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All Nature Coverage

Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.


Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.

One recent morning, before I left home to plant white oak trees in a nearby park, I turned to Margaret Renkl’s The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year. As often happens, a passage from the New York Times columnist grounded me and pulled my vision forward: “Planting a tree is a gesture of faith in the future,” writes Renkl. She continues later in the essay, “I think of what we are losing from this world and of what we will leave behind when we ourselves are lost. The trees. The stories. The people who love us and who know we love them, who will carry our love into the world after we are gone.”

These personal reflections on the natural world, often as observed from her suburban half-acre in Nashville, abound in The Comfort of Crows and throughout Renkl’s writing. Essays in her sparkling 2019 debut Late Migrations offered glimpses into loss and living as they toggled between Renkl’s past and present across the Southern U.S. Her 2021 book, Graceland, at Last, collected dozens of essays from her Times column. A handful of the essays in The Comfort of Crows appeared in the Times, too, but this book takes a different approach. 

“Planting a tree is a gesture of faith in the future.”

Renkl crafted an essay for each week of the year and paired them with 52 original collages by her brother, artist Billy Renkl. For the 11th week in winter, she uses a tree’s knothole as a metaphor, linking the decay of the natural world to the changing patterns of her life. She admires the greenery sprouting from the hole and notes the space where animals may have sheltered. It is a place where “radiant things are bursting forth in the darkest places, in the smallest nooks and deepest cracks of the hidden world.”

Renkl processes change and tragedy: the deaths of her ancestors, aging, becoming an empty nester, the COVID-19 pandemic, encroaching development in her neighborhood and, inevitably, climate change. Longer essays are interspersed with “praise songs,” short poetic observations on the natural world. The book can be read straight through or stretched across the calendar as a weekly literary devotional. Billy Renkl’s stunning collages provide an invitation to meditate, to pray, to breathe.

Infused with empathy, The Comfort of Crows reminds us to treasure the living beings who surround us with each breath we take. Renkl’s insights root us within our world. “I’ll gather acorns to plant here and there at our house—in enough different places, I hope, for a few to escape the blue jays,” she writes. “With any luck, some autumn in a year I may not live to see, there will be many acorns.”

Margaret Renkl’s The Comfort of Crows is a shimmering weekly devotional that praises living beings great and small.
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Occasionally, a book appears like a shimmering treasure stumbled upon during a forest walk. This is certainly the case with Iliana Regan’s memoir Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir. Her first book, Burn the Place, was a finalist for the National Book Award, chronicling growing up gay on an Indiana farm and creating her own Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. In both memoirs, Regan is a hypnotizing writer who speaks to readers in a deeply personal way, writing in a natural voice that artfully interweaves past and present.

Regan’s exquisite, carefully planned prose paradoxically feels like a casual chat, the sort that might unfold spontaneously during a long weekend visit. As it turns out, some very lucky people can experience exactly that, because in 2020, Regan turned over her restaurant, Elizabeth, to her employees, and now she and her wife run the Milkweed Inn bed and breakfast in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Deep in the Hiawatha National Forest, 10 guests are treated to Regan’s culinary magic each weekend. During that time, Regan hopes they will experience something similar to the “magic of the farmhouse I grew up in.”

Fieldwork invites readers into this world, as Regan explores and forages in the nearby forest and river for food to use in meals at the inn. She also forages in her own mind for childhood memories, including those of her beloved parents and her grandmother Busia, a gifted cook who emigrated from Poland. Busia’s duck blood soup, or czarnina, exists in the author’s memories as a sort of magical potion, something akin to Marcel Proust’s madeleines. Regan also shares her ongoing struggles with recovering from alcoholism, the difficulties of running an inn during the COVID-19 pandemic, her fears of losing her parents, her anxieties about the world and her desire and attempts to become a parent. Alongside these thoughts, she captures the great beauty and comfort of the outdoors with the voice of a naturalist.

Regan has led an intriguing, unusual life, which gives her memoir a unique and compelling perspective. She notes, for instance, “Sometimes I think I would still like to be a man because I don’t feel like a woman. But I don’t feel like a man either. I feel more akin to a mushroom.” With both Burn the Place and Fieldwork, Regan has earned her place as not only a world-class chef but also a gifted memoirist.

As Iliana Regan forages in the forest for food to use in the meals she serves at her inn, she also forages in her own mind for shimmering, moving childhood memories.

“We’re getting it wrong in this beautiful, ravaged place,” writes author Bryce Andrews (Down From the Mountain) in Holding Fire: A Reckoning With the American West. “Over and over, we find a lovely valley, shoot it through the ecological heart, grind its bones to dust, and pour the foundation of an edifice less interesting than what existed before.” It is his ah-ha moment in this vibrant, candid account of his experiences working as a cowboy in Montana.

Although it’s labeled as a memoir, Holding Fire also has many elements of regional nonfiction, natural history and even social science. As a result, it is structured in a fresh and unpredictable way, with each chapter opening a new window into Andrews’ thoughts, feelings and prior experiences. Framed around the inheritance of his grandfather’s gun, a Smith & Wesson revolver, each reflection focuses on a particular idea that has helped Andrews comprehend the fragility of life and inevitability of death.

As Andrews ruminates on his personal history, he dots his musings with descriptive, emotive prose. “In quiet moments all through childhood,” he writes, “I entertained a Western fantasy in which the sky’s broad dome appeared first, its sun a magnet tugging upward on my heart.” Guns were never a big part of his life until he lived and worked on a ranch, where he had to hunt and keep critters at bay. These encounters provided life lessons and new proficiencies, particularly when hunting with fellow rancher Roger, whom he calls “the lodge’s wrangler and outfitter.” But the more Andrews lived with the gun, the more it led him to realize the destruction caused by violence. He eventually forged the gun into a useful gardening tool, learning blacksmithing in the process.

Holding Fire is a meditation on the past, present and future of not only Andrews’ own life but also the lives of all mortal creatures.

Bryce Andrews’ vibrant, candid account of working as a cowboy in Montana provides a moving meditation on the fragility of life and inevitability of death.
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Journalism professor Michelle Dowd was raised in California’s Angeles National Forest as part of an ultrareligious cult known as the Field, which was begun by her grandfather. She grew up fearing the apocalypse might arrive at any moment, and public education was shunned and largely avoided. “Outsiders” were never to be trusted. As Dowd writes in her excellent memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, her father taught his children that “preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.” He forced them to embrace discomfort, limited their food, weighed them after meals and sent them hiking in the snow in tennis shoes. Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Dowd’s unique spin and reflective voice elevate her story.

Forager is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, especially in the way that Dowd used her innate curiosity and thirst for education as a means to eventually break free. As a child, she began devouring the Bible—the only thing she had to read—taking secret notes on the many things she found puzzling or contradictory, “as if constructing a map for a prison escape.” Often she joined other cult members on long cross-country trips to raise money by performing in circuslike road shows. Dowd learned to endure her father’s frequent “rage and random violence” but never stopped yearning for her mother’s love and approval. Her mother was often absent, hugs weren’t allowed, and little if any nurturing was provided. 

The one thing Dowd’s mother did provide was an exceptional naturalist’s education, which serves as the book’s framework. Since the apocalypse was believed to be imminent, Dowd and others were expertly trained in survival skills. Each chapter begins with an illustration and short discussion of a plant that might provide sustenance, such as chokeberry, yucca or Jeffrey pine. Dowd’s survival skills, which have long provided her with a life raft, both mentally and physically, are not only admirable but fascinating.

Although Forager chronicles a horrific upbringing, Dowd’s narration is ultimately hopeful, uplifting and always appreciative of our intimate, fragile dependence on our planet. As she so beautifully concludes, “The sustenance I rely on is from the Mountain, which has made my mind large, open, like the night sky, where there is room for paradox.”

Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Michelle Dowd's reflective voice and unique connection to nature elevate her story.
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Kelly Smith Trimble’s first title, Vegetable Gardening Wisdom, holds a face-out position on my bookshelves, ready for a quick consult. Her latest effort, The Creative Vegetable Gardener: 60 Ways to Cultivate Joy, Playfulness, and Beauty Along With a Bounty of Food, will give it some excellent company.

Humble in tone yet robust with expertise, this inspiring guide isn’t concerned so much with crop yields or pest control as it is with the sheer pleasure and wellness that gardening can bring. Trimble wants us to think outside the box—the quadrilateral raised bed, that is—and pursue spirals, hay bales, front yard settings and other methods for changing up our forays into cultivation. She encourages readers to garden for the mindfulness and surprise of it and counsels them to not get hung up on how many tomatoes they produce in a given year. And for most any common woe, she has a helpful suggestion. Lacking a full-sun backyard, as I am? Here’s a list of plants that will thrive under four hours of sun. Curious about permaculture or what the moon has to do with it all? Here’s your explainer.

Accessible for beginners but poised to shake up the thinking of the most seasoned dirt-gardener, Trimble’s new book covers lots of ground.

Kelly Smith Trimble’s inspiring guide isn’t concerned so much with crop yields or pest control as it is with the sheer pleasure that gardening can bring.
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The Lives We Actually Have

Book jacket image for The Lives We Actually Have by Kate Bowler

Like the psalmists, authors Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Good Enough) examine and affirm the multifaceted human experience in The Lives We Actually Have. In 100 entries written in verse, Bowler and Richie celebrate the beautiful, lament the ugly and recognize the mundane alongside the blindsiding. This book is not the shallow expression of prayer most of us are used to. Instead, these pages hold blessings that make every human experience, even a “garbage day,” worthy of noting and appreciating.

The authors include blessings for every kind of day, including ordinary life, tired life, lovely life, grief-stricken life, overwhelming life, painful life and holy life. Along the way, they do an incredible job of reclaiming blessings from social media’s “#blessed” culture, speaking truthfully about the range of experiences inherent to being human instead of offering blessings for the pristine, uncomplicated lives we wish we had.

Bowler and Richie go where most Christian authors won’t: right to all the messy truths of being alive. Their willingness to meet us where we are makes life feel a little more manageable and a little more worthy of love. Through their words of blessing, readers will find courage, rest, hope to carry on—and maybe even a laugh.

The Book of Nature

Book jacket image for The Book of Nature by Barbara Mahany

Born out of author Barbara Mahany’s curiosity, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text weaves together theology, nature, science, liturgy and poetry. Instead of losing readers in so many captivating details, she brings all these seemingly different mediums together to create a compelling argument that the natural world is the key to understanding God. To Mahany, and the countless theologians, authors and scientists she references, nature is what makes sense of scripture.

Mahany opens her book by sharing how she came to write about the Book of Nature, which is an ancient name for the practice of “reading” nature like a sacred text, “the text of all of creation, inscribed and unfurled by a God present always and everywhere.” Her initial spark of interest led her down a rabbit hole, finding references to the Book of Nature throughout Christian history. She then explains how the separation of religion and nature—that is, science—came about during the Enlightenment and reminds readers that it doesn’t have to be that way now. Through her essays on the earthly, the liminal and the heavenly, Mahany reveals the divine’s presence in our world.

For those in the Christian faith who grew up learning about God only from Bible lessons, The Book of Nature provides permission to wonder, get curious and find God in the tiny details of a sprouting garden, a forest glade, birds in flight or the moon. By showing readers how many respected theologians, seminarians, desert mothers and fathers, tribal leaders and saints found God in nature, Mahany reminds us that there are different ways to encounter God all around us, beyond just in scripture.

 Dancing in the Darkness

Rev. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and his ministry is steeped in a theological tradition of liberation, love and justice. Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times, his latest collection of essay-sermons, lays out the need for Americans to use the tools of “Just Love” (love linked to justice) to overcome despair and denial. Because of our country’s racialized history, Moss writes that we are doomed to stay in a state of “political midnight” if we don’t reckon with injustice while holding onto agape love.

Moss weaves personal stories, history and prophecy together in a fast-paced, faith-filled way. Readers will breeze through these essays and feel energized to hold onto hope despite the challenges we face as a society. With practical calls to prayer, meditation and authenticity, Moss leads readers into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a “beloved community.”

Dancing in the Darkness is a wonderful soul-reviver. Readers will come away feeling spiritually buoyed, just like they might if they attended worship at Moss’ church. The effect is empowering without giving into unrealistic visions of utopia. It’s like a spoonful of sugar that will help us fight for the world our children deserve to inherit.

All My Knotted-Up Life

Book jacket image for All My Knotted-Up Life by Beth Moore

Many readers have been anticipating the release of All My Knotted-Up Life, author and minister Beth Moore’s memoir. After decades as a women’s Bible study teacher in the Southern Baptist Church, a denomination that only allows men in leadership roles, Moore finally shares her story. She reveals a few surprising secrets here, but her trademark belief in the goodness of Jesus is the memoir’s main draw.

Beginning with her childhood, Moore tells her story of living in a home fraught with mental illness and sexual abuse and the safety she felt going to the Baptist church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. As Moore moves chronologically through her life, we see her family fall apart and come back together, and we see Moore get married and have children all while feeling called to ministry. Moore struggled to figure out what that would look like in the Southern Baptist Church, but she found a way—first by working around the Southern Baptist Convention’s gendered leadership rules and then by leaving the organization completely—and became one of the most well-known leaders in evangelical Christianity. 

All My Knotted-Up Life will leave some readers wishing they knew more of Moore’s story. Because of her ability to see the humanity in all people, including her abusers, I was personally left wanting to see more of her process of forgiveness. But for Moore, true forgiveness is up to Jesus, who is at the heart of this tender memoir.

These Christian nonfiction books will make readers feel a little bit better about being human.

Like the garden at its center, poet Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden blossoms in vivid hues, radiating love and illuminating the tangled roots of nature and ecology.

Six years after she arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dungy set out to reclaim a portion of her yard and convert it into a “drought-tolerant, pollinator-supporting flower field.” However, once several dump trucks unloaded mounds of dirt on her driveway, only for it to be scattered by wind, she had second thoughts. Eventually, though, she turned what was once a cookie-cutter lawn into a richly diverse space filled with plants that prevent soil erosion and allow bees and birds thrive.

At the same time that she was planting her garden, Dungy also dug into the history of the wilderness movement. She discovered that ecology had its own homogeneity problem, especially its exclusion of Black women gardeners and Black women environmental writers from anthologies of environmental literature. “Maintaining the fantasy of the American Wilderness requires a great deal of work,” she writes. “It requires the enforced silence of women, of Black people, Chinese people, Japanese people, other East and South Asian communities, poorer white people, Indigenous people, Latinx people . . . the list goes on and on.” To help fill that gap, she introduces readers to gardeners such as Anne Spencer, a Black poet who created a spacious sanctuary of a garden in the late 19th century in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In Soil, Dungy plants poems next to memoir next to critical analysis next to environmental history next to African American history, cultivating the radical ecological thought she wants to see more of in the world. This vibrant memoir challenges readers to look beyond the racial and scientific uniformness of most environmental literature and discover the rich wildness and hope that lies all around them.

In her radical and vibrant memoir, Camille Dungy plants poems next to critical analysis next to environmental history next to African American history.
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For centuries, farmers have been consulting celestial cycles, such as the zodiac and the phases of the moon, to time their planting, with a number of calendars and almanacs printed every year to help them do just that. There’s scant scientific research on this type of zodiac-based cultivation, but as associate professor of agriculture and natural resources Sarah L. Hall muses in Sown in the Stars, “It does seem (even to a scientist like me) that when a practice continues over a long period of time, there might just be something to it.”

Hall interviewed a large number of Kentuckians who follow the folk tradition of planting by the signs (I love how she refers to them as “garden artists”), and their stories shape the heart of this beautifully designed book. Hall gives readers an overview of astrology and astronomy, which inform this method of farming, and she even shares the results of her own season of planting by the signs. Whether you wish to give it a go yourself or are simply curious about traditional practices, this book is a valuable cultural document, full of experience and wisdom typically passed from one generation to the next by women.

Sown in the Stars is a valuable cultural document, full of experience and wisdom from farmers who consult celestial cycles and the zodiac signs to time their planting.
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On her website, Irish artist Katie Holten asks, “What is the language we need to live right now? How can we learn to be better lovers of the world?” One of her answers is an innovative—and downloadable!—tree alphabet font: For each letter, she has drawn a corresponding tree.

This project provides the stunning visual component for The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape, “a love letter to our vanishing world,” in which Holten gathers a diverse range of writing celebrating and reflecting on all things arboreal. There are recipes for acorn flour and gall ink, words from Plato and Radiohead, poems by Ada Limon and Camille Dungy, musings on cacao and catalpa trees, and so much more—all of it printed first in English and then in Holten’s tree alphabet, creating visual forests that represent the book’s words. I’ve never seen anything remotely like this work of art and was nodding along to the introduction by poet Ross Gay: “Can I tell you how batshit beautiful I find this? Can I tell you how each piece . . . each essay or poem or song becoming a forest or orchard, rattles me, flummoxes me really, with how beautiful?”

Artist Katie Holten has gathered a stunning range of writings that celebrate all things arboreal, from recipes for acorn flour to reflections on catalpa trees.
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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.
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Have you ever created a leaf rubbing? Or painted one side of a natural object and then pressed it to paper to make a mirror image? If so, you’ve engaged in nature printing, an ancient practice that marries scientific documentation and art. Fossils are a kind of nature print, and leaf prints were featured on early American currency. Relief printing, intaglio, cyanotype—all are types of nature printing.

Capturing Nature: 150 Years of Nature Printing examines this art form through two centuries and across continents, illustrating no fewer than 45 types, compiled by Matthew Zucker and Pia Ostlund from the Zucker Collection, the largest collection of nature prints in the world. The resulting volume is a “wondrous mix of nature, technology, and the human desire for learning,” and it’s a stunning addition to any nature lover’s library.

The two centuries’ worth of nature prints contained in Capturing Nature would make a stunning addition to any nature lover’s library.
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Christian Cooper has been bird-watching in Central Park for decades, but a spring migratory excursion took a dramatic turn on May 25, 2020, when a woman refused his request to leash her wandering dog, per park regulations. He was hoping to spy a ground-dwelling bird called a mourning warbler and knew that her unleashed pet would make his quest impossible. After she refused and Cooper began filming with his phone, Amy Cooper—a white woman of no relation—announced that she was about to call the police, adding, “I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Her blatant use of “weaponized racism” went viral. As Cooper aptly sums up the incident in Better Living Through Birding, “Fourteen words, captured amid sixty-nine seconds of video, that would alter the trajectory of two lives.” This encounter happened on the same day George Floyd was murdered. 

A year later, Cooper was invited to attend a birding festival in Alabama. As he walked across Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, he reflected on the day that bridge became a bloodbath in 1965 and on the travails his ancestors must have endured. “In that context, my incident in Central Park is just an asterisk,” he writes. “More than a year later, it remains exceedingly strange for me—the notoriety, that I’d even be mentioned in the annals of the nation’s racial strife.” 

Throughout his wide-ranging memoir, Cooper is a thoughtful, enthusiastic narrator. Growing up as a Black kid on Long Island, New York, in the 1970s, “I was rarer than an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the very white world of birding,” he writes. “As I simultaneously struggled with being queer, birds took me away from my woes suffocating in the closet.” Cooper gradually came out to family and friends, beginning while studying at Harvard in the 1980s. He went on to become one of Marvel’s first openly gay writers and editors—aside from birds, his other passions include superhero comics and sci-fi and fantasy—and introduced the first gay male Star Trek character in the Starfleet Academy series. In entertaining prose, Cooper reminisces about his life, writing especially poignantly about his often-difficult relationship with his father.

Tying these multifaceted strands together is no easy feat, but Cooper does it well. He peppers the text with helpful tips for beginning birders while recounting vivid excursions through Nepal, the Galapagos, Australia and, of course, his beloved Central Park. Generous soul that he is, Cooper writes that outrage shouldn’t be focused on Amy Cooper. Instead, he concludes, “Focusing on her is a distraction and lets too many people off the hook from the hard, ongoing examination of themselves and their own racial biases. . . . If you’re looking for Amy Cooper to yell at, look in the mirror.”

In thoughtful prose, birder Christian Cooper reminisces about his life before and after the day a white woman threatened to call the police on him in Central Park.

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