Holiday Books: 2014


(This 1237th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 7, 2014.)



I begin my annual natural history and science book recommendations with two of the finest I have ever read.


A year or so ago I reported on the fine writing of Mike Freeman in his book, Drifting, about his canoe voyage down the Hudson River. This year he has not only outdone himself but he has matched the very best of outdoor writing. If you read no other book in 2015, read Neither Mountain Nor River: Fathers, Sons, and an Unsettled Faith.


Freeman claims, "If time in the woods teaches you about other animals, if it teaches you about God - or at least forces confrontation with belief - it also drives you deep into far more intricate matter: you and how you relate to the people you love, caverns most of us consider scarcely navigable." And he fleshes out that claim with his inspiring personal odyssey through wilderness areas in New England, Arizona, Washington and Alaska, much of it with his father, leading to his final confrontation with his own late marriage and his challenging daughter.


Freeman spends much time working on biological projects but he is also a hunter, an angler and, yes, a trapper. He even tells us, "The moment my dad and I set our first trap on one of those Connecticut golf courses, trapping superseded hunting and nearly reduced fishing to memory." And to me that is one of the central features of his book. For Freeman, these activities represent more than participation; his account makes it clear that they immerse him in the wild. I challenge anyone who opposes these activities to read this book. I believe that they will come away with better understanding of a far too rare type of nature lover.


An almost equally outstanding book is Douglas Emlen's Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle, a tour de force that parallels wildlife evolution of offensive and defensive weapons with our own social development of armed combat.


The parallels are amazing. Consider, for example, deer antlers, those remarkable physical structures that attract not only does but hunters as well. "Rutting stags," Emlen tells us, "lose a stunning amount of body weight, and their physical condition plummets during the rut." But mating rewards the individuals with largest horns and evolution is driven to enlarge them still further until limits are reached and species existence is threatened. One cervine, the Irish elk, had the largest rack of all and, unable to sustain the sacrifices this necessitated, was driven into extinction.


Compare that with warships. Emlen traces their history from ancient galleys through modern dreadnaughts. And now the battleship has played a role similar to that of the Irish elk. The cost of these giant ships drew resources from other naval ships and this has led to their final removal from the Navy register in 2006.


The story is far more complex than this and Emlen's examples offer us beetles, fiddler crabs, narwals, mantises, saber-toothed tigers and porcupines to show us how nature handles armature. In the process we learn as much about ourselves. Read this book and then pass your copy on to a politician who might make a difference.


I have long sustained my affection for bumblebees: to me they are the gentle giants of the bee world. They get little of the attention that we assign honeybees, but these more independent insects play an equally important role as pollinators. For that reason I thoroughly enjoyed Dave Goulson's A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, even though much of it focuses on English bees. I especially love his parenthetical insertions: "Now, put yourself in the (six very small) shoes of a worker bee in a bumblebee nest."


My choice for coffee table book of the season is Tui De Roy, Mark Jones and Julie Cornthwaite's Penguins: The Ultimate Guide. This book belies the old joke about the child reviewer's, "This book tells us more about penguins than we really want to know." Far from that, I found Penguin's photos amazing, its text both informative and entertaining.


From the dozens of other books I admire, I choose Atul Gawande's important lessons for us old folks, Being Mortal; Sara Henry's second Adirondack novel, A Cold and Lonely Place; Walter Isaacson's digital revolution history, The Innovators; and Bill Nye's answer to creationists, Undeniable.-- Gerry Rising