Spying on Whales; The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by NIck Pyenson. Viking 2018

Whales are truly the most awe-inspiring animals of our Anthropocene age. Hunted as a source of oil for lighting, whales  have, more or less, recovered from the whaling industry of the last several centuries.

Many whale species have gone extinct over the millennia. Those that have survived, Nick Pyenson argues, have evolved various characteristics that favor their survival. They have proven to be the right size to survive, neither too big nor too small. They have survived because they are one of the ocean’s greatest predators, and not picky eater. They have accommodated themselves to feeding on krill, zooplankton found on the water column. They occupy the first rung  of the ocean’s food chain. Whales have stayed global – adopting migratory behavior that provides insurance against regional calamities. And whales have acquired a resiliency by evolving a “culture” within their pod.

Whales are hardly ever seen, remaining at the bottom of the ocean for long periods of time. They are able to dive to impressive depths because they can reduce the amount of oxygen in their blood by holding their breath and thereby reducing their buoyancy.  Pyenson has obtained measurements of over 135 minutes without gulping any intake of oxygen.

Rather than teeth, many whale species have a substance called baleen, plates of bone on the upper jaw. Baleen is commonly found in land animals as well, forming hooves, feathers, claws, and finger nails. The fossil remains of whales suggest, however, that some of these species, at least, once had teeth.

Whales, like large land animals, elephants, for example, are characterized by what paleontologists call gigantism, greater size resulting from their global presence. This gigantism operates in much the same way that island environments have led to dwarfism.

Part of the reason that we don’t see a lot of the whales is because they were harvested for decades from the North Atlantic. Many of the whalers were from the Basque country of Spain and France. They mined right whales, bowhead whales, and other whale species they found along the Labrador Coast. The Basque whalers dominated the industry for five centuries. Remnants of that economy can still be seen in the abandoned warehouses in the Antarctic and lining the shore of salt-water habitats in the cold regions of the European continent.

There is good evidence from archeological sites that indigenous peoples have hunted these giant mammals for thousands of years. Fragments from New Zealand suggest a very old date for a whaling industry, one of the earliest industries known to humans. DNA bone fragments suggest that many different whale species were hunted.

The Anthropocene has, generally, not been kind to whales and whale populations. They were hunted down for their oil (blubber) that, when refined, was used for illumination. In the twentieth century alone some 325,000 blue whales were processed in whaling stations that lined Norwegian and other northern European shores. Fleets of factory ships once roamed the oceans in search of whales and whale-oil. Diesel-powered whalers have replaced the sailing ships of old. And they are much more efficient. The International Whaling Commission has attempted to regulate the industry with some success in reducing the numbers of whales that are harvested. But tourists can still view the remnants of this whaling industry on South Georgia and Antarctica.

Like horses, whales have grown larger and then smaller, at one time the size of a large domestic dog. Judging from their fossilized remains some extinct whale species once had four legs. During their sojourns on land, the whale’s closest relatives were the descendants of African hippos. Some whale species have transitioned from the sea and saltwater to fresh water habitats over the millennia.

Nick Pyenson explains that there are two hundred bones in a single whale skeleton, often scattered over the ocean floor, hence difficult to reconstruct. The best hunting for the fossil remains of these earlier whales is in Egypt.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of whale life is the whale song. Some whales use echolocation for hunting and navigation. The whale song consists of a repertoire of clicks and high-pitched sounds. The songs seem to be a unique pattern shared by “families’, or as Nick Pyenson calls them “acoustic clans.”

Whale evolution provides a fascinating example of the phenomenon of animal evolution. And the adversity caused by human interventions.


The Age of the Horse; An Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest. Grove Press, paper 2018.

The horse has been a remarkable companion throughout human history. Susanna Forest has celebrated that relationship, from the capture of wild horses on the dry Siberian landscape to the contemporary relegation of the horse to that of a pet. When the horse ran wild on that early environment, there were several horse species. The wild horses on our western plains are relatively recent, having been introduced by the Spaniards with their conquest of Mexico and Central America.

There is one species that remains a truly wild horse as opposed to domestic horses that have become wild, the Przewalski’s Horse. It was reintroduced into the steppes of Central Asia, but with little success.  The Przewalski’s Horse was last seen in the wild in 1966.

Horses also remain as a part of the sports world. That would include various forms of horse racing, including harness racing. Bull fighting is less than acceptable to many but the fancy of others. Polo is a horseback-mounted team sport and one of the world’s oldest sports. It remains a well-appreciated sport in South Asia. Riding schools and clubs are keeping Chinese horse enthusiasts in the saddle.

Horses remained an important source of military power until the mid-nineteenth century. Forrest tells us that the Germans rounded up 750,000 horses to power their invasion of Russia in June 1941– Operation Barbarossa. Those horses accompanied three million German and Allied soldiers. Barbarossa may prove to be the last horse-powered army. And certainly it involved the last cavalry charge.

For a time there was a considerable demand for horses for urban transport: First two-wheeled hansoms and then four-wheeled omnibuses. True, horse manure mixed with mud befouled our streets, but it might have been a better solution for supplying urban power than the coal- and oil-burning vehicles that replaced it.

City streets witnessed a lot of abuse of the horse. And that led to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Work remains, however.

Horsepower. The rate of power is given in terms of the horse; even steam engines, electrical motors, and automotive engines are rated in terms of a draft horse.

Horses have taken on the character of pet dogs and their numbers continue to grow. Susanna Forrest has us looking around for other instances horse survival. Circus performers, for example.

Circus horses were taught dances! But even that marginal use to entertain us has gone the way of the traveling circus. Buggy rides for tourists: Petting farms. Zoos. Clydesdales are still a part of many parades. Horses remain a prestigious animal to acquire, especially in China. Hence the world’s horse population may grow, along with the Chinese economy.  We – expensive automobiles, they – elaborately bedecked horses.

Mules and donkeys are relatives of the horse, and they held on longer in the world of advertising. Twenty mules pulled borax wagons out of the western dry lands. Borax was said to bring whiteness and color to the home washing machine. The Pony Express opened up cross-continental mail delivery. The TV show, Death Valley Days, among others kept the draft animal alive on television. And Forrest suggests that one third of the world’s beasts-of-burden are still horses.

Few of us eat horse meat and perhaps that is a major reason for the decline in numbers of horses. Probably one billion people eat horse meat. A lot of horse meat goes into the dogfood we feed to our most popular pet. Horsehair upholstery and leather belts continue. The age of the horse hangs on.

The old nag is generally “put out to pasture.” Halleluiah! The horse had not been treated well when working for mankind, so retirement is a likely improvement for our friend, the horse.

The Fiery Trail; Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. W.W. Norton. Paper.

            When Erick Foner introduces us to Abraham Lincoln, the future president is in his mid-career. He has been elected by the Illinois voters to their Lower House. In the 1840s he had served for one term as an up-and-coming Whig. Lincoln had also established himself as a successful lawyer in Springfield, the capital of Illinois. By 1860, he was in a position to seek elected office as the Senator representing his home state. At this point in our constitutional history, U.S. Senators were not elected directly by the voters, but rather by the State Senates.

            Politicians of all strips, at this point in time, needed to establish themselves in relation to the most important issue of the day, the future of slavery in the American polity. Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist. He was primarily concerned about the institution spreading into new territories that would subsequently enter the Union as slave states. That was an issue, because the land west of the Mississippi River, acquired in the Mexican War (1846-1848), was filing up with settlers.

As a result of the Missouri Compromise (1820), the question of whether slave or free was to be determined by a popular vote. The admissions were in pairs –one a “free state” paired with one ”slave.” That hadn’t worked out in recent admissions, particular Kansas. Journalists and knowable politicians talked about “bleeding Kansas.”

            Lincoln’s father and mother were from Kentucky. Their arrival in Illinois was an opportune time in terms of the economic history of Illinois. Most of the trade and immigration had been on an east to west pattern, and mostly raw cotton and other agricultural products traded for industrial goods produced in or imported into states along the Atlantic seaboard. But with the acquisition of lands on both sides of the Mississippi River, trade patterns shifted to a north-south pattern. New Orleans and Galveston became the most important ports in exporting cotton to the New England and European textile mills.

Slavery was the major labor force in the production of raw cotton. Without this “peculiar institution” to provide agricultural labor, a new supply would have to be found. Hence the labor supply remained problematic and would have to require some thought  from the state’s politicians. Lincoln had also to keep in mind the importance of the South as a market for Northern manufactures. Politicians had to seek out a solution to slavery short of interfering with that market.

            There must also be a concern for the unity of the nation, avoiding succession and civil war. Lincoln would not support any resolution that could lead to a division of the country into slave and free. Slavery, it was assumed, would eventually die a natural death. The country was changing rapidly; it would be a matter of time and eventually abolition would come as a natural resolution of the labor constraint.

            Abraham Lincoln ultimately became a political legend, and thus the students of history are particularly interested in significant events in his career, such as the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates. They brought both men to the notice of the northern states and both became figures of national prominence.   

            Those German and Irish immigrants were being utilized in the newly established mill sector in the North. That north-south dichotomy was also true of the state of Illinois, the southern part being pro-slave, the north (including the Chicago and the Great Lakes) was becoming more-and-more pro-emancipation in their political views.

            Well, what to do with Illinois’s slave population if and when it was emancipated. One resolution of that quandary was to establish colonies in Africa. They would, however, have to be supported financially by the U.S. government. The leadership of the emancipation movement pointed out, however, that former black slaves, while not necessarily equal to whites in the scheme of things, were long since not Africans, and hence colonization was not an appealing alternative for them, though Lincoln did for a time espouse that option.

            The problem of labor was already on the way to a solution, Irish and German immigrants were filling a new industrial work force. And soon southern Negroes were beginning to move north and to join that work force. Industrial labor was also – at least males – made it clear that they had political agendas that were separate from other minorities.   

            Citizenship for African-Americans was not an alternative, at least not at this time. Lincoln was never in favor of bringing about a social equality, let alone a political one.  Though five states did allow black males to vote.

            The issue of slavery was complicated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In the Dread Scott case, the Court had ruled that because the northern states had mostly ended slavery, a slave passing through those states would automatically become a free man –leaving aside whether she or he was equal in all senses of the term.

Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist, but rather, like other Illinoisans, being forced to consider alternatives. 


New Titles. People. Spring 2019

As the first people to officially convert to Christianity, Armenians commissioned and produced astonishing religious objects. This sumptuous volume depicts and contextualizes the compelling works of art that defined the rich and complicated culture of medieval Armenians.

The Man in the Glass House; Phillip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster. Little, Brown. Johnson made his mark as one of the country’s leading architects with his Glass House in New Cannan Connecticut and his controversial AT &T Building in New York City.

Moroni; The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture by Aimee Ng, et al. Scala Arts Publishing. Accompanies an exhibition at The Frick Collection this coming spring. Moroni is considered one of the great portraitists of the sixteenth-century.

Chihuly by Suzanne Rus, et al. W Books. Creations from glass from by Chihuly. He has been working in that medium for over fifty years.

Dutch Self-Portraits of the Golden Age by Ariane van Suchtelen. National Book Network. Popular genre in the seventeenth century, particularly amongst Dutch painters. 

New Titles. History. Other Lands. Spring 2019 2

Dictatorland; The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon. Head of Zeus Press. Seven kleptocratic post-colonial African leaders.

First We Take Rome; How the Populist Right Conquered Italy by David Broder. Verso. Doesn’t this seem to be a repetition of Italy in the 1930s?.

Rome; A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale. Simon & Schuster, paper. Kneale tells the story of the Eternal City through pivotal moments in this deadly history.

The Assassination; Who Killed Indira Gandhi? By Tariq Ali. Seagull Press Press, paper.  The names of the assassins are known. Certainly Sikh grievances played their part.

A Fistful of Shells; West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green. University of Chicago Press . By the decades of the “scramble for Africa” Africa had already been globally connected for centuries. Its gold had fueled the economies of Europe and the Islamic world.

England’s Other Country Men; Blackness in Tudor Society by Onyeka Nubia. Zed Books, paper. Nubia seeks to redress a racial imbalance by describing a black presence in Tudor England.

Henry VIII; And the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman. Atlantic Monthly Press. Moving from his notorious relationship with women to an analysis of the advisors and servants on whom Henry relied.

The Club; Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shared an Age by Leo Damrosch. Yale University Press. Damrosch takes on the entire intellectual milieu.

Normandy ’44 by James Holland. A careful look at D-Day: the battle of the beaches and Normandy.

Wild Bill; The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gun Fighter by Tom Clavin, St. Martin’s Press. And what followed were the many “westerns” that brought excitement to young kids.


One Long Night; A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer Little, Brown 2017

Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night, has a chapter halfway through her book called “The Architecture of Auschwitz,” and I think that a good starting point for any review of her book. The components of Auschwitz and other German camps were already in existence by the 1930s. The Germans had their own needs to house civilians temporarily in camps that would both protect them – though that was not generally the major purpose – but also utilize their labor.

In January 1942, the German bureaucrats who were responsible for devising a solution to a part of that puzzle, the “Jewish question” or Judenfrage, gathered in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. They came up with what they considered to be a ‘final’ solution Endlösung. The question of when and where to send unwanted civilians had been an issue in Germany, the British Empire, and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century. And their death had not been the most important reason for their detention.

The issue of how to treat enemy aliens during a war had been raised back in the Spanish-American War in 1898. There were, at the time, no formal detention centers, and hence no care given to their needs. During our war with Spain, it was decided to use a Naval Air Station in Cuba on Guantanamo Bay.

In the case of Guantanamo, we were concerned about health and safety, mostly. But the whole world was shocked by the British treatment and fate of a population of Dutch farmers in South Africa, the Boers, during the Boer War of 1899. The women and children had been providing support to their men folk off fighting a guerilla war against a brutal British colonial army. The facilities for their detention were inadequate, and the Brits mostly let them die of disease and hunger in poorly provisioned camps.

At the same time, Europeans were meeting at the Hague (1899, 1907) to iron out the rules of warfare including the treatment of civilians.

I don’t want to pick on Britain and the British Empire particularly, but there is the historical record. Back home when war broke out in France and Belgium in 1914, the British began collecting German civilian prisoners then living in Britain and sending them at first to a camp on the Isle of Man, then using defunct jails and a kids holiday camp. Neither had good security, so the ‘national security people’ added additional compounds surrounded by barbed wire. German POWs were also sent to Canada where they were required to perform useful labor. Hence another part of the Hague conventions and the architecture of civilian internment had been added.

There were various classifications for these prisoners: known as Nazi sympathizers, immediate internment. (The Brits were preoccupied with the possibility of espionage risks.) Another classification was just to monitor them, confiscate their cameras. They were restricted in their travel around Britain and Ireland. However, sixty-six thousand enemy aliens not considered in any way a security threat were simply required to register. Many of them were Jewish refugees who had recently arrived in family groups.  Britain was being cautious. Much the same was true of their policies in India.

Of course the Russians had always had their “gulags,” places of extreme neglect and suffering. They also were inadequate for the immediate task of housing of captured German POWs. Also, civilians caught on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution and the collectivization of rural populations were interned into labor camps.

The German involvement in camps for German and Polish Jews is too familiar to require more elaboration. But Pitzer makes the interesting point that those internment camps were generally not initially set up to exterminate unwanted populations. They came to that as European opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany and France – but also Austria and Northern Italy, multiplied and began flowing into whatever facilities were available.

The camps became specialized. Some were purely labor camps, some punishment camps for criminality, camps for women only, but some were extermination camps. All of the “architecture” of Auschwitz-Birkenau had evolved over decades of incarceration, even if their immediate function was not Jewish destruction.

Then there were the Japanese-American internees. Always suspect by Californians, they were rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent inland, 120,000 of them. Many were citizens with Japanese ancestors. And the internment was blessed by the US Supreme Court in “U.S. vs. Korematsu”, a famous case involving the constitutionality of the action.

We have caught up with the long, sordid history of concentration camps. But one final chapter “The Bastard Children of the Camps,” and Pitzer is not talking about human infants but rather the continued practice of interning civilians. Back to Guantánamo where we have housed those arrested after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And then to General Pinochet’s Chili, Kenya, Malaya, Afghanistan, and French Indo-China to look at these “bastard camps”, and also add isolation, kidnapping, interrogation, torturing, and execution, to the “architecture” already described.

At the very end, Andrea Pitzer brings up another question: what to do with the ‘bodies.’ Some German concentration camps were solidly built of brick and are still around to visit, but many are collapsing into heaps of rotting wood. Memory is often attached to physical remains – and monuments of various kinds. Will the loss of those structures also mean the demise of their remembrance?

The Balfour Declaration; The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonathan Schneer. Random House, 2010 paper.

The Balfour Declaration remains of interest to the twenty-first century because it became the agreement upon which a Palestinian homeland for European Jewry rested, “solving the Jewish problem.” The Declaration (2 November 1917) also provided safeguards for the religious rights of the existing non-Jewish inhabitants (Arabs) of Palestine, and less assuredly, the rights and political status that Jews were to enjoy in other countries.

This preoccupation with a homeland for the Jews on the part of European ruling elites has been termed Zionism. On the day that the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed, there were 300,000 Jews living in Britain.  Only 4,000 of those Jews considered themselves Zionists.

Jews had differing views about a future in their Holy Land. Many were intent upon creating settlements based on cooperative agriculture, the kibbutzim. Part of the Jewish Problem was that Jews had always been city folk, but only a relationship with the soil, it was argued, would give them a nationality.

Creating a homeland for European Jewry would also help consolidate Jewish support for the wartime alliance of Britain, France, and Russia. The Russian war effort was lagging and would soon dissolve in revolution. Jewish support for the war would be all the more important.

There was a big complication to realizing the Zionist goal: Palestine was well-occupied with Arab pastoralists and they would have to be cleared out, hopefully through land purchases. But also Palestine was part of the British Empire in the Near East. The agreement would have to be approved by the British Foreign Office.

British statesmen were making decisions on behalf of Arabs. That might not have been so bad. Except that the Europeans were suspected of maintaining, even attempting to expand their imperial reign in the post-war world at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. They, the British and French, were attempting to ensure a resolution to the Jewish problem in order to give some creditability to the question: “Why are we fighting the Great War at such a huge cost of the lives of young men?” The War was now three years old, and nothing was being decided on the Western Front.

Part of the thrust of European imperialism in the early twentieth century was the construction of railroads throughout their Empires. A railroad that would link the Near East to Europe was under construction. It would provide access to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina from Damascus. The railroad was particularly important during the Hejaz when thousands of Moslems made a pilgrimage to their holy cities.

Germany and hence its allies, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), were concerned about whether the Hejaz Railroad would lead to even greater imperial competition with an advantage to Britain and France.

The Balfour Declaration addressed many of these issues. Arthur James Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary (1916-1919) and a member of the Conservative Party was intent upon including a provision for a national homeland for European Jews but also safeguarding the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jews living in Palestine. And with British support, the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

But another party of Jews considered themselves assimilationists. Palestine was not the only homeland for Jews. Moreover Jews should not be required to settle in Palestine to acquire their rights. Nor to entangle themselves in British and French imperialism.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in the Imperial War Cabinet, became totally absorbed in fighting the war on the European fronts and little was heard about “next year in Jerusalem.” The War Cabinet, a coalition Government, promised Turks that their flag would continue to wave over the Holy Land. Whatever that meant!

Imperial objectives that had been incorporated into the Balfour Declaration remained part of the intentions of the British during the Great War. The Brits no longer had the strength they had in 1914, and the Balfour Declaration held the British war efforts together as their Imperial strength ebbed.

It became clear, however, that the homeland for European Jewry was getting in the way of the peace efforts; the Zionists were making the search for a truce more difficult. And that was particularly true once the U.S. got involved in the competition for Jewish Zionist support and the fading interest in Jewish assimilation. And ambitious politicians involved themselves in the struggle between Jewish Zionists and Assimilationists.

FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman & Allan Lichtman. Harvard University Press, 2014 paper.

There has been considerable speculation about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reluctance to deal with the refugee problem that arose in the 1930s with the triumph of the National Socialist Regime in Germany. Why did the Roosevelt Administration not do more to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe? In fact, that Administration failed to take any action that would indicate its disapproval of the Nazi Regime, at least, not until Kristallnacht in 1933. Was this due to indifference?

It must be remembered that there were huge numbers of unemployed in the U.S. at this time, and it was difficult to talk about admitting refuges that would only add to the jobless figures. As governor of New York for a term in 1928, Roosevelt had dealt with significant unemployment and not always successfully.

The authors of FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, believe that Roosevelt’s response to Adolf Hitler is better understood by dividing it into phases. Roosevelt and his Administration were initially bystanders concerned about the crisis in Europe but unwilling to get involved as suggested by their response to the MS St. Louis.

In 1939 the MS St. Louis, a luxury liner with 900 Jewish refugees on board, attempted to land its desperate passengers first in this country, then Havana. We would only admit as many refugees as the quotas from Germany and Austria-Hungary would allow. FDR worried that the admission of any additional European Jews would jeopardize support for his New Deal legislation.

We then attempted to getting around our immigrant restrictions by trying to find other opportunities and homes for Jews in other countries, and particularly Palestine. Palestine had been considered by European Zionists as the most desirable destination for Jewish refugees because they would face less Anti-Semitism there. But to promote this alternative, Roosevelt would have to gain the permission of the British. The Brits were, at this time, trying to convince the Arab world to drop their long resistance to granting permission to Jews who wished to settle in Palestine but with little success. Bought or seized from Arab pastoralists and arborists, the land would be used to establish agricultural colonies. It was argued that Jews settled in agricultural kibbutzim and following better farming practices would make more efficient use of the land than the herders and orchard keepers that were occupying this dry land.

Roosevelt became more alarmed after the Germans invaded Poland and began deporting its Jewish population. However, emigration to Palestine was not a likely solution since Polish Jews were not farmers but merchants and traders. We had hoped that Latin American countries would accommodate and make good use of those Jews who had applied for admission to the U.S.  By 1939, there was a waiting list of six thousand for American entry.

Any alternative required Roosevelt to confront Anti-Semitism in the U.S. Our ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time, Joseph Kennedy, father to a subsequent U.S. president, was a pronounced Anti-Semite, arguing that we should not allow Germany’s  “Jewish problems” to get us involved in a European war. We should stay out of the war, unless we were attacked. He and others in the Roosevelt Administration were also responding to a new and unfounded fear of foreign spies and saboteurs.

Congress responded to this pacifist sentiment by passing the Neutrality Acts of 1935-1939 banning shipments of food and war materiel to belligerents. But the Act failed to satisfy the isolationists.

The Roosevelts, Franklin joined by Eleanor, stuck to their argument that the best way to save Jewish lives was to win the war as quickly as possible. But the U.S. kept to its neutrality, unwilling to take any action that would appear otherwise. We refused the offer of exchanging trucks for Jewish lives. We refused to bomb the approaches to death camps – Auschwitz and others. We did not intervene in Adolf Eichmann’s horrendous murder of Hungarian Jewry in 1944.

By 1944 FDR was formulating the ground rules for a postwar international peace-keeping body. (Though the war had not yet been won!) He asked that nations outside of the French-British entente should have a voice. These countries demanded the creation of post-war institutions that would ensure a peaceful future.

Toward the end of FDR and the Jews, the authors ponder an important point. If the judgment of any historical period is corrected by its posterity, then it is no less true that the present has the opportunity to shape that historic past as well.

Silent Sparks; The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis. Princeton University Press, 2016.

As kids we spend evenings, gathering fireflies into jars to make lanterns. Once that wonderment was over, the jars were opened and the fireflies took off.  Depending upon the species, they tended to fly and flash differently, some close to the ground from which they had emerged so recently.

I have never seen    Sara Lewis’s Silent Sparks brings back my childhood memories of summer a firefly in my Florida backyard.

Fireflies are not flies nor bugs. But rather beetles, a very diverse family. Beetles arose some 150 million years ago and today constitute 25% of all species. The Latin names for the two species that Lewis focusses on are Photinus and Photuris. These species were described years ago by James Lloyd an entomologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida.

Lewis describes the complicated metamorphosis of fireflies (sometimes called lightening bugs or glow worms). During their lifetimes, all beetles undergo complete metamorphosis. That requires drastic changes in their physical structures and habits, and in their habitats.

In the northern latitudes they live longest – sometimes one to three years – in their larval state, where they are voracious eaters of snails and earthworms. . They are pupae for a comparatively brief period of two weeks or so, when they rearrange their bodies in metamorphosis to better survive when they emerge in their new, adult habitat – mostly on or near the ground under damp leaf mold in wooded areas or grassy meadows.

The adults exhibit what biologists call sexual dimorphism. Males and females are recognizably different as adults, easy to identify because of the differing shape of their light-producing lanterns. They emerge from metamorphosis with a much distorted male/female ratio of 218/12. That ratio results in considerable female promiscuity.  So a lof of energy must be expended by the male in his search for females of the same species with which to mate.

The males of some species have evolved an ability to synchronize their flashes. The pattern of flashes that they exhibit varies from species to species. Species notification, Sarah Lewis calls it. That would seem to violate evolutionary logic because that synchronization would seemingly be an exhibit of co-operation. Biologists have scurried to put up an explanation for this phenomenon. Lewis favors what is called the “beacon hypothesis.” Together, gathered on a blade of grass or on tree trunks, the males gradually synchronize their flashes and since their flashing patterns vary between species, their beacons better attract the attention of the females of their species, who take up perches nearby.  The females of some species assist the hunt by releasing pheromones.

Entomologists talk about the various firefly species as being reproductively isolated, i.e. they breed only with others of their same species. They are true to their own gene pool. They have species specific signals.

Lewis spends less time in describing their use of “perfumes.” Better is her description of what she calls gift-giving. These nuptial gifts are valuable when nutrients are scarce. Their examination requires a scrutiny of the interior spaces of the male reproductive glands where their sperm is wrapped into packages. Once the “bundle” reaches the female reproductive tract after mating, it is stored in a pouch and slowly digested over the next several days.

How is the male controlling his flash? Chemicals, and it is difficult to explain, the mechanism, but Lewis has it controlled by “light switches.” Here and elsewhere the author lapses into anthropomorphisms and metaphors.

Lightening bugs have numerous predators – spiders and bugs – and they arm themselves against these predators by using poisons, potent toxic steroids. Most do not eat as adults. They do have blood, which is useful for certain medical tests, and therefore they are harvested.

Females of the group, Photuris hunt, catch, and eat male lightening bugs of other groups. The females have thus become femmes fatales.

What seems to be the leading cause of the fireflies’ declining numbers in addition to the harvesting for commercial uses? Light pollution confuses the male’s flashing, so bring back the night. Yard lights: make sure they are turned off when not in use.  Land clearing destroys the habitat for the larvae. Fireflies are not good at dispersing to new habitats and so this is particularly harmful. Pesticides and fertilizer.

In the last section of Silent Sparks, Sara Lewis provides the reader with a field guide for common North American fireflies that might be found in our backyards, including range maps. Helpful, and you might want to take a trip up to the Appalachians to see many of the species.   Or, even better yet to Japan, Korea, and Malaysia to see more of those wondrous worlds.

NEW BOOKS: Conflicts of the Twentieth Century & Their Aftermaths.

We Will Not Be Silenced; The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics by William Robinso &, Maryam Griffin. AK Press, 2017 paper. Academic freedom confronts the Israel lobby in Washington, D.C.

On Antisemitism; Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine by Judith Butler. Haymarket, 2017 paper. Butler cautions that criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians should not be considered as anti-Semitism.

The Wall and the Gate; Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights by Michael Sfard. Metropolitan Books, 2017.  A farmer in the occupied West Bank asked to have a gate build through the separation wall so that he could get to his olive trees. Seemed reasonable, but that would lead a credibility to the wall which the Palestinians were denying

Anatomy of Terror; From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State by Ali Soufan. W.W. Norton, 2017. Our assassination of bin Laden was supposed to lead to the demise of radical Islamic affiliates of his al-Qaeda organization.

Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. William Morrow, 2017 Some 2000 German-speaking Jews formed into interrogation units to question German POWs. They were known as the Ritchie Boys.

The Kamikaze Hunters; Fighting for the Pacific: 1945 by Will Iredale. A new form of warfare – the suicide pilot – seems much less “foreign” to us in the twenty-first century.

The Untold Story of the Secret Capture by David Balme & Captain Peter Hore. Whittles, 2017 paper. Balme boarded a disabled German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and captured one of the greatest secrets of WWII, the code used in the Enigma German machines.

Passchendaele; The Lost Victory of World War I by Nick Lloyd. Basic. A small, insignificant Flemish village was the site of a meaningless battle in the summer of 1917 when perhaps 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned, and all buried in this small corner of Belgium.

Humanitarians at War; The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Gerald Steinacher. Oxford University Press, 2017. The Red Cross was able to maintain its neutrality during WWII, but came under much criticism for both its opposition to the Allied de-Nazification efforts after the war and then the Cold War between former allies.

Allied Intelligence Handbook to the German Army, 1939 to 1945 by Stephen Bull. What did the Allies know about the German army? What were the sources of that knowledge?

The Guardians by Susan Pederson. Oxford University Press, 2017. Ending WWI, the Paris Peace Conference agreed to preserve French, British, Belgian, and Japanese dominions while handing out Ottoman territories and German colonies as “mandates” to the war’s winners.

My Lai; Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones. Oxford University Press, 2017. The massacre of Vietnamese villagers by American troops; the massacre was suppressed, but then a confession by an American soldier.