Books Reviews: Looking Closely at Nature

August 27, 2017 Updated: September 23, 2017

It’s widely believed that regular contact with nature enhances our lives and is something that all people can enjoy. John Burroughs said, “I am in love with this world . . . I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings.”

Perhaps the following books can inspire us to take a closer look.

‘Rain: A Natural and Cultural History’ by Cynthia Barnett


We occasionally focus on weather and specifically on rain, but we seldom think about its historical importance or our interaction with it. Barnett, an award-winning environmental journalist, has focused on just those areas. Reading her book is like reading an encyclopedia entry on rain, with the interesting addition of some anecdotes.

“Rain” is packed with an extensive range of subjects and intriguing facts that jump out at you from every page. Here are a few:

Barnett starts her book by saying, “As children we learn that we drink the same water the dinosaurs did.  But in rain, water feels as new as these drops as they flood from the treetops.  Earth’s essence reborn in every drop.”

Here are some facts about rain that are not well known:

  • When raindrops fall from clouds, they do so in the shape of tiny parachutes. 
  • Thomas Jefferson was a weather observer who used Monticello as a focus of his efforts.
  • Raquel Welch, Diane Sawyer, and Pat Sajak started their careers as local television weather forecasters.

Then there was George James Symons, (1838-1900), called the father of British rainfall,  who wanted uniformity in the process of measuring rain and decided to collect data and publish the results. Starting with a slim pamphlet of records from 168 observers, his work expanded into a series of annual volumes, which continued after his death until 1991. 

An interesting historical anecdote: In August 1589, a dozen of the fittest ships in the Danish fleet set across a tempestuous North Sea to carry a 14-year-old princess bride to her intended, King James VI of Scotland—the same King James we associate with the Bible and who made Shakespeare’s company his own, calling it the King’s Men. The conditions were so atrocious that the girl didn’t reach Edinburgh until the following May. Convinced that witches had brewed the worst weather in memory to keep his queen from him, James began a persecution of witches—a little known fact about him. 

Barnett has a very interesting section about how rain is reflected in music, art, and literature. And, after re-viewing an old DVD of “Singin’ in the Rain,” I agree with Barnett that Gene Kelly seems equally in love with the rain as he is with the Debbie Reynold’s character.

Hopefully this synopsis will whet (or is it wet?) your appetite for more.

‘Patterns in Nature’ by Phillip Ball

(University of Chicago Press)
(University of Chicago Press)

This book will make you look at nature anew, seeing patterns in places you’d least expect. Its 250-color photographs don’t just focus on plant life, but cover the whole spectrum of nature, depicting patterns in living things from moths to sea anemones, and in non-living things from sand dunes to water droplets. Along with the pictures, there are clear descriptions of the patterns presented.

“Though the natural world may appear overwhelming in its diversity and complexity, there are regularities running through it,” Ball states. Some natural patterns shown in his book include symmetries, spirals, waves, cracks, and stripes. Quite expansive!

This book should appeal to a wide range of people. Artists can use it for inspiration, recreating some of nature’s patterns so that others can see exquisite beauty often missed. Anyone interested in math will be fascinated by the mathematical basis to the patterns.  A philosopher may see an interconnected system and/or the touch of a divine hand. For general readers, the book can serve as a sophisticated picture book, regardless of whether or not the readers can grasp the intricacies of text presented. 

Simply put, this book is a sight to behold. Use it as your motivation to go outside and really take a look at nature. Enjoy!

‘Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly’ by Kylee Baumle

(St. Lynn's Press)
(St. Lynn’s Press)

In a well-researched and beautifully photographed book, Baumle shares her knowledge about and passion for the most widely recognized of all American butterflies, with its distinct orange, black, and white wings, the Monarch.

This book has fascinating information. I especially liked reading about the monarch’s multigenerational migration that takes them thousands of miles from Canada and the United States in search of sites in California and Mexico.

The monarchs can travel up to 2,800 miles south to a place they have never been before. A butterfly’s life cycle is about six to eight weeks. Therefore, the monarchs migrating in autumn are not the same ones that migrated northward approximately five months before. Instead the north-bound migrating butterflies are at least four generations removed.

This book is published at a critical time for the monarch. Baumle says that not that long ago, monarchs numbered in the billions, but in the last 20 years their population has dropped by 90 percent. 

Several factors have contributed to the monarch’s decline.  Among these are illegal deforestation (which shrinks their winter homes), severe weather conditions, urbanization, and land management.  And U.S. farms’ large-scale use of herbicides have destroyed many milkweed plants—the plants where monarchs lay their eggs and which serve as their food. 

Baumle hopes for a compromise between the desire to raise productive crops efficiently and the desire to keep and protect the milkweed plant.

Fortunately, Baumle has comprehensive section about ways to help the monarch.  For example, some monarchs hibernate during the winter in Mexico’s oyamel fir forest, a unique mountain habitat. She tells about a project of painted rocks, called MexiRocks which are for sale to help save this habitat.  The net profits from the sale go to the kids who painted them, their families, and their schools, to alleviate some of the poverty that drives these people to cut down the firs.

Butterflies have been widely used by ecologists as model organisms to study the impact of such things as habitat loss and climate change.  Thus, it is important to remember that while humans are a species who can wipe out other species, we can also be a species capable of saving other species.  

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at