LOST WOODS

THE DISCOVERED WRITING OF RACHEL CARSON

Biographer Lear (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, 1997) knits together here a number of Rachel Carson’s writings—often much more personal, quirky, and searching than her celebrated books—that add meat to her body of literary/scientific writing. Carson published just four books during her lifetime, but she also cranked out speeches and articles and newspaper work, kept copious field notes, and wrote thousands of letters. Lear has selected from this material a chronological sampling as a guide to Carson’s evolution as a writer and a natural scientist. Many of the pieces will be new to most readers, even if their tone—of “awakening an emotional response to nature”—is trademark Carson. This collection includes pieces on Carson the hard-core birder: there are both field jottings and essays on chimney swifts and warblers and gulls, and a rapt couple of days on a hawk watch in Pennsylvania. She wrote liner notes to Debussy’s La Mer, music which she comfortably interprets to jibe with her notion of the ocean’s mysteries. She was certainly one of the first to give the importance of island biogeography more than a passing nod; an essay on the destruction of rare island habitats, and the extinction of island species, has been included by Lear. And her anxiety over atomic weapons, especially when byproducts are dumped in the oceans, is spelled out here in her preface to the second edition of The Sea Around Us. As always, touching all aspects of her work are her puzzlings over the simple fact of life and her druidic appreciation of natural cycles and the beauty, excitement, and inscrutable elements of the natural world. Carson devotees will already be familiar with some of this material; the more casual (if no less admiring) fan will find in this collection an engaging glimpse into the breadth of Carson’s curiosity and the fashioning of her public voice as a defender of the environment.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 1998

ISBN: 0-8070-8546-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1998

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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