Field Notes on Science & Nature
Edited by Michael R. Canfield
Harvard University Press: 297 pp., $27.95
This gorgeous book reproduces samples from the notebooks of 12 naturalists in all their glory, accompanied by short essays on methodology and why field notes are still so critical to the art of science. In the second half of the 20th century, E.O. Wilson writes in his introduction, great strides were made in molecular and cellular biology and "molecular biologists remained unconcerned about the higher levels of biological organization, from organism to population, ecosystem, and society." In this century, however, the pendulum is swinging back to a focus on synthesis and an understanding of diversity in ecosystems. Armed with pencil, paper, a hand lens, binoculars and "good footgear," scientists rely on field notes to connect fact to theory, data to narrative. These drawings, notes (in spectacular handwriting), photos and maps are a reminder that natural history is the root of all biology, and observation is a critical skill. George Schaller's drawings of a lion hunt in the Serengeti, Bernd Heinrich's delicate drawings of leaves, Kenn Kaufman's lists, Jonathan Kingdon's drawings of acacia trees in Kenya, Jenny Keller's spectacular drawings of moon jellies — these and others make science look not only appealing, fascinating and fun but human and creative as well.
Other Press: 338 pp., $15.95 paper
In "Galore," a glittering, fabulist tale, a whale washes up on the beach of Paradise Deep, a village in Newfoundland. Inside the whale, the villagers find, is the body of a young man who is still alive: "and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water." The miracle fades into the petty feuds of the small village — the oddly nicknamed patriarch "King-me" Sellers versus the powerful woman with the herbs and wisdom to heal most ailments, Widow Devine.
Scarcity and suspicion grow with each passing generation. Reminiscent of the work of Jean Giono, particularly "Joy of Man's Desiring," and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," "Galore" is a tale in which humans are confronted with the miraculous; some rise to the occasion, others squander the possibilities. The novel ends in the brutality of World War I, a resounding reminder of our species' fascination with power and violence.
The House in France
Alfred A. Knopf: 313 pp., $26.95
Gully Wells was born in 1951. Raised primarily by her glamorous mother and philandering Oxford philosopher stepfather in London, she spent summers in La Migoua, the family home in Provence, and her time there rose above the din and flamboyance of her childhood. An editor with Condé Nast Traveler, Wells gives us, in "The House in France," her memory of the first train ride from London, the first summer spent at La Migoua when she was 11: "The sky shone a fierce, brilliant blue; the roofs of the stone houses were faded terra-cotta; and the crumpled cubist mountains rose up in the distance in delicate shades of gray and violet." Much of the memoir involves the dazzling intelligentsia of London, New York and Paris in the 1960s, but my favorite passages are the ones that feature the house — the meals, the days at the beach, the long summer hours.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.