New Books. Nature. Spring 2019. 2

Wild Horse Country; The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang, America’s Horse by David Philipps. W.W. Norton. Philipps traces the history of the wild horse in America and the shocking future they face in our time.

How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls; Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future by David Hu. Princeton University Press. Animals move with grace, speed, and versatility. How so? They have had millions of years to perfect their movement.

Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud. Princeton University Press. Knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us a better perspective on what we consider to be a sustainable future.

Protecting Pollinators; How to Save the Creatures that Feed Our World by Jodi Helmer. Island Press, paper. There are 200,000 species of pollinators, birds, bates, insects, and others. They are threatened.

Candids of the World; Wolves, Wild Dogs, Foxes, Jackals, Coyotes, and Their Relatives by José Castelló. Princeton University Press. The world’s canids and their near relatives.

Plastic Soup; An Atlas of Ocean Pollution by Michiel Abbing. Island Press. Plastics have transformed our lives. Yet the properties that make them attractive spell disaster when they begin to amass in our seas.

Allowed to Grow Old; Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries by Isa Leshko et al. University of Chicago Press. These animals have, for the most part, been pets, not farm animals in the traditional sense.

50 Hikes in Central Florida by Sandra Friend & John Keatley. Countryman. A marvel of diversity these footpaths wonder through salt marches, river floodplains, and amongst coastal dunes and beaches.

A Florida State of Mind; An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State by James Wright. St. Martin’s Press. Brightest moments and darkest shadows of Florida’s history.

Nature’s Mutiny; How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present. The effects of this historical climate crisis on Europe.

New Titles. Nature. Spring 2019 1

The Empire of the Eagle; An Illustrated Natural History by Mike Unwin & David Tipling. Yale University Press. A celebration of the world’s 68 recognized eagle species and their considerable allure.

Ganges; The Many Pasts of an Indian River by Sudipta Sen. Yale University Press. India’s most important and sacred river. Here is an account of the communities that have arisen on its banks.

The Twice Born; Life and Death on the Ganges by Aatish Taseer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A visit to Benares to converse with Brahmins and gain some impression of their priestly business.

Spying on Whales; The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson. Viking. A deep-dive into natural history.

Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism by Hannah Holleman. Yale University Press. This economic and ecological disaster that ravaged the US southern plains. The “Dust Bowl” has become an referent when discussing climate change.

Third Thoughts by Steven Weinberg. Harvard University Press. Essayist and author of the classic The First Three Minutes. Winner of a Nobel Prize.

The Way of Coyote; Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn. University of Chicago Press. Majestic mountains! Churning oceans! Van Horn finds his nature, to roam our open spaces, landing on our window sills.

Cabbage; A Global History by Meg Muckenhoupt. Reaktown Books. Food lovers and historians who think of cabbage for their daily dose of leafy greens. Maybe not every day!

Eating NAFTA; Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico by Alyshia Gálvez. University of California Press. Paper. Mexican cuisine has emerged as globalization. The taco has claimed ground around the world. But Mexicans are eating fewer tortillas and more processed food.

The Fishmeal Revolution; The Industrialization of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem by Kristin Wintersteen. University of California Press. Paper. Off the coast of Chile and Peru, this cool current mingles with nutrients from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, fostering a productive ecosystem that supports a huge population of fish. That provides a major source of animal feed for chickens, hogs, and fish farming; that, in turn feeds us.

End of the Megafauna; The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals by Ross MacPhee & Peter Schouten, illus. W.W. Norton. What caused the disappearance of these prehistoric behemoths? The author explores the various extinction theories, weighs the evidenc, and presents his own conclusion.

American Chestnut

American Chestnut; The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel. University of California Press, 2009, paper.

Back in 1904 an urban forester noticed that American chestnuts

(Casatunea dentata) in the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo, were dying of a blight caused by a fungus. The fungus would soon spread to other chestnut trees in the city, then to the forests of the eastern United States and Appalachia. By the end of the sad story that Susan Freinkel tells, billions of trees were dead and the American chestnut was all but wiped out everywhere in its range.

 

The American chestnut had been an important species in its ecosystem, dominating the upper canopy. Never the preferred wood for the furniture and building industries, it was ‘second best’ but a good source of tannin. Its ample nut harvest was one of fall’s pleasures; we sang about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

 

Foresters were divided about how to respond to the blight. Some believed that it was hopeless to fight the fungus. Might as well harvest the trees, dead and alive. There was one brief effort to stop the blight, financed by the state of Pennsylvania, to no effect.

 

The blight fungus kills the trunks and branches of the tree; it doesn’t destroy the tree’s resilient root system. New growth sprouting from its roots will continue for years, only to be killed off by the fungus before the young trees have matured enough to reproduce. Eventually the root system wears out and the tree dies.

 

The U.S. Forest Service’s advice to take down even healthy specimens complicated, Freinkel contends, efforts to find disease-resistant trees. Individual trees with a slightly different genetic makeup might have survived and propagated. Occasionally even groves of chestnuts did survive, mostly outside the normal range of the tree.

 

There were two approaches to fighting the demise of the species; fix the tree so that it couldn’t be hurt by the fungus, or fix the fungus so that it couldn’t damage the tree. The European chestnuts were saved by the second strategy. A virus was found that sapped the fungus’s virulence. That approach was also tried here with little success. That because there are different strains of the fungus and because the fungus can develop immunity to any virus, breeders had to contend with an ever-changing target.

 

The more successful strategy in this country has been to cross the breed with the resistant Chinese chestnut. But Chinese chestnuts are short understory trees not capable of dominating the upper story of American forests. Worried about its form, American breeders backcrossed the hybrid Chinese/American Chestnut with a surviving C. dentata, and repeated the process until they had a tree that retained the resistant trait of the Chinese chestnut but now has the form of the American tree.

 

Freinkel reminds us, however, that there will be problems when reintroducing the ‘tame’ chestnut into the ‘wild.’ Our forests have had one hundred years to adjust to the demise of the chestnut. Oaks and poplars now dominate their upper canopy.

 

Freinkel also discusses an option that biotechnologists have proposed. They would alter the genetic structure of the tree by inserting a gene into chestnut embryos that will increase its resistance enough for it to survive. That scares a lot of folks, however, just like genetically-modified food crops do. A genetically modified tree would essentially be a new species, posing the problems of invasive species and genetic drift. Biogeneticists assure us that Mother Nature usually takes care of the first problem, and they deny the second.

 

Then there is the issue of the ‘wild’ to which eastern forests should be returned. A fire tolerant species, the American chestnut’s dominance was likely the result of Native Americans’ use of fire to maintain their woods.

 

The book mourns the loss of this wonderful tree. It is also an absorbing account of our continuing interaction with a much damaged forest environment.