is taken in Jeffrey Lockwood's The Infested Mind, which explores the sources of fear, loathing and even love of insects. Along the way he details six sources of our fear: they (1) invade our homes and bodies, (2) evade us with quick unpredictable movements, (3) develop huge populations, (4) harm us directly (bites and stings) and indirectly (transmitting disease and destroying property), (5) are alien to us, and (6) defy our attempts to control them. This book is full of interesting anecdotes but, although he discusses antidotes as well, he is not out to change minds. I enjoyed reading this book but I remain more prepared to pet a wolf than a cockroach.


Scientists can be chauvinists too. At the time in the early 1800s when the United States was establishing itself as more than a political backwater, it faced similar problems with its natural history. The senior French scientist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon insisted that American plants and animals were degenerate versions of superior European forms. President Jefferson was particularly stung by this and sought a way to counter Buffon's arguments. In Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose Lee Alan Dugatkin describes how he found a way to do so and in the process establish the quality of our flora and fauna.


Jared Orsi narrates the interesting life of Zebulon Pike in Citizen Explorer. A contemporary of Lewis and Clark, army Captain Pike was also sent west by Jefferson and his adventures are every bit as exciting as those of the better known explorers. Interestingly, by then a brigadier general, Pike was killed in the successful attack on Toronto (then York) in 1813. The fleet carrying him had embarked from Sackett's Harbor.


Two of my favorite authors have come through once again. Bernd Heinrich does so in The Homing Instinct about animal migrations as does Tim Flannery in An Explorer's Notebook, a collection of essays by this Australian zoologist.


Never mind whether you think the effects of climate change will be great or small, you will be frightened by William Rosen's The Third Horseman about the climate-induced Great Famine of the 14th century that claimed six million lives in northern Europe.


Briefly noted: Joel Greenberg's A Feathered River Across the Sky about passenger pigeons by the author who will be honored at the Buffalo Ornithological Society this fall, and Vernon Benjamin's The History of the Hudson Valley.-- Gerry Rising