King SalmonAtlas of Pacific Salmon, by Xanthippe Augerot and Dana Nadle Foley, cartography by Charles Steinbeck, photography by Natalie Fobes. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2005. 151 pp., $34.95 hardcover.
Until the arrival of humans 18,000 years ago in the Northeastern Pacific Region, salmon were the most significant keystone species on land or in the water. Their influence was felt from Mexico to the Arctic and across the Bering Strait to Japan and Russia. Each year untold millions of robust adult salmon would return to their home stream to spawn and die, bequeathing the nutrients and energy they had captured during their oceanic sojourns to the land. Their rotting carcasses affected almost every living creature along the riparian margins and beyond, from caddis fly to caribou to fir tree. Indigenous coastal peoples throughout the region built their cultures and economies around salmon.
Under their watch, which lasted until about 1850, most of the ancient fish stocks survived. Since that time the industrial economies of the United States, Japan, and Russia have reduced North Pacific fish stocks to a shadow of their former abundance. In the nineteenth century, for example, the Columbia River basin welcomed about 10 to 16 million returning salmon each year; now as few as 200,000 make the hazardous journey back. Worse, at least 278 stocks are extinct and another 1,705 threatened.
However, the seven species of North Pacific salmon are astonishingly resilient, as documented by Xanthippe Augerot and a team of scientists and cartographers. In this atlas, the authors have assembled the first GIS-based analysis of what remains, what is in peril, and what causes salmon and ecosystem depletion. Included in this volume are discussions and detailed maps that span a breathtaking range of salmon-related subjects. These include salmon biology and diversity; human cultures from indigenous peoples to modern fishermen, technologies, hatcheries, and fish farms; the oceanography of the region; the past and current status of stocks; the distribution of each species and the risks it faces; and a description of the human-caused problems that have decreased salmon abundance. The authors close with a proposal to manage stocks on an ecosystem-wide level that will allow the sustainability of our species and theirs.
The only fault I found in this book is its overly modest title. It is much more than an atlas. It is a textbook, and as such it should be owned and carefully read by everyone with an interest in the web of North Pacific life.
At One With the UniverseArchives Of The Universe: A Treasury of Astronomy’s Historic Works of Discovery, edited by Marcia Bartusiak. Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2004. 695 pp., $35.00 hardcover.
Readers with a passing interest in astronomy and history probably own a few books about Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, and other titans of the field. But it would take a library’s worth of shelving to hold the full range of research that built our understanding of the universe. Fortunately, science writer Marcia Bartusiak has scoured those shelves to compile this handsome volume about the men and women who have given us our sense of cosmic place.
In a twist on the usual literary retelling of scientific advances, Bartusiak wants us to read the words of the scientists themselves. It’s a terrific idea that works beautifully. Bartusiak has pared down hundreds of selections—as well as the text of each manuscript—to fill a volume that fits easily in one hand. The well-known stories are here: Johannes Kepler’s battle to figure out the elliptical orbit of Mars; Edwin Hubble’s laborious recognition of the expanding universe; the detections of our solar system’s outermost planets and, recently, worlds around alien suns.
Beyond such landmarks, Archives of the Universe showcases works of less public renown that scientists revere as the foundations for subsequent advances. For example, spectroscopes let astronomers measure the chemical ingredients of objects in deep space, including our previously mysterious sun, in 1860. When a rocket-borne instrument saw x-rays from beyond our solar system in 1962, it opened a new window on the high-energy universe now used to probe violent galaxies and black holes. And if you’ve never known why Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams are so valuable to those who study how stars evolve, this book is a painless way to find out.
Bartusiak presents the advances in rough chronological order, for good reason. Progressions in astronomical distance are fascinating to trace, from Earth’s size to the sun’s distance, then outward to planets and stars, and finally beyond our vast Milky Way and to unimaginably remote quasars. Each leap provoked scientific tremors, if not outright upheaval. It has been difficult for humans to lose their cozy place at the center of the universal womb.
It’s illuminating to see how scientific writing has changed from decades and centuries past. Before the twentieth century, astronomers often described their work in narrative letters, delivered at meetings of peers. Needless to say, modern papers are rather more dense. Those with an aversion to math and jargon have no need to fear. Bartusiak has chosen key sections of cogent prose from each study, and she has excised equations and all but a few clear graphs. There are also nuggets of gold from creative scientists. One treatise on how stars forge the chemical elements opens with quotations from Shakespeare.
In a way, the 75 chapters in Archives of the Universe are perfect for short-attention-span reading. But it’s a timely collection as well. Today’s theological debates make it clear that the public still grapples with what science has taught us about our unremarkable sector of the endless cosmos.
Enraptured by RaptorsRaptors of California, by Hans Peeters and Pam Peeters. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2005. 305 pp., $50.00 hardcover.
It is hard to not be impressed by birds of prey. Hawks, falcons, eagles, kites, and vultures are generally large, easy to observe, and capable of astonishing displays of powerful flight. And when it comes to the study of raptors, the Bay Area is doubly blessed. Not only is this one of North America’s foremost raptor migration thoroughfares, but it is also the home of Hans and Pam Peeters, two extremely talented raptor specialists who have combined their knowledge and artistic skill to produce a delightful guide to the feathered predators of California.
This richly illustrated volume supplies both an identification guide and a comprehensive overview of raptor biology. While few people will take this book into the field to identify raptors, the detailed species accounts will serve as an important reference for birders. The authors draw upon their extensive birding background to include many observations and notes that are specific to California.
Hans Peeters is also a highly accomplished artist. His many lively illustrations combine accurate detail with a rich sense of the birds’ life. Together with a wealth of photographs, these images capture the myriad ways that raptors inhabit the landscape of California.
Piercing the FogWeather of the San Francisco Bay Region, by Harold Gilliam. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2002 (second edition). 115 pp., $24.95 hardcover.
Fog. That’s what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Bay Area weather. San Francisco is a city where dancing tendrils and smothering ceilings of the white stuff dominate local skies for months at a stretch. But fog actually has many subtle variations and is only one facet of this city’s weather. Now in its first revision since 1962, Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region goes a long way toward explaining the dynamics of these cycles.
Because the Bay Area has hundreds or even thousands of unique microclimates, it deserves a book with a high level of local detail. This text provides an excellent introduction to the topic.
The book is very strong at presenting the mechanics behind Bay Area weather and climate. For instance, wonderful maps show typical fog patterns in San Francisco and the routes by which fog flows into certain neighborhoods. Readers will understand why the fog ceiling rises on certain days, why it retreats for days at a stretch, and why it seems to favor certain parts of the city more than others. However, some prior knowledge of meteorology would be helpful; the book’s explanations of introductory principles leave the reader struggling to understand these complex topics.
Canis Lupis UnfamiliarisWild Dogs: Past and Present, by Kelly Milner Halls. Darby Creek Publishing, Plain City, OH, 2005. 61 pp., $18.95 hardcover.
Kids love dogs. Yet even the most pet-friendly child eventually takes the family dog for granted, leading to endless repetitions of the sullen mantra “I don’t want to walk the dog!” These reluctant canine caregivers should consider checking out Wild Dogs: Past and Present by Kelly Milner Halls. It just might rekindle their romantic notions of Fido.
This handsome children’s volume provides a survey of canine history, from the wild beginnings of prehistoric dogs to the mildness of modern shar-peis. Hall spends time discussing wild dogs from each continent, including the fabled gray wolf of North America, the raccoon-like tanuki of Japan, the African wild dog, and the stout bush dog of South America. Along the way, Hall peppers readers with fascinating facts about man’s best friend. Those who are curious about the origin of the werewolf myth, the source of Egyptian jackal idolatry, or the fate of the Tasmanian tiger-wolf need look no further.
The strongest suit of Wild Dogs is its vivid mix of illustrations, photographs, and maps. Many species are given glossy photo treatment alongside maps displaying the species’ distribution. Also included are side-by-side weight and size comparisons with other wild dogs, providing readers with a context for understanding the animals. Well-rendered drawings and glossy photos will engage children while the author deftly sneaks in some pertinent information on the side. After reading this book, kids will have a new appreciation for the remarkable history of the canine family—and might even clamor to prowl alongside the domesticated cousin of the wild wolf.