Ana Maria Spagna
University of Washington Press, 2015
Ana Maria Spagna calls the verdant Pacific Northwest home, but she has her roots in the arid Southern California desert. These two narratives seem to form the helix that is the story behind Reclaimers, a book that tells a story of ecological change, and the people behind the efforts to restore land and water to what it once was.
Does it sound obscure? Well, it might be—you probably won’t have heard of many of the places Spagna visits in this narrative, nor heard of any of the people she interviewed to get these stories of reclamation. But Spagna’s great skill is in making the obscure seem personal, and so she lets us into her home and community in Stehekin, Washington, and encourages us to follow as she takes a mother-daughter trip to Death Valley and follows that up with trips up and down rivers and mountains, trying to get to suss out the answers to a puzzle that feels surprisingly personal, even to Spagna.
This book reads like a mystery: we meet passionate characters; unravel some history, peel back the layers of some complex works. We get to learn so much about something we never knew we should be caring about. Reclamation is the taking back of something, sure, but in this book, Spagna takes us with her to a conclusion we somehow knew we’d arrive at within the first few pages of this book: the act of reclamation is primitive, natural, something that calls to us all.
Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork
University of Missouri Press, 2015
My couch is about as far away from Papua New Guinea as one can possibly get. And yet, Gail Pool made her story of the year she and her husband Jeremy spent studying the Baining for Jeremy’s anthropology PhD feel nearly tangible.
That’s misleading: although Pool does take us through the couple’s year among the Baining, she also delves deep into her marriage; into her own securities; into the fact that it took her forty years to write something that felt meaningful enough to address the time she and Jeremy spent among the Baining tribe. And, perhaps most important, she lets us in on the struggle she experiences as she tries to understand the Baining people and what she once saw as their idiosyncrasies.
The book opens and closes with Gail and Jeremy’s return to the Baining tribe. While it’s accurate to say that watching Pool learn about herself and her marriage is satisfying, it may give the reader a more complete picture to say that Pool’s reflections—forty years later—encourage us to take a deeper look at ourselves.
The Extreme Life of the Sea
Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi
Princeton University Press, 2015
Where was this book when I was struggling through college biology? Co-written by a father and son team (Anthony Palumbi is a novelist and science journalist, and father Stephen is a well known marine ecologist), this book takes a successful run at deciphering life in the deep waters of the sea.
Granted, some of us are more fascinated by the ocean than others, and so we may not balk at reading about tiny krill and protozoa, and how coral form polyps. But even us die-hard fans are happier when Dr. Who, the Marvel universe, Morrissey, and Looney Tunes get mentioned, all by way of bringing what seems foreign right back to relatable ground for us landlubbers.
Anthony also takes the unusual step of trying to place us right in situ with him—some of the book’s charm comes from the passages that put you on vacation in the Caribbean, just like that, too: “You’re on vacation in the Caribbean, taking a snorkel cruise over a local reef.” And the last part of this narrative’s draw comes from the many people we meet who are studying, and trying to save, the ocean and its ecosystem.
Perhaps the weakest part of the book is its insistence on beating the climate change drum. Some of this, certainly, is one reader’s annoyance at what feels like preaching to the choir. But the science behind the phenomenon of oceanic warming, coral bleaching, and algal blooms doesn’t get lost, and neither does its significance.