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Call of the Wild

We've got nature covered in summer's best non-fiction, with tales about whales, moths, trees, bears, ants and baby hummingbirds / BY Susan Grimbly / July 7th, 2021

Nature renews our minds and bodies, and one of the more luminous activities to arise from the pandemic’s Great Reset is that we spent more time outside, paying much closer attention to wildlife. Here is some summer reading to keep the buzz going.

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1Not on My Watch Alexandra Morton

A marine biologist, Morton came north from California in the early 1980s, following the northern resident orca to remote Echo Bay on Gilford Island in B.C. Then, in 1989, industrial aquaculture moved into the region, chasing the whales away. She has used science, protest and the legal system in her unrelenting efforts to save both wild salmon and the whales. Morton’s inspiring account is a roadmap of resistance. In The Tyee, contributing editor Ian Gill wrote: “Not on My Watch, like Silent Spring, should touch off a national debate about rights and obligations, and while we’re at it, about decolonization.”

2The Hummingbirds' GiftSy Montgomery

The focus of The Hummingbirds’ Gift, which includes 16 pages of jewel-toned photos, is the miraculous recovery of two orphaned baby hummingbirds: Maya and Zuni, and their San Francisco rehabilitator Brenda Sherburn. The slim book describes a labour of love that involved feeding the two bee-sized hummers by syringe every 20 minutes, and teaching the “most gossamer of birds” to fly. It is a beautiful, sensitive portrayal in the hands of Montgomery, a naturalist, and a National Book Award finalist for The Soul of an Octopus.

3Seed to Dust Marc Hamer

Marc Hamer is the endearing author of To Catch a Mole, one of the unlikeliest, but sweetest books about the countryside you will ever read. In Seed to Dust he recounts a year in a sprawling, 12-acre (5-hectare) Welsh garden, with each chapter devoted to a month. “As he works, he muses on the unusual folklores of his beloved plants. He observes creatures that scurry and hide from his blade or rake. And he reflects on his own life: living homeless as a young man, his loving relationship with his wife and children, and – now – feeling the effects of old age on body and mind,” reads the publisher’s summary. According to one reviewer, the book “is a magical amalgamation of memoir, natural history, philosophy and gardening.”


4Finding the Mother TreeSuzanne Simard

UBC forest ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who grew up in a logging family that cut down rainforest giants, made the influential discovery of the “wood-wide web,” which revealed trees are social, cooperative creatures that communicate by chemical signals through a fungal network. Although her research was once ridiculed, it inspired the Hometree in James Cameron’s movie Avatar; and well-known authors Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees) and Richard Powers (The Overstory) drew on her research. In her first book, Simard weaves her own story in with that of her life’s work, and takes ownership of her discovery. She also says old-growth trees are matriarchs to new generations of seedlings. “The old trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children,” she writes in her introduction. As The Washington Post said in a review, Simard “is an intellectual force whose powerful ideas overshadow her name.”

5Wild SoulsEmma Marris

Protecting wild animals and preserving the environment seem like inseparable ideals. But, there exists a space of unresolved tension: wildness itself. Marris, a U.S. environmental journalist, tells the stories of animals around the globe – from Peruvian monkeys to Australian bilbies, rare Hawaiian birds to majestic Oregon wolves. And she offers a companionable tour of the philosophical questions: When is it right to capture or feed wild animals for the good of their species? How do we balance the rights of introduced species with those already established? Are any animals truly wild on a planet that humans have so thoroughly changed? Atlantic Monthly writer Ed Yong calls the book “thoughtful, insightful and wise … a landmark work.”


6Much Ado About MothingJames Lowen

Moths are like the pigeons of the Lepidotera world, unloved and unwanted. But you may have a change of heart, once you read this beautifully written book, subtitled “A Year Intoxicated by Britain’s Rare and Remarkable Moths.” English nature writer and photographer James Lowen argues for the velvety flutterers, describing his encounters while travelling (with his daughter) from the Isles of Scilly to northernmost Scotland. According to the publisher, Much Ado About Mothing reveals that moths are “more attractive, approachable and astonishing than butterflies – with richer tales to share, from migratory feats through mastery of camouflage.” One British reviewer, Patrick Barham, wrote: “If moths mean nothing to you, opening this book is like stumbling from a dark street into an unexpected party.”

7Empire of AntsSusanne Foitzik and Olaf Fritsche

The great naturalist E.O. Wilson once said: “when you think about it, the creatures that dominate the earth are cooperative – ants, termites, humans.” I’m not sure about the last bit, but ant colonies are mesmerizing. Certainly, Munich entomologist Susanne Foitzik and science journalist Olaf Fritsche really love them, taking a deep dive into the efficient, organized secret societies of these master architects. From fire ants to slavers, these bustling six-legged conquerors build megacities around the globe. The book casts jargon aside, to be filled with entertaining writing along with lovely photography. According to The Smithsonian, the book sports a “playful tone throughout, cycling through factoids about the more than 16,000 ant species on Earth with evident glee.”


8Four Fifths a GrizzlyDouglas Chadwick

Chadwick is a Spokane, Wash., wildlife biologist, author, photographer and frequent National Geographic contributor, with a persistent interest in grizzlies, among other Rockies animals. Why the title? Apparently we share 80 per cent of our DNA with the megafauna bear. “As intelligent, playful, curious, unpredictable, dominant omnivores, it’s no wonder that humans overlap with bears, genetically,” reviewer Broughton Coburn writes in The Mountain Journal. On Chadwick’s way to outlining the microbial, genetic and behavioural connections we share, he tells the charming story of how he fell in love with science as a child. He draws on his personal stories to describe his devotion to the grizzly, while he reflects on our place in the ecological universe.


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