Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: Three Nature Books from U. of California Press[Vol. 2, #28]

“An Abiding Love of Nature”

A Review of
Three Recent Nature Books
From the University of California Press.

 Reviewed by Chris Smith.


The Illustrated Atlas of Wildlife.
Hardback: U California Press, 2009.
Buy now:   [ Amazon ]

Exploring the Hidden Depths of the Underwater World.

Paul Rose and Anne Laking
Hardback: U California Press, 2009.
Buy now:   [ Amazon ]

Elephant Reflections.
Karl Ammann and Dale Peterson.
Hardback: U California Press, 2009.
Buy now:   [ Amazon ]

I have long thought that an education rooted in nature study would go a long way toward making us and our children love, respect and live peaceably with all God’s creation.  Anna Botsford Comstock makes this point well in the introduction to her classic work, Handbook of Nature Study:

Nature-study cultivates in the child a love of the beautiful; it brings to him early a perception of color, form and music.  He sees whatever there is in his environment, whether it be the thunder-head piled up in the western sky, or the golden flash of the oriole in the elm … Also, what there is of sound, he hears; he reads the music score of the bird orchestra, separating each part and knowing which bird sings it.  And the patter of the rain, the gurgle of the brook, the sighing of the wind in the pine, he notes and loves and becomes enriched thereby.  But, more than all, nature-study gives the child a sense of companionship with life out-of-doors and an abiding love of nature.

Comstock goes on to note that nature study begins in our observation of and engagement with our environment that is immediately at hand around us.  Eventually, however, in the course of nature study, we begin to learn about plants, animals and habitats in other places around the globe.  Toward this end, the University of California Press has recently published three excellent books, which would fit well within a course of – formal or informal – nature study.  The first of these books is a fabulous reference book about the animal kingdom, The Illustrated Atlas of Wildlife.  This book is filled with vibrant color photography, useful illustrations and maps, and it begins with an introductory section on the “Living Earth,” which provides a framework for the remainder of the book.  In addition to overviewing vital topics like the ecological balance needed in a place, threats to animal life and conservation, this introduction also briefly surveys the basic types of habitats around the earth: forests, grasslands, dry and desert places, frozen and aquatic habitats.  The remainder of the book is divided into eight sections representing basically the seven continents (although Australia is expanded to include all of Australasia and Oceania and Antarctica to include both polar regions) and one section on all the oceans.  These eight sections are broken down into a total of 57 regions which covers the vast majority of the earth’s surface, land or sea.  In a two page spread, the topography, climate and animals of a particular region are presented in clear, simple and memorable ways using both textual and visual media.  Interspersed among the regional descriptions are “special features” on a particular native plant or animal species.  For instance, in the North America section, there are such special features on caribou, the gray wolf, prairie dogs, sagebrush, saguaro cacti, oak forests, forest salamanders and bird migration.  Of course, I had to pay particular attention to the book’s description of the region in which Indianapolis, my home, is situated: the “Eastern Deciduous Forest and the Appalachians.”  Prominent in the book’s description were common animals such as the cardinal, the raccoon, the chipmunk and the skunk, as well as lesser known regional natives such as the black bear, the bobcat and the flying squirrel.  I was even pleasantly surprised to find a small graph depicting the typical temperature and rainfall for Indianapolis (apparently as representative of the whole region)!  This is an amazing and useful book, and is the sort of book that would work wonderfully in the home, school or church context to introduce children (and even small children) to the basic regional eco-systems around the globe.  I look forward to sharing it with my own children!

    A second recent nature book from the University of California Press, is Oceans: Exploring the Hidden Depths of the Underwater World by Paul Rose and Anne Laking, which likewise is a reference book that introduces – with a greater level of detail – Earth’s ocean habitats.  In a similar structure to the above atlas, this book surveys seven key bodies of water: the Atlantic, Indian and Arctic Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, the “Southern” ocean and the lesser-known Red Sea and the Sea of Cortez (nestled between the mainland of northwestern Mexico and the Baja California).  Of course, Earth’s largest ocean, the Pacific, is notably absent from this list.  However, the introduction explains that although the book’s sections are titled to describe vast aquatic regions, the authors’ research was focused on relatively small sectors of each region (as described in maps on pages 18-19).  Although there are many excellent underwater photographs here (some filling a full page or even a two-page layout), this book is primarily textual, describing the authors’ explorations in each of these regions, and as such, it would be better suited for reference use in nature study with older children or adults.  However, children of all ages will undoubtedly be enthralled by the photography capturing scenes of life in the underwater world.

    The third, and perhaps most beautiful, of the three nature books is entitled Elephant Reflections.  Unlike the previous two books, it is not primarily a reference book, but rather is best described as a work of art, a passionate engagement in photographs and words with Earth’s largest land mammal.  The book is composed primarily of elegant photographs by Karl Ammann, capturing elephant life from a host of angles.  These photographs are organized in groups by either aesthetics (textures, colors, portraits, perspectives – i.e., the elephant in the landscape) or by facets of their life (beginnings, behaviors, associations, passages).  The photography is stunning, capturing a broad swath of elephant life from nursing and attachment practices to eating, bathing, mating, and playing. Ammann’s amazing work here clearly flows from a deep love for and attentiveness to the creature.  Throughout the course of the book, the photos are presented without the distraction of text; however, in an appendix, the photos are presented again as thumbnails with brief captions that set them in a context. Supplementing the pictures, and included as a second section in the volume are two lengthy essays on the elephant.  The first and longer essay “Reflections on Elephants” is by Dale Peterson and paralleling Ammann’s photography demonstrates a deep love for the elephant.  The second essay by the photographer Ammann, is a plea for the continued conservation of elephant life entitled “Is the Ivory Debate Missing the Point?”  The question posed in the title reflects Ammann’s observations that African elephants are increasingly being poached for meat, instead of ivory as they had been in decades past.  Elephant Reflections is a spectacular book, both in the beauty of its content and in the very specific love and dedication to a creature out of which it was born.  This sort of love is a naturalist’s greatest asset and it is my hope that this fine book would spur a new wave of deep and focused love for other creatures and/or places in creation.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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