Duck Duck Book

59 – rats
02.5.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: science

Rats : observations on the history and habitat of the city’s most unwanted inhabitants / Robert Sullivan.
New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2004.
[MCL call number: 599.352 S951r 2004; 14 copies, no holds]

Rats are bad. They inhabit our nightmares.  In fairy tales and children’s books, rats are often cast in an evil light, in the company of wolves, crows, vultures, bears, cobras, and other scary animals.  They are night-dwellers, their teeth are sharp and nasty, they infest ships and tenements and scavenge humanity’s leavings, they’re skittery when we startle them but vicious when their backs are against a wall; they are dangerous, they’re vermin, they don’t share our interests and we cannot have any kind of meaningful communion with them.  These are the lessons of our culture.  Rats are bad.

But human culture has more than folklore, more than tradition and street smarts and history.  We have also science.  The core methodology of western science is the trajectory of hypothesis, careful observation or test, and reasoned analysis.  It is difficult to shake the fear, the nightmares, and the fairy tales about rats, but if we can do so, and follow this relaxation of basic emotional response with methodical examination, we may learn to understand rats a bit, predict their actions, appreciate their virtues, and maybe even modify our own systems to accommodate rats a bit better while still meeting our own needs.

And this is what Robert Sullivan set out to do.  He spent a year observing the rats indigenous to a particular alley in lower Manhattan at night, while during the day he researched rat biology and natural history, rats’ impact in New York and other cities, rat extermination, and other rat-related topics.  This makes for more of a history and less of a scientific study, but it is still true that Sullivan began with the premise that he should do his best to observe first, and analyze and judge second.

In the long run, the story is sadder than it is hopeful.  Reading the first few chapters, Sullivan’s observations in the alley inspired in me a respect for rats and their abilities, their strengths. Sullivan’s diary of rat observations were like those of a naturalist in the wild — careful, methodical notations of events.  He recorded patterns and attempted to identify individuals.  When the rats did something he hadn’t seen before, he considered the environment around them and looked for rationales for their behavior, all the while trying to think like a rat might — or at least trying not to think only like a human. But Sullivan’s record of his observations is only part of the book: another significant portion of the text reports Sullivan’s interviews with professional exterminators and municipal rat control authorities.  I found this depressing.  Reading Sullivan’s reports of scores of conversations with people whose careers focus on killing rats, I began to teeter between sympathy for the hapless rodents (who, after all, are nocturnal scavengers because it is their nature, not because they are actually evil or vicious or sent by an enemy to vex humans), and a sort of generalized civic interest in their eradication from cities, for the benefit of urban humanity and to create a more harmonious urban ecosystem.  Not a pleasant fence to find oneself sitting on.

Anyone fascinated, interested, or horrified by rats should find something in Sullivan’s text to pique their interest — but if you, like most people, already have a conception of rats as bad vermin, or as cuddly pets, beware that neither side wins in this narrative.  Rats are shown as fascinating, even noble wild creatures; they are also shown as dangerous pests who will bite children’s faces as they sleep.

* * *

If you are looking for an book that takes a different line about rats, a book that casts them as intelligent creatures with a meaningful social network and complex interactions with the world around them, you can hardly do better than the children’s classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien (many publishers, 1971-present).  It is the story of a widow mouse with a sick child who seeks the help of a community of super smart, super scary rats who live in a bramble bush.  Mrs. Frisby’s husband had known these rats; they had all escaped from a National Institute of Mental Health laboratory together after several years of experiments.  These experiments, and their results, are an important feature of the story — the rats and their mouse friends are bigger, stronger, smarter, and more long-lived than other rats and mice, because of their time at NIMH.  So they’re not just rats, they’re special rats.  But I’ll tell you, when I read this book as a child, I came away feeling sure that rats were more complex and admirable than I’d previously thought.  And after reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I was plenty pissed off that humans are so often too lazy to find a way to do genetic research without torturing rats and mice.


53 – bone woman
04.14.2008, 8:03 am
Filed under: science

The bone woman : a forensic anthropologist’s search for truth in the mass graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo / Clea Koff.
New York : Random House, c2004.
[MCL call number: 599.9 K78b 2004; four copies, no holds;
also in Spanish under the title El lenguaje de los huesos: S- 599.9 K78L 2004; three copies, no holds]

I have never had a serious desire to be a doctor, but I must admit that since childhood I’ve been fascinated by forensic medicine. It seems so amazing that someone with the right training and experience can cut apart a deceased person’s body, look at their insides, test their tissues and fluids, and come away several hours later with a clear idea of what exactly caused the person to die. But how much more fascinating is it that forensic anthropologists can do the same when the person’s body has been reduced, more or less, to nothing but a skeleton?

Clea Koff was a student forensic anthropologist working on her master’s degree at the University of Arizona and doing field work at the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s Office when she had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to work for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal examining the evidence in mass graves left after the Rwandan genocide. Koff jumped at the chance, and after two missions for the Tribunal in Rwanda, she joined four more in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. In each place, Koff and her colleagues worked sixty-hour or longer weeks in awkward, sometimes dangerous conditions with poor supplies and patchy institutional support, coaxing little bits of people’s stories from their bones, bodies, clothing, personal possessions, and surroundings.

The dead, their relatives, their killers, and the horrible circumstances that allow people to draw lines and rise up wholesale against their neighbors are always present in Koff’s narrative; as is Koff’s own struggle with the tension between her broad responsibility as special kind of human rights worker and her role as a scientist, a servant of truth and discovery. But in many ways it is a beautiful story, too. The search for answers is an important part of what makes us human, and Koff takes that quest seriously. She considers scientific, social, historical, philosophical, and political questions as she hones her vocation so that it will add value, satisfaction, and meaning not just to her own life, but also, at least a tiny bit, to the lives of others as well.

The Bone Woman has an appendix listing completed and commenced trials that used evidence from the missions described in the book, which is interesting but on the whole rather dry and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, there is no index, and no bibliography.

37- portland oregon weather
10.1.2006, 2:11 pm
Filed under: science

Portland, Oregon weather and climate : a historical perspective : a collection of news reports, stories, comments and analysis / by Raymond R. Hatton.
Bend, OR : Geographical Books, c2005.
[MCL call number: 551.69795 H366p 2005; two copies, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

I am sure that people discuss the weather everywhere, but sometimes it seems that in Portland, we talk about it more. In the winter we complain about the rain and the gray skies, and remark hopefully on the sun whenever it is available. In the spring, we complain about the rain and the gray skies and the mud, and wonder if it will ever get warm again. In the summer we complain about the clouds and the rain until August when there is no rain, and then we complain that it isn’t raining. In the fall, we wonder when the rain will return until it does, and then we start complaining that it is dark and damp all the time.

And then there’s the worry about climate change. Everyone says we had colder winters when they were growing up. One of my grandfathers told me stories about the Willamette River freezing so hard you could walk across it, but I’ve never seen even a little bit of ice in that river. Did it really rain on my mid-summer birthday four years out of five, in my childhood? Were there more late winter ice storms then too? If so, do these facts imply something about shifts in our local climate?

Well, weather changes over time, there is no doubt. People have been keeping track of climatic data (high and low temperatures, precipitation, etc.) in Portland since the 1870s, and Raymond Hatton brings this data together with newspaper accounts of weather events, and Portland residents’ memories of weather in past years. There is a chapter for each month, and one for each season, as well as a few introductory and final chapters explaining context, and discussing special subjects such as drought and television reporting of Portland weather. It’s not a masterful narrative, nor is it a dry recitation of facts — Portland, Oregon Weather and Climate is the kind of book that you’d really need if you were writing a scrupulously detailed historical novel set in Portland, or if your research into a specific element of Portland history necessitated your knowing more about the Vanport Flood of 1948 (“May 1948,” pages 201-205) or if it’s really true that it always rains during Rose Festival (“June,” pages 212-238). And it is fascinating for anyone who enjoys the trivia of local history.

The book suffers from the lack of an index, but the general arrangement of the chapters is fairly helpful for locating specific weather history information.

32 – long summer
04.24.2006, 5:33 pm
Filed under: science

The long summer : how climate changed civilization / Brian Fagan.
New York : Basic Books, c2004.
[MCL call number: 551.6 F151L 2004; two copies, no holds]

When I was in grade school, I was taught about the Ice Age.  I learned that the Ice Age was an era many thousands of years ago when mastodons lived in Europe and North America, and nearly the entire earth was wrapped in cold, cold, cold.  Our ancestors hunted for their living, and supplemented their diets with the few plant foods available (which were very, very few in the northern hemisphere).  After the Ice Age, things warmed up, people developed agriculture, and civilization began.

Well, like most things taught in grade school, the relationship between the development of civilizations the history of the earth’s climate is much more complex than this.  In The Long Summer, Brian Fagan begins with the premise that human innovations to survive climatic stress (such as agriculture, irrigation, cities, and large scale political alliances) have done very well for us in times of moderate climate change, but have set us up for disaster when large changes come.

For example, healthy hunter-gatherer societies employ a strategy of mobility, shifting to neighboring regions when their environment is no longer able to support them comfortably.  But people have these big brains, just waiting to be used.  In many different parts of the world, hunter-gatherer societies responded to greater-than-average climate change by cultivating plants to provide a more steady supply of food.  This move made it possible for larger groups of people to live in one place, and in turn increased food security to a degree that allowed for population growth.  When the next horrific shift in the weather came (drought, rain at the wrong season, cold weather, whatever), people weren’t able to change their strategy so nimbly as before.  In some places, the next round of innovation raised the stakes again — people developed more intense systems of agriculture with irrigation, double-cropping, and practices to increase soil fertility, all so that they would be able to feed larger populations, and even support whole classes of people who didn’t work to provide food (or who didn’t work at all).  We have, Fagan asserts, boldly undertaken innumerable further innovations that protect us in the short term, but make us ever more vulnerable to really big events of weather and climate change.  Careful attention to recent weather events makes this thesis seem very plausible.

While explaining the detail of this story of innovation and risk, Fagan takes readers through a history of how the climate has shifted colder and warmer in the northern hemisphere, and how that affected our ancestors there, always with an eye toward explaining the consequences of dry and wet periods, hot weather, winds, ocean currents, and cold, and how these phenomena have influenced vegetation, rivers and lakes, sea levels, animal populations, and people’s ability to survive in the ever changing landscape.  Fagan explains complex scientific theories smoothly, and his writing is engaging and instructive.  The Long Summer is well worth your time, especially if your understanding of the history of climate change is limited to what you learned in elementary school, as mine was when I picked up this book.

27 – nests, eggs
12.15.2005, 4:30 pm
Filed under: science

Nests, eggs, and nestlings of North American birds / Paul J. Baicich and Colin J.O. Harrison ; illustrations by Andrew Burton, Philip Burton and Terry O’Nele ; egg photographs by F. Greenaway and Clark Sumida. 
Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2005, c1997.
[MCL call number: 598.1564 B152n 2005; 18 copies, no holds]

Field guides are terribly practical when you’re out there in “the field,” trying to figure out what you’re looking at.  They’re also extremely useful for people like me who were raised in cities and who habitually pay little attention to the natural environment even here in the urban space. 

But it’s also true that they’re just interesting to look at and read.  This field guide is especially fascinating because it contains lots of information about small stuff you don’t usually see unless you’re looking for it — nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Yup, baby birds.  Gosh, they’re cute!

After some firm words to readers about the importance of respecting the autonomy and privacy of young birds and their habitat, an extensive general introduction, and a helpful key to identifying eggs, nests, nestlings and chicks, the main text of Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings provides detailed information about almost 700 bird species of North America (for the purposes of this book, “North America” means Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the continental United States).  The birds’ scientific and common names, habitat, nests and the methods they use to make them, notes on their breeding season, eggs, incubation methods and period, and descriptions of the nestlings and their habits are all included.  The book has 16 color plates of wee nestlings, and 48 of eggs, as well as hundreds of clear black-and-white drawings interspersed through the text.  A bibliography is included in the endmatter, as is an index to common and scientific names.

25 – smaller majority
10.16.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: science

The smaller majority : the hidden world of the animals that dominate the
tropics / Piotr Naskrecki.
Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.
[MCL call number: 591.70913 N254s 2005; two copies, no holds]

Again I have been lulled into reviewing a book simply because of its lovely photographs. The Smaller Majority provides a visual introduction to some of
our planet’s smaller forms of life — large enough to be photographed with a standard camera, but smaller than a human finger. Naskrecki’s photographs are in full, bursting color, accompanied by sensible captions which note where each photograph was taken. The text is intelligent, providing a brief introduction to each of the different classes of creatures and then a shorter discussion of many of the species pictured.

The Smaller Majority is largely taken up with illustrations and descriptions of insects, but there are also worms, frogs, lizards, and spiders in its pages. Some real wonders are presented — the caecilian, for example, an amphibian which is the dead spit of an earthworm, despite its having a complete skeleton and no true tail (pages 46-47). Another gem is the section of surprisingly beautiful photographs of small insects that have been killed by infestations of fungus (pages 136-37).

The book has three main sections, delineated with helpful colored tabs at the bottom of each page. Most of the book has green tabs, indicating tropical humid forests, but there are shorter sections describing the smaller life forms of savannas (orange) and deserts (gray). The main text is followed by several appendices, including one about photography, a list of resources (organizations and books), and an index to species.

20 – lost rivers of london
06.26.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: science

The lost rivers of London : a study of their effects upon London and Londoners and the effects of London and Londoners upon them / N. J. Barton.
London : Phoenix House, 1962.
[Multnomah County Library does not have this book; but its call number might begin with 551.4830942 — Rivers and streams, London]

This is a general-interest book on the topic of London’s lesser rivers and waterways — by lesser I mean smaller than the River Thames, and more likely to behave when put into a pipe. The rivers discussed in the book have more or less disappeared, and you won’t see them if you take a casual stroll around their former neighborhoods. Some are in sewers, some are in aboveground pipes, some have had their courses diverted, and some have dried up by having their water stolen upstream. It’s no surprise that there used to be lots of rivers in what is now London — it is a flat-ish place in a wet country surrounding the mouth of a major river. Water has to go somewhere, and even if it all predictably goes into the River Thames, it does have to get to the River Thames. It’s also not surprising that most of these watercourses are now buried or destroyed, since it has been a pretty major city for a thousand years. But I have to say, before I was introduced to this book it never really occurred to me to consider where all that water, and all those rivers, might have gone, in London or in any other city.

Barton acknowledges in his introduction that other writers have detailed various scientific, cultural, and public health aspects of the history of London’s rivers, but explains that he aims to provide a broader perspective. The book is awfully readable, for all its technical detail and historical miscellanea, and it is beautifully illustrated.

The contents give attention to the different watercourses separately, and then go on to discuss lost rivers that may be mythical, rivers in the context of civic development and infrastructure, industrial and recreational uses of the rivers, and finally, public health. The book has an index, and two lovely appendices: one a list of maps, and the other a bibliography of materials discussing the rivers. There is also a fold-out map showing the likely original courses of these lost waterways superimposed on a map of modern London.

You Portlanders might be interested to note that we also have many lost rivers and streams. Some of our most exciting small waterways and are still in evidence – Johnson, Tryon, and Crystal Springs Creeks, for example — but many many others have been buried in culverts or diverted. Unfortunately, I have found no narrative examination of the history Portland’s humbler waterways. Perhaps one needs to be written.

Metro (the Portland area’s regional government) has published a large map showing disappeared rivers and streams (Disappearing streams, [Portland, Or.] : Metro, [2001?]), but it doesn’t come with much explanation, and the scale is so broad that it’s a little hard to read.

n.b., The Lost Rivers of London was reprinted in a revised edition of the same title that is still in print (Historical Publications, 1992). I haven’t looked at the revised edition, and I don’t know if it includes the nice fold-out map.