Feb 29, 2016

The Trail of the Sandhill Stag

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Story about a young man who tracks a deer through the woods. Blacktail are scarce in the area (at least in the beginning of the tale) so he is excited to finally find some deer and follow their trail. Then he hears of a famously large buck and follows this particular deer each season, for many years in a row. Gradually the boy becomes just as much interested in the wildlife and scenery around him as the pursuit of the stag, so he doesn't mind staying in the woods overnight, even when his friends quit the scene and go home disgruntled and cold. He is keenly observant and learns how to read the woods; in one season takes up with a native Cree hunter who teaches him some different skills. At first he rarely catches a glimpse of the buck, finally gets close enough but looses his nerve and misses the shot. He follows the deer for several more years, determined to catch up to it again. When in the end he becomes skilled enough at reading the deer's trail and behavior to bring it to a standstill, face-to-face, he finds that his temperament towards the animal has changed, and of course cannot bring himself to kill it. Instead he admires its vitality and beauty, and lets it go to live out its life.

I don't think I'm spoiling it by telling the end, I guessed early on what the outcome would be. It's a tidy moral. There's a point during the early years when one of his friends shoots a doe and the main character has serious misgivings at witnessing the death. For most of the time after he hunted alone and spent most of it appreciating nature.

Rating: 3/5      93 pages, 1899

Feb 28, 2016

The Searching Spirit

by Joy Adamson

This is her autobiography. I did not know much of Joy Adamson's life before this- only the details of her work with african lions, cheetahs and leopards. I first read Born Free when I was a teen, then the rest of her Elsa books, then one about a cheetah she raised, and a later book about a leopard. This book covers all that time period, but instead of discussing much experience with the animals- sensibly, as she wrote an entire book about each one- tells of publicity work that followed each successful release. I found this plenty interesting. Learned a few details about the cheetahs I hadn't known- since I've only read the first volume about Pippa and not yet its sequel. The book ends rather abruptly, just when she had acquired the orphaned leopard to raise.

But! Aside from all that putting it into context for myself. It is mostly about her childhood in Austria, how her large family estate was dissolved during war times, how she came to Africa and finally met George Adamson. His work as game warden at first unsettled her- he often had to shoot predators that were threatening people or their livestock- but she took it in stride and did her own share, I'd say- spending a large amount of time collecting specimens of plants, insects and birds to send to museums. I had forgotten that she was an accomplished artist- she tells how she first began painting indigenous plants, particularly wildflowers, and became well-known for it. She also undertook an immense project painting portraits of native tribes- men as well as women- in their traditional or ceremonial clothing, taking pains to be sure the items worn were authentic. To make a visual record of cultures that were quickly vanishing. These portraits became famous too. While accompanying George on work safaris, she often went along to search for new plants or tribesmen to paint. Sometimes went on her own travels to do so as well. The descriptions of all the various places she travelled to across Africa really intrigued me, because I found many things echoed from my prior book- Peter Beard described some of the same tribal groups and locales. Joy also tells of many adventures they had, briefly mentions some of the wild animals they rescued or raised as orphans, and describes the stress she suffered while doing hectic book tours after the astonishing popularity of Born Free.

I did not know until long after I had read her first books about the lions, that her marriage suffered a lot and she was apparently a very difficult person to get along with, perhaps even mentally ill or autistic. It's to her credit that in this book she has nothing ill to say of George, in fact she barely mentions him (perhaps that is telling). I'm very curious to read her husband's own account My Pride and Joy- and also several other biographies I've since found. But also a bit wary to do so, as I've long admired this woman for her groundbreaking work with wildlife, and I know the other books don't always show her in a positive light... Interestingly, Joy mentioned in this book that when she wrote the first account of Elsa, she was advised by a friend to avoid anthropomorphizing the lion so that people would realize she was telling the truth and take her book seriously. Perhaps that's why the account has always felt rather dry to me, just so many facts related. Still, they're incredible stories.

Rating: 3/5     244 pages, 1978

Feb 25, 2016

The End of the Game

by Peter Beard

This is a completely different look at East Africa. Peter Beard was a photographer who lived in Kenya during the era of big game hunts, when europeans had first discovered the country and seemed to feel they could do no wrong. He was Karen Blixen's neighbor and was there during Theodore Roosevelt's safari. He saw how dramatically the country was changing as white man penetrated the land, and documented the devastation. I was prepared to be impressed by this book, but found it a bit difficult to appreciate. It leans heavily on the reader already knowing the history, dropping in quotes and descriptions without much introduction- a lot was a report of names, places, numbers which I kind of tune out after a while. Much of the prologue is presented in the form of large photos with handwritten notes superimposed- Blixen's own handwriting, or J.H. Patterson's- which is lovely and artistic with its inked line variety, but also rather hard to read.

Mostly, it shows how heedlessly europeans slaughtered big game, without realizing it would have a long lasting impact on the wildlife. Game animals were so numerous it seemed unthinkable they could become decimated. Kind of how people used to view passenger pigeons here in America... The first chapter of the book relates the first approach to the summit of Mt. Kenya. They did it to prove there was snow up there- europeans at the time scoffed at the idea of snow anywhere on the equator, much less a glacier. Native tribes in the area were devastated when they found out a man had set foot on the summit- they held the mountain to be sacred and now it was violated. The second chapter is an account of the first railroad to be built in the region and the famous man-eating lions of Tsavo that terrorized the workers and halted work on the line for months. Other sections of the book describe hunting safaris, also a time when the author accompanied a 'game control' team hired to deliberately kill as much wildlife as possible, to make room for livestock. It's an incredible book capturing a specific time period, and what it did to wildlife in Kenya. Many of the photographs are the sort you really want to pause over- men in traditional clothing, from tribes long since vanished. Animals that were the probably among the first of their kind every caught on photograph- the diminutive dik-dik poised to flee. Male antelope and elephants of a size not seen anymore, anywhere. But it's a hard one to look through as well, because most of the pictures show death and carnage. Proud men posed next to their trophies. Many, many many pictures of animal carcasses. The last forty pages are nothing but aerial images of dead elephants, their hides empty, the bones in disarray. Surprisingly, lots of these still had their large tusks intact- I assume they died of starvation, not poaching.

There are two images that really I cannot quit thinking about- one near the frontispiece of an opened elephant carcass, exposing the dead fetus, a perfect little lifeless shape. Another aerial photograph of a building, surrounded by bones arranged in perfect rows- I assume the jawbones of elephants or rhinos- and by my rough count there must have been the remains of more than two hundred animals displayed outside that home. So yeah, not a happy book. Very sobering. A bit of relief in the lively little drawings that decorate the margins- apparently done by Karen Blixen's houseboy Kamante.

Note: the book was first published in 1963. I have the revised 1988 edition which includes an introduction and afterword written by Peter Beard giving new perspective on the situation 25 years after the initial publication. One thing that disappointed me about the book was the quality of the photos- many were reproduced at such an enlarged size- filling a two-page spread- that it was all blurred. I would have preferred to see a greater number of photographs at a more decent size, easier to appreciate visually.

Rating: 3/5       288 pages, 1963

Feb 23, 2016

Rules of the Wild

by Francesca Marciano

Feeling adrift when her father -an Italian poet- dies, Esmé travels to Africa. She is smitten by the vast, incomprehensible beauty of Kenya and impulsively decides to ditch her travelling companion and stay. She takes up living with a safari tour guide, but falls in love with another guy who works as a war correspondent. It is a story of relationships- the ins and outs of friendships, who is with whom - a constant shuffle- for all the room in Africa, the group of European expats is so small it feels crammed with their too-close familiarity. Their widely varied reasons for being in Africa were interesting; not so much all the gossip and innuendo. The main character is kind of pathetic. She has no real reason to be there, never has a job, pines after men. And yet- although that major part of the novel did not interest me much- I found this book rather compelling. Because of the way life in Africa is described. Glimpses of wildlife and arguments on its management, race differences, third-world conditions and horrific stories of genocide in Rwanda are all background material to the story. I wish all that had been in the fore, instead. I liked the writing enough that I wanted to keep reading even though I idly forgot who was friends with whom and which person knew what about the other. I cared more for the picture of a vivid land with its struggles and squalor and beauty.

Rating: 3/5      293 pages, 1998

Feb 21, 2016

In and Out of the Garden

by Sara Midda

This book portrays all that is lovely about gardening. It's full of quotes, some poetry, old-fashioned sounding recipes, remedies and other uses of garden plants all decorated with the author's exquisite artwork. I especially liked the lists of plants with brief sentences highlighting their origins or archaic uses- double-page spreads featuring herbs, fruits and vegetables respectively. Many of the illustrations have decorative borders all made out of words relating to the subject. There are reflections on gardening, a page of little sketches of gardens and landscapes, some instructionals on gardening methods and planting tips. I really wanted to enjoy it more- the watercolors are very nicely done- but the reproduction on the pages was so small I had to hold the book close to my face to read all the hand-lettered type. I really wish the book was printed in a larger format, otherwise it's a gem.

I think my favorite page (in terms of imagery) is still the one I showed on this page when I first acquired the book, featuring pea plants.

Rating: 3/5       128 pages, 1981

more opinions:
Stay at Home Bookworm
In So Many Words

Feb 20, 2016

Strong for Potatoes

by Cynthia Thayer

I read this book through to the end just because I was curious how it all turned out, but in spite of the strong themes it left me kind of unmoved. It's about a young woman growing up on the edge of a reservation in Maine, her troubled family and her part-native heritage, Passamaquoddy. I think the reason this book didn't really move me was because it had so many things going on. The girl's life is a constant struggle- her mixed heritage makes her an outcast at school, an accident when she was very young left her disabled, her parents are estranged and she witnesses a secret incident that reveals everything. She spends a lot of time with her grandfather who teachers her some woodscraft, how to track deer, and sets her up to learn traditional basketmaking from a tribal member; she gets good enough at this to find her own artistic style and some income. But mostly, really, the story is about her confused unfolding awareness of sexulity, how her best childhood friend falls in love with her but she finds she really loves someone else. It's about teen pregnancy and divided family secrets, and old buried pain. And facing death. All of which would make a good story, if they were presented with any depth. I felt like the book should have been twice as long... I wish I had felt more for the main character, she really went through a lot and finally discovered her own strengths and found out how to love, but I just wasn't given enough to know and care about her. The story moves quickly through her teen years, starting college and into young adulthood- too quickly, too brief. Others have really liked it, though. Just not me. I would have liked to read more about the native customs. So many things were barely touched on.

Rating: 2/5       248 pages, 1998

Feb 18, 2016

The Dirt Riddles

by Michael Walsh

I don't usually read poetry, so I don't quite know what to say about this. The poems describe moments from life on a dairy farm. Much more vivid and contemplative than the last book I read. Although it doesn't really contain a narrative, and I couldn't always visualize exactly what the poet was relating, something about it made me want to go back and read the poems again. To slide into the depth between the words, to look sideways and see something more clearly. So I guess it was successful.

Rating: 3/5     74 pages, 2010

Feb 17, 2016

Jim the Boy

by Tony Earley

This is a really quiet book. Dull, even. I picked it up secondhand somewhere, because the comparisons caught my eye- blurbs in the first pages compared it to The Yearling and To Kill a Mockingbird. Um, no. It's not anywhere close to those. In my mind it felt similar to The Red Pony, but flat. And no pony, of course. Well- Jim the Boy is about a farm kid in North Carolina. It's got the homey small town feeling, but although there are hints that the story is set in the Great Depression, there's not much sense of hardship. The boy's father died just before he was born and he grows up among his uncles.  At the end of the book finally travels up the mountain to meet his father's folks. In between he helps in the fields, watches the train go through town, sees electricity arrive, adjusts to a new and larger school, makes friends out of a rival, etc. Probably the biggest events in the book were things to do with the train, baseball games between the kids, and when his friend fell ill with polio. All rather downplayed. Stories Jim is told of the town's history and his family's past were more interesting than anything which happened to Jim himself. I did like the writing in many parts, the word crafting was often picturesque, but the characters just didn't come alive for me. In the end I realized that although there is a sequel I have no desire to look for it.

Rating: 2/5       239 pages, 200

more opinions:
Sycorax Pine
Maggie Reads
Bonnie's Books

Feb 15, 2016

Going to Extremes

by Joe McGinnis

Written by a reporter who travelled across Alaska just before and after the oil pipeline went through, this book had a lot of interesting descriptions but ultimately failed to hold my attention.  The author definitely covered a lot of ground. He took a ferry up from Seattle and then visited Anchorage, Prudhoe Bay, Barrow, Nome, Juneau, Bethel, Valdez and Bettles. He spent a few weeks in each location, usually staying with locals. To get a sense of the wilderness and isolation he stayed three days alone in a cabin on Crescent Lake, and at the end of the book describes an extended group hiking trip through the Brooks Range. Most of his account tells of the communities, scattered stories of individuals- how they ended up in Alaska, why they loved or hated it there, all the troubles and joys people found living in such a difficult place. A lot of it sounded dismal, to be honest. Sudden population growth, sudden money, cold and dark and nothing to do but waste it- drinking and violence and depression and suicide. I was much more interested in his descriptions of life in a few remote native villages, but that chapter wasn't very long. The parts about government and small town politics were only interesting to a point- I found myself skimming a lot. Best chapter was the last one, about the Brooks Range and his final encounters (after hearing many stories) with grizzly bears.

Rating: 2/5       285 pages, 1980

Feb 11, 2016

From the Orange Mailbox

Notes from a Few Country Acres
by Arley Carmen Clark

Very nice book written by a teacher and avid gardener. It appears to be a collection of articles she wrote for a weekly column, arranged here by the seasons. Each essay is only a few pages, so it's the kind of book you can dip in and out of easily when you have a short break from something. In a practical, friendly voice the author describes her work in the garden, her leisurely swims in the pond among turtles and loons, hunting bugs with visiting grandchildren, the doings of a various succession of household dogs, musings on the richness of life and reflects on all things around her. She discusses education (retiring from teaching in about the middle of the book) and bemoans the tangled mess of doing taxes. Mostly it is a book about living life well, observing and enjoying nature, and learning by experimentation how to manage a large home garden. I took a few notes on methods to try with plants, and the recipes she shares sound so good, I'm determined to try a few myself.

Rating: 4/5     273 pages, 1985

Feb 9, 2016

TBR 59

You all know what this is! More books I want to read someday...
Beyond Words by Carl Safina- So Many Books
The Golden Age by Jane Smiley- Caroline Bookbinder
Frozen Wild by Jim Arnosky- Bookfoolery
Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck- Book Chase
One Plus One Equals Blue by M.J. Auch- Puss Reboots
The Big Tiny by Dee Williams
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff- James Reads Books
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Blackass by Igoni Barrett- Farm Lane Books Blog
Pigs in Clover by Simon Dawson-
The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
The Bone Woman by Clea Koff- Ardent Reader
Whitetail Savvy by Leonard Lee Rue
Whitetail Spring by John J. Ozoga
Bear by Marian Engle- Jules' Book Reviews
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono- A Work in Progress
The Small Heart of Things by Julian Hoffman- So Many Books
Fools Crow by James Welch- Shelf Love
Forgotten by Time by Robert Silverberg
Salamanders and Other Wonders by Will Lea
Lost and Vanishing Birds by Charles Dixon

Feb 7, 2016

The Auk, the Dodo and the Oryx

Vanished and Vanishing Creatures
by Robert Silverberg

This book from the late sixties is about animals that had recently (in the last few hundred years- within human memory) gone extinct, or were presently in danger of extinction. It is a brief examination of what pushed these animals to the brink- usually a low reproduction rate, lack of defenses against introduced predators and unrestrained hunting by mankind. Extinct species discussed include numerous birds: the dodo, moa, passenger pigeon, heath hen, great auk and a few others. Mammals noted are the steller's sea cow, quagga, aurochs and giant ground sloth. There are also lots of animals in the book that were at the time at serious risk. Happy to say, at present time most of these are in still with us: giant panda, california condor, whooping crane, trumpeter swan, java rhino, cahow (a kind of petrel), przewalski's horse, nene (Hawaiian goose), pére david's deer, oryx. Sadly, attention to protection and conservation measures were not soon enough for others- at the time of his writing, java tigers were still around, so was the ivory-billed woodpecker. Now assumed extinct.

There were lots of details in here I never knew before about the fate of passenger pigeons. Descriptions of unfamiliar animals (takahe and moho birds of Hawaii) sent me to the internet numerous times to learn more about them. Did you know that there used to be nine distinct species of moa, ranging in size from the giants twelve feet tall (all I knew of before this book) to the size of the kiwi (only one left extant)? or that dodos were related to pigeons? Mostly I was baffled by the reactions of people in the 1800's when they realized an animal was on the verge of extinction- not a rush to try and save it, but to obtain a specimen for their museum, or just to have the honor of shooting one. Who takes pride in being the person who killed one of the last of a kind? It makes me angry to think of.

Funny, the cover I found to show (my edition has a pretty drab one) has the words of the title in a different order.

Rating: 3/5      246 pages, 1967

Feb 3, 2016

Faith in a Seed

by Henry David Thoreau

This volume compiles some nature writings Thoreau did late in life, which were published after his death. The book contains "The Dispersion of Seeds" and parts of manuscripts titled "Wild Fruits", "Weeds and Grasses" and "Forest Trees." It's a lovely and tedious read at the same time. Thoreau was intensely interested in plant life around Concord and made meticulous observations about how plants were naturally distributed. Most of the book details how seeds are spread by the weather and/or wild animals, the resulting patterns of growth, what types of habitat different seeds find favorable, and most interestingly, the reasons why pine woods are succeeded by oaks and oaks again by pines, if all the trees are cut down. I was surprised to read about how many years seedlings would grow up again after being cut down- eaten by rabbits, mown over, etc- some young trees he dug up and measured were spindly little things above the surface, but underground the taproot often proved to be five, seven, ten-plus years old. Tenacious things, trees. They just keep sending up new life!

While I find the subject matter pretty interesting and Thoreau's writing more accessible than I had expected (I've struggled twice to get through 'Civil Disobedience' which is the opening chapter to my volume containing 'Walden', and failed) at the same time the lists of plants and brief descriptions of how this seed is shaped, how it falls, where it falls, what percentage of it comes up in what part of the woods etc etc can get to be really dry. It has been my go-to-sleep book for a week- a week that felt really long. I'm glad I read it, I admire the work that went into it, but I'm not sure if I will deliberately read it again.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how modern-sounding Thoreau's voice is. Yet certain details distinctly reminded me that I was reading the words of a man who lived in another era. He often proclaimed things from scientific circles that have long since been proven otherwise. Was very skeptical of accounts of seeds being recovered from old sites and successfully germinated after tens or hundreds of years- discredited them entirely. And every now and then casually mentioned the numerous pigeons that fed on certain seeds or fruits. I wondered at this for a bit, then a mention of them flying off elsewhere to be shot in great numbers made me realize: he was speaking of the passenger pigeon! Which is now extinct.

Note: the book was compiled and published in 1993, Thoreau actually wrote the studies between 1856 and 1861. There are extensive notes in the back of the book describing how the writings were compiled, identifying quotations, individuals or incidents Thoreau mentioned, and making note of where his self-editing was unclear (passages he might have meant to delete or insert in different places, etc.)

Rating: 3/5       283 pages, 1993

Feb 2, 2016

deer crossing

Yesterday my youngest pestered me to do a puzzle with her. She quit as soon as the border was assembled but I kept going. Even though this is another cheap papercity puzzle, I found I rather liked it. There's enough texture and color going on, and avoiding use of the box picture as a reference made it just challenging enough. 500 pieces.
I miss reading however. Too many other projects lately and my current book is one of those put-yourself-to-sleep kind of reads. I like it, but it's tedious. I hope to finish it soon and get to something a bit more enjoyable.