BOOK OF THE MONTH – UNDER A WHITE SKY: The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert
‘I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.’ It’s a throwaway sentence, but one which neatly encapsulates the phenomenon Elizabeth Kolbert aims to portray in her fascinating new book. The context for this comment concerns the many years spent pumping water from the aquifer that feeds Devils Hole, a geothermal pool in Death Valley National Park, Nevada, during the late 1960s. Quarterly surveys are now conducted to track the health of the pupfish population, with supplementary food delivered by the National Park Service to ensure they have enough to eat. The fish even have their own US$4.5 million artificial cavern constructed from concrete and fibreglass a mile away, a pool with perfectly controlled temperature and pH levels, as a back-up to the original habitat. Such efforts might appear excessive, not to mention expensive, simply to save a species most people have never heard of. And yet the alternative – allowing the Devils Hole pupfish to fall off the face of the Earth – is arguably so much worse that it justifies such extreme actions. It’s one of many powerful stories Kolbert shares in Under a White Sky, the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller The Sixth Extinction.
TWINS: Superstitions and Marvels, Fantasies and Experiments, by William Viney
When William Viney writes about twins, he knows whereof he speaks. The author is himself a twin and his meticulously researched narrative of superstitions, fantasies and experiments reveals the ways in which twins have long fascinated us and played a part in shaping our world. Viney sets out to bust the myth, commonly reported in the media, that twinship is an unusual or rare phenomenon. The fact is that one in 30 people in Europe or the USA is likely to have a twin brother or sister.
THE WILD ISLES: An Anthology of the Best British and Irish Nature Writing, Edited by Patrick Barkham
Readers of Wild Isles might have memories stirred, vision sharpened, wonder kindled. They might also ask what the future will look like. The authors in this weighty anthology become more than the sum of their parts, marrying an appreciation of beauty and the joy of self-discovery with a recognition of ecological crisis. The outcome is an exceptional addition to any nature-or book-lover’s bookshelf.
SPEAK, OKINAWA: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina
Speak, Okinawa is a wonderful, although in many ways painful, memoir that covers a lot of ground through the telling of a very personal story. Peopled with complex, flawed characters who nonetheless have a spectacular capacity to love, it’s a reminder of the depth of all human lives. Thankfully, it isn’t all tragic. For, as Elizabeth discovers, it’s never too late to put things right, to connect to something or someone formerly pushed away.
PILGRIMAGE: Journeys of Meaning by Peter Stanford
In 2019, 347,578 people walked the requisite 100 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago to receive their pilgrim’s certificate. In the same year, 2.5 million Muslims completed the Islamic rite of Hajj with a trip to Mecca, while on the banks of the Ganges, a staggering 120 million people joined in ritual bathing as part of Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela. In short, pilgrimages are booming. Yet, globally, religious affiliation continues its free-fall. It’s that contradiction into which Peter Stanford delves for his latest book, which navigates the blurring lines between tourism and pilgrimage to explore the pull of ancient sites.
A STORY OF US: A New Look at Human Evolution, by Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson
The journey of the human race has been as much about changes in communities and culture as it has been about our physical evolution. That’s perhaps the key takeaway from the fittingly titled A Story of Us, which charts humankind’s journey back to seven million years ago. Through seven stages of human evolution we’ve morphed into the species we are today. However, while physical evolution – our switch to walking upright, larger brains, the ability to use tools – has been fundamental, without social constructs we might not have made it, let alone become the dominant species on the planet. Authors Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson show how, in the early days, group dynamics such as those needed to raise offspring helped us to survive.