Much of the earliest literature of the Greeks and Romans is about the gods and mythology. But nature is also a frequent topic, whether in the 8th century B.C.E. Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days, a long poem about farming, or ancient Roman agricultural hymns and prayers to the gods for a good harvest.
Henry David Thoreau recorded his life of contemplation in the woods in Walden; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring spurred the contemporary environmental movement by revealing the terrible effect of pesticides on birds and wildlife. Whether in print or digital form (students have been found to perform equally well with either), these books celebrate the great outdoors as well as its flora, fauna and all of its creatures and reinforce why these must be protected and preserved.
1. “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals” by Becky Crew
Sydney-based Crew writes Running Ponies, a blog about animals that readily displays her deep fondness and fascination with all sorts of animals, including the pink nudibranch and dogs (who are one of her two favorite animals “because they’re the greatest animals in the world and if you don’t get that, there’s something wrong with you,” as she says in an interview). “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals” details the lives and ways of animals living now (the sawfish, the African crested rat which isn’t really a rat) and extinct (the king of the rabbits, Nuralagus Rex). It offers a powerful reminder of not only how rich the world’s biodiversity is, but why we must fight to preserve it.
2. “How Animals Grieve” by Barbara J. King
Anthropologist Barbara J. King writes about love, grief and affection in “How Animals Grieve.” It’s a topic that has yet to be fully studied as scientists have long been wary of anthropomorphizing animals.
King focuses on describing numerous stories of both domesticated and wild animals, of a house cat who has lost her sister and a dolphin who has lost her calf. As she comments on NPR, “We humans grieve differently than other animals do: using language, enacting symbolic rituals like funerals, and with an acute awareness of our own and others’ mortality. Other animals don’t do those things.” But animals do love, she says, and the more we understand that a rabbit in a lab “feels his life and his friend’s death in the next cage over,” the more we can “work effectively towards animal welfare.”
3. “Do Grow” by Alice Holden
I am mostly at the stage of trying to get the overgrowth in my backyard a bit more under control. I’m glad to have “Do Grow” by Holden, an organic farmer in the U.K. with experience on farms large and small, as a companion. Her book offers clear and simple tips for the tools you’ll need to make a raised bed to grow some vegetables, a recipe for compost and more, in a compact book with excellent graphics. As she writes, “growing food is something we have done for thousands of years and we are all capable.”
4. “The Sea Inside” by Philip Hoare
Hoare’s previous book, “Leviathan or, The Whale” is about his lifelong cetacean obsession, as well as his obsession with Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Hoare’s newest book returns to the deeps: “The Sea Inside,” is a memoir and ”fantastical travelogue” that takes the reader from the south coast of the U.K. (where the author grew up) to the Isle of Wight to the Azores, to Sri Lanka and New Zealand. It’s a book that reminds us of the massive size of the ocean (which covers two-thirds of our planet), the life in it and how it is a part of all of our lives everyday and everywhere, whether we go near the ocean or not.
5. “The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places” by Bernie Krause
Krause uses the term “biophony” to describe the sounds of all creatures besides us humans. He recorded more than 15,000 animal species in their natural environments and writes (at times quite effusively) about the grunts of hippos and the songs of male sperm whales. He also describes the effects of human activity on animals: a jet plane’s swoop makes toads croak out of sync. “The Great Animal Orchestra” offers a compelling reminder of why we need to take off the headphones and listen to what’s all around us.
6. “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” by Clive Hamilton
Wary of the “lure of the technofix,” Hamilton, a professor of public ethics in Australia, offers an overview of geoengineering strategies that have been proposed to counteract the effects of global warming in Earthmasters. These range from methods to capture carbon from the stratosphere and store it to “solar radiation management” that would use giant mirrors to reflect back sunlight or spray clouds with seawater.
It all sounds rather fantastic. If scientists ever do actually carry out these schemes, let’s hope they keep in mind that, as the London Review of Books comments, these “vast, complex and poorly understood systems may well have unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences” — although, of course,”the fact that simply carrying on as we are [burning up vast amounts of fossil fuels, etc.] has consequences that are largely foreseeable and certainly disastrous.”
There have, notes NPR, been so many books about climate change that they could comprise a genre (not to mention a post) all their own. I can’t say that a book like Earthmasters make the most uplifting of reads, but it does inspire me to go outside and to think about why we do need to take good care of this planet and all those who inhabit it.
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