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Audubon Magazine’s Choices for Best Books of 2012

I’m always on the lookout for great new natural history books to read, but 2012 has been such a busy year that I haven’t paid as much attention to new publications as I usually do.  Hence my delight in seeing the titles chosen for Audubon Magazine’s 2012 List of Notable Books.

A few of the authors on the list are familiar names—I eagerly skim bookshop shelves, looking specifically for their new titles.  But most of the authors are unfamiliar to me, and that is a delight in and of itself.

Bernd Heinrich, a biology professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and a prolific writer, published Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death in June.  He was hard at work on this book in the winter of 2011, when I took a winter ecology course with him at his cabin in the Maine woods.  I got to see his paintings of burying beetles as he prepared the illustrations for the book.  Heinrich’s work is always a delight; his childlike sense of wonder in nature combines with scientific rigor to make for a text like none other.  I haven’t read any other writers who capture the curiosity and unfold the inquisitive path of discovery as honestly as Heinrich does.  I’m looking forward to reading this latest book of his.

Heinrich has been a favorite author for more than a decade, ever since I started as a volunteer with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.  My work there involved standing on the summit of Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, binoculars in hand, counting any birds of prey that came by.  Some days, there were few hawks.  There were almost always ravens around, though.  The first day I saw one do a barrel roll, turning over fully while in flight, I exclaimed in delight.  My hawkwatching partner smiled and recommended that I read this book called Mind of the Raven.  Heinrich’s mix of observation and investigation inspired me to do my first-ever interpretive program with the National Park Service on ravens and their role in human story.

Because of my fascination with ravens—great, glossy, intelligent birds whom I have had the privilege to observe not just in the Bay Area but also in Big Bend and Yellowstone—I was excited to see an unfamiliar title on Audubon’s book list.  City of Ravens: London, the Tower and Its Famous Birds by Boria Sax promises to deliver more stories of the big black birds, this time from an historian’s perspective.  Fun!

Since I mention Yellowstone, I should also point out that Audubon’s list includes a revised edition of Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone.  Co-written by the lead biologist on the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Doug Smith, and environmental writer Gary Ferguson, this book is a favorite among fans of the world’s first national park.  Its inclusion as a notable book of the year is especially timely given the widely-publicized wolf hunt this fall that has led to the killing of several radio-collared Yellowstone wolves in the areas surrounding the park.  (The New York Times has been covering the story.)

I recently discovered I have a University of Vermont connection with another author on the list, Thor Hanson, whose Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle caught my interest before it was even published.  Hanson is a graduate of my master’s program and, like Heinrich, seems to be an enthusiastic field naturalist.  Feathers is the next book in my nonfiction reading list, waiting its turn on my coffee table.

The list goes on, and nearly every title is one I want to read.  Have you read any great environmental literature or natural history books lately?  I’d love to hear your suggestions below!


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