Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Again for school, I am reading Katie Fallon’s first memoir (she has Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird forthcoming from University Press of New England in March 2017). I look forward to meeting her in just ten days or so! This is not an assigned book; I’m reading it by choice to get to know her a little better.

cerulean-blues
Her opening lines read,

I stepped onto the tarmac in Bucaramanga, a city of more than five hundred thousand people in northeastern Colombia, and blinked in the fierce October sun. Black vultures lazily circled in the clear blue sky overhead, and swallows chittered to each other as they cut and dove above the Avianca jets idling on the runway.

I like that birds appear in the first two lines, since it is a bird that brings Fallon to these pages. The cerulean warbler does not appear so quickly; that’s a large part of the point of the book. I also enjoy the very full picture she paints in these few lines. Glad to be here with her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Mike Shanahan’s Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans’ development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when “the Buddhist monk’s robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest’s muffled tones of brown and green and grey.”

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rhinoceros hornbills.

Teaser Tuesdays, in praise of words: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

If you’ll excuse me for reprising the book from last Friday’s book beginning, I couldn’t resist these lines about how the name of the Ficus benjamina came to be.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Linnaeus gave the name Ficus carica to the common domesticated fig species after Caria – a region of ancient Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The scientific name he gave the other fig of my childhood, Ficus benjamina, has a more convoluted origin. Cut the tree and white latex will bleed out. Various other species also produce this particular kind of sticky fluid, which people have used for centuries to make perfumes, incense, medicines and other products. This substance is known as gum benzoin, from an Italian interpretation of a Javan word that is Arabic in origin. English tongues mangled the word some more to form ‘gum benjamin.’ So over time, the benzoin trees ended up being called benjamin trees, hence the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina). I prefer its better-known name – the weeping fig – which it got because, when it sheds its leaves, they fall like green tears to the ground.

Whew! and, isn’t it extraordinary, the journey that term has made through languages and geography to bring a standard “ficus” tree to us? I love language.

The rest of the book is excellent, too.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Finally we receive mail at the new address! Which means books! Up next on my reading schedule, thanks to US Postal, is this short profile (if you will) of the much-discussed fig.

It begins:

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I love the colors, and the immediacy! That’s a good start.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez

This enthusiastic study of the owls of the Pacific Northwest may inspire new fans and citizen scientists.

hidden lives of owls

Leigh Calvez had studied orca and humpback whales, spirit bears and brown bears, before owls crossed her line of sight. The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds is the story of the time she spent pursuing the owls of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives.

Calvez meets with citizen scientists and professional researchers, and travels through Alaska, Montana, Washington and Oregon in her quest to spot and, more significantly, to understand a range of species. In a wondering tone, she considers the hard science and spiritual connections of Flammulated, Snowy, Great Horned, Great Gray, Burrowing and the controversial Barred Owls–which have thrived in the Pacific Northwest at the expense of other owls. Calvez shares some of the fascinating particulars of owl biology: specialized feathers that support silent flight; asynchronous hatching and fledging schedules; reversed sexual size dimorphism (females are larger than males in most owl species). She investigates the environmental threats to these birds, and she sympathizes with mothers forced to choose between the safety of their babies and their own.

The Hidden Lives of Owls is both informative and often reverential. While Calvez has chosen her subjects by their proximity to her home, many species considered here migrate or travel from coast to coast in the United States, and from Canada to Mexico, giving this book appeal across North America. In the end, Calvez makes a strong argument for the owls’ particular needs and interests.


This review originally ran in the August 26, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 feathers.

selections from Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World ed. by Frank Stewart & Trevor Carolan

cascadiaI just read a few pieces from this collection, so I won’t finish with a final rating, but I think it’s recommendable overall for readers interested in a sense of place in this place in particular; nature & ecology; First Nations peoples; or Emily Carr.

The table of contents is organized by category: essays, oratory, poetry, memoir. Unusually, the order of the table of contents is not the same as the order in the book itself. I picked out a few things I wanted to read: essays “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” by Wade Davis, “Reinhabitation” by Gary Snyder, and “Nature’s Apprentice” by Rex Weyler; Barry Lopez’s fiction “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”; and all three pieces of memoir, “The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, “The Sasquatch at Home” by Eden Robinson, and “Lew Welch: An Appreciation” by Maxine Hong Kingston. Emily Carr’s sketches appear throughout, illustrating not only her own writing but all of Cascadia.

The work of Barry Lopez and Maxine Hong Kingston were among my favorites; Eden Robinson’s story about her mother and Elvis was curious and enjoyable. But by far the standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences as a teen visiting a mission school and other native communities, and the wisdom and humor as well as observations she expresses are impressive. I marked several startling phrases.

The house was of wood, unpainted. There were no blinds or curtains. It looked, as we paddled up to it, as it if were stuffed with black.

It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of sea-birds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute.

The old man sawed as if aeons of time were before him, and as if all the years behind him had been leisurely and all the years in front of him would be equally so. There was strength still in his back and limbs but his teeth were all worn to the gums. The shock of hair that fell to his shoulders was grizzled. Life had sweetened the old man. He was luscious with time like the end berries of the strawberry season.

Luscious with time like a strawberry. I tell you. And this woman is famous for her paintings! (Etc.)

From Barry Lopez’s story, in which the narrator pours his passion into working with wood, reading wood, and using that work to read his world, comes a metaphor:

Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.

I’ve just taken a quick overview of what this book has to offer; but I can see that it addresses the politics, history, cultures and ecology of the region of Cascadia (“a great arc from Southeast Alaska to Cape Mendocino, California”) through a variety of lenses and voices. And with some lovely words in between.

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