1999 Summer Reading

(This column was first published in the June 21, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    The sagging shelves of local bookstores suggest that publication of nature books is increasing exponentially. I consider that a good sign.

    Here are several that I found outstanding. I believe that each would not only add to the pleasure of your summer holidays but would also provide lighter reading than the current Clancy and Grisham heavyweights.

    I once asked a biologist friend about the subject of his doctoral thesis. He made me promise not to tell his colleagues before he admitted to me that his research was on small mammals. Although his concern about his departmental status was tongue-in-cheek, his message was still clear. Despite some recent inroads, current biological research is still heavily oriented toward the miniscule. Anything larger than the point of a pin (not even the head) raises eyebrows. Cells are too big nowadays.

    There are, however, wonderful exceptions. Among the best is the ant specialist Edward O. Wilson, whose popular books are all worth reading. And this year we have Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's The Camel's Nose: Memoirs of a Curious Scientist (Island Press), an autobiography by a retired Duke University animal physiologist whose study subjects included not only camels but jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, desert foxes, snails, frogs, turtles and cormorants as well.

    Schmidt-Nielsen provides a wonderful model for a serious youngster considering a career in science. Here he tells how he identified interesting problems and then solved them, although some took years, extensive travel and many remarkable experiments to untangle. Among his results: he discovered how desert animals that never drink are able to survive and how marine birds eliminate the salt from the sea water they imbibe. In the process he discharged many myths: for example, the long accepted claims that camels store water in their humps and don't sweat. His are engaging stories very well told.

    Two specialized audiences -- birders and those interested in insects (should I say ""buggers''?) -- and many general readers will enjoy Gilbert Waldbauer's The Birder's Bug Book (Harvard University Press). Waldbauer is by occupation an entomologist -- he's a University of Illinois emeritus professor -- but by avocation a birdwatcher. He brings this background to bear on the war between insects and birds -- with us humans thrown in as well. For almost a quarter billion years insects and birds have interacted, our association with those other orders lasting only a thousandth of that time. Over those eons a kind of stalemate has developed in these battles: birds eat bugs but some bugs fight back through camouflage and mimicry while others eat birds. I learned a great deal from this well-conceived and informative book.

    It is always a pleasure to call attention to fine books by local authors. Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse University Press) by University at Buffalo Archive Director Christopher Densmore is one. Deeply researched but well told, this is a balanced treatment of a controversial figure in this country's early history. Born a Seneca in the 1750s, Red Jacket lived through the difficult confrontations of his people with the newly formed United States. Now buried in Forest Lawn, he is perhaps most famous for his response to a Christian missionary: Try Christianity on our white neighbors, he suggested, ""If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians; we will then consider of what you have said.'' Here is regional history at its best.

    In the future I will devote full columns to discussions of two other books but I recommend them here. The first is George W. Hudler's Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds (Princeton University Press) and the second Stephen Drury's Stepping Stones: Evolving the Earth and Its Life (Oxford University Press). But note that bound copies of the latter will not be available until midsummer. -- Gerry Rising