Jul 132017
 

In case you might be looking for some new reading material this summer, I would like to suggest some of my favourite books from the past few years. If there is one theme they have in common, it’s that science, nature history, intellectual satisfaction and wonder are all part of an indivisible whole.

Some great nature books for your summer reading pleasure! (photo by Drew Monkman)

Evolution

1. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body – By Neil Shubin (Vintage Books, 2008)

Neil Shubin, the American paleontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, the “fish with hands”, explains in this book how our bodies became the amazing but sometimes less-than-perfect machines they are today. By examining everything from fossils to embryos and DNA, he shows us that our bodies are the legacy of ancient fish, reptiles and primates. You will learn, for example, that our hands are modified fish fins and that major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and fish. Shubin writes “If you know how to look, our body becomes a time capsule that, when opened, tells of critical moments in the history of our planet and of a distant past in ancient oceans, streams and forests.”

2. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation – By Bill Nye (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015)

With his trademark enthusiasm, the host of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” shows us that evolution is the most powerful and important idea ever developed in the history of science. Nye explains why race doesn’t really exist; how new species are born; and takes us on a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time. The book was sparked by a highly controversial debate with Christian creationist Ken Ham, which you can watch on YouTube. Nye writes, “My concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their kids. We cannot address the problems facing humankind today without science – both the body of scientific knowledge and, more important, the process. Science is the way in which we know nature and our place within it.”

3. Why Evolution is True – By Jerry Coyne (Penguin Books, 2009)

As the title says, Coyne’s book takes the reader through the multiple lines of proof of why evolution is true. Drawing from many different fields of science, Coyne explains what evolution is and how it’s written in rocks, geography, embryos and genes. I especially enjoyed the chapter on how sex drives evolution. It explains why winning males have the loudest voices, the brightest colors, the sexiest displays – all decided upon by the females. Coyne also describes how evolution can favour genes that lead to cooperation, altruism and even morality. In the conclusion, he writes: “Many scientists have found profound spiritual satisfaction in contemplating the wonders of the Universe and our ability to make sense of them.” Even Albert Einstein saw the study of nature as a spiritual experience.

General nature

4. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World – By Andrea Wulf  (Vintage, 2016)

Chosen as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, this illuminating biography is the story of Alexander Von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Humboldt was a visionary German naturalist whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. In doing so, he formed the basis of modern environmentalism. Humboldt was the first naturalist to see the natural world as a unified whole that is animated by interactive forces. He brought together exact scientific data with an emotional response to what he was seeing. “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” he wrote to Goethe. By combining nature and art, facts and imagination, he linked the previous mechanistic view of nature to a new emphasis on subjectivity. Humboldt even developed the idea of human-induced climate change, based on the deforestation and erosion he saw in South America. He was the first to recognize that humankind had the power to destroy the environment – with catastrophic consequences.

5. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – By Peter Wohlleben (Greystone, 2015)

After reading Wohlleben’s book, a walk through a forest will never be the same. Drawing on the latest scientific discoveries, the German forester explains that the trees in a forest care for each other: parents communicate with their offspring, support them as they grow, share nutrients and warn of dangers. In doing so, their most important allies are soil fungi, which allow trees to share both resources and information. You’ll learn how trees use scent to summon parasitic wasps to rid themselves of pests, how leaves send out electrical signals and that a dead trunk is as indispensable for the cycle of life in the forest as a live tree. Intriguing activities are also scattered throughout the book, such as putting your ear to a tree trunk to hear how well it conducts sound. Wohlleben concludes with some encouraging thoughts on trees’ ability to withstand climate change, thanks in part to the great genetic diversity in a single species. If there is one message to take from this book it’s that trees are not the static beings we mistake them for.

6. New and Selected Poems – By Mary Oliver (Beacon, 1992)

I love to turn to the poetry of Mary Oliver as a source of inspiration and contemplation about nature. This collection has become one of the best-selling volumes of poetry in North America. Take it along on your next walk. Her poems are both companions and daily meditations. As the Poetry Foundation website explains, “Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds…” I especially recommend poems such as “Wild Geese”, “Creeks” and “The Summer Day”. Oliver’s poetry is firmly anchored in place – a place that often evokes the Kawarthas – and is eminently accessible to the general poetry reader. In “When Death Comes”, she writes, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

7. Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods and Marshes of New England – By Mary Holland (Trafalgar Square, 2010)

Don’t let the focus on New England fool you. “Naturally Curious” is almost entirely applicable to the Kawarthas and a complement to my own book, “Nature’s Year in Eastern and Central Ontario”. At 474 pages and full of beautiful colour photographs, this is one book I always keep on my desk. It takes the reader through a typical year in nature, species group by species group, and will please the skilled naturalist as much as the nature neophyte. You will also find important background information on key concepts like photosynthesis, mating rituals, frog and toad calls, incomplete vs. complete metamorphosis and seed dispersion. Highly recommended!

8. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants – By Heather Holm (Pollinator Press, 2014)

If you are interested in bees and pollinator gardens, this book is a must. Holm explains in detail the specific relationships between native pollinators and native plants. Organized by plant communities, the book profiles over 65 perennial native plants, many of which are native to central and southern Ontario. It also lists the pollinators, beneficial insects and flower visitors that each plant attracts. With over 1600 photos of plants and insects, this is my go-to book for identifying the native bees, moths, beetles, flies and butterflies that turn up in my garden.

Environmental education

9. How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature – By Scott D. Sampson (Mariner, 2015)

Sampson is Dr. Scott on the PBS kids how “Dinosaur Train”. In “How to Raise a Wild Child”, he explains how kids connection to nature changes as they mature. The emphasis is on the importance of nature mentors and how to become one yourself. You need not be a nature expert – just a source of enthusiasm and support. Story-telling, too, is a skill he recommends cultivating. Children will value what you value, so start noticing and appreciating nature yourself. Sampson explains the importance of unstructured outdoor play, risk-taking and asking questions. He argues that kids need to know the story of how the Universe began and how evolution explains everything we see around us in living nature – including ourselves.

Climate Change

10.  Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science – By Philippe Squarzoni (Harry N. Adams, 2014)

This  pen-and-ink graphic novel  is basically the author’s personal  journey in understanding the science and multiple impacts of climate change. As he educates himself by talking to experts, he educates us, too. The book also weighs the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others. The result is a balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis. If you’re new to graphic novels, pick this one!

Nov 202014
 

“Take one child. Place outdoors in nearby green spaces. Leave for several hours at a time. Repeat daily. Sprinkle in a dash of adventure. Fold in a generous portion of exploration and discovery. Top with wonder and awe. Let rise…”

Not long ago, my friend Jacob and I took a group of children out for a hike to a nearby wetland. Along the way, we came across some Northern Leopard Frogs. “Let’s catch ‘em,” some of the boys yelled out, ready to pounce. “No,” we suggested, “let’s watch instead.” So we did. We hunkered down and stayed as still as we could. We observed how one frog hopped slowly against a backdrop of sedges and wildflowers, its spotted, wet skin glistening in the sun. We watched, too, how its pink tongue snapped out and grabbed an unsuspecting grasshopper. “Did you see that?” the kids exclaimed. “That was awesome!” And it most certainly was.
In an increasingly urbanized world, children (and many adults) experience far less contact with the natural world. Our children are far more likely to watch the flickering screen of a video game or hear the sounds of traffic than see tadpoles in a woodland pond or hear the rhythmic chorus of frogs in spring. They are also more likely to recognize hundreds of corporate logos or cartoon characters than be able to identify more than a handful of local plant and animal species.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

As I have mentioned in several previous columns, I am working on a nature activity guide with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book calls on all of us to reclaim the natural world as an integral part of the human sphere. It also asks that we encourage our children to value nature-based experiences – the kinds of experiences in which we hear birds, feel the mud between our toes and stare in wonder at the night sky.
Just as family, friends, neighbours and colleagues form a very real community in our lives, there is also a very tangible sense of belonging and connection that arises from being immersed in nature. More than ever, children need opportunities to learn and feel that they are part of this larger community, too. And, like any relationship, this requires commitment, time and effort.
We want parents, grandparents and educators alike to think about how to raise caring, responsible and engaged citizens who recognize that their community includes both the living and the abiotic (e.g., air, water, soil) systems that support and nurture us all. While it is true that we enjoy a world of amazing technological tools from smartphones to apps of all kinds, we’d like people to think about selecting technologies that enhance outdoor learning – rather than getting in the way of it. We all need to help kids – and, increasingly, ourselves – to see the value of connecting to nature, not just to addictive screens.
In 1980, Thomas Tanner, an environmental education researcher, interviewed close to 200 professionals from around the world, who were involved in the conservation movement. He wanted to know what childhood experiences these people had had in common, which inspired them to want to protect the environment. Not surprisingly, almost all the respondents described rich encounters with nature while they were growing up. They lived on farms, they tramped through marshes, they visited cottages, they hiked, they canoed and they discovered. In short, they engaged with their natural surroundings. However, today, many of us are asking where tomorrow’s environmentalists will come from? Who will advocate for shrinking habitat and the containment of urban sprawl? Who will speak for threatened and endangered species and for our own green spaces, when the very formative experiences that make for caring environmental stewards are removed from childhood?
As a society, we pay a huge price for our disconnection from nature. The rate of childhood obesity in North America has almost tripled over the past twenty years, partly because children are spending less far less time outside and are therefore not participating in regular exercise. Research has found that children who explore and play in natural environments tend to be less competitive and more co-operative than those who play in areas dominated by asphalt and play structures. Playing in nature also enhances creative thought, stimulates imaginative play and improves a child’s ability to concentrate during school.
But nowhere is the cost of our disconnection from nature greater than when it comes to climate change. Now, more than ever, we need to be paying attention to the myriad changes – many of which are subtle – that are occurring all around us. Yes, climate change is partly about wrenching disasters, but it’s also about numerous “canary in the coal mine” events: the early arrival of migratory birds, the early blossoming of wildflowers, the increased frequency of unseasonal weather events, etc. Noticing these small changes and understanding that they represent a kind of climatic early warning system requires a critical mass of “citizen naturalists” that have first-hand, detailed knowledge of local nature and care deeply.

Student working in her nature journal - Drew Monkman

Student working in her nature journal – Drew Monkman

Overview of book
Tentatively entitled “Nature Activities through the Seasons – a guide for families, educators and youth leaders,” our book will be a collection of things to do outside over the course of an entire year. Part of the inspiration came from my 2002 book “Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas” and a desire to provide activities to accompany the many events in nature described within. Although the activities are geared mostly to children and adolescents, many will also be of interest to adults – including seniors – and to families looking for ways to enjoy nature together.
The book will be divided into four sections, which include an introduction, basic nature skills, core concepts (e.g., evolution, phenology, climate change, why we have seasons) and activities specific to each season. They include fun activities (e.g., games, arts and crafts, nature collections, scavenger hunts) as well as more serious activities such as species identification, nature photography, journaling and ways to enhance sensory awareness. The book will also strive to help children and adults alike develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for evolution in everyday plants and animals. Each season also includes activities based on “Big Ideas” that are key to acquiring nature literacy. For example, in the Fall chapter we look at the Big Idea of metamorphosis and how it can be seen and understood by raising Monarch butterflies.
Readers will also find hints on how to raise a naturalist, how to be an effective mentor to children and how to get kids outside – even in an age of busy schedules and heightened concerns for safety. The extensive skills section will provide an introduction to year-long activities such as birding, insect-watching, botanizing, reading animal tracks, geocaching for naturalists, sketching, photography, Citizen Science projects and connecting with nature in a digital age. Informative side-bars cover topics such as common misconceptions about nature, species to learn to identify each season, nature-viewing from a car, what to sketch or photograph and ideas for what to focus on during a neighbourhood walk. There is also an “At-a-glance” chart of what to look and listen for each season.
The book is being published by New Society Publishers and should be available in the spring of 2016.

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area - Drew Monkman

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area – Drew Monkman

Break from column
In order to devote myself more fully to this project, I have decided to take a break from this column until early next fall. I have arranged, however, for a number of very knowledgeable local naturalists and educators to fill in for me during my absence. They are:
Martin and Kathy Parker – Martin is the president of the Peterborough Field Naturalists and, together with his wife Kathy, was a long-time nature columnist for the North Bay Nugget
Rick Stankiewicz – past president of the Peterborough Astronomical Association and award-winning photographer
Tim Dyson – naturalist with special expertise in moths and birds of prey
Paul Elliott – professor in the School of Education at Trent University with a special interest in environmental education as well as bat ecology and conservation
Jim Schaefer – professor of biology at Trent University whose lab focuses on the population ecology and conservation of northern mammals, especially Woodland Caribou. Jim has been a regular contributor to the Examiner for many years.
Lisa Nisbet – assistant professor of psychology at Trent University whose research focuses on connectedness with nature and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.