Two books I have read in the past couple weeks weren’t science or history books, really, but more in the genre of nature writing: The Peregrine and The Snoring Bird.
My family and I recently had a road trip to Colorado and Utah, getting a chance to hike to Hanging Lake, visit Arches National Park (our fourth time there, but first time at night, and we saw the ISS fly overhead as I laid under one of the arches!), do some rafting along the Colorado River, and I even got to see Jurassic Park at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. I knew it was going to be a great week and I certainly wasn’t going to bog it down with a dense history or science book. I instead opted for a book Jerry Coyne recommended a few months ago and recently wrote about again: The Peregrine by J. A. Baker.
I have long had an interest in raptors, particularly the falcons – they’re my favorite living vertebrates – and have considered taking up falconry several times throughout my life. I just don’t think I can commit to the sport at this point, and I’m not sure if I ever will, but it will forever be in the back of my mind. Anyway, I like poetic/romantic writing, had never read a “nature book” before, and loved peregrine falcons so it sounded like the perfect fit for a road trip to Colorado. (It only would have been more perfect had I seen a falcon during the trip but alas, I only saw turkey vultures, Stellar’s jays, magpies and maybe some kind of snipe. All were worth seeing, of course, especially the three vultures that stared at us while perched on a tree on the bank of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs as we rafted by, but nothing matches a falcon, in my opinion.)
The Peregrine is just as beautiful as Coyne said it would be. While there were a couple paragraphs (out of hundreds) that made me cringe a bit as some of Baker’s comments on human nature just seemed out of place, the vast majority of the book is wonderful. I felt I could actually see the falcons as they stooped, hovered, and soared, causing woodpigeons and other birds to scatter in fits of mass frights. The few entries (it is written as if a journal) that took place in winter were absolutely breathtaking, especially when Baker writes about a kingfisher he found. I am currently unable to quote from the book (I read it on a Kindle which I accidentally broke), but I’ll post some at a later date. I would seriously recommend The Peregrine to everyone and I’ll be sure to read it again. I want more books like this! (I have yet to read the second part of the Baker collection, The Hill of Summer, mind you.)
Continuing in the vein of nature writing, I picked up The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. What I thought would be solely nature writing actually turned out to be a memoir – an autobiography of Bernd and a biography of his father, Gerd Heinrich. This unexpected aspect definitely did not disappoint – both he and his father lead spectacularly fascinating lives. His father, born in 1896, modeled himself after the classic Victorian explorers, such as Darwin and Wallace, and collected mammals, birds, and especially ichneumon wasps, from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, for museums in Europe and the United States, while Bernd, born in 1940, became a modern experimental biologist with the mind of a naturalist – he, too, explored the woods around him and studied the organisms that surrounded him, such as ravens, bees, and moths. The book also provides a unique wartime story as his father, German and Polish, fought for Germany in both World Wars and was forced to flee west with his family as the Russians advanced towards Berlin who creating their own reign of terror. The Heinrichs were lucky to be alive and everyone in the family knew it – something we don’t always appreciate.
The book is riveting from start to finish, even during times of low tension. Heinrich somehow makes his work on the thermoregulation of moths and bees fascinating – I couldn’t put the book down even at this point – and the time he spent in the Hahnheide forest in West Germany was a time I wish I could have shared with him. Not only is the book (auto)biographical, but it gives perspectives on the gift of life, the longing for home, the desire for life full of purpose, the experiences of immigrants, and the need to explore and spend time in nature. While I was looking for more nature writing, I found nature writing plus wartime and immigrant experiences, among other aspects. Both Bernd and Gerd Heinrich’s lives are inspiring, but in almost totally different ways, and The Snoring Bird inspirationally tells their stories. Like The Peregrine, I give The Snoring Bird a whole-hearted recommendation. (You can also find a review of the book by GrrlScientist here which contains more details than what I wrote here.)
As I mentioned, I am eager to find more nature writing books. I will of course check out more of Bernd Heinrich’s other books, especially The Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, One Man’s Owl, and Winter World, but other books I currently have on my list are: The Goshawk by T.H. White, The Voice of the Dolphins by Hardy Jones, Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, Monsters of the Sea and The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and Lonely Land by Sigurd Olson. That’s quite a few books, and I’ll try to use them as in-between books to give my mind a bit of a rest. If anyone has recommendations, please let me know! (I’m aware that I’m missing Thoreau, Leopold and Muir – I’ll get to them eventually too).
Once I delve back into science and the history of science, expect more informative posts, but I might try to sneak in just one more nature book before Labor Day…