Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Gifts, Part IV: Good Conservation Books

For me, the holiday season without some good books under the tree would be like Thanksgiving without the turkey. For the book-loving naturalist on your list--or if you're looking for something to pack along on your holiday travels-- here are some of my favorite recent releases.

Take away large predators from a landscape, and the whole ecosystem collapses. That's the intriguing premise of Where the Wild Things Were, by former Nature Conservancy magazine writer William Stolzenburg. In this well written book, Stolzenburg shows a growing mound of research that demonstrates the disastrous impacts on all species when large predators are removed--and how quickly whole ecosystems can recover when predators are restored. This is not a dry collection of research statistics--it's full of stories of otter-eating orcas, elk without fear, raccoons gone wild, anti-social howler monkeys and more. If you read one nature book this year, make it this one.
The lives of humans and the lives of insects are inextricably connected, in more ways than we realize--including our warfare. Jeffrey Lockwood's Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War may seem an obscure subject. But history enthusiasts will find a lot of interest here, from new looks at key battles to intriguing tactics by top generals. The book examines the human-insect connection in many conflicts, from hurling wasp nests over castle walls to the use of fleas to carry bubonic plague in World War II. Most chilling is Lockwood's analysis for insects' potential uses in bio-terrorism. Lockwood is an entomologist who is also an excellent writer; his books Locust and Grasshopper Dreaming also examine the ways humans interact with insects--and why we should all care.
The comparison has probably already been made, but Bryan Christy's The Lizard King features a cast of characters, a plot and a setting that seem pulled from a Carl Hiaasen novel. This, though, is a true story. Christy delves into the little-known world of reptile smugglers,
a world of organized crime, shady characters and obsessed reptile afficionados who pay exorbitant sums to own rare and endangered species. This is a page-turner, and the scope and extent of endangered species poaching is shocking. Christy, a reptile enthusiast, treats all the people involved (including the smugglers) with fairness and respect, which makes this a richer, more complex story. Aldo Leopold still looms large over the conservation landscape. His ideas stand the test of time, and few have written as beautifully about the central issues as he did in A Sand County Almanac and other writings. Leopold's land ethic was the result of an evolution of thought, as described by Julianne Lutz Newton in Aldo Leopold's Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac. The author traces how Leopold's life experiences, education and scholarship developed into his land ethic--a mindful journey that included changes of opinion and rethinking strong personal beliefs. Perhaps today, Leopold would be called a "flip-flopper." But I don't think one can read this book without recognizing a truly great mind at work. For the avid life lister on your list, it would be hard to beat Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. Famous explorers, egg collectors, hawk shooters, angry activists, inspired teenagers and obsessed listers all play a role in this story. Weidensaul is one of the best nature writers working today; more people should read his work.

Finally, for the hard-core nature enthusiast, Whit Bronaugh's Wildlife of North America: A Naturalist's Life List is a great addition to the library. This book features complete species lists of the most "watchable" wildlife: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and dragonflies. There is space to record dates and notes of sightings. A large-format, 512-page work, this is not one to carry into the field, but serves rather as a master list for your outdoor ramblings.

As the snow falls outside, it's the perfect time to curl up with a good book. I hope you enjoy these holiday recommendations, and feel free to suggest your own.--Matt Miller

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