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In Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being, French Canadian author Jean-François Beauchemin looks back, around and into the mystic, to great effect. His brief and often breathtaking reflections on creatures he has encountered throughout his life meld into a salve for the troubled, weary or distracted mind and will appeal to fans of Brian Doyle, Ross Gay and Margaret Renkl.

In a one-paragraph essay called “Useful,” Beauchemin writes, “It might be said that I am rummaging around a lot in that great big suitcase of my childhood, but why the devil do we age, if it is not to encounter ourselves once more?” In “A Visitor,” he recounts a spiritual encounter from childhood, when “I had just learned my dog’s life expectancy was only fourteen years.” Immediately after reading this piece, I snapped a picture of it and sent it to a friend who is grieving a beloved pup; that’s the kind of small treasure this book is.

Jean-François Beauchemin’s brief, breathtaking reflections on creatures he has encountered throughout his life will appeal to fans of Brian Doyle, Ross Gay and Margaret Renkl.

Did you know octopuses can shift their skin to create papillae, bumps or folds? Or that they don’t see color but can see polarized light? Did you know they can be cannibals but also seem to live in relationship with other creatures?

In Many Things Under a Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses, David Scheel shares these facts and many more. Scheel is a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, but Many Things Under a Rock is accessible regardless of the reader’s amount of scientific knowledge. Scheel’s straightforward prose places readers beside him as he gets to know the elusive, intriguing octopus. He describes the molluscs, their habits, their characteristics and their habitats in detail gathered from 25 years of research and observation.

And the book is well researched, with dozens of pages of meticulous notes as evidence. But Scheel doesn’t overload his text with annotations, and he never turns to jargon or complex explanations to ensure that he’s perceived as an expert. Instead, Scheel invites readers along on a journey of discovery. He shares the lessons he’s learned about octopuses by recounting research trips and personal anecdotes, writing like a teacher who is eager to invite readers into octopuses’ magical world. It’s as though he’s in the water with us, lifting a stone or pushing aside seaweed to show off the many things that can exist under a rock (which is a translation of the Eyak word for octopus).

Scheel’s curiosity about octopuses parallels his curiosity about Alaska Native history, and his respect for Indigenous experiences is obvious. Particularly in the early years of his studies, Scheel turned to Native people for insight into the cephalopods they’ve hunted for centuries. He weaves their knowledge and stories into this book, showing appreciation for shared wisdom and making Many Things Under a Rock a treasure trove of expertise, generously shared.

David Scheel’s straightforward prose places readers in the water beside him as he lifts a stone or pushes aside seaweed to show off the elusive, intriguing world of the octopus.
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Gloria Dickie, an award-winning journalist and climate correspondent for Reuters, begins her intensive study of the eight remaining species of bears by recalling the familiar children’s story of Goldilocks. “We have entered the bears’ home without permission and selfishly laid claim to what we found there,” Dickie writes in Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future, alluding to everything humans have done to endanger these creatures.

Dickie brings readers along for the global trek she took while reporting and writing this book. Eight Bears is divided into three geographic parts, according to her subjects’ habitats: South America is home to the elusive spectacled bear in Ecuador and Peru; sloth, sun, moon and panda bears live in Asia, including India, Vietnam and China; and in North America, readers meet the American black and brown bears (United States) and the polar bear (Canada).

There is a lot to learn here about the mythic panda, the shy spectacled bear, the aggressive sloth bear, the controversial grizzly, the potentially doomed polar bear and others, and Dickie shows just how vulnerable they all are. Climate change is everywhere, threatening animals and humans with droughts, deforestation, warming seas and withering food sources. Human greed, corruption and exploitation make things worse; the captors of sloth “dancing bears” in India and the extractors of bear bile in Vietnam, for example, have earned their infamy. In the U.S., the pros and cons of continuing to protect grizzlies while ranchers and farmers deal with the dire consequences of their predation are up for debate. In other parts of the world, different species are being forced to share dwindling food sources, such as the spectacled bear and the puma as lowlands warm in the Andes. Six of these eight bear species are on the verge of extinction, and in addition to outlining their peril, Dickie also speaks with several of the activists and scientists who are working to secure a better future for them.

Our relationship with bears has been complicated but tender, Dickie notes. Remember the whimsical Paddington Bear, the beloved Berenstain Bears, the cute stuffed teddy bear in a baby’s crib? And the panda bear, so idolized that it is given as a political gift to China’s favored friends? Perhaps it is just such a history that can inspire more work to save them from extinction.

Gloria Dickie’s study of the eight remaining species of bears is laced with climate change warnings as she explores all the ways humans both love and endanger these creatures.

Owls are adorable, alluring and enduringly fascinating. They’ve been featured in everything from ancient cave paintings to the works of Picasso, iconic Tootsie Pop commercials, the Harry Potter series, mythology and poetry.

“What is it about owls that so enthralls us?” asks bestselling author, prolific science writer and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman (The Genius of Birds, The Bird Way) in the very first line of her wide-ranging and wonderful new book, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. She explores this question with her trademark thoroughness and care, leading readers on an in-depth tour through the extraordinary world of owls. Scientists, field researchers, academics and volunteers (aka “citizen scientists”) serve as dedicated guides, as eager as the author to share knowledge and admiration in hopes of inspiring others to protect these special birds.

Jennifer Ackerman shares which owly items in her home and closet are her favorite.

Ackerman chronicles her travels to places such as the Mission Mountains in Montana; Norfolk Island in Australia; southeastern Brazil; and Waynesboro, Virginia, in chapters covering owls’ evolution, communication, breeding, migration and—of course—wisdom. She visits wildlife centers, peers up at countless trees and tromps through nighttime landscapes with fellow owl lovers to hear about the astonishing things they’ve discovered. There are funny tidbits, too; as one Montana field researcher quipped, “This is not the first time we’ve found a nest when someone had to pee.”

Less quotidian revelations include the thrill of first hearing great horned owlets vocalizing in their eggs and the gratifying achievements of education in Kikinda, Serbia, where hundreds of long-eared owls roost in the town square. (A public awareness campaign transformed superstitious fear into immense hometown pride.) During her reporting, Ackerman also learned about new research indicating that owls are more clever and intentional than previously realized: They have emotions, engage in altruism and play. “We think we know something about them, and then, poof! they dispel our theories, offering up bent or broken rules and unexpected qualities,” she writes.

Ackerman also reminds readers that owls are at risk of extinction, thanks to “human-induced climate change” via deforestation and development, rodenticides, wildfires, et al. What should we do? “Everything in our power,” she writes, to learn about and preserve owl populations around the world. Reading the edifying and immersive What an Owl Knows is an excellent place to start.

Bestselling author and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman goes around the world to find out why owls so intrigue humans in her wide-ranging and wonderful new book.

Part memoir, part scientific exploration, part biography, Karen Pinchin’s cautionary and riveting Kings of Their Own Ocean: Tuna, Obsession, and the Future of Our Seas illuminates the plight of the Atlantic bluefin tuna and the fishermen and scientists who’ve spent their lives studying, tagging and working to save the species.

Although we often marvel over tales of great white sharks and other predators of the sea, most people only think of bluefin tuna when they order sushi, seldom considering its beauty and power beyond the dinner plate. Pinchin opens with a paean to this apex predator of the oceans: “To stand beside a just-landed giant bluefin, still slick from salt water, feels akin to standing beside a natural marvel like Niagara Falls or an erupting volcano. There’s beauty, but also danger.” The book follows one bluefin, dubbed Amelia (after Amelia Earhart) from the cold waters of the Atlantic, where she was first tagged in 2004, to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, where she was killed in 2018. In between this coverage, Pinchin takes us through the history of commercial fishing for bluefin, as well as the politics and science that have frequently collided in attempts to preserve the tuna from extinction. 

Early in his career as a boat captain, fisherman Al Anderson recognized the precipitous decline of the bluefin population and soon began chartering trips off Rhode Island where his customers catch, tag and release tuna—including Amelia. In 1990, Anderson wrote The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, an oral history peppered with his own memories of fishing, and To Catch a Tuna, a “how-to guide for aspiring tuna fishermen.” We also meet Molly Lutcavage, whose research was the first of its kind to gather and analyze data on bluefin, and Carl Safina, the author of Song for the Blue Ocean, who proposed that the bluefin be listed as endangered. 

While Pinchin avers that “we are collectively only ever a few terrible choices from wiping out any ocean species,” her conclusion is optimistic: “The future of Atlantic bluefin tuna has hinged on a series of butterfly-wing events. . . . Those moments all mattered, and those moments are still being made.” Kings of Their Own Ocean enthralls, instructs and is a must-read for readers concerned about the future of our oceans and the creatures within them.

The enthralling Kings of Their Own Ocean tells the story of an overlooked predator, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, urging readers to consider its power and beauty beyond the dinner plate.
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Despite filling feeders and growing native plants, I continue to be disappointed by the birds that frequent our yard. So much of the same old, same old: cardinals, sparrows, chickadees. I do especially love chickadees—but where are the goldfinches, if not the bluebirds?

Joan E. Strassmann’s Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard challenges me to remember that there’s much to observe and learn about even our most quotidian avian neighbors. In a corrective to bird-watching as tally-driven competitive hunt, here’s an invitation to appreciate the magic of the ordinary creatures with whom you cohabitate, rather than rush all over tarnation chasing glimpses of rare or elusive ones. Strassmann’s exploration is personal and hyperlocal: In lively, conversational prose, she explores birds that populate a close radius around her own home in St. Louis, Missouri, such as robins, mockingbirds and blue jays. Even the oft-maligned European starling gets a chapter, and I love how Strassmann nudges us to rethink our prejudice against this invasive species. “If I wanted you to love European Starlings,” she writes, “I would start with murmurations, those mesmerizing movements of thousands of birds soaring, turning, turning again, then weaving around a forest, only to soar as if one again. . . . It is wonderful to be close to a murmuration of starlings, those pre-roosting evening rivers of life.”

Joan E. Strassmann’s Slow Birding challenges readers to remember that there’s much to observe and learn about even our most quotidian avian neighbors.

Australia has perhaps the most unusual (and dangerous) wildlife of any continent, a product of its unique status as a vast island that broke off from other landmasses millions of years ago. Due to this isolation, plants and animals specifically adapted to its climate, independent of what was evolving in the rest of the world. Among Australia’s unique fauna is the adorable marsupial known as the koala, which is only now being studied with more scrutiny as its numbers dwindle.

In Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future, biologist and author Danielle Clode (Voyages to the South Seas) provides a thorough and descriptive backstory of the koala, including topics such as mating, conception, eating and sleeping habits, sensory patterns and anatomical anomalies. With her scientific yet accessible writing style, Clode digs deep into koalas’ evolution, giving examples from fossil findings that show that koalas’ ancestors were likely much larger than their contemporary descendants.  

The facts Clode shares are fascinating, such as the reality that, like humans, koalas are “phylogenetically sterile” (lacking in close relatives). We can at least count apes and monkeys as distant cousins, but “ecologically, as well as evolutionarily, koalas really do sit alone on their tree.” She also explains just how integral a koala’s diet is to their survival. Koalas only eat the fibrous, toxic leaves of the eucalyptus gum tree. As a result, their digestive system has evolved in a specialized way, with enzyme-laced saliva and a supercharged liver to remove toxins. 

Clode also discusses human encroachment on koala territory, particularly following the colonization of Australia by Great Britain. Diseases that killed the continent’s Indigenous people also wreaked havoc on animals such as the koala, and continue to do so. Koalas have also been hunted, exported as pets and victims of wildfires and other climatic events. All of these things have made koalas vulnerable, and they are now considered an endangered species by the Australian government.

Leaving no stone unturned, Koala makes great strides to advance our knowledge of this largely misunderstood animal.

With her scientific yet accessible writing style, Danielle Klode makes great strides to advance our knowledge of the largely misunderstood koala.

Just as immersion in nature inspires a mix of profound awe and renewed curiosity about this Earth we call home, so, too, does filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar’s mesmerizing essay collection, Conversations With Birds—rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity.

Kumar reflects on her childhood in northern India, formative years during which she enjoyed lush nature every day. As a young adult studying film at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she realized that she had become alienated from the natural realm that once brought her such joy. An impromptu bird walk and fortuitous encounter with a long-billed curlew reshaped the way Kumar has experienced the world ever since: “My hunger to know more about the bird was like a bridge that would one day lead me back to nature’s elusive womb.”

In the years since, Kumar has embarked on journeys far and near to commune with birds (cranes, owls, tanagers, eagles) and other creatures that inhabit the American Southwest. She chronicles her encounters thoughtfully and with passion, dotting her work with references to Orpheus, Henry David Thoreau, Ravi Shankar and more.

But travel isn’t necessary for engaging with nature; just looking up at a tree that you walk by daily could reveal new wonders. Kumar and her family have only to sit by the large round window that looks out on their Santa Fe backyard, where they might observe a passing bobcat or the beheaded remains of flowers that were eaten by deer.

However, birds remain Kumar’s truest loves. “How is it that we can love birds . . . and not be attentive to how bird habitats all around us are being fragmented or overgrazed or paved over with concrete?” she writes. It’s a question that circles through Conversations With Birds from beginning to end as Kumar celebrates the creatures that live among us and urges us to consider our role in protecting our collective future. After all, she knows from experience that “the seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”

The essays in Conversations With Birds are rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity about nature.

New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Horowitz (Our Dogs, Ourselves) has done it again. She’s created a heartwarming and personal story about dogs that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our beloved canine companions. In The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, Horowitz, a specialist in canine cognition and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard University, follows the first year of a puppy’s life—her own family’s new puppy, as it happens.

In part one, Horowitz describes the birth and early development of their puppy, Quiddity (Quid). Many owners never experience the early weeks—or even years, with many rescues—of their dogs’ lives, and this section makes fascinating reading as Horowitz meets not just her puppy but the puppy’s mom: Maize, a young dog surrendered to a shelter in Georgia when her owners realized she was pregnant. Maize was transported to New York, where she was fostered by an experienced woman named Amy who took on responsibility for the new mom and her pups—11 in all, it turns out.

In part two, Horowitz and her family choose Quid as their own, and she traces the puppy’s weekly development and integration into their family, where every experience is new: new people, new big dogs, new cat, new house. Training at the outset consists of taking Quid out to pee every two hours and rewarding her for positive behaviors—though the puppy often moves through 12 behaviors in 10 seconds. Fortunately, there are also naps.

Horowitz writes with a gentle humor that any pet owner will appreciate. “After bringing a puppy home, that potential dog vanishes and is replaced by an actual biting, running, peeing, whining dog in our home every hour of every day,” she writes. “She bites the cat in the face and bothers the dogs, who have taken, rightfully, to just turning away in disdain.”

The book is more than an entertaining personal narrative, however. Along the way, Horowitz draws on her extensive knowledge to offer insights into canine behavior. She goes beyond training-focused instructional manuals to show that often what humans label as “misbehavior” is actually normal puppy behavior. We expect dogs to live in our world. But, as Horowitz chronicles one year in Quid’s life, she gently urges us to become more aware of the incredibly rich and complex world dogs inhabit. The better we understand our pooches, the more likely we are to succeed at providing a wonderful home for everyone.

It’s a given that for dog lovers, The Year of the Puppy is a must-read. But even cat lovers will find much to enjoy in this endearing scientific memoir.

Alexandra Horowitz has created another heartwarming and personal story that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our canine companions.
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Mary Roach investigates the uneasy relationship that exists between humans and wildlife in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Traveling to India, Vatican City and other locales, she meets with a wide cast of characters that includes predator attack investigators, a bear manager and a human-elephant conflict specialist, all in an effort to understand how humankind is striving to coexist with the animal kingdom. Roach mixes expert reporting with moving insights into the natural world while unearthing pertinent questions about wildlife and habitat preservation.

In Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, Mark Miodownik examines the prominence of liquids (drinking water, bottled soap, the list goes on) and the critical roles they play in the modern world. The narrative is framed by a transatlantic flight during which Miodownik notes the ubiquity of liquid matter, from the fuel that powers the plane to the offerings on the airline’s refreshment cart. Illustrations and photos add an appealing visual dimension to the book, and topics like climate change and conservation will inspire lively dialogue among readers.

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an engaging survey of the human physique. Bryson delves into the history of anatomy, examines the nature of disease and pain, and generally explores the ways in which our bodies function. He blends scientific fact and input from experts with humanizing anecdotes, and his trademark wit is on display throughout the proceedings. An illuminating look at the systems, organs and processes that define the human organism, The Body is filled with fascinating facts. From start to finish, it’s vintage Bryson.

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski is a reader-friendly overview of the ways in which physics shapes our lives. Making connections between commonplace activities (popping popcorn, for instance) and larger phenomena, from weather patterns to medical technology, Czerski demonstrates that scientific processes large and small take place all around us. Over the course of nine chapters, she covers a range of fundamental physics concepts, writing in an accessible, offbeat style. With a gift for intriguing anecdotes, Czerski makes physics fun.

You don't need scientific training to enjoy these entertaining, offbeat books.

Documentary filmmaker Tom Mustill has seen all manner of wondrous things. But those awe-inspiring experiences, including collaborations with David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, still could not prepare him for the astounding close encounter that fundamentally changed his life.

As the British debut author details in How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication, the year was 2015; the location, the waters off Monterey Bay, California; and the context, a kayak tour with his friend and co-paddler, Charlotte, wherein they witnessed 120 humpback whales, each “the size of an airport shuttle bus,” enjoying a massive group buffet. Suddenly, one of the whales breached and landed atop the duo with “a release of energy equivalent to about forty hand grenades.”

A YouTube video of the event went viral, and Mustill found himself the subject of news reports and memes, as well as “a lightning conductor for whale fanatics.” He became a bit of a fanatic, too, when his whale specialist friend Dr. Joy Reidenberg said it seemed as if he and Charlotte had survived because the whale decided to veer to one side in midair. Of course, Mustill mused, there was no way to really know if the whale attempted to spare them. It’s not like he could ask—or could he? 

In How to Speak Whale, a mix of thoughtfully explained hard science and colorfully described hands-on adventures (a beachside whale dissection is particularly memorable), Mustill chronicles his incredible journey into the fascinating and profound world of animal communication. He interviews and observes people who are specialists in everything from whale song to bat chirps to interspecies sign language, as well as psychologists, computer scientists, historians, cryptographers, artificial intelligence experts and more.

Thanks to Mustill’s gift for storytelling, it’s as interesting to learn about these experts as the creatures they study. Reidenberg is a particular delight, as is Dr. Roger Payne, whose album of whale song recordings went multiplatinum in 1970. Through it all, there runs an undercurrent of appreciation and wonderment as Mustill gulps down knowledge and determinedly questions whether “decoding animal communications [is] no longer a fantasy but a technical problem.”

Wild (and thrilling!) as that may seem, Mustill’s findings offer hope that someday a book called How to Speak Whale might be more dictionary than discussion, more conversation than exploration.

In How to Speak Whale, Tom Mustill chronicles his incredible journey into the fascinating and profound world of animal communication.

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