Road Ecology, Birding on Borrowed Time, and more . . .
The communities of plants and animals that make their home along the margins of highways form one of the most observed but least noticed ecosystems. Millions of us drive right through the middle of these communities every day, but generally we pay scant attention unless a deer darts out of the woods. The roadside biota now get some scholarly scrutiny in Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Island Press, $55 cloth, $27.50 paper). The volume is a collaboration of 14 authors (four transportation specialists, nine ecologists and a hydrologist) brought together by Richard T. T. Forman and Daniel Sperling. The group met twice during the preparation of the book, but this is not the proceedings of a conference, and the chapters are not attributed to individual authors. The book begins with a discussion of the roads themselves—their construction, their geometry and how best to make them suit the landscape—and then turns to vegetation and wildlife. For forests, a road represents a permanently maintained break in the canopy, where the process of succession is arrested. For many animals, a road has topological significance, dividing a territory into two isolated pieces. (Right, the Trans-Canada Highway bisects Banff National Park.) This schism can be just as important for animal populations as for an urban neighborhood cleaved by an expressway. (There is a fascinating history of censuses of road kills.) Later chapters take up the effects of roads and vehicles on air and water, and consider strategies for coexistence. There's much here to be on the lookout for when you're next stuck in the bumper-to-bumper.—B.H.
At her death in 1999, Phoebe Snetsinger held the world record for bird sightings—more than 8,400 species. In her posthumous memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time (The American Birding Association, $19.95), she draws the reader into her passion for birding, which she took up at age 34, when she was already a wife and the mother of four children. The sighting of a Blackburnian warbler through a neighbor's binoculars in May 1965 triggered what proved to be an all-consuming obsession.
In 1981 Snetsinger was diagnosed with metastatic malignant melanoma, which she interpreted as a death sentence. Believing the end was near, she began to bird with extra passion. She did nearly die during a birding trip to Papua New Guinea in 1986, when she was gang-raped by five men with machetes. Realizing that violence could have befallen her anywhere, even at home in the United States, she continued to bird in exotic locations, with the attitude that now she "had a few stories to tell." Ultimately she died in a bus crash en route to a birding site in Madagascar, where she had planned to search for Appert's greenbul; she was killed instantly, binoculars in hand.
Two of Snetsinger's "life birds" are shown: No. 8,000, a rufous-necked wood-rail of Mexico (left); and her last new bird, a red-shouldered vanga of Madagascar (right).—M.S.
Whenever I get a new word-processing program, I immediately disable the automatic formatting features. So does Herbert L. Hirsch, whose paperback guide to Essential Communication Strategies for Scientists, Engineers, and Technology Professionals (2nd ed., IEEE Press, $24.95 paper) cheerily demystifies technical writing and presentation. Turning off the auto-bullets and grammar prompts is part of his common-sense approach to producing good words and pictures. "Stay in charge of your writing," he urges.
Once you're out of the blocks, a more comprehensive manual can help you clear the hurdles of publishing, proposal-writing and presentation with style. Fortunately Scott L. Montgomery's The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science (University of Chicago Press, $40 cloth, $15 paper) has arrived. Montgomery, a geologist and historian, would have an author craft an article in an hourglass shape—broad introduction, details, sweeping conclusion—and compose musical variations to create the hourglass effect within sections: allegro, then largo, finally adagio. He has a distinctive take on contemporary issues ranging from "authorial hitchhikers" to e-mail etiquette to, well, book reviews, the most effective of which he says display "a very tight-knit, even rigorous structure." Full stop.—R.R.
Gray matter isn't the only thing that matters in Paul Broks's essays on the mind-brain dichotomy in Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology (Atlantic Monthly, $24). Broks, who is a gifted writer as well as a neuropsychologist, bears comparison with such accomplished physician-authors as Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande. This debut collection incorporates case histories into a very personal account of the murky relationship between the brain's biology and the consciousness it generates.
"We build a story of ourselves," Broks writes, "from the raw materials of language, memory, and experience." Into the Silent Land builds its own complex narrative from Broks's dreams and memories, fictional dialogues, and historical discussions. Included are references to Einstein's brain, the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination and an interesting description of the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson's dreams and his fiction. Broks displays skill at combining disparate elements such as these, and a variety of writing styles and ideas, into a surprisingly satisfying narrative. But he also relies on readers to make important connections for themselves. After all, he knows they have minds of their own.—F.D.
Charles Darwin spent a lot of time at his Down House estate strolling along its famous Sandwalk path. But whether he ever spoke to the mites living in his eyebrows during these walks is best left to the imagination—in particular, Jay Hosler's imagination.
Hosler, an assistant professor of biology at Juniata College, chronicles the discussions between Darwin and a follicle mite named Mara in his five-part comic book series The Sandwalk Adventures (Active Synapse, $20 paper). Slapstick comedy, history, evolutionary biology and family values among mites and men drive the tale and demonstrate Hosler's own creative evolution since his 2000 comic account of a bee's life in Clan Apis.
Some of the illustrations and page layouts are rather plain compared with the work of other comic-book artists. But Hosler adds insight and educational value to his work in a detailed bibliography (which cites Janet Browne, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr and Jonathan Weiner, among others) and 24 pages of notes discussing the historical basis for his tale. This Sandwalk is worth traipsing.
More information about Hosler's comics and research is available at www.jayhosler.com.—F.D.
Perish the thought that the United States would ever have to use its nuclear arsenal. And indeed most of us do just that—remove all thoughts of the ghastly possibility from our minds. But grappling with the reality of all the nuclear bombs out there is just what photographer Paul Shambroom wants us to do. His Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War (Johns Hopkins University Press, $34.95) presents 83 of the photos he took while visiting various nuclear-weapons installations around the country. This proved no small feat, given the bureaucratic hurdles he needed to overcome in obtaining permission. Some of his images evoke awe, showing that he has a good sense of the magnitude of the enterprise he is trying to document. Others are just plain funny, demonstrating that he also has a good sense of humor. For example, he not only presents a moody photograph of the entrance to the NORAD's underground Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, he also provides a shot from the chapel there—the "Mountain Prayer Room"—featuring a placard that reads, "TAKE TIME TO PRAY." His notes are illuminating. Who knew, for example, that the short-lived Safeguard antiballistic missile system (part of which is shown above) cost one-fourth as much as the entire Apollo program? A casual reader, however, might miss these nuggets, which are buried at the back of the book.—D.A.S.
T he Art of Being a Lion (Friedman/Fairfax, $24.95) is filled with magnificent photographs of African lions (Panthera leo) in all their majesty. Authors Christine and Michel Denis-Huot, who also took the pictures, have spent much of the last 18 years in East Africa chronicling the region's wild animal inhabitants. With 220 oversize color pages, the book is pleasantly hefty, and more treat than treatise. An interesting introduction by Gianni Guadalupi describes the lion's place in myth and history; the images that richly illustrate his survey trace Western and Near Eastern leonine traditions from ancient Ur and Tanis to the early 20th century. Following this are chapters that discuss habitat, anatomy, prides, sexuality, the development of cubs and hunting. The writing is mostly light and engaging; large portions are narrated in the first person and the present tense, giving the context for the behavior depicted in the photos. Although the text occasionally takes on a breathless quality and ranges in tone from operatic to didactic, on the whole it's a welcome accompaniment to the feast of images.—C.B.
Nicholas Bakalar's Where the Germs Are: A Scientific Safari (Wiley $24.95) probes the ways we pick up harmful pathogens and offers various helpful suggestions for how we can avoid them. Bakalar discusses everything from using public bathrooms to vacationing on cruise ships, and in so doing documents methods of disease transmission that range from mundane (he got it from another kid at day care) to truly bizarre (she caught it from the aquarium water). He colors his text with fascinating stories of the epidemiological sleuthing that uncovered the routes of transmission that brought about various outbreaks. In the end, Bakalar exonerates some of the ways people think they are exposed to disease, such as breathing stale air during jet travel or visiting a tattoo parlor, but he also implicates many everyday activities that most of us thought safe—visiting public swimming pools or upscale restaurants, for example. So even as he admonishes readers not to "let fear of contagion interfere with the normal pursuit of everyday social interactions," he leads them to think like Howard Hughes. And by frequently using well-documented incidents without ever offering the perspective of a global risk analysis, Bakalar risks fanning the flames of such neuroses.—D.A.S.
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