This showcase of the best American nature and science writing is selected from non-specialist periodicals published between January 2013 and January 2014. While these 26 articles cover topics ranging from modern day trapping to tracing one’s ancestry through DNA analysis, the overwhelming theme is, without question, global warming and climate change.
In his introduction, series editor Tim Folger notes that in May 2013, the measured amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was as its highest known level in 3 million years, when sea levels may have been 60 feet higher than today.
The world we knew is literally disappearing. Hurricane Sandy chopped more than 30 feet off New Jersey’s beaches, redrawing the state’s coastline overnight.” (p. xii)
The first article, “Mixed Up” by Katherine Bagley, talks about habitat loss because of climate change and some of the effects this has on different species. In particular, she talks about two related species of birds, golden-winged and blue-winged warblers. They inhabit overlapping areas in the eastern coast of the United States and Canada. Because of warmer temperatures, the blue-winged warblers have moved into golden-winged warblers’ territory. The two species normally interbreed to some degree, but with the blue-wingeds’ greater penetration into the golden-wingeds’ territory, greater than usual interbreeding has occurred. For a complicated set of reasons, the golden-winged population is declining as a result.
The article on the resurgence of measles is among the stronger of the articles, not only for its message, but simply for its writing. Author Seth Mnookin discusses not only the emotional costs of infection but also the monetary costs. His article originally appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. The sad part about it is that those who need to read it most probably will never see it.
“A Life or Death Situation” by Robin Marantz Henig discusses the ethical dilemmas brought on by terminal illness and severe injury and the question of right to die. Though superbly written, this is a difficult article to read because of the emotional content, yet these issues that must be discussed.
While the book is filled with excellent, thoughtful articles—experimenting with genetic engineering to save oranges from a bacterial disease spread by flying insects, the performance of material in extreme conditions—a few sound sour notes. Some seem to have little to do with science or nature per se but are perhaps included for other reasons. “Imagining the Post-Antibiotic Future” is alarmist and neglects some basic information about antibiotics. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Where it Begins” is a beautiful, lyrical description of fall and sheep shearing, but is more of a memoir than a science or nature article.
Overall, this makes for wonderful reading and anyone interesting in the varied topics should find the book engaging and thought-provoking. The editor for 2014 was Deborah Blum, who has written The Poisoner’s Handbook. She also writes for The New York Times and Wired.