Friday, March 24, 2017

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Summary from Amazon:
"Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. 

Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s Walden.

With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, Andrea Wulf shows the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science."

NY Times Review:

Boston Globe:

On Vimeo:

Interview with ZDF,  in German:

At Yale:

RadioWest Interview:

Author's Site

Awards: One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Costa Biography Award, the Royal Geographic Society's Ness Award, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award

Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Kirkus Prize Prize for Nonfiction, the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award

A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, The Atlantic, The EconomistNatureJezebelKirkus ReviewsPublishers WeeklyNew ScientistThe IndependentThe TelegraphThe Sunday Times, The Evening Standard, The Spectator

Bucks County Audubon Society Event: Earth Day, April 22 from 11:00 - 4:00
To celebrate the birth of the modern environmental movement, we are reading this book about one of the very first environmentalist. Join us at Bucks County Audubon Society at Honey Hollow, located only a few minutes from Peddler's Village, to celebrate with this special event. We will have lots of vendors, exhibits, presentations, etc. Visit the website for more information:

Discussion Questions (by Heidi and John, who will be leading the discussion):

1. How did Humboldt go from being the most celebrated scientist of the nineteenth century to being largely unknown in our time?  What did you know about Humboldt before reading this book? 
2. What are some of the concepts of the times, that greatly influenced Humboldt’s thinking, such as Kant’s concept of a systematic construct and Goethe’s ideas and belief of the marriage of art and science.
3. How did Humboldt expand on his concept of “Nature must be experienced through feeling,”? How does he develop this further? Is this inconsistent with scientific practice?
4. From the beginning of time, it was believed that humans had command over nature, as stated in the Bible, to Aristotle and on into the 17th century with Francis Bacon declaring “the world is made for man” and Descartes wrote that humans were “the lords and possessors of nature.” Many believed, that all the land should be cultivated and “improved” and tidy. These ideas are prevalent in our own society again today. What causes this disconnect with nature and man?
5.  Describe some of his exciting travels and dangerous moments?
6. What are some of the negative impacts humans were having on the environment already at that time, that Humboldt observed and were concerned about, i.e  Lake Valencia, deforestation, climate change, animal populations such as the turtles from the Orinoco rainforest.
7.  How was Humboldt’s view of nature and Earth radically different from previously?  What experiences in particular helped him develop his ideas? 
8.  Who were some of the great people, notably coming from many different disciplines, that were influenced by Humboldt and what were some of his ideas, that became seeds of new concepts that they later developed?  
9.  One of his greatest achievements was his book, Cosmos.  Did this book inspire Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos?
10.  Describe the process by which he created networks of scientists and the incredible number of letters he wrote and received during his career to forge these associations. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David G. Haskell

Summary from Amazon: 
"In this wholly original book, biologist David Haskell uses a one- square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature's path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life.

Each of this book's short chapters begins with a simple observation: a salamander scuttling across the leaf litter; the first blossom of spring wildflowers. From these, Haskell spins a brilliant web of biology and ecology, explaining the science that binds together the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals and describing the ecosystems that have cycled for thousands- sometimes millions-of years. Each visit to the forest presents a nature story in miniature as Haskell elegantly teases out the intricate relationships that order the creatures and plants that call it home.
Written with remarkable grace and empathy, The Forest Unseen is a grand tour of nature in all its profundity. Haskell is a perfect guide into the world that exists beneath our feet and beyond our backyards."
Book Reviews:
Video: In this Franke lecture on January 29th, 2014, David Haskell, Professor of biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, gives a talk on biology, literature and contemplative practice:

Discussion Questions by Donna:
1.  How does author use the concept of the mandala, in this case a square meter of forest, as a lens to study so called “larger” topics of biology, ecology, evolution, biochemistry, etc.?  Cite some of your favorite examples.

2.  In his essay on fireflies, he states “When children chase after fireflies, they are not pursuing beetles but catching wonder.  When wonder matures, it peels back experience to seek deeper layers of marvel below.  This is science’s highest purpose.”
How does Haskell use dramatic stories of life in the mandala to fuel that sense of wonder in folks of all ages?

3. How does he use extraordinary numbers to stoke our amazement of things unseen, e.g. joules in a sunflower seed, kilometers of seed dispersal, miles of photons’ travel, etc.?

4. How does he treat some controversial topics like logging practices, wolf/coyote populations, or other environmental issues like climate change?

5. E.O.Wilson states that “Haskell’s nature writing…. is located between science and poetry.”  Did you enjoy his style?  What were some favorite metaphors he used to describe the flora and fauna in the mandala?  Did you find his style too “flowery” or dramatic?

6.  How does Haskell weave in topics of human nature, and human’s place in nature?

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Bees by Laline Paull

Summary from Good Reads:
"Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen's inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden...

Laline Paull's chilling yet ultimately triumphant novel creates a luminous world both alien and uncannily familiar. Thrilling and imaginative, The Bees is the story of a heroine who changes her destiny and her world."

Author's site

NY Times Review: "Hive Mentality",

The Guardian Review

Interview with the author by Bookanista Be sure not to miss this!!

Bucks County Audubon Society Event: Raising Honeybees Demo:

Discussion Questions:
1. What are some of the ways the book informs how bees function? How did the author help you visualize, feel and understand this in new ways?
2. What genre would you place this book?
3. Flora is often described as heroic. Why and how?
4. How does Flora's knowledge of the archives help her and the hive?
5. How do the bees view of the world beyond and how do they respond and interact with it?
6. How does the the life of the bees in this story diverge from the true life of bees?
7. How is Flora different from the other bees?
8. Would agree that this a "Cinderella" story? How?
9. Would you recommend this book for a book prize and why?
10. Has this book inspired you to become a beekeeper?

Video of starting a hive from Backyard Beekeeping:

Silence of the Bees - Nature Documentary

Local Beekeeping Groups in our area:

Montgomery County Beekeepers Association of PA:

Bucks County Beekeepers Association:

Lehigh Valley Beekeepers:

Monday, November 28, 2016

One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich

Summary from Amazon:
"In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next?"

Quote: "Each animal gives us a new view, a new experience, that involves stepping out of our own world into another, and it is always an adventure.


Kirkus Review:

WSJ: "Minding the Nest":

The Naturalist's Notebook: The story behind the book, written by Heinrich:

Q & A with the Author:

Other books by Bernd Heinrich: Winter World, Summer World, One Man's Owl, Mind of the Raven, Why We Run, The Trees in my Forest, Life Everlasting

Discussion Questions:
1. Do you bird watch? If yes, Where? When? What?
2. Have you ever participated in a bird walk or birding class?
3. Which bird species, presented in this book, are familiar ones to you? New ones?
4. Bernd presents chapter after chapter of amazing observations, confirmations of old findings and makes new exciting discoveries. What are some of his observations of birds that surprised you?
5. Have you observed or witnessed yourself, some of the findings that Bernd presents here in this book, such as mobbing, courting, communication, nesting behaviors, sharing, survival strategies, snow diving or denning, flock learning, mourning, etc.?
6. Bernd intervenes, even interferes with several birds' lives, such as with Pipsqueak, “So, I went to find him, extracted him from the thicket and carried him to the cabin . . .” (p. 14-15) or with Slick, “On his next landing I closed my fingers, trying to grab him by his legs, and managed to snag him by a toe.” (p. 28).  What are your thoughts about this? Have you ever stepped in to help a bird or animal yourself?
7. Bernd uses a bird feeder and provides seeds for the birds in his area. “Nowadays the chickadees often seem to live on black sunflower seeds. A crowd of them at my bird feeder in Vermont had consumed over a hundred pounds of the seeds per winter . . .” (p. 108) Do you use a bird feeder? How often and how much do you feed them?  Do you use specific kinds of seeds to attract certain species?
8. In considering Pough’s statement , “If enough winter bird-feeding stations are established to free the evening grosbeak from dependence on natural foods its population might increase greatly in years to come.” (p. 178) What are your thoughts regarding using a bird feeder? What are the pros and cons?

9. Bernd’s writing is very fluid and accessible. Do you track your own observations of birds and animals you see? If yes, feel free to bring your journal along to share. What have you seen, that bewildered or excited you?

Bernd Heinrich in his cabin in Maine. 
Photo from Naturalist Notebook.

A video of an amazing talking starling.

American Woodcock Dance

Burrowing Owls Video

This is a photo from our first meeting. We look forward to more
interesting and fun books and discussions.