Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-In

Hello Challengers!

How is your month of reading about Nature going? I hope you have found something good! I’ve already finished my book for the month and it was great (I’ll talk about some more at the end of the month)

If you’re still struggling to find something that fits with this month’s theme, why not try a movie? Here are a few ideas.

The Impossible starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts follows a family of four that struggle to survive after the devastating tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. Based on a true story, it is one of the most white-knuckle movies I’ve ever watched.

March of the Penguins, a documentary about the epic journey Emperor penguins take to mate and raise new chicks in one of the harshest climates on Earth – Antarctica.

Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough is a visual smorgesbord filled with stunning photgraphy and fascinating descriptions of the planet and the animals we share it with.

Wild with Reese Witherspoon. The book is better (which is almost always the case) but the advantage of a film over a book really shines with this movie because you can enjoy the stunning scenery of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Online Reading Challenge – October

Hello Fellow Challenge Readers!

It’s time for a new topic in our Online Reading Challenge! This month our focus is on: Nature! There are lots of great choices and a couple of different ways you can approach this topic – here are a few ideas.

Books from an animal’s point-of-view. These would include classics like Watership Down by Richard Adams or the more recently published The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (a book I recommend very highly).

Books about animals. From wild creatures (such as H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Life of Pi by Yann Martel) to domestic (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski or Marley and Me by John Grogan) there are a lot of titles to choose from. I love the country vet stories by James Herriot, set in the Yorkshire Dales of 1930s England.

Books about the environment. Another classic, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1962. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (although we still have a waiting list – I recommend that you read it whenever you can get a copy), which evokes the wilderness of the low country of North Carolina beautifully. For more evocative landscapes, reach for Tony Hillerman’s southwestern mysteries or Dana Stabenow’s Alaska mysteries.

Books about Man and Nature. Lots to choose from here, when man (or woman) venture out into the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild takes you along the Pacific Crest Trail, while Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder travels to the Amazon. If you’ve never read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, do yourself a favor and do so immediately (It’s very funny but will also put the fear of bears into you for good!) Jon Krakauer has two great titles that fit into this category – Into the Wild about a young man attempting to live off the land in Alaska and Into Thin Air about a doomed excursion to Mt Everest. Both are gripping and thought provoking.

I’m planning on reading Open Season by C.J. Box, the first of his Joe Pickett mysteries. They are set in the Bighorn Mountain area of Wyoming where Joe is a Game Warden. Box’s mysteries get consistently good reviews so I’m looking forward to reading this!

Now it’s your turn? What will you be reading in October?

 

 

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Guest post by Laura V.

Published 70 years ago, A Sand County Almanac was a prescient body of work for its time. Today, overlooking some dated cultural and technological references, it remains just as relevant, if not more so. Leopold was born and raised in Burlington, Iowa. The nonprofit Leopold Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, serves as headquarters for the Aldo Leopold Foundation and visitor center and marks the spot on which he died of a heart attack while fighting a wild fire in 1948.

In the first section, A Sand County Almanac is divided into months. Leopold explores the cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena surrounding his weekend home “the shack” in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, outdoor sportsman, and exquisite writer. He is a more modern version of the rugged nature writer in the vein of Emerson and Thoreau. He sometimes uses literary devices that are simple in their architecture but absolutely delightful to read. My favorite is his use of felling a seasoned dead oak as a vehicle to recount the history of the land on which his farm is situated. I also like the Odyssey parable in the second section.

The second section is entitled, “Sketches Here and There” where he talks about his travels through various states, Canada, and Mexico. The essays show his maturation into the naturalist and conservationist he became. These recollections are often sad, with his description of lost ecology when settlers colonized various locations. His writing is nonetheless a joy with his observations and musings on the local habitats.

The final section is called “The Upshot” he describes the need for an ethic toward the land that diverges from the one perpetuated for millennia, man as ruler over nature therefore he is free to use it however he pleases. He argues for a broader imagining of respect for our land that isn’t solely measured through economics.

This book is timeless and beloved among conservationists. It would have probably continued to sit on my reading wish list, however, had it had it not been for my enrollment into the Scott County Master Conservationist Program. The book was required reading and we were each given a copy. I hungrily devoured it like a banquet of both familiar and new ideologies. I just wish the agricultural community specifically and the general public as a whole would have heeded his advice.

The Master Conservationist program was an excellent course at Nahant Marsh through Iowa State University Scott County Extension. We had several exciting field trips in which we visited natural areas in and outside the Quad Cities. I learned a great deal through firsthand experience in the fields and prairies. The course included many informative readings and videos. I loved the classes and Brian Ritter, the Executive Director’s wit and humor made them even more enjoyable. It was fun to converse with like-minded individuals who were learning along with me. I encourage everyone with an interest in conservation to register for the next program in 2020!

Travel Talk – Iowa, Part 2

Hello Travel Fans!

It’s time for our next installment of travel in Iowa! This month Michelle is describing some of the beautiful, natural places to explore in Iowa – it’s not all corn fields here! Over to you Michelle.

Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University in Ames – Part of Iowa State University in Ames, Reiman Gardens is a serene space that offers 17 acres of outdoor gardens, an indoor butterfly garden, tropical plant conservatory and endless learning opportunities.  Did I forget to mention it is also the home of Elwood, the world’s largest concrete gnome?  The gardens also feature periodic exhibitions and this summer’s exhibition is “Toys & Games,” in which toys inspired by nature are sprinkled throughout the gardens.  The gardens are open daily and offer something for everyone!

Effigy Mounds near Harpers Ferry – Effigy Mounds National Monument is a perfect day trip in the far northeastern part of the state.  The free trails allows visitors to hike near the animal shaped mounds constructed during the Late Woodland Period (between 800 and 1600 years ago).  According to the National Park Service, these mounds were a regional cultural phenomenon.  Mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, deer, bison lynx and turtle abound.  Some archeologists believe the mounds were built to mark celestial events or seasonal occurrences.  Others speculate the as boundaries between or markers between groups, but it is unclear exactly what was the purpose of the Mounds.  Hiking up to the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River gives a beautiful view of the surrounding area.  Also, near Harpers Ferry are the picturesque towns of Marquette, McGregor and Pikes Pike State Park, which is also a great place to see views of the river.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is just south of Des Moines near the Colfax and Mingo exit in Prairie City.  Visit the extensive learning center and walk the number of trails that offer a variety of easy hikes.  To see the bison and elk you will drive through their habitat and be prepared to see them up close – or not, depending on the day.  Even if you do not see as many bison or elk as you would like from your car, the learning center has binoculars in order to spot the herds up close.

 

 

Makes you want to jump in your car and explore these beautiful places, doesn’t it? I especially love the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. You can almost imagine what the Great Plains must have been like before cars and wagon trains.

What about you – what’s your favorite outdoor area to visit in Iowa?

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

guest post by Laura

I will never look at trees in the same way again.

Most among us look out at a forest and see greenery. Some people may be able identify a tree species or two but most of us don’t give much thought to the beings that far outnumber humans on Earth. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben explores the intricacies of trees in a humorous and lively narrative.

It is only a surprise that trees have social structures and can care for other trees because of the way we are taught to think (or not think) about them. It makes sense. They’re living organisms like other living creatures that have evolved to survive over millennia. Why wouldn’t they be complex organisms with the capacity to interact with one another in both communal sharing and competition?

He explores how mycorrhizal fungi play important roles in soil biology and chemistry. Plants and fungi created a symbiotic relationship long ago and the details of their nutrient exchanges are cool enough alone. He also talks about the fungal strands acting like fiber optic cables to form a network not quite like James Cameron’s Avatar but amazing nonetheless.

Thanks to Wohlleben, when I see single trees of a species alone in a park or surrounded by concrete, I think “street kids” and when I look at the giant oaks in my neighborhood, I think, “It’s a family! I wonder which one’s the mother?” and “How old are they really?” I noticed the leaves of a neighborhood tree turned color in the fall on the side not exposed to a streetlight but not the other. This had escaped my notice before.

Wohlleben goes too far in anthropomorphizing trees at times. He didn’t need to do this since his subject matter and the way he relates is are compelling enough. Yes, he turned the seemingly dry subject of woody plants into a lush account of the complex inner lives of trees and along the way, we learn why this subject is important to all of us and our future.

Into the Nest by Laura Erickson & Marie Read

510EUBCeP9L__SY434_BO1,204,203,200_Back in my old second-floor apartment, I had the pleasure of hosting quite a few birds’ nests in the relative safety of the underside of my porch. Most times, I had to get on hands and knees to peer through the slats to see the hatching progress (to the parents vocal dismay). Over the years, my amateur eyes saw house finches, sparrows and robins build nests and hatch. One year, though, a creative robin couple decided to build their nest in the space between my recycling bin and the slats of the porch railing.  While I would have to forgo curbside recycling for a few weeks, I had a prime view from egg to fledge. I even set up a webcam to catch the action without disrupting the new family.

Watching the nestlings (technical term “altricial chicks”) hatch and grow gave me a great curiosity about their development. Not just how about long it would take for them grow and fly, but also, were both parents in attendance? What will happen after these giant balls of fluff leave the safety of the nest? Where is all the poop going?*

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Robin nestlings, 2011

Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds,” by Laura Erickson and Marie Read ably answers those questions and quite a bit more. Every aspect of birds’ life cycles are explained: mating, fidelity, egg production, nesting and parenting. Twenty-five familiar birds get special attention, with detailed photographs, some that literally go into the nest. American Robins are there, of course, along with Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Mourning Doves, Blue Jays and American Crows. More exotic birds (or, at least, those that most of us couldn’t easily peer into their nests) are treated with just as much detail – Red-tailed Hawks, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Herring Gulls and Great Horned Owls.

Into the Nest” is a great book for backyard birdwatchers or for anyone curious about the birds and raptors we share our yards, forests, sky, (and porches) with.

* Apparently, nestlings defecate into a “fecal sac” that is promptly removed from the nest by the adult birds. (pg. 136)

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins

beetle book“Line up every kind of plant and animal on Earth and one of every four will be a beetle.” If your reaction to this fact is an uncomfortable mix of fascination and horror, get your hands on The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins. In this fact-filled picture book (written for children, but hey, this twenty-something learned a lot reading it), there are big, beautiful illustrations of bugs: hissing cockroaches, June bugs, fireflies, dung beetles, ladybugs, and hundreds of other creepy crawlies – all of them beetles. The full-color bugs are set against ample white space and accompanied by thematically grouped facts. Small (or big!) all-black silhouettes on every page show the actual size of the beetles that have been magnified for illustrations. Staring down the five-inch mandibles of a six-spotted green tiger beetle gets a lot easier when its 3/4-inch-tall silhouette reminds you just how tiny the beast really is!

A few other great books for the budding naturalist or the latent scientist:

  • A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, an artistically illustrated look at the life cycle of a butterfly. Lots of facts and gorgeous images make this appropriate for all ages. (if you like this, look at her others: An Egg is Quiet, A Rock Is Lively, and A Seed is Sleepy)
  • Step Gently Out by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder, a poem about the beauty and variety of nature illustrated with huge, zoomed-in photos of insects and plants.
  • You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim, a rumination on the interconnectivity of nature and humanity accompanied by lovely, lighthearted illustrations.

Banned Books Week: Julie and the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

This classic children’s novel has been weathering the storm of censorship and controversy for 4 decades now. Jean Craighead George won the 1973 Newbery Medal for her novel, Julie of the Wolves, which tells the story of a Yupik Eskimo girl called Miyax (Julie to her pen pal in San Francisco) who survives alone on the Arctic tundra by communicating with a wolf pack. The outside world has wrought changes on Julie’s culture, and when she is forced to choose between an arranged marriage and a harsh, desperate flight across the wild tundra, she runs away. She eventually learns the language of the wolves and becomes a member of the pack, a process that’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.

Julie’s journey of survival and self discovery has resonated with young and old readers since its publication in the seventies, despite being challenged for including violence and being “unsuited to age group.” To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.