What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.
Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.
One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.
We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction.” (p. 2)
There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!
Some encounters change the course of your life. For young American Peace Corps volunteer Jonathan C. Slaght, it was a chance sighting of a rare owl in the Russian Far East that turned him onto the path of wildlife conservation. Hidden behind the conservation plans and the data there are amazing personal stories that are not often told. Owls of the Eastern Ice is a spellbinding memoir of determination and obsession with safeguarding the future of this bird of prey that firmly hooked its talons in me and did not let go.
Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.
To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.
Extremes fascinate us: the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the tallest. Books and TV-programmes regularly scratch our itch for records, whether it is feats of engineering or biological extremes, and many sporting events revolve around humans attempting to set new records. One glance at the cover of Matthew D. LaPlante’s book Superlative and you might think that this is yet another book offering lots of gee-whiz factoids. You would also be wrong. Instead, this is an amusing and fascinating book that digs just that much deeper into the biology behind extremes, and why studying them is so worthwhile.
For all my reading of scientific books, I have a little secret (though judging by the number of books, it is actually not all that little): I am a huge fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and of books exploring his world in further detail. Despite Tolkien’s world being fictional, he populated it mostly with real plants. Retired plant systematist Walter Judd, also a huge fan, took it upon himself to write a flora with detailed species accounts of all the plants Tolkien mentions, with artist Graham Judd providing illustrations. The resulting Flora of Middle-Earth is a tastefully illustrated and botanically sound book, but who on (Middle) Earth will read this?
Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. But first, Underland.