Wild Ideas: Good reads for long winter nights

Here in Virginia, the winter solstice was this Monday (Dec. 21), at 11:49 p.m. — and that means winter has officially started. Being the shortest day of the year, it also marks the return of light, but not fast enough for me. The nights will still be too long until spring for my taste, and mostly cold and silent, which gives me a bit of cabin fever, even without being snowed in, which looks less likely than last year.

To get through them, I’m determined to finally make a dent in the huge and ever-growing stack of nature and other science books that have been taunting me from my nightstand, my bookshelves and my Amazon wish list.

With or without snow, winter is a good time to catch up on reading about nature.Pam Owen
With or without snow, winter is a good time to catch up on reading about nature.

Fitting in with the season, I’m currently enjoying “Appalachian Winter” (published in 2005) by Pennsylvania nature writer Marcia Bonta. I bought this and the one on fall that are part of her series of four books about the seasons at one of my favorite bookshops for nature and science books, the Berryville Old Book Shop.

Bonta is new to me, but the flora and fauna she writes about are quite familiar, since most of these species are as common here in the Blue Ridge as they are in the mountains of Pennsylvania where she lives. The writing is good, and the winter book starts with the author recounting her following the trail of a black bear that had visited her house to learn about her ursine visitor through its tracks and other signs, and the path it took.

Ravens have captured the attention of many nature writers, including Bernd Heinrich, who wrote “Ravens in Winter” and “The Mind of a Raven.”By David Iliff. License: CC-BU-SA 3.0
Ravens have captured the attention of many nature writers, including Bernd Heinrich, who wrote “Ravens in Winter” and “The Mind of a Raven.”

Another seasonally appropriate book that I’ve been meaning to read for years is “Ravens in Winter” (published in 1989). Author Bernd Heinrich explores many of the remarkable things about ravens, including why they are “left-winged” (“sharing their food in the dead of winter,” as he puts it), why they are so clever, whether they truly have a language, and other intriguing aspects of these amazing corvids.

Heinrich followed up with the equally intriguing “Mind of the Raven” in 2009, which is on my Amazon wish list. This sequel added some of the newer research on these fascinating native birds, which I plan to write about in the near future. These birds were pretty much relegated to the higher elevations in Virginia, having been pushed there by the crows, which have the advantage of ganging up on competitors and predators (known as “mobbing”). But I’m seeing more of them down in the lower elevations of Rappahannock County recently.

I’m also enjoying reading about another equally fascinating creature in “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness,” published this year and recently acquired by the Rappahannock library. I’ve long been interested in cephalopods, but the book’s author, naturalist Sy Montgomery, shows a real and well-earned affection for these surprisingly intelligent and emotional creatures.

In meeting what is a totally alien species — classified as a mollusk (the same family as clams and snails) — and in getting to know several octopuses, each with its own distinct personality, she explores their complexity and spirit. It’s a “surreal” experience, as one of the scientists she meets describes it. Montgomery finds one octopus she meets to be “a being who doesn’t need us to bring her to completion. The wonder is that she will allow us to be part of her world.”

The more Montgomery learned, the more questions she had: “Those who work with octopuses report seeing things that, according to the way we’ve learned the world normally works, should not be happening.”

Between the subject matter and Montgomery’s deft handling of it, I’m pining to have a cephalopod wrap its exploring arms around mine, as the author experienced. Then again, I’ve always been more fascinated with nature’s “creepy crawlies” than with the glamour pusses. As Montgomery writes, “Even as a child, I had rooted for Godzilla and King Kong instead of for the people trying to kill them.”

Also in my book pile is “A World of Insects: The Harvard University Press Reader” — “an excellent introduction, published in 2012, to the study of animals that make up the greatest number of known species of organisms on Earth,” as noted biologist and social-insect expert E. O. Wilson puts it in a dust-jacket blurb.

Another purchase from the Berryville book shop that I look forward to diving into is “The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants.” While I consider learning plant taxonomy more of a necessary evil than a pleasure, Anna Pavoid, with the help of lots of historical illustrations, lured me in. Starting in ancient times, she explores the evolution of plant taxonomy and “the men who searched for the rules of nature’s game,” as the dust jacket puts it.

Shifting from the natural world to those who have a passion for studying it, I’m also eager to get into “Exuberance: The Passion for Life,” by Kay Redfield Jamison (published in 2004). An “exploration of exuberance and how it fuels our most important creative and scientific achievements,” according to the dust jacket, this book focuses on how exuberance relates “to intellectual searching, risk-taking, creativity, and survival itself.” The examples of human exuberance in the book run from noted early conservationist and writer John Muir, to Wilson Bentley and his “legendary obsession to record for posterity the beauty of snowflakes,” to DNA discoverers Watson and Crick. (Watson’s book about the discovery, “The Double Helix,” was one of my favorite reads when I was a teenager — along with anything by D. H. Lawrence.)

Published this fall and also recently acquired by the Rappahannock library is “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” about “the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the world — and in the process that created modern environmentalism,” as the dust-jacket description puts it. Knowing little about von Humboldt, I’ve added it to my list of must-reads this winter.

I wish you, my dear readers, wonderful reading this holiday season and in 2016 — and to all of nature’s fabulous creatures, peace and joy!

© 2015 Pam Owen

More on octopuses and Sy Montgomery

A giant Pacific octopus at the National Aquarium — one of the species featured in “The Soul of an Octopus.”

Octopuses are at their most interesting when they are in motion, and videos of them abound on the Internet, especially on YouTube. If you really want to fall in love with cephalopods, check out “Tiny Octopus Is So Cute Scientists Might Name It ‘Adorabilis,’ ” a blog post on the Discover Magazine website, which includes a video of this adorable little one.

Below are some of the many surprising things Montgomery discovers in entering the world of the octopus.

  • Octopuses are smart and curious. For an invertebrate, their brains are “enormous.” As Montgomery quotes one researcher as saying: “They want to know about everything around them. An invertebrate! This supposedly simple, simple animal! . . . We don’t even understand them enough to test them.”
  • Because they are smart, octopuses are easily bored. When some were tested to see if they could open boxes with locks, all learned “but even though everyone mastered the locks, on occasion each octopus, depending on personality, might employ a different strategy.” When bored, they can be “Houdini-like in their ability to escape their enclosures.”
  • Octopuses can handle multiple tasks at once — apparently with ease.
  • Octopuses are “highly individual” and “realize that humans are individuals too. They like some people; they dislike others . . . . It doesn’t take long for an octopus to figure out who his friends are.”
  • Octopuses seem to like to play, using their ability to squirt out jets of water not only for propulsion to avoid predators but to move objects around lick a cat with a ball and to douse humans they like, perhaps as a form of playful teasing.
  • “The ability of the octopuses and their kin to camouflage themselves is unmatched in both speed and diversity. . . . To blend with its surroundings, or to confuse predators or prey, an octopus can produce spots, stripes, and blotches of color . . . .”
  • On dry land, octopuses can run — “like a cat,” as one researcher who was trying to catch an escaped octopus put it — and leap off of surfaces.
  • “Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers.”
  • A single three-inch-diameter sucker (one of 1,600) of a large male giant Pacific octopus can lift 30 pounds. “An octopus’s arm muscles, by one calculation, are capable of resisting a pull one hundred times the octopus’s own weight.” This came up in several passages about octopuses embracing Montgomery and their researchers, sometimes trying to pull them into the octopuses’ tanks.
  • “Even more impressive than the octopuses’ physical strength was the force of their will, the sheer strength of each individual personality.”
  • “Three fifths of octopuses’ neurons are not in the brain but in the arms.”
  • Octopuses are short-lived, with the most long-lived species living only three to four years.
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