Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borders of Empires by Dominic Ziegler. Penguin Press. 2015. 

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan Slaght. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. 

Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains by Vladimir K. Arsenyev, translation and notes by Jonathan Slaght. Indiana University Press. 2016.

Tent Life in Siberia: A New Account of an Old Undertaking, Adventures among the Koraks and Other Tribes In Kamchatka and Northern Asia by George Kennan. Public Domain Book. 1870.

Four good books about eastern Russia. I listened to the Audible edition of the first one several years ago and don’t recall much, except that it is more concerned with history than the others. The first empire Ziegler ties to the Amur is Genghis Kahn’s in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the largest land empire in history. It began on the steppes near the headwaters of the river and eventually extended from Eastern Europe to the Pacific. Since then the Amur has been the setting for imperial conflicts, some continuing to the present. Much of the book deals with Russian expansion into far eastern Asia, beginning in the eighteenth century. Many of the Russian cities in Amur basin were built by immigrants from the west: Cossacks, Old Believers, exiled Decembrists, freed serfs, criminals and adventurers. 

Russians apparently believed that, like Americans, their destiny in the nineteenth century was the Pacific. Russia seized a vast amount of Chinese territory. The boundary with China, much of it following the Amur, was more or less settled in 1861, but the struggle for influence and economic advantage continued and continues to this day. When Japan occupied much of China in the 1930s, it appeared as if that empire might be poised to expand at the expense of the Soviet Union. It had already defeated Russia once earlier in the century. The decision of the Japanese militarists in 1941 to move south and west instead was a significant turning point in twentieth century history, allowing the Russians to concentrate all their forces to defeat Hitler’s invasion. 

Ziegler tried to follow the Amur from source to the sea. Much of the country is still remote, often harsh, and political restrictions still make travel difficult. He went on horseback in Mongolia to reach the source, by jeep and train and riverboat down the length of the Amur as far as Nicolayevsk, near the mouth on the Tatar Strait between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Many stretches of the river are off limits as military security zones – there was a clash in 1969 that came close to starting a war between China and the USSR. Sometimes Ziegler makes his own difficulties: an attempt at illicit trade with inmates of a Russian prison ends with him nearly being thrown into prison himself. A sympathetic police official let him off with a stern warning.

As a journalist, Ziegler, writes with great descriptive power and a sincere interest in the places he explores and people he meets. He assures us that the history of the Amur is far from over. Russian nationalism, despite its decrepit economy, versus growing Chinese ambition and resurgent economic power are still at play in this long running contest of empires.

Jonathan Slaght is a field biologist. His book is the story of his doctoral research, carried out in the river valleys along the coast of the Sea of Japan in the thinly settled country mostly occupied by loggers and subsistence hunters and trappers. His research subject is the fish owl, largest owl in the world. His goal was to understand the life history and ecology of the species in order to develop a conservation plan to prevent its extinction. He had lived long enough in Russia to speak the language fluently and had already done research on other endangered species like the Amur leopard and Siberian tiger.

The fieldwork challenges in this study were extreme. The few towns – Plastun, Terny, Amgu – are small and some are inaccessible except by ship. Roads are generally poor, often dangerous. The frozen rivers are the best highways in winter, but they can be treacherous. Housing was in remote villages, makeshift cabins and abandoned huts or his specially equipped, but unreliable, vehicles. Winter was the main field season, since only then were the owls on territories and continually active, feeding their young. Slaght and his local field assistants had to spend many nights sitting out, watching their snares that they used to capture owls for radio tagging. Through months of trail and error, with numerous setbacks, they learned when and where the owls nest, what types of trees and tree cavities they use, where they prefer to hunt and how big their territories are.

Much of the work was scouting to listen for territorial birds calling. This meant walking alone for miles up the rivers, bushwhacking through dense thickets, encountering bad weather and potentially dangerous animals. Equipment breakdowns and lack of supplies were constant problems, as were late arriving ships. Life in the towns and villages involved a lot of boredom and a lot of drinking – everyone he met seemed to want to see whether he could drink as much as they did. He spent summers back in the US, analyzing results and preparing for the next field season.

Slaght is a good, engaging writer, with a respect for the people he works with and those he encounters on the way. He is supported by and works with the local conservation organization. Given that much of what I knew about this region was focused on the environmental threats posed by logging and other pressures, I was gratified to learn that the efforts of the conservationists are meeting with some success. 

Vladimir Arsenyev was a soldier and surveyor, assigned to map the uncharted regions lying northeast of Vladivostok. The area was diverse, both biologically and ethnographically. Deciduous and coniferous forests, marshes, large and small rivers, lakes and seacoast still abounded in places with deer, wild boar, bear and tigers. Aboriginal tribes, Chinese, Koreans and Russians made a living from exploiting the resources and one another. Russian authority was recognized, but it was extremely tenuous in many parts of the area. Bandits still were a serious danger to travelers. The harsh climate, the scarcity of food at times and wildfires, which could quickly consume thousands of acres of forest, added to the hazards. 

Of all the local inhabitants Arsenyev encountered, there was no one as fascinating as the Gold (Nanai) tribesman and hunter, Dersu. Although at first he sees him as almost simpleminded, Arsenyev has the sense to listen to what he says, despite the oddities of his speech. He turns out to be an astonishing tracker, hunter and wilderness survivalist. More than once he saves Arsenyev’s life – from blizzard, fire, bandits. By the end of the narrative, it is clear that he loves and relies on this man (or perhaps “these men,” because, Arsenyev may actually have combined more than one individual into a single character in this account), whose understanding of the environment far surpasses his. 

The descriptions of travel and the conditions of life in the isolated villages and fanzas (semi-fortified homesteads) are fascinating. The picture of a region undergoing rapid change, as Russia is pursuing its goal of expansion to the Pacific (manifest destiny?) has the quality of deja vu for one who knows something about American history. I came away with a strong sense of Arsenyev as an observant, sympathetic human being, open to experiences far outside his familiar comfort zone. This is a remarkable book.

George Kennan (not closely related to the famous Cold Warrior) was an employee of the Russian-American Telegraph Company (Never heard of it? Neither had I) who was literally sent to Siberia in 1865 to survey a route and start building a telegraph line that would line America to Europe via the Bering Strait. The first Atlantic cable had failed in 1858, and the investors in R-A T were betting that it wasn’t going to ever work.

Landed on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kennan and a few other Americans, with Russian associates, set out to map a route from the strait to the existing Russian far eastern wires. At the time, the Russian presence in the far eastern reaches was even more slight than in Arsenyev’s time, forty years later. The Cossacks had effectively established Russian political control over the past century or so, but only a small percentage of the indigenous peoples were really subjected to the authorities. The majority still lived as they had for centuries, primarily by hunting and herding reindeer. 

Kennan and his companions lived among these people for weeks at a time, utterly dependent on them for food, shelter and transport. He gives vivid pictures of life in the camps and on the trail. They had to do almost all the survey work in winter, because in the short summer, the boggy tundra becomes impassable. This meant encountering the full fury of the weather, often having to travel for days by dog sled while the thermometer registered minus 40 degrees and lower. Food was always short and often foul. Surprisingly, only one member of the whole survey team died during the two winters they worked there. 

Kennan’s writing is vivid, as when he describes the effect of ten teams of sled dogs coming over a rise and seeing a herd of several hundred reindeer in a native encampment: uncontrollable excitement, followed by chaos. Again, one night there was a prolonged, magnificent aurora, which he describes in stunning detail. More than anything else I read in these books, that made me want to go to the arctic. He also sometimes affects the nonchalance often seen in writers of the 19th century when describing hardships or narrow escapes. His descriptions of the native peoples are not especially nuanced, nor sympathetic; he dispenses words like “barbarous,” and “savage,” freely. He didn’t come prepared to learn from the people he met, so he mostly didn’t. I don’t think he could have had the kind of respect and affection that Arsenyev had for Dersu. Russian officials and aristocrats were more his kind of people, though even they often led him to remark on how different from Americans. 

In the end, the expedition got word that the Atlantic cable had been successfully laid, and there was no reason to proceed. They were left to make the journey back overland, across the entire length of Eurasia, much of it by horse drawn sledge, until they reached to eastern end of the railroad that would one day become the Trans-Siberian. It took many months to finally get home to the United States.

All four of these books were well worth reading.

Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.



Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Natural History and Conservation by Reed F. Noss. Island Press 2013

Walden Warming by Richard Primack. University of Chicago Press 2014

Reading Noss’s work, I recall Faulkner’s words, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.” Forgotten, neglected, tragically diminished, but not gone. Noss describes his travels to visit what was once a vast archipelago of grass-dominated ecological communities, ranging from endless longleaf pine savannas (see my post on Looking for Longleaf) to tiny rock outcrop barrens. This island landscape stretched across the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia. In fact, though Noss does not discuss them, these communities are found up into the mid-Atlantic and New England. Today, the remaining islands, in a sea of agriculture, industrial forestry and urbanization  only hint at what has vanished beneath the waves of “progress.” But remarkably, there is enough to form the core of a restored landscape, something that will be a major challenge for 21st century ecologists.

Many types of habitats fit under the term “grassland.” Woodlands have trees, but their crowns cover less than three-fourths of the ground, allowing herbaceous plants, especially grasses, to thrive. Savannas have scattered trees, with less than about fifty percent cover. Meadows, glades, barrens and balds have only isolated patches of trees. Noss also describes plant and animal species endemic to the southeastern grasslands. An endemic is a kind of organism found in a particular type of community or a local area, and nowhere else. Many of these are critically imperiled, occurring today at only one or two places. The book is illustrated with his photos of the communities and the rare plants.

Noss has really interesting things to say about the factors that have maintained open, grass-dominated habitats over ecological and evolutionary time. The main ecological question is: what is preventing tall woody plants from taking over? The climate is warm enough, and rainfall is adequate for trees. It could be lack of a deep, firm soil that roots can penetrate to support tall stems. It could be that the soil stays wet or dry too much of the year. It could be constant disturbance by flood, wind, fire or herbivores. It could be lack of sufficient nutrients to support trees and shrubs. At any particular site, it’s most likely a combination of two or more of these factors.

The evolutionary question is: how have the species that comprise these ecological communities arisen and survived in a dynamic landscape? The answers are tentative and complicated, especially those related to changing climate. The distinctiveness and diversity of the endemic species, especially their adaptations to fire, imply a long evolutionary history. Some of the endemic plant species, such as those in certain rock outcrop barrens, may have evolved recently, while others, like the ones in the longleaf pine savannas, have been around for a very long time. This field of research is called phylogeography because it looks both at phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations among different populations and species and at the geographic patterns of climate (and so, the species’ habitats) now and in the past.

Many authors have stated the grasslands originated only as a result of disturbance by humans, who do not seem to have reached America before 30,000 years ago at the very earliest. If the grasslands originated before the Pleistocene ice ages, how did they survive the periods of peak glaciation and cold? Noss cites pollen data to show that most of the southeast had a cool temperate climate during the ice ages, but evidence from geomorphology suggests that there were periods of boreal conditions with deep seasonal frost or even permafrost. Aeolian landforms, created by strong winds coming off the glaciers, include dune fields, sand sheets and the famous Carolina bays. These indicate that there were periods where there was little vegetation to stabilize the surface. One possibility is that the pollen record is incomplete, because the intervals without vegetation produce essentially no pollen. Another is that, if the Gulf Stream stopped during the coldest intervals, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a tremendous heat reservoir, keeping the coastal areas warm, while inland sites were cold. On maps of the ice age drop in sea level, the additional dry land, just on the west side of peninsular Florida, looks nearly as large as North Carolina. Thus, a lot of grassland species might have retreated there.

Noss’s book and a recent article (Noss, R. F., Platt, W. J., Sorrie, B. A., Weakley, A. S., Means, D. B., Costanza, J. and Peet, R. K. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21: 236–244), which includes the coastal plain up to Cape Cod, call the region a biodiversity hotspot. This is based on the great numbers of plant, vertebrate and insect species in the region and the number of those species that are endemic to it.

The article calls for the North American Coastal Plain to be listed as a global biodiversity hotspot. A colleague who studies southern grasshoppers told me that the group behind the effort to achieve listing had several more papers in the pipeline that they expected would be needed to convince the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to add the NACP as hotspot number 36 They succeeded on the first try, just after the article was published ( Hooray!

Now the hard work begins: convincing people, especially government officials and private conservation groups, to take action. Here in New Jersey, most conservationists still see the coastal plain as a forest region. Natural enough, since fire suppression for the last eighty years has effectively converted what were once woodlands and savannas into dense forests of pine and oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. “Forest,” has such cultural significance in American environmentalism that it is very difficult to convince anyone that this is not what Nature intends. Add modifiers like “old growth,” “pristine,” “climax,” and you have idols that it is very hard to get environmentalists to stop worshipping.

Most people I know in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to blame “development” for loss of natural habitats. To an extent, this is true for the grasslands of the South, especially the loss in recent times of the smaller glades and barrens, but other factors are historically more important. Noss mentioned drainage and conversion to farmland, but this applies mainly to the wetter, richer grasslands. Dense tree plantations have replaced pine savannas. Another factor is loss of large herbivores, beginning with the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna – mammoths, ground sloths, etc. – around 15,000 years ago. To some degree, cattle, hogs and sheep may have supplied their place in the early post-1492 times of open ranges and even today, but livestock can do more harm than good to natural habitats, and they will never be allowed to recreate the vast network of “buffalo traces,” leading to salt licks and waterholes. These trails provided habitat and dispersal routes for grassland plants, as roadsides do today, if we don’t mow them in the growing season or allow exotic invasives to take over.

By far the clearest factor reducing grasslands is fire suppression. Since the advent of motorized firefighting in the mid-twentieth century, the number of fires has changed little, but the area burned annually has greatly decreased ( This means that fire return intervals have generally become too long to prevent establishment of closed forest canopies. This is fine if you want to grow trees for wood or fiber but terrible for the plants and animals of woodlands, savannas and grasslands.

I have tried for years to convince my friends in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that the greatly increased plant canopy cover since fire suppression began to be effective has caused much of the reported drying out of the landscape. They prefer to blame the loss of wetlands and headwater streams on wells drilled by farmers, developers and casinos sucking water out of the ground. Trees and shrubs are taking just as much water through their roots and evaporating it through leaves, 300-500 pounds of water for every pound of sugar they make in photosynthesis. Some of my conservationist friends and colleagues oppose even moderate thinning of trees in the Pine Barrens. They talk about endangered species’ need for undisturbed habitat, not recognizing that on the coastal plain, far more species are threatened by the loss of open land with herbaceous vegetation – grasslands, woodlands, savannas and meadows. A very experienced botanist I know, however, has become convinced, after seeing species like pine barrens gentian and turkey beard springing up in the wake of forest thinning and reintroduction of fire on managed lands. Too bad the New Jersey Forest Service officials still thinks Smoky the Bear has the last word. They are courting disaster as fuel loads continue to build up in the pines, but they won’t believe that a fire could occur that they could not control. This is incredibly short sighted.

I also wish our environmental community would back off its opposition to natural gas pipelines, which actually create open habitats, and devote more of their resources to stopping the motorized mayhem that’s destroying the last of our native savannas and sand ridge communities all across southern New Jersey. In the Pinelands National Reserve, motorized recreation is not a permitted land use, but pressure from the motorheads has prevented meaningful regulation or enforcement.

Besides these immediate threats, I wonder whether the coastal plain biodiversity hotspot can survive climate change. As shown by Richard Primack in his excellent book, Walden Warming (Chicago 2014) there are already substantial changes in the flora and fauna of New England since Thoreau kept a naturalist’s journal in the 1850’s. Surely, though we lack clear evidence, such changes are occurring in the North American Coastal Plain. For plant populations to persist, they must either acclimate (adjust their flowering and fruiting physiology) adapt locally (through natural selection of individuals that best match the warmer climate) or disperse their seeds northwards. Primack points out that the barriers created by towns, farms and highways make it difficult for native plants to disperse to suitable new habitat.

A look at the map of the coastal plain shows another problem: the northward narrowing of the geologic region, until it peters out at Cape Cod and in the sandy outwash plans of southern New England. Even if species can shift northwards, they will find themselves funneled into increasingly tight confines, reduced even more by sea level rise. Europe’s flora is impoverished compared to its temperate counterparts in North America and Asia, because southward dispersal during the height of the last ice ages ran into the barrier of the Alps. The coastal plain’s denizens may be similarly crushed against the rock ribs of New England.

Noss’s points out that many people feel that preserving nature for its own sake is as important as preserving it for its benefits to us. He recasts Jack Kennedy’s famous dictum as, “ask not just what nature can do for us, but also what we can do for nature.” He estimates that temperate grasslands have the lowest ratio of lands preserved to lands destroyed of any major ecological system on earth. In the North American Coastal Plain this ratio may be even lower, although perhaps with more prospect for restoration than in some areas, because so much has been lost to fire suppression, which is fixable.

Noss is a strong proponent of saving all that we can in whatever ways are effective. He is against any form of ” triage,” writing off of species and communities that we decide in advance can’t be saved. He also criticizes the Nature Conservancy for overemphasizing what they call “working landscapes,” and neglecting the smaller, uneconomical bits, those tiny glades, barrens and rock outcrops that house such amazing numbers of endemic taxa. Noss argues we need to practice preservation on many scales, beginning with a ban on development of any new natural lands. We should be redeveloping abandoned or underutilized sites, close to existing development. I agree, but we need to find some way to effectively transfer development rights, or landowners will block any such policy. He also argues that we need to change the policies and practices of our state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to better manage lands already protected. Too many of the best areas are either over-utilized or neglected.

Both these books are excellent reads, especially the authors’ descriptions of work in the field with their colleagues and collaborators. One gets a sense that there are a lot of very dedicated ecologists working to preserve biodiversity in our changing landscape and changing climate. One of the encouraging developments I have noticed is the great increase in contributions from what are now called, “citizen scientists.” People, who might once have pursued their love of plants, birds or butterflies in isolation, now contribute to both current data collection and preservation of valuable old data (Thoreau’s Journals are a prime example) through projects like iDigBio. More could be done, especially if there were a way to report and then evaluate outliers: unusual sightings, anomalous individuals and things in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where economic interests are involved, we do usually follow up, as with introduced pests, but otherwise many valuable observations in our rapidly changing environment may be written off as misidentifications or just lost. I would like to see more naturalist’s, especially our large crop of butterfly watchers learn when and how to collect proper specimens to verify their unexpected sightings. Scientific collecting is almost never a threat to populations of insects, and a specimen allows positive identification and preservation of a record in a way photographs can’t.

I would strongly recommend these two books to anyone concerned about the future of biodiversity along our Atlantic coast.

The search for Cíbola

Castañeda, Pedro de. The Journey of Coronado, with other accounts of the journey, including Jaramillo, Hernando de Alvarado and Coronado himself, translated from the Spanish by George Parker Winship. Librivox.

This was the famous expedition in search of Cíbola, the “seven cities of gold.” The search was prompted by reports from Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, when they returned to Mexico in 1535, after their eight-year odyssey from the Gulf Coast (Cabeza’s account is also available on Librivox – I may write about it later). One of his companions, the African Estevan, made it to Zuni pueblo in 1539, as part of a scouting party led by Friar Marcos de Niza. There he was killed or perhaps simply dropped out of sight. The reports of de Niza convinced Coronado and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to mount an expedition. In three years of exploring the southwest of what is now the United States, various parties of the expedition reached as far as the southern end of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and its South Rim, Zuni Pueblo, the pueblos of the Rio Grande valley, Blanco Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and the Arkansas River, east of present day Dodge City, Kansas. None of these places yielded any gold or other valuables. Either de Niza had a bad case of giving the answer wanted rather than the truth, or his zeal to spread the gospel made him try to see how far he could convince the army go among these unconverted peoples. The native communities could not even feed the expedition without being reduced to near starvation themselves. Some of the Rio Grande pueblos resisted and were overcome by force in bloody assaults. The difficulties of maintaining an army in the field in that country, with only horses and humans for transport, are hard to imagine (they did have a supply flotilla sail up the Gulf of California into the Colorado, but it could not enter the Grand Canyon, and at any rate, was much too far west to help). Once they were out on the plains, east of the Rio Grande and the mountains, they found it impossible even to keep track of where they were. Hunting parties wandered lost for days in the featureless landscape of grass and shrubs, with only the occasional river canyon as a landmark.

Castañeda gives dramatic accounts of the buffalo (which the translation renders as “cows,” presumably for the Spanish, “vacas”) and the natives who hunted them, living in tents on the open plains. His other botanical and ethnographic accounts are interesting but colored by his outlook as a Spaniard: The natives in the pueblos, camps and villages are described as to dress and customs, with frequent specifics on sexual matters, as “they do not practice sodomy,” in one place or “they are very great sodomites,” in another. One peculiar topic was the deadly poisoned arrows made by some of the natives the expedition fought with, which apparently included poison from the same plant that yields Mexican jumping-beans (Sebastiania bilocularis S. Watson, arrow poision plant, according to the USDA plants database). Even more interesting was the antidote: quinces, which Castañeda notes growing in many places the expedition passed through. The quince (genus Cydonia) is native to Asia, but could have been introduced to Mexico early in the 16th century. Northern Mexico is a minor quince producing region today, according to the Wikipedia article. Perhaps it was spread by the natives ahead of the Spanish themselves, or possibly Castañeda was just confused about the identity of a native fruit, as he seems to have been about the “cows.”

Overall, this is more of a reading for the historian or ethnographer than the naturalist. To give account of the landscape you are passing through, so that it can be recognized later, you have to be interested in more than gold.

The Librivox readers were outstanding as usual.

Birding on horseback

Florence Augusta Merriam. 1896. A-Birding on a Bronco. Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA .

This is a delightful book by a great late nineteenth to early twentieth century naturalist. Merriam was an ornithologist, author of Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. She was an organizer of several chapters of the Audubon Society.

This book, which I listened to on Librivox, is a set of notes from two visits to a ranch in Southern California in 1889 and 1894. Many of her observations are of the birds at their nests, an aspect of birding which seems to have fallen out of fashion. Today, there is much more emphasis on counting species and individuals seen and much less on the close observation of behavior. She does tend to use strongly anthropomorphic descriptions and to attribute a greater degree of self awareness to her subjects than would ever be acceptable today. Nevertheless, she is a fine observer and writer. Her descriptions of southern California as it was over a century ago, when life revolved around farming, ranching and orchards are a reminder of how much our landscapes have changed.

Reading her accounts of the numerous attempts at nesting by a wide variety of birds in the oak woodlands and chaparral, it came home to me very strongly how frequently they failed. I would guess that well under half of the nests she saw started produced fledglings. Most were destroyed by unknown agents or simply abandoned. Snakes, other birds and cats were likely culprits. Given the utter vulnerability of the eggs and hatchlings, it is almost surprising that any are successfully reared, though I know it’s been done for a hundred million years or more. A small bird’s life must be exhausting and frustrating, with no time to rest between the challenges of nest building, foraging, territorial defense and, for many, migration. Even during brooding, there must be constant vigilance. Their lives must be a near continual state of nervous excitement, ending in exhaustion.

The bronco in the title, was not, by the way, some half wild creature suitable for a rodeo but actually a couple of docile ranch ponies, well suited for a lady naturalist to wander the country. One in particular was so patient as to stand for hours while Merriam watched nests. The only danger was that they shied at snakes, if they sensed their presence. On occasion, bronco and rider went right past rattlers in the dense brush, but mostly they stayed away from likely snake habitat.

Horseback sounds like a wonderful way to watch birds; I will someday have to compare this book to Birding From a Tractor Seat by Charles T Flugum.

John Wesley Powell

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell. Revised edition, published by the Smithsonian Institution. 1895. I listened to the Librivox version, by a very able group of readers.

I remember seeing the six-cent John Wesley Powell expedition commemorative stamp, when it was issued in 1969, but I never gave it much thought, except to notice that the steersman has only part of his right arm. I had learned somewhere, sometime, that he was the leader of the first United States expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. When I came across this account in the Librivox catalog, I thought I ought to listen to it, and I’m glad I did. This is the story of an epic journey told by an extraordinary individual.

Checking Powell’s biography on Wikipedia, I learned that by the time he was 25, he had rowed the entire Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, and Des Moines Rivers and been elected to the Illinois Natural History Society. After his service in the Civil War (he lost the forearm at Shiloh) Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. Along with his students and his wife, he made an expedition to Colorado to collect geological specimens.

His expedition, ten men in four boats, left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, and reached the mouth of the Virgin River, at the lower end of the Grand Canyon on August 30, with two or three boats and six men. Three men had left to climb out of the canyon shortly before the end, because the expedition was dangerously short on food and still faced unknown risks on the river. As it happened, they were the unlucky ones: Powell later was told they were killed by Shivwits Indians, who believed they were part of a party that had  murdered some other Indians shortly before Powell’s men passed through.

Powell’s book reads like a journal and is based on the records he kept, but some later editing occurred, apparently. Whatever the case, it is a harrowing tale. One boat was wrecked early, and the rest were frequently capsized. Food was lost or spoiled by wetting, so by the end, they were in danger of running out. Many stretches had to be portaged round or the boats lowered and hauled through on ropes. That and the rowing made every day exhausting. At one point their fire spread into some driftwood and nearly incinerated them in a narrow alcove where they had camped. Powell and some of the others also made regular ascents of the canyon walls to take instrument readings, examine the landscape and scout ahead where possible. These involved rough and dangerous ascents of thousands of feet and tortuous scrambles through narrow slot canyons. This by a man with only one hand!

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the voyage was the uncertainty of what they faced ahead. Around the bends of the river, they were sometimes confronted by large falls or dangerous rapids, with little time to decide whether to go ahead and try to run them or make desperately for some safe stopping point. It seemed possible that they might meet an impassable obstacle at a point where they could not escape from the canyon. They could face a choice between starvation and near-certain drowning. Today, hundreds raft down the Grand Canyon, aided by years of experience, modern equipment and a flow now controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam. Powell’s trip was a plunge into the unkn0wn, Samuel Walter Foss’ opening lines for The Coming American “Bring me men to match my mountains,” could be applied to Powell and his crew, perhaps modified to “…men to match my canyons.”

Powell and Tau-gu, a Paiute, 1871-72

His descriptions of the geology, the river, the landscape and vegetation are vivid and sometimes enthralling. The latter part of the book describes the trip he made in 1870 and 1871 back over some of the same ground, but visiting many of the Native Americans resident in the lands north of the canyon and eastwards to the Pueblos of New Mexico. These are also fascinating. He worked for the rest of his life as a geographer, ethnologist and administrator at the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution and was a strong advocate that development in the arid western states, should be carefully limited.


Moth Lady

Moths of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Doubleday, Page and Co. 1921. I listened to the Librivox version, beautifully read by J M Smallheer.

I would not have thought that listening to a book about insects, least of all large moths, without being able to see the illustrations, could be utterly absorbing, but Gene Stratton Porter’s descriptions of the finding and rearing of some dozen species certainly is. All of them came from from around her home near the great Limberlost Swamp of northeast Indiana, found by herself, her husband and numerous friends and neighbors, some of whom went miles out of their way to bring her specimens. Besides her accounts of the finding of the adults or caterpillars and her meticulous descriptions of each species behavior and development, there are her minute descriptions of the patterns and colors of all stages, carefully based on the freshest individuals. As a photographer and painter of birds and insects in the days of black and white glass plates, she had to be a very close observer and recorder of colors, if she wanted to get good illustrations based on her photos. A look at the illustrations from the book shows that she did extremely well.Moths_of_the_Limber crop

Her life history observations, such as how hawk moth larvae pupate, burying themselves in the ground and then wriggling back to the surface, posterior end first, while still in the pupal case, so they can spread and dry their wings upon emergence, are fascinating. I like her attitude towards the published literature on moths. She mentions many famous lepidopterists (see my post from on Butterfly People from last February) has read their work, but is willing to point out the shortcomings of their accounts of the actual lives of the insects they describe and illustrate.

Her anecdotes of catching and keeping moths are delightful. Her home must have seemed like more of an insectarium at times, with moth eggs carefully marked and protected on the floors and carpets, because a gravid female escaped and could find no host plant to lay them on. The effort put into successful rearings and the failures that invariably accompany attempts with unfamiliar species must have been very demanding, and the moths were not even her chief occupation. Her novels, the most famous being A Girl of the Limberlost, 1909 and bird photography and illustration took even more time.

Even as she studied them, species like the Cecropia moth and the Polyphemus were losing out to expanding agriculture, lumbering and drainage of swamps like the Limberlost. Later would come DDT and street lights to put still more stress on their populations. Parasites introduced to control gypsy moths have added to the widespread decline, especially in the Northeast. Today, aerial images of the Limberlost show mostly agricultural fields and only a few remnant woodlands, including one small restoration site on Loblolly Creek. We can be grateful that Gene Stratton Porter left us such a beautiful record of what was there before.

Death Valley Days

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, first publication 1903 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Librivox recording of this wonderful book from the first decade of the twentieth century is a pleasure to listen to. Mary Austin’s descriptions of the desert country east of the southern Sierra Nevada are beautifully clear, evoking the harsh land, the hardy plants and animals and the various humans who live among them. My favorite was the pocket hunter, a prospector traveling with his burros and a gold pan that is cleaner than his cooking pots, and who dreams of finding a strike rich enough to allow him to set up as a middle class Londoner. Twice, he made enough to visit England, but each time he returned, with only a pair of elegant green canvas traveling bags to show for the trips. He told how once in a blinding snowstorm he sought shelter with what he thought were a flock of domestic sheep. Looking about in the morning, he saw he had slept among wild mountain bighorns. They bounded away through the drifts like God’s own flock. Breathtaking.

Whether it is the denizens of a mining town or the native Paiute, among them the blind basket weaver and the Shoshone exile medicine man, who must be killed when he can’t prevent an epidemic of pneumonia from taking away a third of the band, Austin tells the stories simply and with evident deep compassion.

She has a soft spot for the coyote, that butt of Warner Brothers cartoons, but in her view far from a fool. She gives loving descriptions of the numerous desert rodents and the jackrabbits whose tracks lead to the waterholes like the spokes of giant wheels, along with their enemies the birds of prey and the scavengers who watch all that goes on from far above, waiting for the predator’s kill or the dying gasp of the starving.

Plants get just as careful attention, some of the best botanical description I’ve read. Whether in her neighbor’s field or on the mesa, she evokes the marvels of the California desert flora with its tough shrubs and delicate ephemerals that blossom only in years when enough rain falls to waken the seeds out of dormancy.

Everything about this book makes me want to visit this land.

Thoreau’s Maine Woods

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. I listened to the excellent Librivox recording by “Expatriate.”

This is the posthumously published account of three trips Thoreau took between 1846 and 1857 to the vicinity of Mount Katahdin, all by canoe or bateau, on two of which he employed native guides. The land he saw was thinly settled, but it had already been greatly changed by cutting of the white pine and the construction of numerous dams to facilitate floating the large logs down to the sawmills. They frequently visited or slept at vacant lumber camps. The descriptions match very closely the reconstructed one I visited years ago near London, Ontario.

Thoreau was of course, an unmatched observer of nature, whose journals are still a valuable resource for modern ecologists seeking to understand the New England landscape as it existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. He gives many detailed descriptions of the landscape, from the forbidding slopes of Mount Katahdin to the falls and rapids of the Penobscot River. He gives the scientific names of the plants he saw, most of which were familiar to me, like jack pine, Pinus banksiana, and Lilium canadense. He mentions many birds, including the shelduck, which I take to mean the common merganser, Mergus merganser, the cat owl (probably the great horned owl) and bald eagles along the rivers. He has some excellent descriptions of the geology of the routes, such as Mount Kineo, in Moosehead Lake, whose flint-like rhyolite was sought by the natives for toolmaking. His accounts of the difficulties of walking along the rocky, timber strewn banks of the streams and through the boggy ground at the divide between the major drainages evoke memories of similar hikes. The photo by KD Swan, river driving in 1937 in  Kaniksu National Forest, from the US Forest Service Northern Region, gives an idea of the challenge.

Thoreau the transcendentalist’s belief in the spirit lodged in every person is evident in his narrative of these trips. Some of the best descriptive passages are of the the solitary hunters and the timber scouts, who spent months in the wilderness, searching out the uncut stands and the routes for bringing logs to the mills, or the ones engaged in piling up hay and other stores in the camps, to feed men and beasts over the winter of timber cutting. His descriptions of camping out, under simple cotton tents, next to roaring fires, cowering under veils and blankets from mosquitoes and black flies, fishing, hunting and skinning moose and dressing the huge, heavy hides are vivid. Best are his accounts of his native Penobscot guides, particularly Joe Polis, who accompanied him on the third trip to the St. John’s and Penobscot. His interest in Native American language and woodcraft is evident in his careful accounts of Joe and his ways. He gives a detailed and nuanced description of this man, who had travelled to Washington D.C. To pay his respects to Daniel Webster and who had led the pro-education faction of his village against the Catholic priest, who wanted to tear down their “liberty pole” and shut the school. This struggle included a simulated attack on the priest and his party, as they tried to lay hands on the pole, by a gang of painted, naked young men. Despite his tendency to keep his communication minimal and to refuse to answer a question more than once, Joe was a superb teller of tales. He was also a superb handler of his canoe, shooting dangerous falls and rapids, handling the heavily laden craft on stormy lakes and portaging over rough trails. Thoreau tells how Joe taught him the techniques of paddling, which sounded very similar to what I practiced when I earned canoeing merit badge. Joe Polis knew the properties of most plants, could make numerous varieties of tea from them, and yet he was not as familiar as Thoreau with the arrowheads and other flint tools that Thoreau found and showed to him. Overall, Thoreau’s portrait is of a man successfully bridging two cultures.

The Maine Woods joins books by Ruben Gold Thwaites, Mark Twain, Richard Bissel, and, continents away, Eric Newby, on my short but growing list of great river narratives. I’m about to post on a fine account of three British naturalists, Bates, Wallace and Spruce on the Amazon.

Colonial lives

Hoyt, Eric.1996. The Earth Dwellers: Adventures in the Land of the Ants. New York. Simon and Schuster. 319pp.

Excellent book about ants at La Selva, the Organization for Tropical Studies’ field station in Costa Rica, both because it describes several species of very different ants from an ant’s eye view and for the endearing descriptions of two great myrmecologists, Bill Brown and E.O. Wilson, at work together in the field. Wilson is known to almost everyone, but Brown was also one of the greatest entomologists of the last century. Their contrasting personalities make them like characters from a movie about the adventures of two mismatched buddies. I was amused and edified by Hoyt’s description of their field techniques and sometimes reckless determination in the search for the miracle ant, Thaumatomyrmex. Brown’s views on taxonomic and systematic work, described here, are worth considering, and it is also worthwhile to look up his and Wilson’s published papers. Hoyt includes interesting biographical accounts of both men and quite a lot of readable information on the biology and evolution of ants and ants’ social behavior.

Wilson, E.O. and Jose M. Gomez Duran. 2010. Kingdom of Ants. Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 96 pp.

Jose Celestino Mutis spent over forty years as a physician, botanist, linguist and priest in what is now Colombia (when he arrived from Spain in 1761, it was the New Kingdom of Granada). He began studying ants at the suggestion of Linnaeus, whose system he used in his work on plants. His detailed reports on ants are apparently lost, but this little book contains long quotes from his journals, which give accounts of his studies several species, including leaf cutter and army ants. Every aspiring naturalist should study these notes to appreciate Mutis’s clarity, perseverance and, above all, skepticism and honesty. This is best shown in the passages where he explains how he realized that the big-headed “soldier” ants were not the males, but instead, when he finally was able to observe copulation, males turned out to be the small winged individuals, who he originally took for young females, not fully grown. He expresses his gratitude to God for enabling him to correct his error and make such a wonderful discovery. In another entry, he reproaches himself for letting the press of his experiments on smelting metals in the mines cause him to forget to follow up on a potentially valuable observation. Another day, he forgets to record part of what he saw, and so with reservation, he allows himself to write it down the next day. He constantly refers to the need to check his conjectures with more observations and to try to reconfirm what others report to him. He often asks the local farmers for their views, but he never accepts them without the evidence of his own eyes. When he tries to estimate the number of army ants in a colony, he uses several independent methods of arriving at the number. As Wilson and Duran point out, about all you could wish of him is a naturalist is that he had included sketches of his ants to help modern myrmecologists identify them. They wonder why he did not do for ants what he did for plants: fit them into Linneaus’ system and have illustrations prepared. Despite owning a huge library, he was evidently not aware of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work on insects in Surinam or any published works on ants. He was quite on his own, with no prior experience and no expert to guide him when he began his work at age twenty-eight. Linnaeus had named only a handful of ants, all in one genus and with very sketchy descriptions. Although Mutis’s descriptions show him to be clear sighted, he does not attempt any sort of systematic classification of the species he encounters, based for example, on the number of petiole segments or the presence of a sting in the workers. This job was left to later workers. His greatest contributions were to the study of ants’ social behavior. He was without doubt one of the finest scientists of the 18th century. Perhaps only von Humboldt equals him as an observer. On the 200th anniversary of his death, the Colombian myrmecologist, Fernando Fernández and E.O. Wilson, named a new ant species, Pheidole mutisi (Fernández, F.; Wilson, E. O. 2008. José Celestino Mutis, the ants, and Pheidole mutisi sp. nov. Revista Colombiana de Entomología 34:203-208). 

Thanks to Wilson and Duran for making this gem available to naturalists.

Rau, Phil and Nellie Rau. 1918. Wasp Studies Afield. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 372 pp. [Dover Books reprint]

This is a fascinating early twentieth century work on solitary and social wasps. The Raus carried out their studies in the midwestern U.S. Their research covered hunting wasps with a wide range of prey. The wasps included both soil and wood nesting species in diverse habitats; one even dug in the clay infield of a baseball diamond. The Raus made detailed behavioural observations on many species and did experiments on paper wasp homing ability. They mention the drop off in aggression by paper wasps as winter approaches, all the brood matures and the workers die off and are replaced by overwintering queens. That’s just one example of many behaviors that I have noticed but not really thought about until they described it. Another good read for anyone who aspires to study insects in the field.