Books have been a Christmas tradition in our family. Both of my parents have been big readers for as long as I can remember. My mom taught all of us kids to read before we even started school so that we could get a head start on diving in to these fabulous worlds ourselves. We “earned” our allowance through reading lists, lists of books that we were to read and report back to Mom on. Surprisingly, we never cheated (or at least I never did) – either we were too honest, or we rarely found it a chore (I can’t remember what my pre-teen self thought of it, but I’m banking on the latter). Books and reading have continued to be a big part of my life, though my favoured genres may shift back and forth from one year to the next. And for at least the last dozen years or so, Christmas has always meant at least a few new books to read, some ones that were asked for, some that the recipient might not yet know.
This year I got three books I asked for, and two that I didn’t but am looking forward to reading. I’ve already finished one book: Prairie Spring by Pete Dunne. I first heard about this series from my literary agent who handled the moth guide; he also represented this book (actually this series; there’ll be one for each season once they’re all out). My curiosity was piqued by his description of the project, but in the intervening time between then and when it was published it slipped my mind. I was reminded of it by a book review over at The Well-read Naturalist, and promptly put it on my wishlist.
The best literary non-fiction, in my mind, maintains a casual and engaging voice, usually employing a good deal of travelogue or personal experience interspersed with the background and supporting information. Some authors are okay at this, but there are some authors who are really good. This is the first book I’ve read of Pete Dunne’s, but he clearly falls into this category. I didn’t find this a dry read at all, as can happen sometimes with non-fiction, and could easily sit down for an hour or two at a time with it.
In this book he and his wife, Linda, load up their RV and trek off to the American prairies for a couple of months to watch winter slowly give way to spring. Their trip, and the book, is roughly defined by four experiences: Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River, Lesser Prairie-Chickens in New Mexico, Bison in South Dakota, and the network of National Grasslands. Around these he talks about the history of the prairies and the unique human culture there. Never having read any of his other works, I can’t say how this one compares, but I certainly enjoyed it and will have to pick up the next installment, Bayshore Summer.
Dunne’s easy writing style and combination of personal narrative and information reminded me of the works of one of my favourite natural history writers, Scott Weidensaul. The first book I got of Weidensaul’s was Living on the Wind (discussing migratory birds), a Christmas gift received perhaps approaching ten years ago, when I was in university. I devoured that book, if I recall, and was delighted when I discovered he had a new one out, The Ghost with Trembling Wings (which talks about birds and extinction). That one was also a Christmas gift. And then a few years later again, I received Return to Wild America, in which he traces the route that Roger Tory Peterson took some decades earlier in the book Wild America, to see how things have changed.
I think this last is perhaps my favourite of the five of his books I own. The book opens in Newfoundland, which was also the starting point of RTP’s trip with his traveling companion and friend James Fisher. He then approximately traces their route around the outer edge of the continent: south to Florida, west across Texas, north up the Pacific coast, ending in Alaska. I haven’t read the original Wild America that this book commemorates, but Weidensaul provides enough information that you don’t need to have in order to appreciate and enjoy what he writes. While the RTP original focuses primarily on the nature, Weidensaul notes the nature but spends more time discussing the conservation of it: the threats that have or are working on eroding what RTP observed, and the efforts and successes that have been undertaken to save it. Unfortunately, there’s more than a book’s worth of such circumstances on our continent today. Weidensaul is able to present it all with a hopeful outlook, though, and the book remains upbeat despite the sometimes depressing stories that come out of revisiting nature sites fifty years later.
Weidensaul’s published on average every three years. His most recent book, Of a Feather, came out in 2007. I haven’t heard of any new books forthcoming, but I hope he’s not done writing.
Edit: I was delighted to receive, this morning, an email from Scott Weidensaul himself assuring me that he was still alive and hard at work on his next project. The book looks at the colonial history of North America through the mid-1700s; a departure from his usual natural history subjects, but promising to be just as interesting! It’s scheduled to be out fall/winter 2011.
And time for one more. Another author whom I’d place in the same category as Pete Dunne and Scott Weidensaul is David Quammen. I was introduced to Quammen’s work back in university as well, when I borrowed my mom’s copy of Song of the Dodo (discussing evolution and extinction as it relates to island biogeography). Although it was many yeas ago now that I read it and I can only remember fragments of the book, it still remains one of my favourite non-fiction works. Some day I must find the time to re-read it…
A couple of Christmases ago I received his book Monster of God, which talks about the so-called man-eating beasts and humanity’s uneasy relationship with them. He travels to visit the home regions of lions, tigers, Carpathian brown bears, and crocodiles, and combines his modern-day observations and experiences with the history of the appreciation and persecution of each group of animals, and the people who have to live with them. It’s a fascinating account and well-written, highlighting some surprising facts about animals that are shrouded in myth.
He followed this up with a biography of Charles Darwin which came out in 2006 but which I haven’t yet read (I find personal biographies less interesting, usually, than natural history biographies). Like with Weidensaul, I haven’t heard anything about forthcoming books, but I hope he’s plans to write more.
Beyond simply highlighting a few Christmas favourites, I didn’t bother going into too much detail with the reviews here because you can get all of that and more from the Amazon pages, if you’re interested: