Is It a Bird? Is It a Flea?

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

The title of this splendid book may sound a bit hyperbolic. Be assured that it isn’t. What Jason Roberts largely succeeds in doing here is sorting out the extraordinary story of the long and disputatious struggle to grasp, name and codify the entire range of the world’s living things. A scientific enterprise older than science […]

Après Moi, le Déluge

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

‘There have been many ends of the world,’ writes Gareth E Rees. ‘But the end’, he goes on, ‘is also a beginning, another turn of the wheel. Nothing really dies; it just changes.’ It depends, I suppose, on your perspective. The story of Noah’s Ark is an origin story, looked at one way – Noah’s […]

Conifer Creep

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Trees no longer offer comfort, but warning,’ writes Ben Rawlence in the prologue of The Treeline. ‘These days I cannot look at the mountain, the forest or the field without feeling the ground tremble in both anticipation and memory.’ This is an author who is determined to let us know how much he feels and […]

Secrets of the Ediacara Hills

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Time is a slippery fish. We live in it. We are defined by it. Yet we have no notion of whether time is a dimension in and of itself or something created only by the events that occur within it and given shape by their ordering. Our everyday lives are perceived not as the unwinding […]

They Risked Their Lives for Flowers

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It was 1814. With Napoleon out of the picture (at least temporarily) and peace at hand, the time had come to establish the Royal Gardens at Kew, once and for all, as the world’s greatest garden. The one at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna threatened to outclass it. William Townsend Aiton, head of Kew, made the […]

Magic Mushrooms

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

What with one thing and another, I’ve recently had the time to explore the woods near my home. I’ve seen hopeful spring explode into glorious summer and decay into blowsy autumn. Suddenly, mushrooms sprout at my feet. Black mould tattoos fallen leaves. Sodden branches become leprous and white. I collect puffballs, field mushrooms and shaggy […]

Back to Nature

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

At the outset of Alan Levinovitz’s profound, thoughtful and wide-ranging exploration of the ‘natural’, the author stakes out a middle ground between ‘the orthodoxies of nature worship’ and the categorical dismissal of all appeals to natural goodness (an ‘equally pernicious form of faith’). One might be forgiven for wondering at this point how such common-sense […]

Writers on the Storm

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Samuel Johnson famously remarked, ‘It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know.’ Virginia Woolf politely added that Englishwomen also talk about the weather but thought there should be strict rules attached to all such […]

Meet Fido, Our New Nematode

Posted on by David Gelber

One April day in 1676 a Dutchman with an enquiring mind looked through his home-made microscope at a sample of water and was amazed by what he saw: ‘an incredible number of very little animals of diverse kinds’, a world of life where none had seemed to be. That man was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He […]

Bloomin’ Foreigners

Posted on by David Gelber

In the opening pages of Invasive Aliens, an exploration of the impact of non-native species on our flora, fauna, landscape and culture, Dan Eatherley deplores the use of emotive terminology. It isn’t just the preserve of tabloids, he writes; ‘even serious scientists will talk about “demon shrimps” and “killer algae”’. Furthermore, he claims that some […]

Putting the Groundhog Out of Work

Posted on by David Gelber

The weather is a British obsession, a preoccupation that emboldens us to talk to strangers. Andrew Blum’s The Weather Machine is a fast-paced tour of the history of weather forecasting, taking us from early attempts to capture a picture of current weather conditions to the sophisticated global weather machine of the 21st century that tells […]

Cold Comfort

Posted on by David Gelber

In The Seasons (1730), one of the best-known poems in the English language during the 18th and 19th centuries, James Thomson characterised autumn as ‘rich, silent, deep’, a time of gentle beauty, soft light and effortless abundance: In cheerful error, let us tread the maze Of Autumn, unconfin’d; and taste, reviv’d, The breath of orchard […]

Curator of Curiosities

Posted on by David Gelber

At a music festival this summer, I noticed a group of people raising their phones in the air – reaching towards something. Everybody around them was watching a band on a stage a little way off, but this cluster had turned their backs to the music and were gazing, intently, somewhere beyond the boundary of […]

Energising Evolution

Posted on by David Gelber

Popular ecology has always tended towards the jeremiad. ‘I think we’re fucked,’ wrote Stephen Emmott by way of conclusion to his recent 10 Billion, while numerous BBC natural history documentaries presented by the likes of David Attenborough have more politely implied the same thing. This tone of lamentation has a venerable pedigree, being deployed by […]

Collecting Insects in Sweden

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Fly Trap is one of the most delight-filled books I have read in years. It is a meditation on exactness and on love: in this case the love of an inconspicuous genus of flies that resemble little wasps. The subject sounds like pure Peter Cook: if bees have comic potential, how much more so […]

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What Have We Done?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Anthropocene is perceived as a new geological era, succeeding the Holocene, a discrete age in which human beings have affected the world. Some scientists suggest it dates from the beginning of agriculture and human management of the land; some from the inception of the Industrial Revolution, which began to pump exponentially greater quantities of […]

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