Natural History Books-“The Shark and the Jellyfish” and “Dawn Light”
I have loved and read natural history books since I was a small boy. In my teens, I discovered the natural history writing of the great anthropologist Loren Eiseley. His writings and outlook made a huge impression on me.
You can read some excerpts from his books at my Metta Refuge blog:
Since discovering Eiseley, I have always been on the lookout for nature writing that catches the wonder, beauty and mystery of nature and science. And that’s why I’d like to recommend two outstanding books I just finished reading: The Shark and the Jellyfish by Stephen Daubert and Dawn Light by Dianne Ackerman. Both are terrific writers, and Ackerman, who is also a poet, is especially evocative with her prose.
In The Shark and the Jellyfish, Stephen Daubert presents twenty-six nature stories that range in subject matter from the microscopic to the tectonic. Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of the animals whose lives Daubert is investigating. I think you’ll be amazed, as I was, by the fascinating and complex interactions that many creatures have with each other and their environment. I learned more new things about ecology in this book than I have in along time.
Ackerman’s Dawn Light also has good, solid science and nature writing, but her book is much more poetic than The Shark and the Jellyfish. This isn’t a criticism of the Daubert’s book, which is obviously written with a deep love and empathy for his subject. Ackerman is writing a different kind of book, and I found many of her passages very moving.
Ackerman not only speaks to the science of our world, but to our place in it and how we think and feel about nature. As one reviewer said of the book, Ackerman wants us to “slow down and pay attention” to the beauties of our natural world. She shows us that we don’t have to live in a natural park to see daily wonders. Dawn Light is a book that will make you want to slow down and pay attention to our amazing world.
To further pique your interest, here are some excerpts from both books, with some related beautiful and fascinating nature images. Enjoy! I hope you’ll give these wonderful books a try.
Excerpt from The Shark and the Jellyfish by Stephen Daubert
(This is from “Eye of the Needle”—Daubert’s discussion of dragonfly eyes and how they see. He begins by having us imagine that a dragonfly has landed on our finger as we look into its remarkable eyes.)
“The dragonfly’s eye covers most of its head with a spherical latticework of thousands of crystal facets. As you gently rotate your finger, you will see patches of color that stay centered in each of its eyes, not matter which what it turns. Though these eyes have no moving parts, two spots—one a bright highlight, the other a think, deep shadow—fixedly holds the center of their revolving orbs. These two marks travel across the compound eye, moving against the direction of their rotation, and—from your perspective—staying centered.
One of these spots, a bright glint that holds its place above the center point of each eye, is an image of the sun. It stays fixed at a constant angle of reflection. The other, a darker patch that stays positioned just below the sun glint arises from within—it is an image of the dragonfly’s retina. It is as dark as a pupil—light that falls on into that spot does not return but is absorbed and processed by the animal’s brain.
These two points—one of light, one of shadow—are constant features of the surface of the compound lens. They don’t move as the dragonfly’s head moves, giving the eyes the illusion of depth. It’s as though you were watching posts that moved more slowly than the surface because they were not on the surface, but deeper within. Yet the textured globe of those eyes is opaque, and pigmented in colors of the animal’s flanks and wings. You cannot see through it.
These biological star sapphires take longer to mature than do the eyes of most insects. Though dragonflies live only briefly as adults, their lifespan is quite long by insect standards. Season after season during the ice-free days of spring and summer, dragonfly nymphs develop underwater, stalking the streambed. The nymph may grow for up to five years before it emerges through the surface to being its week or two of adulthood. It will have snared hundreds of mosquito larvae, mosquito fish, and other prey, and will have survived a gauntlet of larger predators swimming above it on the food chain. Only rarely does one of the eggs laid by last generation survive through all those summers, finally spreading its cellophane wings to taste the air.
Looking out through those formidable eyes, the dragonfly commands a worldview we would find daunting indeed. Our brains use a different system of perspective, and we could not cope with the flood of visual information that these stream skimmers receive every moment. Dragonflies do not see the world divided into thousands of facets; their brains integrate the input from all their lenses into a seamless three-hundred-degree moving panorama. They view the day through a fish-eye lens, experiencing every direction simultaneously, constantly, continually.
They live in a vista dome stereoscopic in its depth across the midline of their sight, an IMAX presentation both front and back. On the wing, they watch the shoreline willows and horsetails approaching them, watch them accelerate to glide past when closest, and watch their profiles fall away behind—all at the same time. The scrolling tableau is anchored by twinned images of the sun, one implacably fixed against the blue sky above, the other a reflection skidding past the surface below…”
Excerpt from Dianne Ackerman’s Dawn Light
“Being in nature at dawn always comforts me. I say that as sort of shorthand, because it’s really a mental knot. I do find it comforting to be in nature. But how can you be in what you are? All of our being, juices, flesh, and spirit occur in nature; nature surrounds, permeates, effervesces in, and includes us….
In 2000, Chinese scientists unearthed a 125-million-year-old fossil of a rodent-like creature they named Eomaia scansoria, “dawn mother.” Whenever we call some a rat we’re really harking back to our earliest ancestors, tiny tree hugging placental rodents that fled from the feet and teeth of dinosaurs scurrying up any available tree.
After the dinosaurs died out, dawn mothers could safely emerge, and they thrived, in time turning into all sorts of species. We descended from those tree shrews—five-inch-long mousy little beings that weighed under a pound, used hardy claws to climb, ate insects, and were all fur and appetite.
They were the first creatures to nourish a baby inside the mother’s body, the first mammal of the sort that populates the earth today with elephants and wombats and weasels and humans.
Let others appeal to Aurora, Eos, and other goddesses when they wake. I prefer to thank the small, timid dawn mother in us all.”