What I Bought At Powell’s

When I was in Portland last weekend, I got to pay a visit to Powell’s City of Books, a bookstore so big it takes up more than a city block and they hand you a map when you walk in the door. However, I displayed some restraint and managed to emerge with only two books to add to my sagging shelves. Both are about natural history, so I thought I’d share them here.

Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest, by Sarah Swanson and Max Smith. Having become somewhat acquainted with the authors through the magic of Twitter, I was eager to check this one out. I love the fun, idiosyncratic life histories of their eighty-five chosen “must-see” birds – my favorite is the Marbled Murrelet, which nests in huge mossy trees and catches fish in rough ocean waters and “if it drank microbrews and wore fleece, could be the region’s mascot.” They also include some suggested itineraries for weekend birding trips in Oregon and Washington, which are going to be highly helpful as I keep exploring my new state. The only downside (for me) is that the book focuses on the coastal third of both states, not the dry side where I live, which is why I also bought…

Oregon’s Dry Side: Exploring East of the Cascade Crest, by Alan D. St. John. I’m looking forward to reading more of this one as I have time. It includes chapters on the geology, flora, and fauna of the whole region, plus more detail on exploring specific areas within the dry side, with lots of color photos. This will be another one to pack along on weekend adventures.

What good books have you discovered lately?

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From My Nightstand

Work is kicking my butt this week, so in lieu of new photos and natural history, I thought I’d share a bit about the books I’ve been reading lately that are at least kinda-sorta relevant to this blog. I’m writing this sleepy without proper editing so forgive any choppy sentences!

  • My Beloved Brontosaurus, by Brian Switek. I don’t know that I’m more particularly interested in dinosaurs than anyone else (vivid memories of seeing Jurassic Park in the theater as a five-year-old aside), so I might never have picked up this book if its author hadn’t happened to start following me on Twitter, but I’m glad I did. Actually, scratch that: I am definitely interested in one particular sort of dinosaur, the avian kind, and I love that Brian never lets you forget through the whole book that that’s exactly what birds are. He deals with how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed over time, from thinking of them as big dumb cold-blooded brutes to the complicated animals we now know them to be. Highly recommended for anyone interested in natural history, paleontology, etc.! Also, the cover art is killer.
  • Snapper, by Brian Kimberling. This is a novel about someone a man tramps around in the woods of the Midwest collecting data on birds for a living. As someone from the Midwest who has collected data on birds for a living, I cannot tell you how much I love that someone has written a novel about it (albeit one that might toe the line of memoir, considering how much the protagonist has in common with the author). A lot of the events related in it will ring true to anyone who’s done field work, and I’m only two-thirds of the way done with it at the moment but I’m enjoying it immensely.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. This is the one that’s the biggest stretch to claim is related to the natural history theme of this blog, but whatever, it’s my blog and I do what I want. As someone who definitely will score as an introvert on any personality test you can devise, it had been on my “to-read” list for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Read this one with your skepticism filter firmly in place, because there are definitely passages that tend toward something like “introverts are all wonderful special snowflakes whom no one appreciates the way they deserve!” that could be easy for someone who identifies themselves as part of this group to lap up uncritically. However, I really liked learning about the physiological basis for why some people are introverts and some people are extroverts. The take-away message is, you have your own strengths, so stop feeling like there’s something wrong with you because you’re quiet and thoughtful and don’t like noisy parties.

Read any good books of your own lately? Share in the comments!

To See Every Bird On Earth

On the edge of the small town of Patagonia, Arizona is a small, nondescript house with some bird feeders in the backyard: Paton’s. This may not sound unusual, but what’s remarkable about Paton’s is that the feeders there regularly attract southeast Arizona specialties – especially hummingbirds – that are hard to find elsewhere, and that the owners are more than happy to have birders park on the street and skulk around their backyard. There’s a donation box to help keep the feeders filled and some seating under an awning. It’s a tiny impromptu bird sanctuary.

I visited Paton’s with my parents on a trip with my parents this spring. We had eaten lunch at the picnic tables at the Nature Conservancy preserve down the road, watching swarms of Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming and going at the feeders there, and someone had mentioned that Paton’s had a Violet-crowned Hummingbird visiting regularly. The Violet-crowned is one of those special birds whose range only crosses the border into the U.S. in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, and I was anxious to see it and add it to my life list. We found a space to park in front of Paton’s and walked around to the back, where several other birders were already intently watching the feeders. After about thirty seconds, a hummer with an orange bill, white front, and purple cap appeared, took a drink, and then returned to the bushes.

Check. We had places to be, so we immediately left and went on to our next destination.

Continue reading “To See Every Bird On Earth”

John Steinbeck, Nature Writer?

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but a while ago I added a little “What I’m Reading” widget to the sidebar of this blog. For the last couple months, a chapter or two at a time, I’ve been working my way through The Log From the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck. I assume everyone reading this has heard of John Steinbeck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of this particular book – I never had until we read a brief excerpt of it during our Land Ethic Leaders training back in January. It’s a work of nonfiction chronicling a trip that Steinbeck and his friend biologist Ed Ricketts took to the Gulf of Mexico (aka the Sea of Cortez) in 1940 to collect marine invertebrates and generally go exploring. Before reading this, I wouldn’t have thought of John Steinbeck as a nature writer, but a lot of the passages in the book are beautiful, thoughtful reflections on the relationship between people and nature.

Our own interest lay in the relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

All this years before Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was published! Steinbeck goes off on tangents about subjects like the effects of globalization on indigenous communities and the importance of using resources sustainably (although he doesn’t use those specific terms, probably because they hadn’t been coined yet) and other very modern-seeming ideas. Parts of the book are also incredibly funny, such as the running joke about the “Sea-Cow,” the outboard motor they brought to power their skiff which develops its own malevolent personality and only deigns to run when they don’t urgently need it to.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part philosophy, The Log From the Sea of Cortez may not be typical summer beach reading but it’s worth checking out. What good nature-related books have you read recently? Share in the comments!

Friday I leave for a backcountry trip that I’m co-leading for work. I’ll be back next Wednesday, but in the meantime watch this space for some snazzy guest posts!

No Impact Man

On Friday I went to a showing of the documentary No Impact Man that was put on as part of the school’s “family weekend” (remember, I work at a residential program for high school students interested in environmental stewardship, a.k.a. a boarding school). No Impact Man is also a blog and a book, but this was the first time I’d heard of it. It’s essentially the story of a family in New York City – husband, wife, and two-year-old daughter – who attempted to spend a year making absolutely as little environmental impact as possible. Not only did they give up exotic produce and gasoline-powered transportation, they gave up electricity. In Manhattan. It was a fascinating movie, not least because of the dynamic between the husband, the driving force behind the project, and the wife, who when the year began was addicted to reality TV, Starbucks, and designer fashion.

Of course, this movie about someone trying to truly live his values dropped into my brain at the same time that I’m still working my way through Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, a marvelous collection of essays in which she tackles, among other topics, her family’s ongoing attempts to live in an environmentally responsible way and be mindful of their place in the global ecosystem. And at the same time that I’m reading a report on ten years of surveys on environmental literacy in America that discusses the concept of “locus of control” – the difference between having an internal locus of control and believing that the actions and efforts of individuals can make a difference, and having an external locus of control and believing that meaningful change can only come from corporations and governments and other large organizations.

Anyway [I got interrupted halfway through writing this post and am trying now to regather my thoughts], the movie made me think about what it means to really live a life in line with one’s values. Isn’t there some value in that alone, whether or not one person’s actions really contribute significantly to building a sustainable society? (And there’s evidence to suggest they can and do.) I’m not planning on giving up electricity and toilet paper anytime soon, but there’s always more we can do. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat and more local, naturally-produced food. Only drive when it’s really necessary, and plan to do the most errands with the least possible driving when we do. Look for ways to reduce the amount of stuff we throw away (even if it’s recyclable – recycling takes resources too, and there’s a reason why “reduce” and “reuse” come before “recycle”).

A time is coming, maybe sooner than a lot of people would like to believe, when we’ll have to live closer to this way because there simply won’t be the resources left to sustain our current level of consumption. The more I understand the facts about climate change the more I believe I’ll see this within my lifetime. But who’s to say we can’t get a head start? For anyone interested in sustainability, I really recommend No Impact Man.

Loving One Thing and Then Another

On Friday I replaced my Ohio license plates with Wisconsin ones, thus severing my final tie with my home state. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Buckeye state, but it’s hard to feel too sad when my new home is so beautiful. My current backyard consists of 1200 acres of wild woods, lakes, and bogs. Remember my phenology project? I’ve explored some new trails in the past few days and I’ve found myself constantly thinking, “Oh, I should change my spot and do my project here! No, here! No, here!” Finally I had to admit that each new bend in the path enchanted me more than the last and I might as well stick with my original spot rather than drive myself crazy that way.


I started reading Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver this week without knowing what it was about. Turns out it’s a collection of beautiful essays about coming to terms with what 9/11 meant for our country, and I just happened to pick it up days before the tenth anniversary. “It’s the same struggle for each of us,” Kingsolver (one of my favorite authors) writes, “and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.” Loving our way back to life. I am so fortunate to live in a place where every walk brings me new things to love. An improbably orange mound of fungus on a decomposing log…

Evidence of a beaver that bit off more than it could chew…

The neat handiwork of a sapsucker.

Remember, tomorrow is International Rock Flipping Day!

The Fringe Benefits of Getting up Early

In about an hour I’m leaving for a weekend camping trip to the Porcupine Mountains, across the border in the Upper Penninsula – this will be first time ever laying eyes on Lake Superior. I set my alarm for about an hour earlier than usual this morning because I had a little packing to finish and wanted to be sure and have plenty of time to do it. When I got up and stepped out into the main room, a doe and fawn were browsing just outside the patio door. I stood there and watched them for a minute, delighted, but when I started to make my breakfast I forgot they were there for a moment and made a sudden movement that startled them into fleeing back to the cover of the trees, tails bobbing like white pennants.

While I was eating I heard a pileated woodpecker calling somewhere outside, the first one I’d heard since moving here.

Yesterday the head of the school where I work now presented each of us graduate fellows with a lovely little book, NOLS Wilderness Wisdom: Quotes for Inspirational Exploration. Flipping through it, I can tell it will be great to take on backcountry trips with students. Here’s your thought for the weekend while I’m gone.

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson