This group of books from the last shelf in my great clean-out of books. Of course, it will soon be covered in books from other parts of the house, but that’s a matter for another day. I have a chance to wipe the dust off in momentary triumph and rearrange the whole bookshelf. Yeah.
The Stuff: The author writes about the die-off of Ice Age megafauna, especially the mammoths. The populations were under stress because of a warming world. Now there’s the introduction of a new predator: human beings. He uses what he calls a “time machine” to imagine traveling back in time to imagine long-gone worlds. What was the world like just before the asteroid hit and wiped out the dinosaurs?
Did any of the creatures take note of the dim celestial light growing brighter each night as the giant comet raced inward toward the sun from its deep-space birthplace? Was its ever-larger tail a distraction to the night-flying fauna of the latest Mesozoic, the insects and newly evolved birds, or the soaring pterosaurs and other saurians of the late Cretaceous? Did the head of the comet eclipse the moon in brightness as it hurled inward those last few nights of the dinosaurs? In those last days, the comet plunged sunward—and coincidentally earthward—at 25 kilometers a second, 90,000 kilometers each hour, passing inward across the moon’s orbit in its final few hours, traversing the distance from the moon to Earth in a bare 4 hours. (p.55)
Ward also tends toward the dramatic, referring to the killing of megafauna as “murder.” The book ends with a cry for the protection of biodiversity, particularly that found in the earth’s rain forests. He takes a final trip in his “time machine” to imagine a time after the burgeoning human population has all but starved itself and is recovering. Humans have survived, indeed thrived, but elephants have not.
While I enjoyed this book, the author’s penchant for the melodramatic annoyed me.
Bio: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949) is an American paleontologist and professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Sprigg Institute of Geobiology at the University of Adelaide. His books include Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History (2004), Life as We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search for (and Synthesis of) Alien Life (2005), and Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Mean for Our Future (2007).
Title: The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared
Author: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949)
First published: 1997
The Stuff: This is about “living fossils”— “small groups of animals or plants that are the only living representatives of geologically ancient categories of life.” The most famous example is perhaps the coelacanth, a fish caught in off South Africa in 1938 once thought to have been extinct for millennia. More recent DNA analysis, which Ward could not have been aware of, has shown the fish was not quite what it was believed to be.
Ward examines the stories of brachiopods, clams, nautiloids, the horseshoe crab, and various plants. He further discusses the mass extinctions of the past.
I liked this book. Ward writes with an eye for detail and a feeling for the poetic.
Bio: see The Call of Distant Mammoths
Title: On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions
Author: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949)
First published: 1992
The Stuff: “The past deserves our attention not merely for the sake of antiquarian curiosity, but because our culture and society today descend from ancient Cahokia as much as from medieval London, Renaissance Rome, and ancient Athens,” writes author Weatherford. He describes mostly in broad areas how North American society, rather than simply being European society transplanted on new soil, absorbed and exchanged cultural aspects with the people living here first. Too seldom is this acknowledged or understood.
Overall, it was an interesting read. I remember thinking when I read this that he didn’t go far enough. Since reading the book, I’ve only learned more—for example, the native contribution to American music, specifically rock and roll.
The book was published around the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the “New World.”
Bio: Jack Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist and DeWitt Wallace Professor, Emeritus Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. He began teaching anthropology in 1983. His most recent interest is in tribal peoples in Mongolia. His books include Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (1988), The History of Money (1997), and Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom (2016).
Title: Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America
Author Jack Weatherford
First published: 1991
The Stuff: The author profiles the work of two Princeton scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have been studying the finches on Daphne Major in the Galapagos Islands for twenty years. They’ve chartered population rises and falls and changes in the populations. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much, but the implication show evolution in action. The different species don’t normally interbreed but will do so in times of stress. Even minor differences in beak size can determine who can make use of food and who lives or dies. Later in the book, the author applies these findings to drug-resistant bacteria.
This was a fantastic read. It won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize.
Bio: Jonathan Weiner (b. 1953) is a science writer and professor at Columbia University, teaching science writing at the Graduate School of Journalism. His writing focuses on biology and evolution. Among his books are Planet Earth (1986), the companion book to the 1986 PBS series of the same name; Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior (1999); and Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality (2010).
Title: The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Author: Jonathan Weiner (b. 1953)
First published: 1994
The Stuff: This opens with the old saw from Harlan Ellison, who, when asked where he got his ideas, is supposed to have replied, “From Schenectady.” The author then ticks off several scholarly works he’d read on the creative process then concludes, “there always comes a point at which any attempt to explain the creative process fails.” At the same time, what he wants in this book is to take ideas and transform them into workable fiction. Not all ideas work. He also offers practical advice like keeping notebooks, reading classical mythology and newspapers, making worksheets, etc. The book is arranged in a clear outline so finding what you want is simple. It’s a Writer’s Digest publication.
Bio: Fred D. White holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has taught writing and literature to undergraduates for more than thirty-five years. He is professor of English emeritus at Santa Clara University in Northern California. Among his books are Writing Flash: How to Craft and Publish Flash Fiction for a Booming Market (2018) and Essential Muir (Revised): A Selection of John Muir’s Best (and Worst) Writings (2021).
Title: Where Do you Get Your Ideas? A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions into Narratives
Author: Fred D. White
First published: 2012