Monday, May 29, 2017

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

Summary from Amazon:
"Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens.

The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the "Pineys," are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people―and their distinctive folklore―who call it home."

Article from the New York Times

Article in The New Yorker about McPhee:

A Pine Barrens Site

Pine Lands Alliance Site

National Park Service Site

A 2015 article regarding the Pine Barrens:

An Analysis by a Master Naturalist:

Recent Bus Tour Description in 2016 of the Pine Barrens:

This is the tour site mentioned above for the Pine Barrens

Philly Magazine: 13 Things you might not know about the Pine Barrens:

Discussion Questions: (John Shiver will be leading the discussion, using his questions below.)

1.     Have you ever visited the Pine Barrens?  What were your impressions? Do you know any one from that area?

2.     Fact versus Fiction. What were your favorite tall tales of the Pine Barrens?  What did you think of Fred Brown’s memories versus other sources, e.g. Mexican plane crash, the Jersey Devil?

3.     How did the Pine Barrens unique geology lead to its relative isolation, despite its proximity to NYC and Philly? What are some of the unusual features of the Pine Barrens such as soil, water, minerals, plants, fruits, trees, fires?

4.     How did these resources contribute to its history of industry and occupation?

5.     How balanced and fair is the longstanding outsider perception of ‘Pineys”? Where did these perceptions come from?

6.     What are your thoughts about the contradictions around life in the PB, i.e. poaching, fox hunting, moonshining, land ownership, willing to do hard work but not holding a steady job, etc.

7.     What are some of the Pine Barrens gifts to our times?

8.     How did McPhee’s book contribute to preserving the Pine Barrens? How different is it today from 50 years ago?

Monday, May 1, 2017

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Summary from Amazon:
The instant New York Times bestseller and award-winning sensation, Helen Macdonald's story of adopting and raising one of nature's most vicious predators has soared into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Fierce and feral, her goshawk Mabel's temperament mirrors Helen's own state of grief after her father's death, and together raptor and human "discover the pain and beauty of being alive" (People). H Is for Hawk is a genre-defying debut from one of our most unique and transcendent voices.

One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year

ON MORE THAN 25 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS: including TIME (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine (10 Favorite Books), Vogue (Top 10), Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle (Top 10), Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Top 10), Library Journal (Top 10), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, Amazon (Top 20)

New York Times:

New Yorker:

All About Birds Review:

Publisher, Grove Atlantic Website:

You Tube Video with Author

Bucks County Audubon Society Accompanying Event: Falconry Demo, May 20th from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Click here is register and find more information:

Related Movie: The Eagle Huntress, the Trailer:

Discussion: May 25th at 6:15 p.m. at The Doylestown Bookshop

Discussion Questions:
(Note: These questions are primarily from the publisher's Reading Guide and some have been altered. For the entire set of questions, feel free to visit the the site:

1. What is your knowledge of raptors and falconry, before reading this book?

2. What are some of the themes that are threaded throughout the story?

3. Macdonald was eight years old when she first reads T. H. White’s The Goshawk, a book that proves a formative experience. She initially dislikes the book (p. 30): “Why would a grown-up write about not being able to do something?” How does Macdonald’s views on White’s book evolve over time? 

4. “The book you are reading is my story,” Macdonald writes. “It is not a biography of Terence Hanbury White. But White is a part of my story all the same. I have to write about him because he was there” (p. 38). What does Macdonald mean? How does understanding White’s life inform her own journey? How does our understanding of White’s book help us understand her own? Also, Macdonald cuts between her attempts to train Mabel with T. H. White’s attempts to train his goshawk. What are the similarities and differences in their training routines?

5. Macdonald writes, “What we see in the lives of animals are lessons we’ve learned from the world” (p. 60). Through closely observing her hawk’s life, what lessons does Helen ultimately learn from the world?

6. When Macdonald first trains her hawk to become accustomed to her presence, she explains that “making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world” (p. 68). Later, Macdonald says about being thrilled that her hawk has forgotten she’s there because it’s a sign of acceptance: “But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten” (p. 73). Why does this excite Macdonald?

7. Macdonald goes through various emotional stages training her hawk. On one particular day, within a couple hours she goes from feeling like a “beneficent figure” to “the worst falconer in the history of the world.” Ultimately, she realizes, “I have lost the ability to disappear” (p. 93). How critical was this loss at this stage of her training? How important of a turning point is this for Macdonald?

8. A big step in Macdonald’s hawk training is “walking” Mabel in public. Macdonald fears what Mabel’s encounter with people will be like: “They are things to shun, to fear, to turn from, shielding my hawk” (p. 100). Is Macdonald also shielding herself? Why or why not?

9. Macdonald writes that each picture her father took was “a record, a testament, a bulwark against forgetting, against nothingness, against death” (p. 71). Later, she looks just once at the last photo her father took before he died. “[A]n empty London street . . . a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.” It is a photo that she can “never stop seeing” (p. 106). Does Macdonald’s memory of this photo serve as a bulwark against forgetting her father? Or against her father’s death?

10. As Macdonald continues with Mabel’s training, she explains, “I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness” (p. 135). How great a role does grief play in making Macdonald feel complete with Mabel?

11. At key points in the narrative, Macdonald is able to rely on various friends to help her through a specific emotional challenge or with Mabel’s training. How important is human friendship to Macdonald as she travels through her grief? Is it more of a challenge for her to recognize human contributions to her healing than Mabel’s? Why or why not?
you are entirely at the world’s mercy” (p. 177). What does Macdonald mean?

12. After her father’s memorial service, Macdonald thinks about her decision to “flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so.” Macdonald realizes that this was “a beguiling but dangerous lie” that inevitably harmed Mabel. “I’d fled to become a hawk, but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me” (p. 218). How much responsibility does Macdonald bear for religiously following her nature books’ advice? Is Macdonald expressing enough empathy for her decisions? Which books is she referring to?

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?