Dec 31, 2017

The Hidden Life of Trees

What They Feel, How They Communicate
Discoveries from a Secret World
by Peter Wohlleben

This book is written by a forestry manager in Germany. He is involved in protecting and studying old-growth forests. The details in this volume surprised me at every turn. The interconnected relationships between trees and the mycorrhizal fungi, insects, birds, mammals and other plants around them is a lot more complex than I had realized. Trees compete with other species, but sometimes enter into beneficial relationships where one kind of tree supports another when conditions are favorable to it, and vice versa. Adult trees nurture their children- only one of which will usually survive to replace it. Trees create their own microclimate, and benefit from living in groups- a solitary tree is often stressed and unhealthy. They share nutrients and water through their network- and in one case the author quotes, a group of trees died when one in the center was struck by lightening- those up to fifty feet away were also affected. Some of the ideas in this book seem a little speculative to me- that the sounds caused by resonance in hollow trunks when they are dying of thirst is the trees screaming, for one. Studies do show that trees (and other plants) communicate dangers to their neighbors via chemical signals, and that the root systems of trees appear to have a "memory" or ability to learn- they definitely respond to stimuli. It's all very interesting and makes me wonder what new discoveries are down the line- if we can keep our hands off and let the older forests continue to grow. Trees do much better left to their own devices than when managed by people, it appears. And their lives are far more lengthy than I knew- saplings my height are probably forty or fifty years old, which is just out of kindergarten stage for a tree... it reminds me of many things I read in Thoreau's book about his observations on trees and other forest life. For sure makes you look at the trees around you in a different light.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5        272 pages, 2015

more opinions:
So Many Books
anyone else?

Dec 30, 2017

Alpine NorthWest

It has been a very long time since I worked a puzzle. My older sister got me into the enjoyable pastime again- she sent me this lovely 1,000 piece Charley Harper jigsaw. (I first discovered this artist on a family vacation to Glacier National Park where we worked a different puzzle featuring his artwork). I've been putting this one together over the past few days with my thirteen-year-old. I love the abstract style of this artist, and the detailed way he depicts a wide variety of plant and animal life from each specific environment (I recognize many, but not quite all, of the species in the picture. Wish there was a list somewhere). Once finished we admired it for about ten minutes, then promptly disassembled to start a new one! Fun.

(sorry, the last pic has a bit too much light bouncing off it)

Dec 29, 2017


the Horse That Knew No Master
by Colonel S. Meek

This story is about a U.S. Army post that was stationed on the Panama Canal. The main characters are the officers at the post, but the horse is central to the story. Frog- so named because he has a habit of suddenly springing forward and unseating his rider- has such a bad reputation as a vicious horse, that he is going to simply be destroyed. A new man is transferred to the post who has a reputation as a very good horseman, he takes Frog on as a personal project. Under his hands the horse learns that not all men mean him harm, and comes to love his new master. The horse then acquires new skills- being taught to play polo, and is involved in many escapades. In one chapter he is used to ferret out a spy among the new recruits, in another his skills on the polo field convince a Major that the sport improves both men and horse, so it is not banned as a frivolous activity. He is involved in bringing a local madman under control, in getting rid of a lady who insists on using all the horses (to their harm), and undertakes a grueling midnight run to deliver a message- which his rider hopes will prove to the Army that horses are still useful and shouldn't be replaced by machines. He runs in a race, even while influenced by drugs (administered by a man who has a grudge against Frog's rider), and on another occasion carries an officer's daughter into the jungle to pick oranges, where he protects her from a poisonous snake. In all, lots of adventures, amusing dialogue and a bit of intrigue between the characters.

It's mostly about what life was like at the Calvary post, based on the author's experiences. Those men were very fond of chicken- any time a bet was laid, the winner got a free chicken dinner. It must have been an item hard to come by, or expensive? Beef steak was second choice to chicken! It's nice to know that in this story: the horse doesn't die. He isn't perfect either- he still has setbacks, is poorly treated by his new master once due to a misunderstanding, and acts out whenever new riders abuse him. He's a feisty one for sure. I liked this book enough I'll keep my eye out for any others by the same author I might come across.

I finished this one a few days ago, but had no time to sit down and write until now. From my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5            302 pages, 1933

Dec 27, 2017

Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers

by John Burroughs

The focus of this book is not squirrels, although it starts out with members of their family- gray squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks. Goes on to describe minks and weasels, rabbits, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, possums, two kinds of mice, foxes and muskrats. The brief chapters are all first-hand observations of wildlife made by the author on his farmland or in the forest near. He's a good nature writer, although the attitude towards animals not always kindly- seems to be a product of the times. Had no qualms describing hunting down raccoons with dogs, or stomping on a weasel to make it let go of his chicken, or making a porcupine loose all its quills into a wooden board to see what it would do when left without defense. He once dug up a large segment of a bank, curious to find the end of a weasel's maze of tunnels. Those small creatures really do sound fierce!

On the other hand, he writes about most of the animals with admiration or humor, and tells what he learned of their individual habits in interesting detail. The chipmunks are particularly engaging, and the intelligence of the foxes and woodchucks. There are quite a few illustrated plates by none other than John James Audubon; I wish they were larger it is hard to appreciate them on a screen, but still I'm glad they were included.

I read this one on my e-reader, thanks to Project Gutenburg.

Rating: 3/5          114 pages, 1900

Dec 24, 2017


the Story of a Gray Squirrel
by Ernest Thompson Seton

This is, of course, about a squirrel's life. Early parts of it really rushed through some of the story. The squirrel is orphaned at a young age and kept by a boy who puts it to nurse with his cat's kittens. Then the barn burns down and the people suddenly move away- at least, it felt very sudden- the chapter about the fire and the people deserting the farm was all of one page. I was curious to read more about the squirrel living with its adoptive feline mother, but instead the story moves on and mostly tells how it lives in the forest- taking some time to adjust to the new situation, learn food sources and strategies, but for the most part having an edge over its competitors because after being cared for in captivity it was larger and healthier than the ordinary wild squirrels.

The narrative got intriguing when, as an adult raising young with its mate, this squirrel protagonist Bannertail fell into sinful living and had to learn from his mistakes or die. Yes, it became a moralistic story. The squirrel discovered intoxicating mushrooms in the forest and became addicted. It suffered for a time going back again and again for the mushrooms, acting wildly aggressive to common enemies while under the influence, being sick the next morning and estranging his family. Eventually the effects of the mushrooms almost killed it, and then it learned to avoid them and taught its young likewise.

There's also a very dramatic scene where the entire squirrel family battles a snake. Only one of the young squirrels doesn't make it to adulthood (earlier in the book, not from the snake), and in the end Bannertail is triumphant over all his difficulties, living the life wild and free high up in the treetops with his mate.

The feature illustrations are lovely in detail, and the more frequent marginal drawings very amusing and comedic. Enjoyed it on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5           260 pages, 1922

Dec 21, 2017

Frost Dancers

A Story of Hares
by Gary Kilworth

Skelter is a blue mountain hare from the highlands. He lives a relatively good life for a wild hare, even though predators and other dangers must be constantly avoided- not far into the book there is a bloody scene of a deer dying, which firmly introduces the reader to the fact this story doesn't shy away from death. Lots of animals die. Even main characters. Just when I was beginning to like them. Well, Skelter is looking forward to the upcoming mating season, when he will box with other hares to earn his right to a female. But men sweep across the fields catching wild hares to use for coursing their greyhounds. Skelters is shut in a cage, transported to the coursing field, has to run for his life. He narrowly escapes and finds himself in the lowlands, a strange countryside very different from the highland slopes he used to live on.

Skelter has to find ways to adapt in the new land. He takes up with some rabbits for a while, then tries to live among some lowland field hares. He becomes companionable with some females and wards off rival males. He has to face prejudices and superstitions galore- in this story, the differences between rabbits and hares are constantly pointed out, hares scorning the smaller rabbits' company. Skelter also lives near a badger's sett, gets to know a few otters and a short-tempered hedgehog. There are foxes that skulk across the fields, farmer's dogs that let them in on what humans are doing, and many other animals in the story. But strangest of all and most threatening is a giant exotic eagle. Through the whole story the eagle is described but never quite identified- the rabbits and hares simply call it a monster- its hunting patterns are different than any other predator they've met, and it threatens them with extinction. Turns out it is a harpy eagle, an exotic pet released when it couldn't be kept. All kinds of implications in that part of the story. The oddest part was that the tower the eagle nested in talked to it. The tower talked. That was a bit much.

Well anyway Skelter the hare goes out on this insane quest to find the harpy eagle's hideout, learn more about it in case it can help them deal with the predator. And I won't tell you more about that part of the story- you'd have to read it. I can see why this book has been compared to Watership Down. Lagomorph leaving its homeland under duress, searching for a way to find a safe new home. It even gives a few serious nods to the other book: in one place some of the rabbits mention a rabbit in a different warren who tells prophecies of the skies and fields turning red with blood. It's as if Richard Adams' rabbits lived just over the hills from those in this book, who heard faint rumors of their doings....

But this isn't as deep a story. Details of the highland countryside are nice, but later such depictions of nature are less frequent as the story has more action. The characterization isn't nearly as good. There were some inconsistencies in the story that bothered me- a hare feeling indifferent to one thing, then hating it later on with no real explanation for the change in attitude for example... Also a few odd spellings or words combined into one- chickensfeet isn't really a word, is it? And I’d never seen the word small used as a verb before: “Skelter smalled himself as much as possible.” Maybe some of it was error in the formatting for e-reader?

There were other things that seemed not-so-well thought out. The mythology and culture of the rabbits and hares just had too much going on. In the beginning of the story there was an info dump on hare beliefs- something like a hell full of tempters that dead hare spirits pass through while trying to reach heaven- and I was ready to buy that, to accept it as part of the story. But there’s also ghost-hares that guide the living, hare spirits that get turned into flowers, racial memories that some of the animals access when in a kind of trance (like in Nop’s Trials). In addition, the hares and rabbits have tons of superstitions including human-made objects seen as good luck items. Really reminiscent of The White Bone. It was just a lot of various belief systems and mythologies going on when I would have rather sunk deeply into just one.

It was nice that things were shown solidly from the animal perspective. They observe a murder that happens on a farm, but don’t know what's going on, although the reader is able to piece it together. They see a new feature arrive on the land, and something described as a "rigid bird" which I thought was an albatross (for a few pages). All the animals speak, although in different languages and dialects, and humans are the ones who make meaningless, superfluous sounds so the animals assume they communicate by gesture only. While reading this book I learned a new term, that applies to stories told from non-human viewpoint (be it animal, alien or other): xenofiction.

I almost feel sorry to give this book a low rating, but I really had to force myself to finish it in the end. There's an overly dramatic chase scene and a last-minute encounter with the harpy eagle that ends with unexpected suddenness. I have to say the way the author worked that final encounter into the story was quite clever. I feel like I’ve said quite a lot now, especially for a book that in the end, I didn’t care for that much. If you look on Goodreads, there’s someone who really goes on and on about it.

Read it on my e-reader.

Rating: 2/5          400 pages, 1992

more opinions from:
Thistle Chaser

Dec 16, 2017

The Overloaded Ark

by Gerald Durrell

Once again this author delights and intrigues me. This book is about his first wildlife collecting trip- to Cameroon in Central Africa- with a colleague John Yealland, who specialized in birds. It starts off with what I found lacking in The Bafut Beagles, an introduction to what he was doing there and all the preparations necessary. Just as interesting as his descriptions of tracking and catching the wildlife are his accounts of travel into remote areas, encounters with native people, working to build cages, feed and tend to the creatures, some of which had never been kept in captivity before. Also his efforts to educate the public on how to bring him live birds and mammals without damaging them- stress and injury would do them in long before they made it back to England.

So many curious creatures Durrell found- the Calabar ground python whose head looks like its tail, the giant otter shrew (the internet tells me it is not a real shrew but a tenrec), the beautiful gaboon viper whose back is marked with a row of perfect rectangles, the rare and coveted angwantibo- a lemur not to be confused with the potto, the brush tailed porcupine which led him to a nasty encounter in a cave. Durrell crawled into a lot of caves in this book. In particular looking for bats but he founds lots of other wildlife in the dark. Also tromped around the thick forest after nightfall to catch nocturnal animals, and followed packs of dogs in the hope of catching a serval- he saw one close at hand but never caught one. The dogs several times tracked down giant monitor lizards instead. There are lots of monkeys mentioned, beautiful birds of many sorts, chameleons, great snakes and diminutive antelope. Last of all a chimpanzee named Chumley. I'm sure I've read about Chumley in one of his other books, probably it was Encounter with Animals? I was sad to read of his end in this one... Curiously, Durrell states in here that monkeys don't groom each other's fur in search of parasites or fleas, but to pick off salt dried on their skin from sweating. He once again mentioned the black-eared squirrel, but I'm puzzled that none of the images I find of this animal show it with the greenish fur on its back that Durrell describes.

There's so much more. Description of the landscape and surroundings are very detailed. The book closes with a short account of his trip home on board ship with the collection. He took a lot of care over their health and handling, and only had a few losses. With relief at the end of the journey he finally saw the animals loaded onto zoo vans, headed for their new homes.  It's nice there is a little index in the back listing all the species mentioned in the text. The ink illustrations by Sabine Bauer are lovely.

Rating: 4/5          238 pages, 238 1953

Dec 15, 2017


Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 3
by Angie Outis

I really like the very first poem in this volume, which speaks metaphorically of her faith as a slab of meat in the fridge, of all things. Her voice is so acerbic. She writes about further disintegration of her faith, and her marriage. Of challenging behavior patterns and rules. Of questioning the status quo. Asking for help from one who was supposed to be in a role of spiritual leadership, and being shut down. Gestures of anger, striking out against sacred symbols. In the earlier volumes it wasn't as clear, but this one makes it obvious which particular belief system the author had issues with.

I should point out, these poems are for adult readers. The author isn't shy about speaking of conflicts she had with her husband, regarding intimacy. And some of the poems are quite sensual in nature. The writing is raw and eloquent, but there were a few poems I just didn't get. Something was left out, leaving me guessing as to what the title really pointed to. Or perhaps I'm just a bit dense (poetry isn't my usual genre, after all). And I wish there was more! The moment I turned the last page, I wanted to pick up the next book and keep reading.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5           22 pages, 2017

Dec 14, 2017

The Drunken Forest

by Gerald Durrell

Note: there's a spoiler in my third paragraph.

I'm pitching into my newer acquisitions of Gerald Durrell, and this one does not disappoint. It's from early in his career as a wild animal collector. This book describes a trip in 1954, to Argentina and Paraguay. It was not, in the eyes of Durrell and his wife, a great success in terms of bringing animals home- but the description of their travels, the local people they met and of course the native wildlife are still fascinating reading. Durrell is a great storyteller, and he made me laugh out loud a good number of times in this book. I have to say, Durrell is one of the few writers I would put on par with James Herriot, when it comes to describing animals and their care.

Quite a few of the species mentioned in here were unfamiliar to me- the viscacha- a rodent with a striped face, which they were unable to catch. The douracouli, a nocturnal monkey which looks a lot like a lemur with its owlish face. A crab-eating raccoon, which could work open any kind of latch or lock the Durrells secured its cage with- that cracked me up. A beautifully marked tiger bittern- their description of doctoring its broken wing was very lively. Other things of note: I didn't know that armadillos eat carrion. Durrell got hold of a young bird that it turns out would only eat freshly masticated spinach leaves- and he convinced his wife to do the chewing. They told about catching a large number of brown guira cuckoos, which they thought were rather dumb birds. Years later they visited a zoo where a number of these cuckoos now lived, and were surprised that the birds obviously recognized them. It made them think again their initial assessment of any animals' intelligence, especially under duress in captive situations. The author also debunks some common misconceptions about wild animals. For example, he tells how he caught a large anaconda- a funny account, especially as he compared his experience to the lurid tales spouted in popular literature of the time (jungle thrillers).

He also refutes the frequent criticism he received at shutting up wild animals in cages. True, many of the animals initially try to escape. But there was a very touching chapter in this book, where at the end of gathering their collection and meticulously caring for them, they were forced to suddenly leave the country due to civil war. Normally the animals would have been transported home by ship- but since they had to go in a small plane, could now only take a few of the rare species, and those too young to survive if released. All the others were let go. The reptiles and some of the birds took off immediately. But most of the birds and small mammals hung around the camp for days, expecting to be fed again. Some even tried to get back into the cages. It was obvious they appreciated the free meals (and maybe the comfort and attention) they had become used to receiving. The Durrells had to harden their hearts against the animals' begging, and chase some of them off to force them to go back into the wild. They worried that the animals were now accustomed enough to people they would be friendly to strangers and get themselves killed (lots of the natives seemed to have misconceptions about the wildlife. Their housekeeper in particular was terrified by any animal).

I find it kind of amusing that the cover of the book depicts Durrell as an older man with a paunch and a white beard, whereas the lively pen illustrations inside (by Ralph Tompson) clearly show him as a young man. I guess the paperback was published later in his career and they wanted someone people could identify with his TV persona on the front. All the mass market paperbacks I have of his seem to play up the humor of his writing, in the cover illustrations.

Rating: 4/5            203 pages, 1956

Dec 11, 2017

Word Freak

Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
by Stefan Fatsis

My favorite game is Scrabble. But I play it casually compared to the people in this book. The author is a reporter who took an assignment to write about Scrabble tournaments. Enjoying the game himself as a "living room player," he quickly became an insider in the odd subculture of Scrabble fanatics. Hung out with the "parkies" in New York City, went to Scrabble clubs, learned from some of the best how to study word lists, and worked his way up to the level of the pros.

So the book is a mix of descriptive journalism and personal endeavor to master the game, character studies on some of the top players (fairly eccentric people), history of the game itself (invented during the Depression by a guy named Albert Butts- that chapter was really interesting), involvement of the two companies that own rights to the game, how Scrabble tournaments are conducted, difference between acceptable words in American and British English, arguments between players about acceptable words and best methods of study, and so on.

Early on I realized that making notations of all the curious words I don't know that cropped up in the book, was really bogging me down and squelching the enjoyment of reading it. All the words used in games described in the book (or in verbal word-games played by people as part of their study) are in all-caps, so it was easy to thumb back through afterwards and jot them down. I ended up with a sheet of notebook paper filled with four columns of words on each side. And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the lists of words serious players work at learning (many of which are no longer included in any extant dictionary- having fallen out of use long ago). I'm just curious what they mean, I don't think I'll ever seriously study up on lists like the pros in this book do.

Reading about the tournaments and worldwide competitions was pretty intriguing. It's not the same now, with online versions of the game that let you immediately look things up. During the time period Fatsis describes, word lists were tediously worked out by hand, serious top-level players poring through the dictionaries to compile them. The kind of mental gymnastics people play with anagrams, finding letter combinations and learning strategies to make the best play based on probabilities are beyond me. I never write down my racks throughout a whole game to study missed possibilities later, or play games against myself for practice. But the book didn't spoil it for me either (I already knew I'm not that good): after finishing the read I invited my teen daughter to play a round of Scrabble, and it was just as fun as ever.

Rating: 3/5                372 pages, 2001

Dec 2, 2017

The Inner Lives of Animals

by Peter Wohlleben

This book explores the emotions of animals, and their thinking capacity. Its conclusion is that humans are nothing special when it comes to having feelings, so we should treat animals with consideration and kindness. It reminds me a lot of What A Fish Knows, but the main focus here is mammals and birds. Even ticks, house flies, tardigrades and very tiny beetles in the weevil family are mentioned.

Among the many examples Wohlleben gives are squirrels who adopt orphans (but only if they're related), wild boars who show evidence of fear (knowing where it is safe during hunting season), goats who teach their offspring good behavior, birds who cheat on each other (and a rooster who tricks his two harrassed hens into mating with him), rats who dream about their tasks in a research lab, corvids that play games and identify each other by name, deer who grieve their lost offspring, dogs and other animals who suffer dementia in their old age. There were some familiar anecdotes and research studies referenced in here, and many others I read about for the first time. Notable things I learned: why moths are so furry, the exact reason rabbits (also gerbils, hamsters, etc) eat their own droppings, that cities are becoming preferred habitats for many animals because the monoculture of cultivated land lacks diversity, and that deer will often starve if they are fed by well-meaning people in the winter (they will burn more energy than they gain, having to raise their body temperature for digestion. Better to live off their stored body fat). For some reason the description of a slime mold outlining the routes of a subway system in Tokyo made me think of the carnivorous lichen in William Sleator's Interstellar Pig.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       277 pages, 2016