"Can we ever really kill a myth?" author Matthew Gavin Frank asks in Preparing the Ghost. "Even though the giant squid has long been proved actual, the beast retains the mythological narrative, can't shake its sea-monster designation. The legend lives on."
It's the idea of myths and legends that is explored in Frank's newest book. Yes, the cover sports a subtitle, "An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer." And yes, the book starts out in a typical linear narrative with an introduction of Reverend Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist in the 1870s who is obsessed with the Giant Squid. Indeed, as readers, we even get to see his captured squid in a black-and-white photograph that is found at the very start of the book. (The picture, somehow, reminds me of the monsters in the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s -- even though the picture was taken decades before).
Still readers venturing into Preparing the Ghost should be prepared. This is not a linear narrative or a typical biography. Instead, Frank weaves myth, science, history, and even personal memoir throughout Harvey's story. Indeed, there are even glimpses of Frank's own research process, including his efforts to find out more information about Harvey and his family and the very landscape that helped to capture the myth of the giant squid. Yet, even though the author wanders, he always returns to Harvey's story and the mysterious squid. Any reader who sticks with the author's meanderings will be treated to intriguing history, interesting mythology and strong lyrical writing -- and most of all stories that will grab a hold of you and not let go.
Sorta, I guess, like the suckers of a Giant Squid.
Growing up, I knew of the passenger pigeon -- it was the poster child (or poster animal?) speaking out against extinction. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, was pictured in our fourth grade science textbook as a warning about what the world could do to animals, and I remember staring at the photo and thinking of the mourning doves that cooed outside my bedroom windows and wondering if they could also become extinct.
I am reminded of the passenger pigeon in other ways as well. On my way to my brother's house in Forest County, Pennsylvania, I pass through a small village named Pigeon, so named because of the large flocks of passenger pigeons that once flew through the area.
Still, I didn't really know anything about the passenger pigeon until I read Joel Greenberg's A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction. Through concise and thorough research, Greenberg chronicles the world of the passenger pigeon, from the times when flocks blocked out the sun to the sky to the death of Martha, in 1914.
Greenberg starts off his book by explaining the life of this important bird: "At the time of that Europeans first arrived in North America, passenger pigeons likely numbered anywhere from three to five billion. It was the most abundant bird on the continent, if not the planet, and may well have comprised 25 to 40 percent of North America's bird life." Numbers, of course, don't necessarily paint a picture for the reader, but then Greenberg goes on to present a vivid image of the population of the passenger pigeon: "Famed naturalist John James Audubon recorded a pigeon flight along the Ohio River that eclipsed the sun for three days."
It seems hard to believe that a bird that commanded such a presence could become extinct at the hands of humans. But it did. Greenberg spends chapters detailing the complex relationship of the passenger pigeon to Americans. Not only does he describe the different ways mankind killed the passenger pigeon, but he also records their defenders, those who studied and/or celebrated the bird's presence. Furthermore, he includes a chapter that reports the last great nesting sites -- many in northern Pennsylvania.
Of course, no book about the passenger pigeon would be complete without the role of Martha, the last passenger pigeon who died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Martha had not been the only passenger pigeon at the zoo; however, as Greenberg explains, "As the passing years took their toll, she watched the members of the flock slowly disappear." Indeed, Greenberg goes on to explain, "It is easy to become anthropomorphic about Martha's situation as the idea of impending aloneness so absolute is heartrending."
Greenberg wraps up his book with a chapter titled "Extinction and Beyond" that not only explores the rumors of passenger pigeons after Martha's death, but also outlines other animals that are endangered and/or threatened. It's a chapter that is especially interesting to me, as he mentions the slow demise of America's Little Brown Bat, a mammal that once commanded the small town Pennsylvania skies at dusk. At one time, I would see hundreds of bats in the twilight skies. This year, I have seen one.
At the Roger Tory Peterson Institute's 2014 Bird Fest, I had the pleasure of meeting Joel Greenberg. While I didn't get to hear his formal talk, he did go on one of the same bird walks I did, (see the blog post that details exactly what we saw) and we had the chance to chat briefly about nature writing, Aldo Leopold (his favorite!) and Barbara Hurd (one of my favorites!). For more information about Greenberg and his work, see his homepage.
6/13/2014 0 Comments
Anyone who regularly keeps up with my writing (including my book reviews and blog) knows that I love my Pennsylvania working-class landscape. It's been said that Pennsylvania retains its natives more than any other state in the union and I can understand why -- there's something in the coal patches and rust belt remnants that works its way into our skin and never lets go. And it's this "something" that made me pick up Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscape by Bill Conlogue.
Conlogue's book is a series of essays (written as chapters) that explore the history and the land of Anthracite Pennsylvania. In his introduction, he explains that the book is written as "narrative scholarship," a type of writing that is often found troublesome in the academic world for various reasons. Although I was not familiar with this particular term, as I read through the book, I couldn't help but think that Conlogue is writing in a type of creative (or literary) nonfiction, as he blends personal narratives with historical and literary resources. For instance, he often recounts his own personal memories of growing up in dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania or attending a college in coal-mining country and then blends these memories with current issues regarding the environment.
Conlogue's main goal is to explore a specific place (in this case, eastern Pennsylvania) and in essence, celebrate that place whether it's through personal stories, historical documents, poetry, and recent environmental studies. He explains, "To assume that every place can be any place is to endanger all places." Indeed, every chapter takes on a specific part of eastern Pennsylvania. For instance, in one chapter titled "Merwin and Mining" Conlogue investigates the trauma of coal mining -- both on humans and on the land -- using the poetry of W.S. Merwin and Jay Parini as lenses for looking at history and landscape. In another chapter, he discusses the landscape scars of the past including leftover mine debris in culm banks and acid mine drainage. (He also cites many poems by Sherry Fairchok, who wrote the book, Palace of Ashes, is one of my all time favorite contemporary poetry books).
It seems that when studying the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania, that the state's coal mining history often takes center stage. Conlogue, however, spends considerable time examining the dairy/farming industry -- a part of Pennsylvania's working-class world that is often overlooked. Because he grew up on a dairy farm, he is able to offer personal stories and insights into the world of the Pennsylvania farm. He also places his family's farm in the context of history, researching and explaining the slowly disappearing family farm, often through the building and demolishing of the barn. (When I was growing up, the barn that shouted the slogan, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco was a common sign; now, I have to note that both the slogans and the barns themselves are slowly disappearing).
For my readers who love the Pennsylvanian world as much as I do, this is a book that belongs on your bookshelf! For those of you who do not necessarily have an interest in Pennsylvanian land and history, that is okay, because Conlogue's book is a must read for anyone who believes that there is a link between a land and its people.
For more information about this book, see The Pennsylvania State University Press's website, which also features other review of Conlogue's work.
At heart, Nicole Walker is a poet. I knew this as soon as I read five pages of her memoir, Quench Your Thirst With Salt. I knew this way before I read her bio note and discovered that yes, Walker, had many poetry publications. I knew this as soon as this first paragraph popped out at me: "The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teaches her a lesson about progress. Even before the dam, the waterfalls would have battered her forefathers. The rocks would have walloped a punch, broken the skin, bruised the flesh."
And so starts Walker's Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a memoir. More specifically, however, this book is a collection of lyrical essays that explore her life growing up in the state of Utah. Every chapter can be read (and perhaps, should be read) as an individual essay. For instance, one chapter titled "Filtered Water" focuses on the life of the water we use while juxtaposing this life with the author's own life, describing what she knows and doesn't know about her own family history. In another chapter, she introduces the reader to her father's alcoholism through discussions of the term "superfluidity" and in another chapter she describes her relationship with her own body when she has to have surgery at a young age. While most of the book focuses on her life in Utah, other chapters venture outside of the state including Nevada, Oregon and Minnesota, all the while aspects of the natural world with her own life.
Readers will find that Walker's book is more of an episodic exploration of her life rather than a straight linear narrative. We don't necessarily find clear beginnings or clear endings; instead, we read thoughtful insights about family relationships and their correlations to the world around us. And, of course, it's easy to get lost (blissfully, so) in the poetic language of Walker's landscapes, whether they are manmade or natural.
You can read more about Quench Your Thirst With Salt on Nicole Walker's homepage or the website of Zone Three Press.
I am a birder by default. When I was a child, I used to sit on the couch in our living room and watch the birds in my mother's birdfeeder, rooting for the Juncos to beat out the Blue Jay bullies. My brothers were both birders, so I learned early the different sparrows and finches that came to feed. Now, I constantly find myself looking at the sky, especially this past month. My section of the world has become part of the Snowy Owl irruption, and every day, on my way to work, I pass by a field where a lone white owl is hanging out on top of a telephone pole. Rumor has it that the Snowy Owls will be heading home soon, so I am going to miss looking for him (or her?! I don't know the difference in sexes when it comes to snowy owls).
The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker is a perfect read for anyone interested in what we have in common with our feathered friends. Every chapter is devoted to a specific bird and its similarities to humans. For example, in one chapter, we learn the fears of penguins while in another chapter we learn the reverence of magpies (it is believed that magpies actually hold "funerals" for their deceased peers). Chapters really act as individual essays and don't have to be read in order, so I went right to the section that discussed the Snowy Owl, where I learned about our new white feathered friends.
Still, I found other chapters just as intriguing. My favorite chapter turned out to be about Strycker's exploration of albatross love. Of course, as an English professor, the albatross will always be first and foremost, a literary allusion, but Strycker's references to the albatross's life (which is spent mostly in the air) were fascinating.
The Thing With Feathers is Strycker's second book, and even if you don't consider yourself a birder, you will enjoy this collection. Afterall, who hasn't wondered about the fast pace of the hummingbird or how turkey buzzards can stomach the carcass of roadkill?
For more information about Strycker, see his website. For more information about our local Snowy Owl irruption, take a look at the blog hosted by the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.