By Janice H. Harris
Vice President of the Wyoming Outdoor Council board of directors
Each year, the Emily Stevens Book Fund, sponsored by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, invites Wyoming county libraries to select a title from a list of terrific books, all focused on natural history and the environment.
This year, I thought I’d share the 2011 list. As you’ll see, in researching the titles, I often turn to the recommendations of the selection committee for the National Outdoor Book Award.
As you’ll also see, some of the selections are heavy, some are light, but all make for great winter reading.
Barbier, Edward B. Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation (Cambridge University Press, 2011). ISBN-10: 0521877733 | ISBN-13: 978-0521877732
This is a big picture/long view kind of book. Not light fare, for sure, but maybe just what some of us are seeking as Wyoming faces large questions about our own natural resources and economic development. Winner of the Cambridge University Press’s Book of the Month Award last winter, Barbier traces the relationship between the perceived current or future scarcity of a natural resource and economic development, over the centuries and across cultures. As Knick Harley, from Oxford University, explains: “Ed Barbier has expanded his interest in problems of scarcity and marginalization in contemporary societies to a broadly based look at frontiers in a very long historical context, charting the interaction of economic growth and the resource frontier from the origins of settled agriculture to current concerns over the sustainability of expanding resource exploitation.”
Conniff, Richard. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W. W. Norton and Company, 2011). ISBN-10: 0393341321 | ISBN-13: 978-0393341324
Conniff’s book strikes me as a complement to Rob Dunn’s Every Living Thing, on the Emily Stevens list last year. Organized chronologically, The Species Seekers focuses on “the great age of discovery,” from roughly the 1750s to the end of the 19th century, within a European and American context. With affection, humor, admiration, and an engaging writing style, Conniff, like Dunn, reminds us that the endeavor of identifying new species is a very human task. He offers the reader a lively account of the personalities (some delightfully eccentric), passions, challenges, and of course politics that did fuel—and still does fuel—this grand pursuit of life on earth.
Connors, Philip. Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (Harper Collins, 2011). ISBN 9780061856366
2011 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the category of “Outdoor Literature.”
“In this sensitive and elegant work, Philip Connors mans a fire lookout overlooking the Gila Wilderness, the first established wilderness area in the US. It’s a perfect place, in more than one respect, to write and reflect on wild places and why such places are important in civilized life—and he does so with an honesty and understanding which is remarkable for its depth of thought and insight. Connors finds himself among some pretty heavy company: Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, Norman Maclean, and Gary Snyder all wrote about their experiences on fire lookouts. This is Connors first work, but if these literary forbearers could somehow manage to unite for a little backcountry revelry, it’s not hard to imagine them inviting him over and raising a toast to Fire Season.”
—NOBA Review 2011
Davis, Kate; Rob Palmer, Nick Dunlop. Raptors of the West Captured in Photographs (Mountain Press Publishing, 2011). ISBN 9780878425754
2011 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the category of “Design and Artistic Merit.”
“This is a book of action photography and it will rock your socks! The cover draws you in immediately: two bald eagles, talons spread and about to lock, one above and one below upside down, yellow eyes glaring: the tumbling, breathtaking violence of a fight over food captured in a timeless manner. Raptors is a type of book that you can read in parts when time permits. By design, there’s no overarching text, rather each of the photos have instructive captions which explain the behavior pictured. Quite simply, it’s among some of the best action bird photography ever published.”
—NOBA Review, 2011
Hugo, Nancy Ross. Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees. Photography by Robert Llewellyn (Timber Press, Portland, 2011). ISBN 9781604692198
2011 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the category of “Nature and the Environment.”
“Author Nancy Ross Hugo is smitten with trees. In fact she’ll unabashedly tell you that tree viewing is as exciting as bird-watching. And you’ll see why. Just spend a little time paging through this book—sample a bit of Hugo’s personable and insightful writing, absorb Robert Llewellyn’s splendid photography—and it becomes clear. What this book does differently than many is to examine trees in a close up and personal manner: the resplendent emerging leaves of a white oak, the secreted and graceful immature seed pods of the redbud, the thrilling appearance of a red cedar flower. This striking and delightful book will draw your eyes upward toward the world of leaves and entwining branches, and like Hugo, you may find yourself smitten and thrilled by what you see.”
—NOBA Review 2011
Louv, Richard. The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011). ISBN-10: 1565125819 | ISBN-13: 978-1565125810
In a sense, The Nature Principle is a follow-up to Louv’s previous, bestselling, Last Child in the Woods. Here, the focus is on adults. As Louv explains, the “principle holds that a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival” (p. 3).
Quoting Gary Snyder—“[n]ature is not a place to visit, it is home”—Louv believes that reconnecting can happen wherever we find ourselves, including the densest of cities. Not only can it happen, Louv argues that it is happening. Offering a counter argument to doomsday predictions, Louv marshals evidence from a range of fields indicating that the 21st century could—just possibly could—be an era in which humans reject some of the worst practices of the 20th century, an era in which people reconnect with nature through, for example, innovative urban and suburban planning and new transportation technologies.
Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra: 100th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic. Photographs by Scot Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). ISBN 9780618988518
2011 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the category of “Classic.”
“This year, with the submission of My First Summer in the Sierra by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the judges decided to take the opportunity to honor the writings of John Muir and the monumental contributions he made toward preserving the American outdoor heritage. John Muir who died in 1914 published six books during his lifetime. Additional books and collections of his writings have been published since then. Muir’s prolific pen and his activism helped save such American treasures as Yosemite National Park, and he is truly one of the great wilderness figures of all time. This new edition of My Summer in the Sierra celebrates the 100th anniversary of the book’s first publication. Beautifully illustrated with photographs by Scot Miller, this is perhaps the best loved of all of Muir’s books. Written in journal style and covering his travels in the high Sierra of 1869, it is a work of personal discovery: discovery of the natural world, of flora and fauna, and of the geological processes which shaped the soaring heights of Yosemite Valley. But it goes deeper than simple observation. This is Muir, after all. His thoughts lead him toward the concept of the interconnectivity among all living things. In time, this idea will become a part of his litany for the preservation of wild areas. Muir can hardly contain his excitement, especially when expressing the beauty of nature, and his writing brims with religious intensity. He is, in fact, a religious figure, an evangelist for the wild outdoors, and because of his writing and his work, we are all the richer for it.”
—NOBA Review 2011
Mulvaney, Kieran. The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). ISBN-10: 0547152426 | ISBN-13: 978-0547152424
I found this book staying in my mind weeks after I had finished it. Mulvaney hangs his well-researched analysis of ursus maritimus (“sea bear by scientific name and ice bear by nature” p. 37) on a narrative line that works well. Figuratively, we follow two polar bears from the moment of insemination to adulthood. Moving back and forth between them and Mulvaney’s rich array of data, we stay engaged as we are informed. Occasionally anthropomorphizing his subjects, in the main Mulvaney avoids sentimentalizing these magnificent predators and the threats to their future. Alan Rabinowitz says it well: “By the end of the book, you are better informed of the facts and have a vivid picture of the reality that confronts us.”
Prager, Ellen. Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Ocean’s Oddest Creatures and Why they Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011). ISBN-10: 0226678725 | ISBN-13: 978-0226678726
When I heard this book reviewed on National Public Radio last summer, I thought of the Emily Stevens Book Fund. As an interviewee, Prager was wonderfully articulate, informed, and funny. So is her book. We meet a wide cast of astonishing sea creatures, all living their remarkable lives and reproducing their remarkable kind in the ocean’s depths and shallows. But the book is much more than a soap opera of the sea. An anonymous review on Amazon.com put it well: “And while these animals make for some jaw-dropping stories—witness the sea cucumber, which ejects its own intestines to confuse predators, or the hagfish that ties itself into a knot to keep from suffocating in its own slime—there’s far more to Prager’s account than her ever-entertaining anecdotes: again and again, she illustrates the crucial connections between life in the ocean and humankind, in everything from our food supply to our economy, and in drug discovery, biomedical research, and popular culture. Written with a diver’s love of the ocean, a novelist’s skill at storytelling, and a scientist’s deep knowledge, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime enchants as it educates, enthralling us with the wealth of life in the sea—and reminding us of the need to protect it.” Seems like a perfect read on a Wyoming winter’s day.
Seeley, Thomas D. Honeybee Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2010). ISBN-10: 0691147213 | ISBN-13: 978-0691147215
E. O. Wilson joins a flock of other praise-singers in calling this “a wonderful book about humanity’s greatest friend among the insects …”
Seeley focuses on just one species of honeybee, Apis mellifera, “the best-known insect on the planet” (p. 3). He celebrates this honeybee for bringing us sweetness and light through honey and beeswax, and also for its crucial role in pollinating some 50 fruit and vegetable crops, and that is only in North America. But the emphasis in this superb scientific study falls elsewhere. As Seeley says, this bee can teach us remarkable things about “building smoothly functioning groups, especially ones capable of exploiting fully the power of democratic decision making” (p. 3). How is that for a timely subject? Beautifully illustrated, Honeybee Democracy focuses on the “social beauty” of these bees, especially as they go about the life-and-death matter of choosing the right dwelling place. Michael J. Mauboussin finds it a “sheer delight.” It is.
Stager, Curt. Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2011). ISBN-10: 0312614624 | ISBN-13: 978-0312614621
This book is clear, accessible, lively, and well named. As a paleoclimatologist, or paleoecologist, Stager has both the expertise and the skill as a writer to help the reader make an amazing leap of imagination—that is, vastly to expand our sense of time with respect to earth’s changing climate. He is not interested in “unproductive, politicized arguments over global warming” (p. 2). He is interested in helping us understand the dramatic climatic shifts that have occurred in the ancient past. He is interested in recognizing the winners (us) and losers (oxygen hating microbes) in one of those huge shifts. He is interested in the debate over when the “current” rise in the emission of greenhouse gases began altering earth’s climate (was it at the outset of the Industrial Revolution with its burning of fossil fuels, or was it thousands of years earlier and unrelated to human activity?). But even more, he is interested in helping us look toward the next 100,000 years—a frame of time Stager makes remarkably graspable. He seeks to convince us that what we do now, in the 21st century, about the growing surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere will, simply will, shape life on earth for lo those many eons ahead. He sees humans as surviving, regardless. But “although humans will survive as a species, we are faced today with the responsibility of determining the climatic future that our descendents will live in” (p. 12). He aims to leave the reader with a “well-founded sense of hope and a wake-up call.” He succeeds.
Titles for Younger Readers
McClure, Nikki. To Market, To Market (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011). ISBN 9780810997387
2011 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the “Children’s” category.
“Nikki McClure is a master of the cut-paper technique and she uses it with unblemished effect in her new book To Market, To Market. The story that unfolds in the book is about a bustling farmers market. A young boy and his mother shop for apples and cheese, and salmon and greens. As they go about the market, the farmers explain how they grow the items they sell—and the skill and work that goes into it. Finally with their basket full, the boy and his mother return home, and all of the members of the family join in a feast celebrating good, healthy food and the farmers that make it possible. Age group: 4 to 8 years.”
—NOBA Review 2011
Wadsworth, Ginger. Camping With the President. Illustrated by Karen Dugan (Calkins Creek, Honesdale, PA., 2009). ISBN 9781590784976
2010 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the “Children’s” category.
“Camping with the President is a delightful and historically accurate book for children (ages 8-11). It’s about two icons of the outdoor world: Theodore Roosevelt, our most outdoorsy president, and John Muir, the world famous naturalist. In May of 1903, President Roosevelt while on a western excursion made a planned stop at Yosemite National Park. Dismissing his Secret Service men and sending reporters away, he and John Muir went off on a camping trip. They spent four days together, chatting about the wonders of the outdoors and discussing the need to protect wild areas. Author Ginger Wadsworth captures those exciting days together, creating a marvelous portrait of the two men. That’s complemented perfectly with Karen Dugan’s colorful and lively illustrations of the two men.”
—NOBA Review, 2010
Yolen, Jane. An Egret’s Day. Photographs by Jason Stemple (Wordsong, Honesdale, PA, 2009). ISBN 9781590786505
2010 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the “Children’s” category.
“Poetry is always a treat for children, and so are beautiful photographs of wildlife—particularly photographs of such a lovely and elegant bird as the egret. An Egret’s Day combines the two into a verse-and-visual delight for youngsters (ages 9-11). Each page includes a poem, a photograph and a descriptive paragraph about egrets: what they eat, how they fly, how tall they stand, and other tidbits of egret life.”
—NOBA Review 2010