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Natural history books you should read before you die

I can’t say enough good things about The Natural Histories Project / Natural History Network, birthed out of a series of workshops to initiate dialogue between ecologists, geologists, educators, university presidents, and artists about the re-imaging of natural history. The audio and video clips of different perspectives on natural history are fantastic. But what really caught my eye was the Journal of Natural History and Experience, in particular the ongoing series of “101 Natural History Books That You Should Read Before You Die.”

So far, the (early) list includes the following.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm by Alexander Skutch

The Art of Falconry by Frederick von Hohenstaufen

Field Notes on Science and Nature by Michael Canfield

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinocital Regions of America by Alexander von Humboldt

It’s a great list so far (myself only having read, and only then in part, half of these). Having a community-agreed upon canon of works to read, or a reading list to guide you in general, is always welcome. Like having a steady professor-friend by your side to offer advice only an insider would harbor.

Lives of muskrat lymphocytes

Large lymphocyte from a normal blood film

One of my favorite essays by the immunologist-poet, Miroslav Holub, describes the symphony of cellular life enacted after a muskrat drowns in the writer’s pool and is shot by a neighbor. The scene itself is grim yet fairly boring and commonplace; dead animals, be it a robin flown into our window or a white-footed mouse decapitated by our cat, seem to be an ordinary part of suburban life. But Holub views the situation from the interior view of the animal and with the sense and extrapolation of a poet. His interest in the phenomenon of death lies in the cellular process that are taking place long after we conceive of the animal as “dead.” While ordinarily we see the spectrum of alive to dead as having a definitive moment of change from A to B, a universe of interactions, an ecosystem of cellular bodies, continues to communicate, move, exist. I’ve copied my favorite excerpt from the essay, that of the lymphocytes (an immunologist’s specialty), below.

So there was this muskrattish courage, an elemental bravery transcending life.

But mainly, among the denaturing proteins and the disintegrating peptide chains, the white blood cells lived, really lived, as anyone knows who has ever peeked into a microscope, or anyone knows who remembers how live tissue cells were grown from a sausage in a Cambridge laboratory (the sausage having certainly gone through a longer funereal procedure than blood that is still flowing). There were these shipwrecked white blood cells in the cooling ocean, millions and billions of them on the concrete, on the rags, in the wrung-out murkiness. Bewildered by the unusual temperature and salt concentration, lacking unified signals and gentle ripples of the vascular endothelium, they were nevertheless alive and searching for whatever they were destined to search for. The T lymphocytes were using their receptors to distinguish the muskrat’s self markers from nonself bodies. The B lymphocytes were using their antibody molecules to pick up everything the muskrat had learned about the outer world in the course of its evolution. Plasma cells were dropping antibodies in various places. Phagocyte cells were creeping like amoebas on the bottom of the pool, releasing their digestive granules in an attempt to devour its infinite surface. And here and there a blast cell divided, creating two new, last cells.

Creaturely and scales in prose

I only came across Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays haphazardly—too much time browsing through bookstores, always on alert for hybrids of biology and literature, works with threads connecting them to writers like Verlyn Klinkenborg, Lewis Thomas, Miroslav Holub, Annie Dillard, Jean-Henri Fabre, Andrew Dunn. As a reader and writer I am more often than not drawn to seemingly random associations and shifts in scale—those leaps from the small to the large, from the particular to the universal, from the commonplace to the theoretical, from the microcosm to the greater macrocosm. Lewis Thomas believed that the ability to make this shift was a trait inherent to the life of both poet and scientist. In Thomas’s own words, both seek out “the points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.” In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau saw in Walden Pond a plethora of microcosms through which he could explain the world. He referred to the fish of Walden, or more specifically the pickerel (Esox americanus),  as “Walden all over and all through: are themselves small Waldens.”

Grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus). Image courtesy of Joshua Knuth.

The pickerel was Thoreau’s symbol, and as symbol contained an imposed meaning, allowing the fish to function as launching pad into the larger world the author sought to express—as the founder of Transcendentalism, Thoreau saw in the pickerel a greater spiritual nature, a small version of the universe’s meaning. Loren Eiseley did the same in locating in the fungus Pilobolus sporangium the greater metaphor of humanity’s drive to explore the cosmos and the wastefulness of expenditure in nature and culture.

Sporangia of a related fungus, Pilobolus kleinii. Image courtesy of George Barron.

Unlike Lewis Thomas or Loren Eiseley, but like Annie Dillard, Devin Johnston is no scientist. Like Dillard, instead of systematic study, Johnston “explores the neighborhood.” The prose essays in Creaturely are similar to Dillard’s years spent observing the landscape of Tinker Creek—they take place in St. Louis, each beginning and ending with descriptions and musings from walks along paths, streets, parks. As Johnston says, they keep with the etymology of the word digression, and the writer sees himself as a more-urban Thoreau, acting “for a time as a self-appointed inspector of thunderstorms and starlings, sycamores and squirrels, making my daily rounds.” But the collection is somewhat more wide-ranging than Dillard, and certainly more so than Thoreau. Johnston brings together a universe, darting from William Blake to peer-reviewed animal behavior research to the ultraviolet spectrum of light to, like Eiseley, the cosmos:

A dozen starlings lie scattered on the lawn, their wings fanned out to absorb the heat of the sun, letting its ultraviolet rays burn away the microbes in their feathers. Occasionally one rises in agitation and stalks among the sunbathers, pecking at tail feathers, eye darting from one to another. Beneath the dark surface of the feathers—slick as a sheath of negatives—an explosion of stars extends outward from each of their beaks. These markings become larger and more widely spaced down the breast, expanding from small dashes to arrowheads. The pattern suggests the reverse of needle-point, each bright mark a stitch. Or so it looks to me. What the starling sees is another matter.

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