In terms of full disclosure, I'm an author/contributor in this book. So it gets five stars from me, not only out of self-promotion but 'cause it contaIn terms of full disclosure, I'm an author/contributor in this book. So it gets five stars from me, not only out of self-promotion but 'cause it contains some very good work. Also, my experience with Jennifer herself leads me to believe that she's a rarity - a writer and a (gasp!) fair editor....more
I make a habit of giving 5 stars to any book to which I've contributed, but this one deserves it beyond any need for self-promotion on my part. As mucI make a habit of giving 5 stars to any book to which I've contributed, but this one deserves it beyond any need for self-promotion on my part. As much as I may be loathe to admit it, there are much better writers than myself featured in this anthology and I encourage everyone to explore the stories. Bona Fide Books has succeeded in bringing together what may seem like an eclectic bunch of tales; but in that variety lies the strength of the book. The stories represent the wide, and very real, spectrum of lives present behind the scenes in the National Park system: there are Alaska backcountry adventures and sagas of slinging greasy fast food in the Yosemite Valley. We meet hermits and introverts, wild country poets, memorable visitors and the always-present pothead and alcohol-soaked contingent. If the millions of seasonal park visitors ever turn away from their screaming kids, campground WiFi and razor-narrow 'vacation schedules', they now know what to look for....more
My one-line rundown: the honest story of a young teacher about his experiences in a harsh and sometimes unwelcoming place.
I had some powerful flashbacMy one-line rundown: the honest story of a young teacher about his experiences in a harsh and sometimes unwelcoming place.
I had some powerful flashbacks while reading Caswell's story. I don't teach, but I've spent many years traveling as he did (though not quite so internationally) and perhaps inevitably struggling with the same internal issues. He wrote at one point about fear of his truck breaking down, admitting that it was his freedom, his mobility and his independence. He went so far as to say, in that way, that his beat-up little truck was his life. It hit me that during the same time (~1995) he was thinking that way in New Mexico, I was experiencing the same thing in Oregon, California or Nevada. I unexpectedly still suffer the same fear right now as a foreigner in Canada.
Caswell struggled with his perceptions of himself and I understand that as well. Moving from place to place can easily become a way of life: it can be seductive, especially when you're young and invulnerable and when the world still seems so freaking big. Things get too hard? Leave. Things get too complicated? Move on. The road will lead you to a new landscape and a new life. In that context, motion is not so much a physical characteristic as a psychological one. I give him credit for facing the reality that you can't outrun yourself at a much younger age than I did.
I was disappointed in some of his choices, most of all in the lack of cultural preparation on his part. Then again, it didn't seem to be a priority on anyone's part to sit down and tell young teachers important things about the world they were entering. As Caswell realized, Japan is much less a foreign culture than is a Navajo rez. I wondered if his reception would have been different if he'd expressed more interest in learning about the Navajo. Maybe, as Rex Jim Lee expressed in the afterword, but maybe not.
He did learn about Navajo country, whether he liked it or not. Caswell admitted that his world-traveling experiences had not prepared him for what he saw as a failure of the American dream. On the reservation was the poverty, drugs, alcoholism, and hopelessness that he thought only dwelt in far away places.
Overall, though, I reiterate that Caswell was fair and honest. He made it clear when speaking about Navajo people that these were based on his experience and not some greater comment about a large, complex society. He knew he was was not a cultural observer, an anthropologist, an ethnographer or even an 'expert'. He made no prescriptions for how they should behave. In that way, he avoided a temptation that many other writers have been unable to resist.
He recounted the good and the bad, talked about his own mistakes and explored the less-than-glamorous facts of desert reservation life. He experienced confusion about the people around him, their culture and himself in a achingly beautiful and painfully harsh landscape. It is a testament to his storytelling that I miss the visceral sensations of those days even as I recognize them as a unsustainable lifestyle....more
My one-line rundown: anyone who thinks the scientific process is a dry affair, barren of drama, silliness, oddity or personality, should read this booMy one-line rundown: anyone who thinks the scientific process is a dry affair, barren of drama, silliness, oddity or personality, should read this book.
I started trying to keep up with the great quotes from this book, but eventually gave up; there are too many. Take the opening salvo of the first chapter: 'I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.' Or Watson's contention, as a 24 year-old graduate student, that 'in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.'
Watson details a number of ridiculous sub-plots throughout the book, including forays into the sex life of bacteria, his attempt to set his sister up with Maurice Wilkins (to both keep her away from some 'mental defectives' and secure himself a direct line to Maurice's X-ray work on DNA), and deals made with disinterested lab supervisors which made it possible for him to live and work outside the institution required by his fellowship. Add I love the idea of cutting edge 1950s biochemistry revolving around people manipulating plaster-and-wire models.
I have utterly no interest in biochemistry generally, and even less in trying to understand the specific details of the X-ray crystallography technology from a half-century ago. I just enjoyed reading Watson's sardonic references to 'dressing for dinner', girls, and the necessity of growing his hair into a wild mop to avoid being mistaken for those other local Americans - Air Force personnel. It helps me remember that, while this discovery was arguably the most important contribution to genetics since Mendel, the scientific endeavor is rarely if ever free from that entertaining and most fallible entity: humanity....more
My one-phrase rundown: Trying to make geological, archeological, or paleontological work sound exciting is very difficult.
To be fair, these scientifiMy one-phrase rundown: Trying to make geological, archeological, or paleontological work sound exciting is very difficult.
To be fair, these scientific pursuits can really be very exciting, as I remember from a time in my life when I almost gave up biology for paleontology. The quintessentially American exploits of Marsh and Cope are an instructive example. Imagine, if you can, a combination of old-west dinosaur hunting, academic spy intrigue, and a circus of publicity hounds worthy of any modern reality TV show. Likewise, Jack Horner’s tales about the discovery of Maiasaura’s nesting behavior and the changing face of T. rex are also excellent reading, though without the Barnum and Bailey-style hijinks. And face it folks, without paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews there would be no Indiana Jones.
We should all recognize that, much like pro baseball and football players, anyone who gets to work with dinosaurs is living the life countless kids dream of. But there is the reality that this work takes place in two spheres: the lab and the field. The Field = months of digging. And brushing. And digging. And scraping with dental implements. The Lab = months of more scraping with really expensive dental implements. It’s hard to glamorize this stuff.
Unfortunately for this book, the same goes for the mental exercises it requires for a group of dyed-in-the-wool academics under the leadership of Smith, including a PhD student with an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaur systematics and a visionary geologist with insomnia to collectively understand the importance of not only the fossils that the group found, but why they found them.
Overall, I congratulate the crew and celebrate their contributions. The story itself, though, suffers in the telling. The mystery of the missing sand? Geological noncomformity? Flaser bedding? Fossilized mangrove plants which would appear to the uninformed as xeriphiles? These things even bored me, and I kinda like this stuff!
The inclusion of Stromer’s detailed Egyptian itineraries are of debatable value. However, describing Stromer’s (honorably) aristocratic resistance against Nazi Germany, the RAF’s trial-and-error development of low-level bombing techniques, and the rivalry between British officers involved in the bombing of Munich in 1994 (?) left the impression that the main storyline simply wasn’t enough to fill a book.
In conclusion, these people succeeded despite adversity and made some valuable contributions to science. While it would have been cool to participate, I didn’t overly enjoy reading about this particular dig. I’ll have to check out the documentary and see if that flows better. ...more
My one-phrase rundown: Read it if you don't already know it.
This iconic book was about biodiversity, plain and simple. What it is, what it means, howMy one-phrase rundown: Read it if you don't already know it.
This iconic book was about biodiversity, plain and simple. What it is, what it means, how it's created and how it's maintained. The prose is well-written and the ideas are typically Wilsonian in their insight.
So it's not as if I didn't think the book was good, or that Wilson isn't an impressive man in his accomplishments. I suppose the (minor) problem was that not much of it was news to me. Even back when I skimmed it - I believe they refer to that time period as The Day - I didn't consider it cutting edge.
But, to be fair, the market for the book was not eggheads and conservation types, it was the teeming masses of people who didn't (don't?) even realize that beetles or fungi could be considered important. Indeed, those who didn't (don't?) spend much time or energy thinking about the sixth extinction - and what it means to us - might find the sheer weight of his diversity estimates staggering. They certainly should.
If nothing else, it was a good reminder of how abundant and diverse the world around us really is. And it convinced me to read some more contemporary Wilson books....more