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.
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.
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.
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.
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!