Science Book Club: My Family and Other Animals

Let’s celebrate summer with our third installment of the STS Book Club! This time, it’s a novel of the young adult variety. Perfect for picking up during breaks from staring at your computer screen or en route to your field sites!

c16bfa35dae8b847c0625f56de95e77eI don’t know about everyone else, but I could not be more excited and ready for #AcademicSummer 2016. Quals (take three!) are once more (SUCCESSFULLY) behind me and now I can finally relax into my favorite time of year. My advisor and his co-PI were gracious enough to fund my research for the summer (most Statistics students teach or grade for their funding) and I have left my days of classes, grading, and studying behind for coding and, to be real, actually living my life. I chose to write about this book, My Family and Other Animals, because it was such a lovely find last summer when I was living and studying in Seattle. I found this book in the mini library at Zeitgeist Coffee and was able to read it in spurts during transit and downtime. I love the idea of books that belong to The People and I’m hoping to pass along the interest in this one especially since I’ve taken so long to finish it.

Gerald “Gerry” Durrell in addition to being an author was a naturalist, zookeeper, and conservationist. Our kinda guy, right? Much of his fascination with all things natural was developed during his childhood living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu and it is here that his focuses his stories in My Family and Other Animals. Later, after working in zoos, aquariums, and on wildlife expeditions, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Durrell Wildlife Park on the Channel Island of Jersey. Durrell Wicorfu20redldlife Park was the first zoo to house only endangered breeding species, and has been one of the pioneers in the field of captive breeding. His book provides a delightful peek into the beginnings of this impressive career and lifelong love for conservation. Continue reading “Science Book Club: My Family and Other Animals”


Science Book Club: Flight Behavior

I love extracurricular activities.  Maybe it’s a holdover from my days doing Speech and Debate, maybe is the fact that I don’t feel like I’m really doing my best unless I am overcommitted by at least 5 hours per week, or maybe I’m still overcompensating for being quite shy and think that these activities will force me to meet more new people.  Either way, I love them.  Most recently, I received an email on our grad group’s social listserve about a book club.  Obviously, sign me up!  Obviously, I didn’t finish the book in time.  I still read it though.  And I adored it.  So, here is a virtual book club to start your summer reading.  Ready, steady, go!

Barbara Kingsolver is well known for her use of vivid imagery in stories which feel both tangible and delicate.  According to her official website, she was born in 1955 in rural Kentucky (southern girl shout out!).  She currently lives in southwestern Virginia.  She is also unique as a fiction writer due to her education, which includes a BS and a MS in biology and environmental sciences.  These themes, of biology and southern culture, are reflected in several of her works.  Are you becoming less and less surprised that I jumped at a chance to read one of her books?  Despite all this, Flight Behavior is the first of Kingsolver’s works I have had the pleasure of reading.  However, after finishing the novel, some of her other popular books have jumped to the top of my reading list, and all her novels are now on my Amazon “Books I want” wishlist (This wish list is public, so feel free to buy me books! Just kidding, but not really). (editor note: I LOVE Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and highly recommend it to Rachel.)    

What is Flight Behavior about?

Set in the Appalachian region of Tennessee, this novel chronicles the fictional migration of a population of monarch butterflies to a fir forest just outside of a remote farming and manufacturing community.  The question of what has brought the butterflies there and their ultimate fate brings together a cast of unlikely characters: the sheep farming family, who own the property the butterflies land upon; the family’s oddball daughter-in-law, who discovers the butterflies; the ecologist and his graduate students, who come to study the insects; the local preacher, who has an unlikely part to play; and the young boy, whose small-town world view is forever altered by the events of the novel.  In the end, the fate of the butterflies becomes more than just a biological question.  It is a question of culture, faith, and what the future holds for all of us.      

Why I liked it:

First, the main character, Dellarobia, is an extremely intelligent women living in rural, Appalachian Tennessee.  Her character evolution in the novel, as well as the development of her relationships, serves as a wonderful vehicle to humanize a sector of society often completely discounted in scientific debates, those living in the rural south.  Being a person from rural Kentucky, I adore Kingsolver’s ability to portray characters I am very familiar with in a sensitive and genuine, not an offensive or archetypal, way.  Dellarobia is now one of my favorite literary characters of all time.  She is smart, funny, and, more than anything else, she is extremely brave.

Tied for second in “things I love about this novel” are Dellarobia’s son, Preston, and the ecologist who takes up residence on the family farm, Ovid.  I love them both as characters, and I love the relationship they share.  I also adore Ovid’s “this is what science looks like” moment.  I don’t want to spoil it, but when you get to that part of the novel, you will know.  I think this quotation sums up the relationship between these two characters really well (remember that the novel is seen through Dellarobia’s eyes):

“He [Preston] brought home pictures of monkeys and tree frogs cut from magazines at school and taped them to his bedroom wall in elaborate collages, much like those his father had once assembled with pictures of Captain Fantastic and Jesus.  With all his might Preston wanted to be a scientist and study animals.  But in the lab Dellarobia listened to Ovid and Pete speaking hopelessly about so many things.  The elephants in drought-stricken Africa, the polar bears on the melting ice, were “as good as gone,” they said with infuriating resignation as they worked through what seemed to be an early autopsy on another doomed creature.”

Check out this sweet Monarch migration map from
Nat Geo.  It’s a bit dated (2009), but still, really cool!
It’s a bit of a saddening note from the book, but I think it really shows one of the main themes the author is trying to get across, the urgency of climate change and how it is impacting real people’s lives.  There are a plethora of other themes in the book:  Personal discovery, fear of new beginnings, unexpected connections, and the importance of relationships (even if they might change).  So, there really is something for everyone in this novel, but I cannot help but be in awe of Kingsolver’s ability to seamlessly, without judgement, and with such a strong voice tell the very human story of climate change.  It’s something I struggle to do as a practicing scientist.  She makes it seem easy.

Who should read this novel?

There are some adult themes, and while there is nothing graphic in this novel, there are numerous sexual references.  I think all adults who like stories driven by strong, well-developed characters will like this book.  I also think that any student of biology/environmental science (college or high school) would adore Kingsolver’s modern take on a story where science really is a main character!  Honestly, I could have seen myself really loving this book in middle school.  So, if you have a mature 12 or 13 year old who is passionate about nature, I’d say they could get something out of this text.  Just make sure an adult is available if they have any scientific or life questions.  
Amazing clusters of Monarchs!

Want to Learn MORE?

Check out this interview with Kingsolver on Science Friday!  This is where I first learned about the book.

Not sure you want to commit to reading the novel?  Maybe this rave review by the New York Times will change your mind.

Interested in Monarch butterfly biology and ecology?  Check out the website for Monarch Watch.  There is plenty of biological information, as well as some information about how you can becoming involved in several citizen science projects!

Happy reading Sweet Tea, Science book club.  Until next time!

Eco-Inspiration 6: Confession

Alright guys, I have a confession to make.  I have never actually finished reading A Sand County Almanac.  Those of you who know the book are, I’m sure, instantly scandalized.  The much acclaimed work by visionary and Land-Ethic developer Aldo Leopold has been inspiring conservationists and green warriors since 1949.  I have owned not one, but two copies of this book.  I leaf through it and sort of treat it like poetry.  It is, after all, beautifully written.  But for some reason, I have never read it cover to cover.  I am always so moved and uplifted by Leopold’s words, and I have decided that this spring I will read this book!  So, with blog as my witness, I will finish this book by the end of the spring quarter (June).  Once I have finished, I will report back with my feelings about the text and how reading it straight through differed from my cafeteria style readings of the past.  Anyone else want to read along?

In keeping with the theme, I thought I would share with you all one of my favorite passages from the book.  This is equal parts sad and inspiring to me, as it really sets into clear context what we stand to loose if we do not make concerted efforts at conservation.  I hope you enjoy it.

The last Passenger pigeon. Crd. Wikipedia

“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The striving by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of [Passenger] pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?

It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of the species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.

These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last [Passenger] pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auck thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss.”

Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac 

Last Word:  As I said, I find this rather sad quotation inspiring.  Perhaps you don’t agree, but this is exactly the sort of situation I strive to avoid.  If you would like some more information about the Passenger pigeon, start with this pretty good Wiki article.  It is a truly sad story, but one worth knowing.  In related news, there are a few classic, popular ecological novels I’ve been meaning (literally for years) to read.  Silent Spring and the Sea around Us are at the top of that list.  Anyone interested in a book club via the blog?

What do you think?  Have you ever heard the story of the Passenger pigeon?  Have you ever read A Sand County Almanac?  Would you have any interest in an ecologically themed book club?