The Beautiful Credo of Naturalist Ann Haymond Zwinger

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The Credo series by Milkweed Editions provides readers with an opportunity to learn about the beliefs and principles which guide writers. This is the credo of Ann Haymond Zwinger: naturalist, artist, and author of numerous works on natural history. You can read more about her on Wellesley College’s Alumnae Achievement Award page, which Zwinger received in 1977. She passed away in 2014, and you can read a beautiful obituary about her life in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Ann Zwinger’s Shaped by Wind & Water: Reflections of a Naturalist is arranged in three parts: seven chapters of the writer’s personal reflections, a brief portrait of the author written by editor Scott Slovic, and a comprehensive bibliography of Zwinger’s work ranging from articles and anthology contributions to her debut book, Beyond the Aspen Grove (1970). She wrote the reflections in the first part of Shaped by Wind and Waterduring her stay at Hedgebrook, a retreat where professional women writers “are fed and housed and can work without worrying about the usual necessities and responsibilities”. Zwinger spends seven days comfortably residing in Oak Cottage, where she allows her natural surroundings to guide and inspire her path of introspection to write her credo.

Zwinger’s reflections are organized into seven chapters, each titled for one of the mornings she resided in the cottage. Each day she wrestles with her words, uninterrupted by the myriad distractions which fill our everyday lives. The solitude and complete focus she experiences is at once both unsettling and liberating for her. To lose any of the many things that writers seek distraction in is to force one’s self to focus on nothing but writing, putting word after word down on paper despite your best efforts not to. Fortunately, Zwinger’s solitude helps her find the words to eloquently express her purpose as a writer of natural history:

“I want to share my enchantment with the natural world and its intricate workings with anyone open to its wonders. Or maybe more important, to those who are not. For not knowing how the natural world works condemns us to misunderstanding it, creating untold disasters and a bleak future.”

Ann Zwinger’s prose is lyrical and her approach to science poetic. She is motivated by a humble desire to be “a link in a mental food chain that provides reliable and intriguing information about the natural world.” Zwinger, born into a family that nurtured her passion for art, writing, and the environment, recognizes and addresses this privilege throughout her reflections. She shares her hope that she will inspire and nurture others who care to observe and record the natural world. Her humility and honesty are qualities that enchanted those who met her in person, and are well-expressed through her writing. She charms her readers into wanting to learn more about the earth.

Zwinger’s first book, Beyond the Aspen Grove, was written at the request of a friend and literary agent who represented Rachel Carson. Carson, for those who may not have heard of her bestseller Silent Spring (1962) that inspired the environmentalist movement, was a formidable figure among naturalist writers. The attention of such an important figure in the publishing world and the invitation to write a book was a nerve-rattling experience for Ann Zwinger. She writes about the experience with clarity and poise, expressing a subtle humor through her recollections of fond memories.

Among of the powerful thoughts shared in Shaped by Wind and Water is the acknowledgment to the women who influenced Zwinger. She recognized that “Both my mother and my sister, because of the time and society in which they lived, never had the privileges that have come to me, and that many talented women today consider their birthright. That such talented, intelligent, dedicated artists were denied the opportunities that have fallen into my lap is an ongoing sadness, and an overwhelming, almost overpowering reminder to me to use my privileges well.” Her words are a reminder that women have not always held their current privilege to pursue their talents, whether in science or art. It is an unfortunate truth that women must continue to strive towards bettering their position in society, and fight every day to be seen as equals to men, especially in the field of science. Zwinger does not express bitterness or ruminate on this fact; her words are a nod acknowledging reality.

On my own shelf, have tucked Shaped by Wind and Water carefully between the famous naturalist E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence and noted scientist W.I.B. Beveridge’s The Art of Scientific Investigation: An entirely fresh approach to the intellectual adventure of scientific research. I think Zwinger’s credo fits well there.

Marine Biologist MELISSA CRISTINA MÁRQUEZ Shares Her Favorite Ocean-Inspired Books

Today I am extremely excited to introduce you to Melissa Cristina Márquez, a marine biologist and shark expert who engages in thoughtful science communication on Twitter; she will be debuting on Shark Week this month and is excited to share with you the books that have impacted her.

Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator with a BA (Hons) in Marine Ecology and Conservation degree from New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. She is a TEDx speaker, founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), host of the Spanish marine conservation podcast ConCiencia Azul (concienciaazulpodcast.weebly.com), and freelance environmental contributor. Márquez can be seen as a co-host on Shark Week 2018, is currently gearing up to go to Antarctica in 2019, and is writing her first children’s book series that focuses on diversity and inclusion in STEM.

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What childhood book inspired you to study marine biology?

Funnily enough, “Chicken Soup for The Ocean Lover’s Soul” by Jack Canfield was one of many books that spiked my curiosity in the ocean. Ever since I was four years old I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, but that book and people’s stories about their varying relationships with the ocean made me want to experience what they had and help others experience it too.

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Do you have a favorite book about protecting the ocean?

Marine bio nerd alert, one of my favorite technical book is “Marine Conservation – Science – Policy – and Management” by G. Carleton Ray and Jerry McCormick-Ray.  I like their take on conservation and how it must be “informed by the natural histories of organisms together with the hierarchy of scale-related linkages and ecosystem processes.”

Do you have any recommendations for readers to learn more about the the ocean, its life, and protecting it?

Today’s world is more connected than ever. And while we also read more than ever (our Facebook and Twitter feeds, storylines of favorite video games, news sites about current affairs, celebrities or favorite sports), when looking for books people want to see how something fits into their lives. One way to turn people on to science is to show them how it’s used in their daily lives. Not only that, but the public image of science can be negative thanks to the portrayal of ‘geeky’ scientists in previous books and TV shows — finding ‘cool’ role models to read about can help, such as Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, etc. Most importantly, however, I think it is vital we let people decide what books they want to read and trust that they will get to read all the science must-reads in their own way, in their own time. Doesn’t hurt to be a good role model, though; when people see someone who is passionate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about science, it will resonate with them. I try to combine interactive media with textbook knowledge through my program, The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), and that seems to hook the kids in (pun intended). Not to mention we also have a book club through our newsletter, as we believe science literacy is very important!

What books would you recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with marine biology but ready to learn more?

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The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover. A non-fiction favourite of mine, the 2009 documentary with the same name was actually based on this book! The #1 threat facing our oceans is overfishing (yes, even over plastic pollution) and this book critiques the modern-day fishing industry and talks about the consequences of overfishing… some we are already seeing today.

Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird is one of my recent treasured finds. This book is filled with fascinating facts about what lurks beneath the waves.

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The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One by Sylvia A. Earle is another fantastic non-fiction read. It’s an alarming read about the abuse our oceans have suffered, but how there is hope. It’s a National Geographic publication so you know it’s good!  And if you don’t feel like learning and just want to color your own ocean, National Geographic’s Magnificent Ocean – A Coloring Book by Justin Poul is fantastic fun.

LitofSci is working hard to feature books by underrepresented authors. Are there any authors of books on marine biology-related topics that you feel deserve to be included?

 

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Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales is a wonderful read about our relationship with fish (an animal most people think as slimy, cold or just food) and how it needs to evolve. I absolutely love If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams and adore Shark Lady by Jess Keating who talk about my favorite subject – sharks! – in such a refreshing way. These two dynamite authors really paint sharks and the people who study them in a great light, and highlight their importance in our oceans.

 

 

Thank you Melissa for your wonderful reading suggestions! I think a few of these will need to be featured in upcoming book reviews. Readers, remember to tune into Shark Week on Discovery Channel to see Melissa and learn more about sharks! You can also follow her Twitter.

Do you want to support Melissa’s science? She is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign for a trip to Antarctica with an education program. Any amount you can contribute will help her towards reaching this goal.

Today in Vintage Books: A Beautiful Nature Atlas of America’s Ecosystems

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I found this beautiful vintage nature atlas in the local bookstore in July and bought it for myself on my birthday. My pictures aren’t the highest quality, but I wanted to convey how beautiful this book is. The jacket is pretty much wrecked, so I plan to fix up the book itself as best I can and keep it as a coffee table book. It’s the kind of atlas I would have poured over as a child, so I hope to preserve it for my own kids.

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Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America was published in 1952. Inside it holds 320 paintings of animals, insects, rocks, and flowers. At the time of its publication, it was a beautiful and comprehensive look at the natural history of North America. Below are two of my favorite snippets from the book:

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The book answers questions for the curious reader, such as “Where are mountain goats to be seen?” (Northern Rockies) and “Where can I see a mountain of glass?” (Yellowstone, apparently – Obsidian cliff).

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I am thrilled to have found this little treasure and especially happy it happened for my birthday. I shared these photos in the hope of inspiring others to roam through their local bookstore and discover the gems tucked away in the corner. Look behind that old, torn jacket and find the beautiful book underneath.

Happy reading!

Jon Young on the Language of Birds

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I came across What the Robin Knows while wandering through a local bookstore here in West Lafayette, Indiana. I am a west coast girl — I was raised in Southern California, and now I live near Newport, Oregon — but this summer I’m living in the Midwest for a science writing internship.

In the short weeks I have been here, I’ve seen incredible numbers of robins around as I bike back and forth from the office. I’ve also come across cardinals and blackbirds and dozens of little birds I am still learning to name. Each time I see a new bird, I head over to the bookstore and flip through their field guides to identify my latest discovery and learn something about them.

Full disclosure: At the time writing, I know nothing about birds and have never paid much attention to them. I notice them now and then, if there is a particularly unusual one, but birdwatching has never held much allure for me. But after reading Jon Young’s book, my perspective completely changed. Biking to the office is full of thrilling encounters with birds. I pay attention to the sound of birdsong around me. I feel more alert and in tune with my surroundings. I even went out and found a spot to sit and observe birds — something Young refers to as a “sit spot”, a special place of learning.

Young, a naturalist and experienced tracker trained in indigenous tradition, introduces his readers to the concept of deep bird language through an immersive, humble approach. He guides his readers like a true mentor, teaching them how to cultivate respectfulness and empathy towards wildlife through examples and anecdotes.

The way to see more wildlife when you’re outside, Young claims, is to be in tune with bird language. They are the gatekeepers of the wilderness, and you need their permission to pass through.

If you know nothing about birds, like myself, this book is a great place to start learning about bird language. Birds are the communicators of the forest. Their songs, chirps, and behaviors all indicate specific messages to the fox, the deer, the coyote, and the cougar, as well as the other birds. By communicating among themselves, they alert other wildlife about what’s going on around them and forewarn other animals of possible threats. The birds also alert wildlife to your presence.

Young’s specific example often involves Joe the hiker. Unaware of his surroundings, Joe the hiker goes strolling through the forest, his footsteps thumping, his fishing gear clanging, unwittingly setting off what Young calls a bird plow; the flight of birds provoked by Joe the hiker’s presence. By learning not to set off the birds, and to understand and respect their space, you can come much closer to them and see more wildlife — which is basically a win-win.

Young includes a powerful quote from a San Bushman that is worth repeating:

“If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.”

There is much to be learned from the behavior and language of birds. Young references relevant research and science that serves to strengthen his arguments. He introduces his reader to indigenous trackers who have studied the language of birds far longer than any scientists. He also provides audio to accompany the book, referencing different recordings so that you can follow along and learn specific sounds: http://birdlanguage.com/

Mentorship is a significant theme throughout What the Robin Knows. Young has many years of experience as a mentor to youth, teaching them about tracking and bird language. He also talks about the influences of his own mentors and those who have left a strong impression on him. Jon Young’s humility, his authenticity, and his earnest curiosity are strongly conveyed through his writing. It often feels like he is mentoring the reader when he teaches by example. While he is not afraid to own up to his mistakes or reflect on what he might have done differently, he acknowledges his vast experience and recognizes that beginning to learn bird language is a challenge.

It’s a challenge that, by the end of the book, you will be eager to embrace.

How a Childhood Book Inspired a Scientist’s Career

I reached out to Twitter and asked ornithologists what books inspired them to pursue their field of study. Among the answers was an email from Dr. Christopher M. Heckscher, an associate professor of environmental science at Delaware State University. The book that inspired him was a childhood treasure titled Traveling with the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton.

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Published in 1933, Traveling with the Birds was illustrated by American animal artist and National Geographic Illustrator Walter A. Weber. Weber studied art in Chicago and went on to work for the Field Museum of Natural History, which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last weekend. As I roamed the Hall of Birds on Saturday, I actually saw some of Weber’s work. He spent some time working for the National Park Service until eventually becoming an ornithologist for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He would eventually become chief nature artist for the National Geographic Society. 

A first edition copy of Traveling with the Birds in good condition sells for around US $40. It is considered a rare children’s book and illustrations by Weber are somewhat valuable, though you can find vintage prints on Etsy of many of his works. On February 18 in 1934, the New York Times wrote:

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In his email, Dr. Heckscher told me how the beautiful illustrations inspired him to study birds:

The book was given to me by my father about the time he introduced me to birding. It had been an inspiration to him as well.  It was published in 1933 and I’m not sure there was ever a second printing.  I see it’s still available via some second hand booksellers. It was a large book with large beautiful paintings.

The theme of the book was taking the reader on a journey with the birds through text and illustrations. Some birds were migrating, others moving from one place to another searching for food. The descriptions in the text were reflected in the book’s paintings.  I think what made such a big impression on me was the vibrant illustrations that conveyed movement and energy in the subject.  Ducks flying swiftly over ocean waves, a blue jay with an acorn – clearly on a mission.

It’s hard to convey the feeling but it was as if I was really moving with the birds. The book inspired awe in me at how birds were free to move such great distances living out their lives on the wing moving from one world to another. It was not a technical text, but really a book written for older children and adolescents.  I’ve been fascinated with bird behavior and migration ever since.

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I’m glad that Dr. Heckscher took the time to share with me this beautiful book so that I could learn about it and share it on the blog. Children’s books are often something that leaves a long-lasting impression. Many of us can think back and imagine the beautiful illustrations of the stories we poured over, picturing the detail in our heads and imagining the book in our hands as a child. For those of us lucky enough to have kept our childhood copy, we savor the knowledge that we can continue to share it with the next generation. Childhood books are influential and important, contributing to the choices that make us who we are today.

Certainly this was the case for our scientist Dr. Heckscher, who shared in his email that he now “travels with the birds” by using geolocator and GPS tracking devices in his research. Dr. Heckscher holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. and PhD in Entomology and Wildlife Biology from the University of Delaware. In 2016, he received a conservation award:

“Recently, he was the first to document intratropical migration in a Nearctic-Neotropical migrant songbird. That discovery – that each individual Veery migrates between two separate wintering locations – has focused attention on the phenomenon of intratropical movement in North American breeding songbirds which had previously been unknown or otherwise overlooked.”

Thank you very much Dr. Heckscher for sharing your inspiration!

Dive into the mysterious world of grey whales with Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan

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Depth. Insight. Power. These are the words that come to mind while you read Sightings, a moving account of humanity’s relationship with grey whales by nature writer and journalist Brenda Peterson with Chichasaw poet Linda Hogan. Published by National Geographic, this book is an eye-opening observation of how people can learn to respect their roots, celebrate and protect whales, and the shortcomings and celebrations along the way.

“Writing this book in two voices — that of an American Indian woman and a nature writer — we hope to invite the reader to consider another culture, which happens to be nonhuman,” the authors write. “Because we in the 21st century now face many difficult decisions about the futures of both human and animal cultures, this book is a passionate dialogue about both Native and animal rights.”

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Linda Hogan writes from the perspective of an American Indian woman. Her poetic language is strong and captivating, drawing the reader in with bright sensory descriptions and vivid storytelling. I enjoyed Hogan’s chapters in the book for her profound observations of the tribes she discusses, and their struggle to both embrace and reconcile with the whaling history celebrated in their culture. I don’t want to spoil the book by using specific examples because this one to consider reading, but the way Hogan tells her parts of the story effectively balances Brenda Peterson’s more scientific voice. The women tell the story of the grey whale together, and the result is a powerful account of a difficult issue — should indigenous people embrace their traditions of whaling in the 21st century? And how should they reconcile with killing whales if they are to celebrate this aspect of their past? Linda Hogan shows both sides of the issue, capturing the emotional turmoil of tribe elders without seeming biased towards one directions or another. She does exactly what a writer should do, introducing her reader to all sides of the issue and showing the circumstances as they area.

On the subject of modern-day whaling I encourage you to check out this photo diary of a whale hunt featured in Hakai, a visual illustration of a people who hunt whales to provide for their village. It really complicates the issue and is both timely in our current lives and still relevant to Sightings, which was published back in 2002. Although it’s been over a decade since the publication of Sightings, society is still struggling to address the modern-day whaling, the problems that arise, and the rights that indigenous people should have in embracing their culture and traditions.

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Brenda Peterson, a nature writer, provides more of the natural history and science side of the story told in Sightings. Her storytelling is similar in some ways to Hogan’s, as she also does well to evoke the reader’s emotions, but her approach comes across more grounded and less abstract. Because of this, the writers balance each other out as the chapters switch back and forth between their voices. Personally, I enjoyed this novel approach because it keeps the story propelling forward and in constant momentum. In fact, if I had more time on my hands I would have finished this book very quickly — the chapters are short, the language is simple and easy to comprehend, and the writers are excellent at reeling you in. With such vivid storytelling, Sightings can be difficult to put down when you’re invested in an exciting scene, and Peterson is very good at investing her readers. Her writing is welcoming and conversational, enough so that you may not realize you’re learning about history and science as you read. She is careful not to bias her reader, but she also emphasizes her own feelings and emotions in order to give the story its characteristic depth.

Sightings is an insightful look into the mysterious history and life of grey whales. It’s both a pleasure to read and a difficult subject to grapple with. You may feel as I did, sometimes torn between the desire for humans to interact with and learn from whales, but afraid that teaching whales to be comfortable with human interaction will only make illegal whaling easier. And what about the rights of tribes who wish to return to traditional whaling, if only for celebrations? The authors approach this complex topic from all angles, ultimately showing readers the allure of the grey whale and how we should make sense of our own relationship with these majestic animals. By the end of the book, you will want to join Peterson and Hogan on one of their whale-watching adventures and see a grey whale with your own eyes. Sightings is an enchanting, and sometimes challenging, look not only at grey whales, but at ourselves as humans responsible for the protection of the ocean and its incredible and diverse life.

Featured photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash