Boffins wax poetic about their passions [1]

[ Sat. Jan. 26. 2008 ]

In its roundup of best books of 2007, The Economist claimed that "there is something for everyone" -- but there wasn't.

There was not a single science title, which is curious, even for a business and political affairs periodical, given not only the technology-invention-business connection but also the fact that we are currently in a golden age of literary science writing.

That we are is affirmed by British science journalist Matt Ridley in his introduction to a recent collection of essays on evolution. Scientists, says Ridley, "(are) writers and their currency (is) words: poetic flights of fancy, ample use of metaphor, and personal appeals to the reader."

Many editors, reviewers and other publicists don't seem to have heard the news, however. Not only The Economist but also the Globe & Mail and the New York Times snubbed 2007's science titles.

In Britain, 2007 saw the release of Richard Mabey's well-applauded Beechcombings: the Narratives of Trees, Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places and Roger Deakin's Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, all of which combine autobiography, history and travel with nature literature.

These writers are actually heirs to the tradition of the Nature Poets, otherwise known as "the Romantics," and they all warn that we are still shooting the albatross by polluting, clear-cutting and overpopulating our planet.

The "romance" of science itself is their other subject, and this is just what some reviewing organs have missed, still thinking "science book" means dry, technical and difficult. Yet many readers have discovered the lyrical interdisciplinary pens of Steve Jones (Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise), J.M. Adovasio and Olga Soffer (The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory), and Piotr Naskrecki (The Smaller Majority). The small majority are the 99 per cent of animal species smaller than a human finger. Naskrecki provides more than 400 images revealing the wonders of insects, worms, pond and tidepool creatures and others that live in fur, soil and plants.

New Canadian science books include the paperback edition of Candace Savage's revelatory Crows: Encounters With the Wise Guys of the Avian World and Stephen Marshall's Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity, which won the latest Canadian Science Writers' Association's "Science in Society Book Award."

Quill & Quire's Top 10 Canadian 2007 titles included only one science book, and that a practical manual rather than a literary work. Ecoholic: Your Guide to the Most Environmentally Friendly Information, Products and Services is itself recyclable right down to its binding, and that is the kind of detail it focuses on in an effort to help people take small steps toward environmental responsibility.

B.C.'s notable 2007 nature books include Operation Orca, by Daniel Francis, editor of Harbour Publishing's Encyclopedia of British Columbia (2000). This describes the two juvenile whales, Springer and Luna, who appeared off our coast in 2000 and 2001, alone and lost. Francis tells the inside stories behind the efforts to help them -- the planning of biologists and the scheming of interest groups, the arrival of tourists and media and the human jostling and bumbling that followed.

While humans squabbled Luna met his end at the propeller end of a boat. Operation Orca goes from this to the sordid beginnings of whale capture off B.C. in 1965, and refers to other abuses that characterize our interaction with these fellow-mammals, such as how we inundate their underwater world with the sonar booms of naval traffic and pollution from spills and industry.

Also unnerving but more poetically presented is Terry Glavin's Waiting for the Macaws, and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions. Glavin tells us that one fifth of bird species existing 20,000 years ago are now extinct, and he makes us feel the pathos of it by describing the fate of the crested mynah, which a few decades ago flourished in Vancouver. Thanks to habitat loss, by 2003 only one pair was left, and then one of those was hit by a car "at 2nd Avenue and Columbia Street." The other kept a faithful vigil for two weeks until it too was hit by a car, "and then there were none."

In his Christmas Day sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury praised his compatriot Richard Dawkins for expressing humanity's "amazement and awe" at nature, and urged people to treat nature with "reverence." It seems that for some, the famous long cultural war between science and the humanities can now be over, and that "science literature" can now be literature.

That is certainly the opinion of editor John Brockman whose exhilarating science site "" profiles dozens of groundbreaking scienists by asking them an annual New Year's Big Question. This year's is "What Have You Changed Your Mind About?"

Their answers add up to, roughly, "everything." That is what science frees thinkers to do: change their theories as new evidence comes in. Most responders one way or another emphasized the ethical demands of good science, and described scientific work as subjective, dynamic and creative -- rather like the humanities, in fact.

Contemplating species extinctions, Terry Glavin emphasizes this by urging that we "reclaim the legacy of the Enlightenment" and "strengthen conditions for the diversity of living things" by preserving multiplicity and diversity in our ideas.

For a guiding principle he quotes a poet, William Blake: "Everything that lives is holy."

Barbara Julian is a freelance writer who suspects her Fairfield house might be an ecosystem.


Beechcombings, by Richard Mabey; Chatto; 304 pages; $40

Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise, by Steve Jones; Little Brown; 256 pages, $24

Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World, by Candace Savage; Douglas & McIntyre; 120 pages; $19.95

Ecoholic: Your Guide to the Most Environmentally Friendly Information, Products and Services in Canada, by Adria Vasil; Vintage Canada; 333 pages; $24.95

Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity, by Stephen Marshall; Firefly Books; 736 pages; $95

The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, by J.M. Adovasio & Olga Soffer; HarperCollins; 320 pages; $31.95

Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales, by Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett; Harbour Publishing; 266 pages; $34.95

The Smaller Majority, by Piotr Naskrecki; Belknap Press; 288 pages; $29.50

Waiting for the Macaws, and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions, by Terry Glavin; Penguin Canada; 284 pages; $19

The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane; Granta; 352 pages; $40

Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees, by Roger Deakin; Hamish Hamilton; 416 pages, $25