The Invention of Nature is the story of a man who in his time, just a century ago, was the most famous man in the world. Alexander von Humboldt inspired Charles Darwin to board the Beagle, John Muir to explore America, influenced Thoreau in his writing of Walden, professionally courted by Emerson, was admired by Thomas Jefferson. He gave us our current understanding of nature and was the first to talk about human induced climate change. Alexander von Humboldt has more rivers, mountains, streets and towns named after him than anyone else and yet in present day it is largely unknown who he is. He was a complicated man and The Invention of Naturetells the fascinating tale of his life.
A quirky look into the lives of other species via the existential crisis that is Charles Foster. In Being A Beast, Charles Foster, digs a burrow in a hillside, living, sleeping, and eating the life of a badger alongside his son. He wants to know what they see, develop their sense of smell, feel the fear and thrill that a badger experiences. The same principles are applied as he transforms himself into an otter, urban fox, red deer and swift in turn. With each animal he does his best to understand their world and live their life. It is an experiment that he hopes will quench his desire to know, really know, what the world is like for other animals.
Frans de Waal shares the exciting discoveries that scientists have experienced in the field of evolutionary cognition over the past few decades in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? The tone of the book is warm, curious and delighted. Through his writing it is clear that Frans takes great pleasure in the work he has been doing for decades. While the title of the book can come across as cynical, it is actually referencing the ways scientists have handicapped themselves in studying other species leaving us all less rich in our understanding of them. Anyone that has interacted with animals regularly can see that there is a world of thought, personality and emotion within them. Frans’s passion has been to tap into the world of each particular species and study them from a place of understanding rather than the species ignorant, human-centric study that has occupied the scientific realm.
In The Hidden Life of Trees Peter Wohlleben translates the science of trees into fireside story telling about he wonder of a world just beginning to understood. Peter has managed forests and has in his long career observed the ways of trees in a healthy forest. He understands the tree community, the way they communicate, respond to their environment and show preference to their own offspring. And he tells it all in a tone quite like Bob the artist, a tone that is gentle, curious and empathetic.
Understanding the species we share this world with can change the way we understand the world. Elephants, wolves, and whales are three species near the brink of extinction solely because humans are killing them. In Beyond Words Carl Safina gives us a glimpse into the lives of these highly intelligent and social animals. Each of these animals shares the traits of vibrant social lives, emotional complexity and intellectual prowess. In each section Carl introduces us to each of these animals, causing us to fall in love with them just as he has. Then confronts us with the reality human impact is having on each of these animals, leaving us heartbroken at our lack of respect and reverence for creatures so majestic this world will be poor without them and we will bear the burden of sole responsibility.
Whenever I hear stories about an octopus’s intelligence I always have a dual response— fascinated and a little creeped out. They can find their way out of locked jars, fit through spaces incompressibly small, identify individual people, camouflage into their surroundings and even escape enclosures baffling keepers to how they did it. They have eight arms capable of regenerating and covered in suction cups each with the sucking capacity of 35 lbs and they have approximately 1,600 of them. The personality of octopuses are as varied as the kaleidoscope of colors they produce. Their home is the ocean—it’s where they breathe, eat, fight and make babies. It is this creature that Sy Montgomery has fallen in love with and The Soul of an Octopus is the story of her exploration into their world, to understand their minds, and the friendships she develops, with both octopuses and humans, along the way.